Liberal Party of Canada

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Liberal Party of Canada
Parti libéral du Canada
Leader Justin Trudeau
President Anna Gainey
Founded July 1, 1867 (1867-07-01)
Preceded by Reformers,
Clear Grits,
Parti rouge,
Parti canadien
Headquarters Suite 600,
81 Metcalfe Street,
Ottawa, Ontario
Youth wing Young Liberals
Ideology Liberalism (Canadian)
Progressivism[1]
Political position Centre to Centre-left[2]
International affiliation Liberal International[3]
Colours Red
Seats in the House of Commons
35 / 308
Seats in the Senate
30 / 105
Website
www.liberal.ca
Politics of Canada
Political parties
Elections

The Liberal Party of Canada (French: Parti libéral du Canada), colloquially known as the Grits, is the oldest federal political party in Canada. The party espouses the principles of liberalism, and generally sits at the centre of the Canadian political spectrum.[4][5][6] Historically the Liberal Party has been positioned to the left of the Conservative Party of Canada and to the right of the New Democratic Party (NDP).[7]

The party dominated federal politics for much of Canada's history, holding power for almost 69 years in the 20th century—more than any other party in a developed country—which resulted in its being sometimes referred to as Canada's "natural governing party".[8] Among the party's signature policies and legislative accomplishments include universal health care, the Canada Pension Plan, Canada Student Loans, peacekeeping, multilateralism, official bilingualism, official multiculturalism, patriating the Canadian constitution and the entrenchment of Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Clarity Act, restoring balanced budgets in the 1990s, and making same-sex marriage legal nationwide.[4][9] Over the last decade, however, the party has lost a significant amount of support, to the benefit of both the Conservative Party and the NDP. In the 2011 Canadian federal election the Liberal Party had the worst showing in its history, capturing only 19 per cent of the popular vote and 34 seats, becoming the third-place party in the House of Commons for the first time.[10]

Principles and policies[edit]

The principles of the party are based on liberalism as defined by various liberal theorists and include individual freedom for present and future generations, responsibility, human dignity, a just society, political freedom, religious freedom, national unity, equality of opportunity, cultural diversity, bilingualism, and multilateralism.[11][12] In the present times, the Liberal party has favoured a variety of policies from both right and left of the political spectrum. When it formed the government from 1993 to 2006, it was a strong champion of balanced budgets, and eliminated the budget deficit completely from the federal budget in 1995 by reducing spending on social programs or delegating them to the provinces, and promised to replace the Goods and Services Tax in the party's famous Red Book.[13] It also legalized same-sex marriage and the use of cannabis for medical purposes, and had proposed complete decriminalization of possession of small amounts of it.

Current policies[edit]

During the 2011 election the Liberal party's policies included:[14]

  • Introduction of a family care plan for Canadians supporting ill family members
  • Pension plan reform
  • Additional investment in higher education via direct financial aid (learning passport)
  • Spending restraint (less on consultants and advertising)
  • Reduce deficit to 2 per cent of GDP by 2013 (currently at 5 percent)
  • Cancel corporate tax deduction and return rates to 18 per cent (currently at 16.5 percent)
  • Restoration of the long-form census
  • Quadruple renewable energy production, including wind, solar and biomass energy sources
  • Introduce a national food policy to support Canadian farmers

History[edit]

19th century[edit]

Origins[edit]

The Liberals are descended from the mid-19th century Reformers who agitated for responsible government throughout British North America.[15] These included George Brown, Robert Baldwin, William Lyon Mackenzie and the Clear Grits in Upper Canada, Joseph Howe in Nova Scotia, and the Patriotes and Rouges in Lower Canada led by figures such as Louis-Joseph Papineau. The Clear Grits and Parti rouge sometimes functioned as a united bloc in the legislature of the Province of Canada beginning in 1854, and a united Liberal Party combining both English and French Canadian members was formed in 1861.[15][16]

Confederation[edit]

At the time of confederation of the former British colonies of Canada (now Ontario and Quebec), New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, the radical Liberals were marginalized by the more pragmatic Conservative coalition assembled under Sir John A. Macdonald. In the 29 years after Canadian confederation, the Liberals were consigned to opposition, with the exception of one stint in government.[15] Alexander Mackenzie was able to lead the party to power in 1873 after the Macdonald government lost a vote of no confidence in the House of Commons because of the Pacific Scandal. Mackenzie subsequently won the 1874 election, and served as Prime Minister for an additional four years. During the five years the Liberal government brought in many reforms, which include the replacement of open voting by secret ballot, confining elections to one day and the creation of the Supreme Court of Canada. However the party was only able to build a solid support base in Ontario, and in 1878 lost the government to Macdonald.[15] The Liberals would spend the next 18 years in opposition.[16]

