918 Days to Build a Better Future

  As I stood in a crowded ballroom at the Westin Hotel in Ottawa last Sunday and watched Justin Trudeau become the 14th leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, I had only one worry about this party that had been declared dead by the media less than two years earlier. It was the fear that I have had throughout the rebuilding process that has taken place since the disastrous May 1, 2011 election. It is the fear that should polls go up, or a charismatic and popular leader take the helm, that the hard work of building the party again would stall. As Justin Trudeau stood on the stage and accepted the leadership of the party, he spoke of many things but had two suggestions for the supporters that had just elected him – with hope and hard work, the Liberal Party can lead the change that Canadians are looking for.

The most important thing the Party can do to ensure success in the future starting right now is to not take our eye off the horizon we’ve been building towards for almost two years. While an incredible amount of work has already taken place at Party headquarters and on the ground in EDAs across the country, further substantial work can get started now that the leader is in place. But the constant between the period of interim leadership and Justin Trudeau’s leadership has to remain that hard work exerted by all supporters of the Liberal Party. While we hope for the revitalization of our Party’s fortunes and work hard to secure that reality, we must remember that it can take a long time to build up a political movement from the drawing board to the cabinet table.

Victories seldom happen overnight. And sometimes the best course of action is to pause for a moment and learn from your rivals.

Lessons from Western Reformers

May 2, 2011 has a much different connotation for Canadian Conservatives than it does for Canadian Liberals. As everyone knows, it marks the date that Stephen Harper and his Party won a long coveted majority government, the first for a federal conservative party in Canada since Brian Mulroney won a reduced majority in 1988. However, the Harper majority might never have occurred if not for a rebellion on the same date ten years earlier.

In 2001 Stockwell Day was the leader of the Canadian Alliance. His party had formed just a year before in March 2000 and quickly squared off against the Liberals in an election that September. Unprepared for a campaign and led by a gaffe prone leader, the Alliance increased their seat total by only six over their predecessor, the Reform Party, and won only two seats in Ontario. The lack of growth in Ontario led many to question Day’s leadership and ability to eventually overtake the reigning Liberals who had taken all but three seats in Canada’s most populous province. On May 1, 2001, a rebellion sprang up in Day’s caucus and 11 Alliance MPs would eventually leave to sit apart from their colleagues in the House of Commons. The reform movement that began in protest in 1987 and dreamed of government under the banner of the new Canadian Alliance appeared shattered. Instead, as we know now, it was the beginning of a decade of hard work that would put majority government in the hands of Canadian conservatives for the first time in almost two decades.

By the fall, Stockwell Day had called a leadership vote for March 20, 2002. Stephen Harper resigned his position at the National Citizen’s Coalition and quickly received backing from many in the conservative movement. By the end of March, he had defeated Day on the first ballot with 55% support. Preston Manning vacated his seat in the House of Commons and Harper ran, campaigning against an NDP candidate after the Liberals ran no candidate and PC candidate Jim Prentice stepped aside. Harper became the Leader of the Official Opposition in May 2002 but did not take his eye off the organizational work of his party. By fall 2003, Harper had worked out a merger deal with the new leader of the Progressive Conservative Party, Peter MacKay. By December 7, the Party became an official entity and a leadership race began that would conclude on March 20, 2004.

Two years to the day after winning the leadership of the Canadian Alliance, Stephen Harper became the first leader of the Conservative Party of Canada. Only two months later, Harper and his new party would face a general election with barely any policy developed, a bare-bones leadership and campaign team, and no real strategic plan to speak of.   Despite knocking the governing Liberals down to a minority against long odds, Harper was devastated by the result and nearly abandoned leadership of the Party he had created altogether.

But Harper and his Conservatives got back to work, hammering the Liberals in the House and working hard nationally and in local associations to build up their Party infrastructure. In his days as Canadian Alliance leader Harper had said that setbacks simply meant their ‘room to grow has risen’. His party began to embody that sentiment and by the 2006 election had methodically won over more Canadians than any other political party.

With power attained, a majority still remained out of reach. The party did not rely on its governing record alone to guide it to future victories and began employing modern campaign tactics year round to build connections with Canadians, grow the base, and expand its financial support system. These were all areas the party had focused on in opposition and had only redoubled its efforts on once in government. The 2008 campaign came and went and in its third straight campaign, the Conservative Party continued to inch up its support.

In 2006 they had 25 more seats than in 2004, and in 2008 the campaign team delivered 19 more. While the constitutional crisis of 2008 would cause Harper to again doubt his future, the party team would reel him back in and work with him towards the next campaign, delivering 23 more seats and a majority government.

A Decade of Hard Work

The majority victory won by the Harper Conservatives came 3330 days after he first took over the leadership of the Canadian Alliance. It also came a full decade after the caucus rebellion that instigated the leadership race that allowed him to come to power. In between the start of that rebellion and the majority victory, Canadian Conservatives would form a new political party, back a new leader, merge populist and progressive conservative philosophies, build a campaign team, bolster associations across the country, adopt new campaign tactics and tools, and fill party coffers from scratch.

Canadian conservatives went from doubting the possibility of their continued existence as a political movement to becoming the most organized, best financed, and most powerful political organization in the country. And they did it through hope in their cause and hard work on the ground.

918 Days

Justin Trudeau at the 2012 Liberal Party of Canada (Ontario) AGM listening to Joseph Uranowski and me delivering a talk on the importance of engaging the electorate online.
Justin Trudeau at the 2012 Liberal Party of Canada (Ontario) AGM listening to Joseph Uranowski and me delivering a talk on the importance of engaging the electorate online.

There are 918 days between the election of Justin Trudeau as Liberal Leader on April 14, 2013 and the probable date of the next election on October 19, 2015. That is a far less time than Harper and Canadian conservatives spent seriously toiling away at their path to victory.

However, October 19, 2015 can be a defining date in our Party’s history with hope and hard work. Today, October 19 is a date of hope that inspires our continued hard work. By October 20, 2015, let’s make sure it is proof that all of our hard work has paid off.

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Theresa Lubowitz is a student of philosophy and public administration. Her scholastic interests lie in post-Confederation Canadian history with emphasis on federal political history as well as current affairs in Canadian civics. She has an general interest in electoral reform and is particularly interested in electoral system design theory as well as game theory in regards to balloting. Her passion is the push for the re-engagement of the electorate in regards to civic participation in Canada and hopes to play a role in the reversal of the democratic deficit creeping across the country.

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