10/01/2012 12:07 EDT | Updated 12/01/2012 05:12 EST

Third-Party Liberals Need More Than a Messiah

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TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY GUILLAUME LAVALLEE 'CANADA-VOTE-HISTORY-PEOPLE-TRUDEAU' Justin Trudeau, son of former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and candidate for the Liberal Party in Montreal, is seen during an interview in his campaign office on October 12, 2008 in Montreal, two days before the federal elections on October 14. One of three sons of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, prime minister of Canada from 1968 to 1979, and 1980 to 1984, Justin Trudeau swapped a teaching career for a chance to represent his father's Liberals in the Montreal electoral district of Papineau, and win it back from the separatists who took it in 2006. AFP PHOTO/David BOILY (Photo credit should read DAVID BOILY/AFP/Getty Images)

In Ontario and Prince Edward Island, there are Liberal governments in power. In Ontario, McGuinty won the last election -- when his political fortunes were considered to be sinking -- in large part on a strong progressive environmental platform, emphasizing green energy and green jobs, mass transit, and a green belt around Greater Toronto and the urbanized "Golden Horseshoe" region to contain sprawl and preserve forests and farmlands.

(Although, more recent poll numbers have been more dire for the Ontario party, as it comes under fire for politically-motivated decisions to cancel the construction of gas-fired power-plants in electorally sensitive areas, and over public sector wage freezes.)

In Prince Edward Island, Liberal premier Robert Ghiz showed a clear understanding of the struggles of the Millennial Generation -- of the problems of student debt -- by eliminating interest on student loans.

Here in New Brunswick, while Liberals are not in power, they are still official opposition and stumbles by the Alward government on jobs -- unemployment has climbed to 10.4 per cent, higher than the 8-9 per cent rates in 2009 when the world was in the depths of recession.

In light of this, the last Alward budget -- which stated that jobs would be lost because of austerity measures -- looks a mismatch of priorities. Furthermore, a recent poll has shown a narrowing of the gap between the Liberals and Tories, though it is also noteworthy that NDP support has grown in the province to 24 per cent, something New Brunswick Liberals cannot afford to ignore.

The situation of the federal Liberal Party, however, is much more difficult.

Justin Trudeau's run for Liberal leader is the headline story. He is a compelling candidate, with a father who was a charismatic prime minister, and who himself is charismatic and likeable. However, for all the stories of the prospects of a Trudeau-led Liberal Party, one ultimately has to focus on the party itself -- on the federal Liberals' status as a third party, the inevitable "where to go from here" questions as the party struggles to find its raison d'être in this new political climate.

Can the Liberals survive as a third party? The NDP survived for decades as third -- and at times fourth -- party as the "conscience of the nation," the party of progressive ideals, causes, and principles. This inspired a fervour among NDP supporters that kept the party going through what were, in many cases, seemingly hopeless times.

Can the Liberal Party inspire the same fervour? It may very well need to. Liberals can no longer claim to be the natural governing party, nor to have the same ability to garner wealthy donors or those seeking connections. Liberals cannot coast by on "we win elections," "we're not Harper," or be the "everything to everyone" party -- if anything, it was this attitude that led Liberals to third party status in the first place. Being now a third party compels Liberals to provide a compelling reason for people to volunteer, donate, and vote for them.

The current official opposition leader, NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, is a formidable presence in the House of Commons. In recent weeks -- likely in an attempt to broaden the party's support nationwide -- he has moved away from earlier NDP positions which contradicted the Clarity Act. In particular, Mulcair has moved away from the position that "50 per cent +1 is enough" for Quebec to separate from Canada in a referendum.

Mulcair is seeking to set up the NDP as a credible alternative to Harper.

Of course the NDP has its weaknesses -- there is still a strong Quebec nationalist element in the NDP caucus and among many of the voters in Quebec who delivered the NDP its breakthrough. When policies like multiculturalism or national unity come under attack from nationalists, the NDP still faces a tough time -- shore up its Quebec support, or try to broaden its support outside Quebec.

There are parallels between the NDP's breakthrough and Mulroney's in 1984, with success residing with soft-nationalists in Quebec. Ultimately, this blew up for Mulroney with the formation of the Bloc Quebecois and the defection of his Cabinet Minister Lucien Bouchard to head it. Given the volatile nature of the Quebec electorate, this is a risk the NDP runs as it seeks to prove its breakthrough is permanent, and not just a one-time fluke.

Liberals have traditionally occupied the ideal space in Canadian politics -- balancing a prioritization of jobs and entrepreneurship (something some elements in the NDP have trouble reconciling with) with recognition of the importance of social programs to help the poor and middle-class, the prioritization of environmental sustainability, and an emphasis on human rights (all areas where the Conservatives are lacking).

Liberals are the party of facts-based policy in areas such as global warming and crime. They are the party of immigration and multiculturalism -- it was Prime Minister Lester Pearson who liberalized immigration laws and Pierre Trudeau who brought in official multiculturalism. The Liberal Party has enjoyed strong support among immigrant and visible minority communities in places such as Toronto's "905" suburbs. The Liberal Party is the party that is unequivocally for a strong federal government, for national unity, with the Clarity Act.

The elements are there, but can Liberals articulate a clear message out of that? Could the Liberals articulate some clear policies based on these principles -- as the party of entrepreneurship and social justice, multiculturalism and diversity, as the party of national unity and as the party of facts-based policy?

The Liberals face a tough political environment, with the NDP trying to crowd them out, and with their own return to power far from certain. A compelling message and clear ideals to attract support is key. Liberals cannot pine for a messiah. It is about ideals and principles, finding a raison d'être to attract support and votes.