Laurier era[edit]

Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Prime Minister of Canada (1896-1911)

In their early history, the Liberals were the party of continentalism and opposition to imperialism. The Liberals also became identified with the aspirations of Quebecers as a result of the growing hostility of French-Canadians to the Conservatives. The Conservatives lost the support of French-Canadians because of the role of Conservative governments in the execution of Louis Riel and their role in the Conscription crisis of 1917, and especially their opposition to French schools in provinces besides Quebec.

It was not until Wilfrid Laurier became leader that the Liberal Party emerged as a modern party. Laurier was able to capitalize on the Tories' alienation of French Canada by offering the Liberals as a credible alternative. Laurier was able to overcome the party's reputation for anti-clericalism that offended the still-powerful Quebec Roman Catholic Church. In English-speaking Canada, the Liberal Party's support for reciprocity made it popular among farmers, and helped cement the party's hold in the growing prairie provinces.[17]

Laurier led the Liberals to power in the 1896 election (in which he became the first Francophone Prime Minister), and oversaw a government that increased immigration in order to settle Western Canada. Laurier's government created the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta out of the North-West Territories, and promoted the development of Canadian industry.[17]

20th century[edit]

Party organization[edit]

Until the early part of the century, the Liberal Party was a loose, informal coalition of local, provincial and regional bodies with a strong national party leader and caucus (and when in power, the national cabinet) but with an informal and regionalized extra-parliamentary organizational structure. There was no national membership of the party, an individual became a member by joining a provincial Liberal party. Laurier called the party's first national convention in 1893 in order to unite Liberal supporters behind a programme and build the campaign that successfully brought the party to power in 1896 however, once in power, no efforts were made to create a formal national organization outside of parliament.

As a result of the party's defeats in the 1911 and 1917 federal elections, Laurier attempted to organize the party on a national level by creating three bodies, the Central Liberal Information Office, the National Liberal Advisory Committee, and the National Liberal Organization Committee. However, the advisory committee became dominated by Members of Parliament and all three bodies were underfunded and competed with both local and provincial Liberal associations and the national caucus for authority. The party did organize the national party's second convention in 1919 to elect William Lyon Mackenzie King as Laurier's successor, Canada's first ever leadership convention but, following the party's return to power in the 1921 federal election the nascent national party organizations were eclipsed by powerful ministers and local party organizations largely driven by patronage.

As a result of both the party's defeat in the 1930 federal election, and the Beauharnois bribery scandal which highlighted the need for distance between the Liberal Party's political wing and campaign fundraising,[18] a central coordinating organization, the National Liberal Federation, was created in 1932 with Vincent Massey as its first president. The new organization allowed individuals to directly join the national Liberal Party for the first time. With the Liberals return to power the national organization languished except for occasional national committee meetings, such as in 1943 when Mackenzie King called a meeting of the federation (consisting of the national caucus and up to seven voting delegates per province) to approve a new platform for the party in anticipation of the end of World War II and prepare for a post-war election.[19] No national convention was held, however, until 1948; the Liberal Party held only three national conventions prior to the 1950s - in 1893, 1919 and 1948[20]). The National Liberal Federation remained largely dependent on provincial Liberal parties and was often ignored and bypassed the parliamentary party in the organization of election campaigns and the development of policy. With the defeat of the Liberals in the 1957 federal election and in particular 1958, reformers argued for the strengthening of the national party organization so it would not be dependent on provincial Liberal parties and patronage. A national executive and Council of Presidents, consisting of the presidents of each Liberal riding association, were developed to give the party more co-ordination and national party conventions were regularly held in biennially where previously they had been held infrequently. Over time, provincial Liberal parties in most province's were separated from provincial wings of the federal party and in a number of cases disaffiliated. By the 1980s, the National Liberal Federation was officially known as the Liberal Party of Canada.[21]

Canadian sovereignty[edit]

William Lyon Mackenzie King, Prime Minister of Canada (1921-1926, 1926-1930, 1935-1948)

Under Laurier, and his successor William Lyon Mackenzie King, the Liberals promoted Canadian sovereignty and greater independence within the British Commonwealth. In Imperial Conferences held throughout the 1920s, Canadian Liberal governments often took the lead in arguing that the United Kingdom and the dominions should have equal status, and against proposals for an imperial parliament that would have subsumed Canadian independence. After the King-Byng Affair of 1926, the Liberals argued that the Governor General of Canada should no longer be appointed on the recommendation of the British government. The decisions of the Imperial Conferences were formalized in the Statute of Westminster, which was actually passed in 1931, the year after the Liberals lost power.

