Decline of party fortunes the most striking feature of election

Somewhere in this big and generally happy land, there is surely a pundit, a pollster or a political operative who knows what our confused and muddled federal election is all about.

It is not about issues, because the country is not, at the moment, facing any obvious challenges that could shape or alter its future. Nor are we voters being asked to decide anything of genuine national importance - such as free trade or constitutional change.

It is not about the economy, because Canada is still in growth mode and will be again next year, according to most forecasters. Unemployment remains in the six-per-cent range nationally. The cost of living is going up, but there are no signs of runaway inflation. Housing sales and starts are down, but developers continue to clear land for subdivisions and shopping centres.

It is not about policies or party platforms either. The program of Stephen Harper's ruling Conservatives is so tepid and incremental that I can remember absolutely nothing the prime minister promised in the first two weeks of the campaign except to get tough on crime - and on that issue he made perfectly good sense to this aging suburbanite.

The Liberal program - Richer, Fairer, Greener: An Action Plan for the 21st Century - is simply a monumental and incomprehensible mess that would inflict $56 billion in new spending on the country and $40 billion in carbon taxes. And to achieve what? Maybe Liberal diehards have an answer, but I suspect that the party plan will only raise questions and create confusion in the minds of most voters.

The opposition parties tried and failed in the early going to make Stephen Harper the issue. We can be certain that the din and clamour about his supposedly dangerous, misguided policies will surely get louder as we get closer to election day.

Increasingly, though, members of our political commentariat, as well as Liberal insiders, are saying that Stephane Dion is the issue. Some are calling him the most inept federal leader since the unlamented Kim Campbell.

In my mind, the most striking feature of this election is the astonishing, perhaps irreversible, decline of the Liberal Party of Canada, which was once one of the most potent and successful electoral machines in the Western world.

For nearly 70 years, party members defined themselves in terms of the prime minister they served. You were a Mackenzie King Liberal, a St. Laurent Liberal, a Pearson Liberal, a Trudeau Liberal or a Chretien Liberal - as though their careers as party leader and prime minister each represented a distinct and enlightened era in the history of the country.

But along the line, this machine took multiple wrong turns and the air began to seep out of its tires. First, there was the selection of leaders. Since 1984, four men have led this party and three of them - John Turner, Paul Martin and now Mr. Dion - have turned out to be duds. Second, the Liberals thought they could remain Canada's Natural Governing Party while antagonizing and then alienating whole sections of the country.

Pierre Trudeau killed the Liberals in the West by insulting Prairie grain growers and then unleashing his confiscatory and ruinous National Energy Program. Twenty-five years later, Westerners have neither forgiven nor forgotten. Once out of office, Trudeau antagonized Quebecers by working to defeat Brian Mulroney's Meech Lake Accord, which would have recognized Quebec as a distinct society.

And Jean Chretien, then running for the Liberal leadership, did what he could to sabotage the deal.

As prime minister, Chretien completed Quebec's disillusionment with lavish and uncontrolled spending on the sponsorship of sporting and cultural events. That produced a tantalizing scandal, embarrassed the province's voters and drove them away from the Liberals.

While they were scaring off voters everywhere but Ontario and Atlantic Canada, the Liberals were also fighting among themselves and it was Chretien who unleashed the internal discord. He could not abide Turner, who beat him for the leadership in 1984, and first sought to undermine him and then resigned his seat.

Chretien sowed a wind which turned into a whirlwind named Paul Martin, who spent his years as finance minister conspiring against his leader until his treachery become so blatant that he had no choice but to resign.

Only one thing could lead otherwise astute politicians and political operatives down such a disastrous path over such a long period of time. Generations of success at the polls led to oversized egos, a pervasive arrogance and big mistakes that will cost this party for years to come.

(D'Arcy Jenish can be reached at jenish@businessedge.ca)