Making predictions in a sport as unpredictable as politics is very much a fool’s errand. I don’t think anyone saw Dalton McGuinty’s retirement or Justin Trudeau’s left hook coming in 2012. Hell, even something as routine as an Alberta PC election victory turned into a whirlwind thriller.
What we do know, however, is that amidst all the political surprises, 2013 is likely to be one of the most important years ever for big “L” Liberalism in Canada.
Most eyes will be on the federal race where, at the risk of brazenly going against my previous disclaimer about the unpredictable nature of politics, a Trudeau victory is basically a fait accomplit. More important than the vote totals announced on April 14th is what that victory looks like. If Trudeau takes the next four months to expand the Liberal base and dispel the “lightweight” label, he’ll be well positioned to fend off the inevitable attacks that come his way. If he limps across the finish line damaged, or runs an uninspiring and safe frontrunner campaign, his poll numbers may prove fleeting. I fully expect we’ll see Conservative (and NDP!) attack ads against the new Liberal leader by the end of 2013, so one year from now we’ll know just how resilient the Trudeau brand actually is, and how prepared the Liberal Party is to fight the 2015 election.
While “most important ever” leadership races seem to spring up every year or two, what makes 2013 a crossroads for the Liberal brand is what will be happening outside of Ottawa. After all, the Liberal Party is in the process of selecting new leaders in Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Newfoundland. To put things in perspective, Robert Ghiz and Stephen McNeil are the only Liberal leaders who have held their titles for at least two years.
The media’s attention will no doubt be on the Central Canadian races, but the situation on the Prairies should not be overlooked. The Manitoba Liberals are down to a single seat, held by outgoing leader Jon Gerrard. In Saskatchewan, the party faces the very real prospect of a leadership race with no candidates, or of dissolving completely, after receiving just 0.6% of the popular vote last election. And in the Liberal hotbed of Alberta, proposals to merge with the provincial NDP are expected to be front and centre at the party’s June convention.
Further west, the BC Liberals have put off talk of a name change until after this May’s election – but most expect Christy Clark to go down in flames, so it’s a debate they may revisit before year’s end. Across Western Canada, the question is therefore not just one of leadership, or even what the party stands for, but one of whether or not the brand is damaged beyond repair.
While the outlook is less bleak in the East, with Ontarians likely heading to the polls this year, there’s a very real possibility that PEI might soon stand alone as the last Liberal bastion in Canada.
On the flip side, the Nova Scotia Liberals lead in the polls and fresh leaders in Quebec and Ontario could very well give these parties a badly needed reboot. So…anywhere from a few dozen potato farmers to the majority of the country will be living under Liberal rule by the end of the next year.
If you close your eyes and try to play the foolish game of political prognostication, it’s not difficult to see a new generation of strong Liberal leaders emerging from coast to coast in 2013. These leaders could very well go on to dominate the political landscape over the next decade, the way McGuinty, Charest, and Campbell dominated the last. However, it’s just as easy to close your eyes and imagine a scenario where 2013 marks the year the Liberal Party began to slowly fade away to nothingness.