This year’s federal election features an experimental approach to ideological positioning by Paul Martin and team. Since the days of Mackenzie King (who called the socialists “Liberals in hurry”) the Liberals have traditionally run to the left (and governed from the right say Jack Layton, Ed Broadbent, Tommy Douglas, et al).
This time Martin clearly sees political advantage on the right, and the NDP as a nuisance to be managed, but not a threat to be feared as in earlier decades.
It may suit his natural inclinations, but Martin may also be trying to catch the new C.P.C. at its weakest moment. The tensions surrounding the merger are far from fully resolved and appear to be making a full-blown appearance in the leadership race. There is also a party constitution to be written and coming nomination fights to add to the fun.
The reputation of the merger as an Alliance takeover has been aided and abetted by the defections of Scott Brison from the PC's and Keith Martin from the Alliance ("Stephen has made it very clear that a true Conservative party is one that's a socially conservative party, and that's not an area that I embrace.", Martin is quoted in the Toronto Star as saying, despite having been a Stockwell Day candidate four years ago). The refusniks Clark, Bachand and Herron (and perhaps others to come) make Martin’s case that much easier to advance. In these special circumstances it probably makes more political sense to make a one-time raid on the old PC base than to tilt left in the hopes of hanging on to NDP support.
This explains the western initiative of Martin, apart from the dead obvious fact that the overwhelming majority of C.P.C. seats are west of the Manitoba/Saskatchewan border. The strategy also suggests that his electoral goals are very ambitious: he wants to win a larger majority than any won by Jean Chrétien.
Martin’s western gambit is picking up important local candidates such as Alberta Liberal Leader Ken Nicol who is going to run in Lethbridge. However, the Liberals are so far behind in non-Edmonton Alberta, I fail to see how they are going to make gains outside of the metropolitan region of Edmonton. In fact, the Liberals were relatively successful in the urban west in the nineties, dominating in Vancouver and Winnipeg and holding on to seats in Edmonton and Regina. It is not at all that clear that there is much potential for significant Liberal gains under Martin in western Canada.
And there are hazards from trying to combine a Quebec base with western support. The last leader to do this successfully was Brian Mulroney in 1988, and, in the end, it was a key factor in the PC’s 1993 demise. Note that Martin is trying to walk a fine line on gun control, although he needs to hope it does not become a central issue since he probably can’t manage the Quebec-West differences if it does. Therer are significant differences in political values between the rural west and Quebec, something that he may not be able to overcome if his caucus is well represented in both places.
The Prime Minister would be better advised to pay close attention to Ontario, where the Liberals are exposed to the possibility of substantial losses.
The Sheila Copps - Tony Valeri nomination battle fits into this latter part of the story. More on this one in my next posting.