Two things to start with. This is probably four and a half-stars, but I went with four. In parts, and especially when referring to broader trends, I would have liked to have seen more factual evidence presented rather than people's comments and opinions. Second, in reviewing a book about a political party, I suppose I should note that I've voted Liberal, Conservative, NDP, and Green in past elections. I really vote for who I think is best at that moment (or where my vote is most likely to be effective). I'm a pragmatist rather than a liberal or conservative. That said, pragmatism usually leads towards the center, the natural domain of the Liberal party. Given the shocking fortunes of the Liberal party in the last election, I thought it would be interesting to read more about how and why those events happened.
Peter Newman is a journalist who has had one-on-one access with all the past prime ministers, except for perhaps Harper. So he chose to follow and interview Ignatieff, whom he believed would be the next prime minister. Clearly, that didn't pan out. This book is an explanation of why that's so. There are really three causes. The first is that Iggy never really caught on to how the game was played. A relative newcomer to politics, he acted more like an academic, seeking truth and dialogue rather than emotions and selling points. The people around him were unable to give him the right advice or help him follow it. That left him badly stunted and looking awkward on camera. Surprisingly, he came away as a man without big ideas, despite the fact that as a professor he had written about some pretty big ideas. Newman reports some of his interviews with Iggy, who indeed comes across as more profound and interesting than he did on the political stage. These are some of the better parts of the book.
The second reason for the Liberal's fate is that they were a party in decline. The arrogance of the Chretien years was matched by the lack of a credible opposition, which made the Liberals lazy and inefficient, if not contemptuous. That left them vulnerable, as did the Martin-Chretien infighting. My most shocking revelation from the book is that Chretien reportedly told Martin he'd stay on a few months longer to take the flack of the Adscam affair, and that the RCMP should handle it discretely rather than a public inquiry. Supposedly, Martin and his advisers said no to both. HUGE mistake. In any case, after Paul Martin, there really was no clear-cut candidate who stepped up to lead the party. Rock, McKenna, Tobin were all names that I remembered with some respect, but none of them stepped up. That led to Dion being nominated, largely because he was bland enough for no one to seriously dislike him. His failure led to Ignatieff and a party reportedly more concerned with saving their own jobs rather than the party.
The third reason given is Stephen Harper. I'm no fan of the man, but clearly he is a master political strategist. His only major blunder was trying to pull the funding of the parties while he led a minority. The resulting coalition against him almost cost him power as he was saved by the questionable action of the Governor General. Since then, he has been solid. Drab, boring and conservative, but solid. The Conservatives $10 million campaign slandering Ignatieff was a great success, leading many Canadians to believe Iggy was in it for himself. His ties to the US were a disadvantage, which is surprising given how similar Harper's policies were to G.W. Bush's and how cozy Harper likes to be to the US. One would think that a Harvard position is something to be proud of, but the Conservatives were deftly able to turn it into a negative. I suppose some credit should also go to Jack Layton, who's raw charisma allowed a third-rate NDP party (in terms of experience, money and organization) to vault handily over the Liberals.
So there you have it. The three main causes of the changing of the guard/gods. Newman states that he thinks this is the end of the Liberal party for good. We will now be heading down a two-party political road. I'm not so sure. The Conservatives were able to reinvent themselves after being gutted down to two seats. The Liberals came back from forty seats after losing to Diefenbaker. Whether they will be able to as the same party, or whether they will have to reinvent themselves remains to be seen. But I sincerely hope that a centrist party returns meaningfully to Canadian politics. Whether or not that's your thing, one can't argue with the notion that more choice is better in a democracy. As I stated up front, I have clearly taken advantage of that diversity to send different messages at different times. I would sure hate for my vote to end up being a yes/no, right/left only option. And that's perhaps the most important message of this book. Democracy is in some ways a fragile, but very human endeavor that relies a great deal on the quality of the people involved at both ends as leaders and voters. Regardless of who you vote for, I for one hope that the both the number and thoughtfulness of our choices and our voices improve in future elections.