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If the Liberals can't save themselves...

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Bob Rae is a serious man, and as a serious man, could see the leadership of the Liberal party is no place for serious men.

Whatever other factors went into his decision not to run for leader, surely among them must have been a frank judgment that he could not win. A party that is preparing to throw itself at Justin Trudeau is not a serious party.

Can the Liberal party survive? Of course it can. But there is every possibility it won't. Those who still see the necessity of a third national party in Canadian politics (fourth, counting the Greens) would do well to start contingency-planning for that event.

Survival in its present form would require the party to reinvent itself to a quite extraordinary degree.

Indeed, as I've written before, it would have to redefine what it means to be a centrist party. This is not so much because the centre of Canadian politics has disappeared -- the much-discussed polarization -- as that it has been occupied. The Conservatives, whatever their recent initiatives, are well to the left of where they were a decade ago, while the NDP had moved some considerable way to the right even before it chose Tom Mulcair as its leader.

To make space for itself on this landscape, then, the Liberal party would have to show an unaccustomed boldness and sureness of purpose: a willingness to go where the other parties would not go, but where expert opinion and the national interest would advise, whether this placed it on the right or the left on any given issue. That would be its stamp, its brand: the bold party, the tell-it-like-it-is party, the party that did the right thing.

The problem with this advice, I now realize, is it's a fantasy. There's just no evidence the party is in anything like that frame of mind, or is likely to be. The premise that a party with nothing to lose would be liberated to take risks would seem to have been disproven.

The two-year window it gave itself to choose a new leader was supposed to afford time for reflection and reinvigoration. Instead, it looks very likely to have been time wasted. The convention earlier this year offered the membership a chance to take control of the party. Instead, they punted. Any lingering hopes of the leadership race becoming the forum for a fundamental rethink dwindle by the day.

I can't see Rae, whatever his other qualities, as having led that transformation. Even less can I see it happening under Trudeau. Indeed, for the people championing his accession, that's the point. It's just another bit of expedience, another lunge for short-term advantage, in the hope that genetics, good looks and a French surname can win them a few seats in Quebec. As no doubt it can. But after? Does the party really think it is going to rebuild out of Quebec? Splitting the province four ways with the NDP, the Bloc and the Conservatives, while conceding the West, yet again?

There are other prospective candidates, of course. But those inclined to make the changes the party needs have little chance of winning, while those with the chance lack the inclination. The exceptions are, at this point, mostly theoretical.

John Manley's blunt talk and free-market views would offer an attractive mix of change and continuity. And Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney's entry would obviously turn over the whole chessboard. But I can't see either man going for it.

So it would seem advisable for third-partyists (tri-partisans?) to be readying, at the very least, a Plan B. If, that is, the Liberals should prove incapable of saving themselves, it may be time to start thinking seriously about a new party. The Liberals have always prided themselves on being a big tent. But a big tent with very few people in it becomes a problem. Part of the party's inability to strike out in a bold new direction I think stems from very real differences over policy. Until its recent decline, those differences did not need sorting out: Power soothed all. Now they do.

The catalyst for this may prove to be the unceasing efforts on the party left to promote a merger with the NDP. I've argued against this before, in part because it would split the party. But perhaps that is what now recommends it. Left-Liberals would be free to pursue that particular fantasy (their role in such a merger would be roughly equivalent to that of the Progressive Conservatives in the current Conservative party). And the right?

If there is a coalition in Canadian politics more unwieldy than the Liberals, it is the Conservatives: Less an alliance than a contradiction, between economic libertarians championing relentless change, and social conservatives whose raison d'�tre is their hatred of change. It has been the formula for conservative success for decades, but that does not mean it is not ripe for the plucking.

The more natural modern coalition, it seems to me, is between economic liberals (in the European sense) and social liberals; between free marketers and environmentalists (it's all about minimizing waste), between advocates of consumer power and voter power. There are free marketers who vote Conservative only because they have to -- who are uncomfortable with their so-con bedfellows, dismayed by the party's indifference to environmental issues and appalled by its assault on parliamentary democracy, but who can find no other party they trust on the economy.

Perhaps it is time they were offered one.

Andrew Coyne is a national

columnist for Postmedia News.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 19, 2012 A6

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