Old habits die hard for Liberal party
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/07/2020 (937 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Last week, I pulled Reginald Whitaker’s book The Government Party off a shelf and literally blew the dust off it.
Whitaker’s 1977 book is a dense exploration of the Liberal Party of Canada, specifically its organization, leadership and fundraising. The book only tackles the party’s history from 1930 to 1958, but academics still read and discuss it. The reason for this is that the phenomena Whitaker describes seem to be timeless.
In particular: The Government Party describes how the Liberal party in government defeats itself through organizational stagnation. Over time, the party becomes hopelessly entangled with the state, and in fact it may be hard to tell where the party ends and the government begins. This is the government party; Liberals come to confuse the interests of the party and its leaders with the interests of the country. The result is corruption and patronage that eventually lead to the party being booted from office.
Whitaker’s book is worth reading, because what he observes keeps happening: long periods of Liberal government followed by stagnation and corruption which contribute to the party’s defeat. After a relatively brief Tory interregnum in government, the Liberals return to power and the cycle begins again.
Think about the sponsorship scandal that rocked the Liberals in the 2000s. The sponsorship program in question was intended to advertise federal contributions and investments in Quebec following the 1995 sovereignty referendum, and was rushed out with little thought and few safeguards. But the money from the program was largely directed toward Liberal-friendly advertising agencies, which often did little other than take the money.
Even more disturbingly, these agencies hired Liberal organizers or fundraisers explicitly so they could get a cut of the sponsorship money. The ad agencies would also take government money via the sponsorship program and then donate it back to the Liberal party.
This was Whitaker’s government party, in which the lines between state and party became blurred and the interests of the party seemed to trump all other considerations. And, as it had in the past, corruption led to the party’s defeat in the 2006 election.
In fact, the damage from the sponsorship scandal was so long-lasting that, for a time, it looked as if the Liberals had finally lost their claim to being Canada’s “natural governing party,” sinking to third place behind the NDP in the 2011 federal election. But that didn’t last long, and Justin Trudeau led the party back to power in 2015.
Which brings us to the current Liberal government’s most recent misstep: its decision to award a contract worth $912 million to WE Charity to manage a student volunteer program. The decision was murky from the outset; the prime minister claimed WE Charity was the only organization capable of administering such a program, apparently forgetting about his own government’s sprawling civil service.
WE co-founder Marc Kielberger reported that “the Prime Minister’s Office kindly called us” about taking on the program, but quickly backtracked given the implication of political interference that statement suggested.
It was soon learned that WE would be paying teachers up to $12,000 each to recruit students to the program, and that the students would be paid to volunteer. Further, the charity itself would be taking volunteers to participate in online discussions about “mindfulness” during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Just what we need: a generation of teenagers who think volunteering is sitting on the computer at home talking about feelings. We’ve come a long way from collecting trash along the side of Canada’s highways.
But the biggest problem with the contract was the prime minister’s own personal ties to WE Charity. Despite Trudeau’s early vagueness on the question, he has been a regular speaker at the organization’s events. His wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, has also appeared at WE events and hosts the “WE Well-being” podcast on mental health.
Trudeau’s mother and brother, Margaret and Alexandre Trudeau, have been paid for speaking at numerous WE events. The connections are so close to the prime minister himself that it’s a wonder none of Trudeau’s political advisers sounded the alarm bell well before the contract was awarded. Or maybe they did, and the PM ignored them.
Following a wave of opposition-party objections and negative media coverage, WE Charity walked away from the deal. And the bulk of that media coverage focused directly on Trudeau’s personal connections to the charity.
We are a long way from the sponsorship scandal here, but one can see flickers of Whitaker’s cyclical self-destruction in this most recent Trudeau faceplant. Creating youth volunteer opportunities is a worthy goal, perhaps even one worth $912 million. And if some people connected to the prime minister benefit as a result, well, what would anyone in the government party think is the harm in that?
Royce Koop is head of the political studies department at the University of Manitoba.