For much of the 20th century, federal politics in Canada was dominated by two "catch-all" brokerage parties -- the Progressive Conservatives and the Liberals. The former could be considered slightly to the centre-right and the latter to the centre-left. Though on debates such as placement of nuclear missiles on Canadian soil in the early 1960s, it was the Diefenbaker Tories -- with a strong populist bent -- who were ultimately opposed and the more continentalist Liberals in favour. As well, many Blue Liberals could be considered to the right of many Red Tories.
There were third parties like Social Credit which came and went, and an "ideological" social democratic party, the CCF which would later become the NDP, which was the principled third party of the left. Though a new brand of NDPers, influenced by Tony Blair's Third Way, would take issue with their party being labelled "ideological."
Since the 1990s however, federal politics have seen a seismic change, where it has become less about who one's grandparents voted for or who will pave your road, and more about ideas and principles, what a party stands for, as a clearer left-right spectrum has emerged.
In the 1993 election, the Progressive Conservatives -- a party with an oxymoron of a name that embodied catch-all politics -- was reduced to two seats while the right-wing Reform Party emerged as a major player. Reform would eventually morph into the Canadian Alliance and ultimately merge with (many would say absorb) what was left of the Progressive Conservatives.
In 2011 NDP leader Jack Layton ran a spirited campaign that led to a stunning breakthrough in Quebec with ripple effects across the country as the NDP became official opposition and the Liberals were relegated to third party status. As it now embarks upon a leadership race, the once natural governing party faces the reality of third party status.
Justin Trudeau is young and charismatic with "star power" coming from his famous last name. For many Liberals, Trudeau is the answer to reviving the Liberal brand, making the party relevant to a new generation, and being the game-changer to bring the Liberals back to being contenders for power (polls upon Justin Trudeau entering the race have shown the Liberals edging ahead of the NDP, though whether this is a honeymoon period remains to be seen).
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Justin Trudeau, however, faces questions about experience and readiness to lead, for instance comments calling the long-gun registry a "failure" even though he voted to save it, comments which he had to ultimately walk back. Marc Garneau, who is a generation older than Justin Trudeau, would seem the candidate for Liberals looking for a more experienced leader, with a long distinguished career outside and inside politics.
Other candidates are placing primary emphasis on policy and ideas, Martha Hall-Findlay, a defeated Toronto-area MP, is considered to be on the pro-business centre-right of the party. Meanwhile, Vancouver MP Joyce Murray can be considered centre-left, with a strong emphasis on environmental conservation, and her proposal to allow cooperation -- joint run-off nominations with other progressive parties in select ridings that choose to do so in order to defeat Conservatives. This latter idea would seem a logical way to deal with the problems of a divided left allowing Conservatives to come up the middle, but will be hard for many partisans to accept.
Columnist Andrew Coyne has written that Liberals should embrace third-party status, make bold policy statements that parties seeking power in 2015 would shy away from, essentially move away from the catch-all tradition. This is a strong argument, be the principled third party, take bold stands (that may be controversial by some in the party), and thereby attract a fervent core of supporters, much as the NDP had been able to do in surviving for decades as a viable third party.
In the short-run, a bold principled party can attract supporters who are attracted to the cause, not to the spoils of power per se. In the long run, with a strong loyal base, the party can rebuild to become a contender for government again. Being a third party could be a real chance to boldly define what "liberalism" is.
What about the more controversial -- at least among core partisans -- idea of merger? The Reform/Alliance needed the Progressive Conservatives to gain legitimacy east of Manitoba. For the NDP, the challenge is winning support in suburban areas that are traditionally Liberal versus Conservative contests and among immigrants and visible minorities who are traditionally a strong Liberal constituency. Thus the challenge for the NDP would be to win seats, for example, in Toronto suburbs such as Mississauga and Brampton where there are high populations of visible minorities and immigrants, not to mention be competitive in smaller cities such as Guelph, Kingston, Fredericton, and Moncton.
One could argue that a merger with the Liberals could give the NDP that needed legitimacy to break through into these constituencies. Though presently core Liberal partisans are hoping for a comeback and core NDP partisans are hoping to win government on their own terms. Likely it would take another election cycle, if the results are similar to 2011, for merger to be more seriously considered.
We do seem to be entering a more ideological -- left-right -- era in politics, not only in Canada but in the United States too with the blue/red divide, MSNBC versus Fox News. There is greater onus on political parties to present what they stand for. This is the new terrain Liberals must navigate.
A strong case can still be made for the Liberal Party -- as the party that emphasizes entrepreneurship and job creation drawing a distinction with the NDP (though the NDP is moving in on this territory), and as the party that emphasizes social programs (healthcare, poverty-reduction), environmental conservation, and facts-based policy, to draw a distinction with the Conservatives.
Liberals can be the party that is not afraid to push the limits of political debate with bold ideas. It is a new political terrain for the party, one that will necessitate a greater need to define what exactly "Liberalism" is.