The Liberals also promoted the idea of Canada being responsible for its own foreign and defence policy. Initially, it was Britain which determined external affairs for the dominion. In 1905, Laurier created the Department of External Affairs, and in 1909 he advised Governor General Earl Grey to appoint the first Secretary of State for External Affairs to Cabinet. It was also Laurier who first proposed the creation of a Canadian Navy in 1910. Mackenzie King recommended the appointment by Governor General Lord Byng of Vincent Massey as the first Canadian ambassador to Washington in 1926, marking the Liberal government's insistence on having direct relations with the United States, rather than having Britain act on Canada's behalf.

Liberals and the social safety net[edit]

Lester B. Pearson, Prime Minister of Canada (1963-1968)

In the period just before and after the Second World War, the party became a champion of 'progressive social policy'.[16] As Prime Minister for most of the time between 1921 and 1948, King introduced several measures that led to the creation of Canada's social safety net. Bowing to popular pressure, he introduced the mother's allowance, a monthly payment to all mothers with young children. He also reluctantly introduced old age pensions when J. S. Woodsworth required it in exchange for his Co-operative Commonwealth Federation party's support of King's minority government.

Louis St. Laurent succeeded King as Liberal leader and Prime Minister on November 15, 1948. In the 1949, and 1953, federal elections, St. Laurent led the Liberal Party to two large majority governments. As Prime Minister he oversaw the joining of Newfoundland in Confederation as Canada's tenth province, he establish equalization payments to the provinces, and continued with social reform with improvements in pensions and health insurance. In 1956, Canada played an important role in resolving the Suez Crisis, and contributed to the United Nation force in the Korean War. Canada enjoyed economic prosperity during St. Laurent's premiership and wartime debts were paid off. The pipeline debate proved the Liberal Party's undoing. Their attempt to pass legislation to build a natural gas pipeline from Alberta to central Canada was met with fierce disagreement in the House of Commons. In 1957, John Diefenbaker's Progressive Conservatives won a minority government and St. Laurent resigned as Prime Minister and Liberal leader.[22]

Lester B. Pearson was easily elected Liberal leader at the party's 1958 leadership convention. However only months after becoming Liberal leader, Pearson led the party into the 1958 federal election that saw Diefenbaker's Progressive Conservatives win the largest majority government, by percentage of seats, in Canadian history.[23] The Progressive Conservatives won 206 of the 265 seats in the House of Commons, while the Liberals were reduced to just 48 seats. Pearson remained Liberal leader during this time and in the 1962 election managed to reduce Diefenbaker to a minority government. In the 1963 election Pearson led the Liberal Party back to victory, forming a minority government. Pearson served as Prime Minister for five years, winning a second election in 1965. While Pearson's leadership was considered poor and the Liberal Party never held a majority of the seats in parliament during his premiership, he left office in 1968 with an impressive legacy.[24] Pearson's government introduced universal health care, a new immigration act, the Canada Pension Plan, Canada Student Loans, the Canada Assistance Plan, and adopted the Maple Leaf as Canada's national flag.[25]

Pierre Trudeau[edit]

Pierre Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada (1968-1979, 1980-1984)

Under Pierre Trudeau, the mission of a progressive social policy evolved into the goal of creating a "just society".[16]

The Liberal Party under Trudeau promoted official bilingualism and passed the Official Languages Act, which gave the French and English languages equal status in Canada.[15] Trudeau hoped that the promotion of bilingualism would cement Quebec's place in confederation, and counter growing calls for an independent Quebec. The party hoped the policy would transform Canada into a country where English and French-Canadians could live together, and allow Canadians to move to any part of the country without having to lose their language. Although this vision has yet to fully materialize, official bilingualism has helped to halt the decline of the French language outside of Quebec, and to ensure that all federal government services (including radio and television services provided by the government-owned Canadian Broadcasting Corporation/Radio-Canada) are available in both languages throughout the country.[16]

The Trudeau Liberals are also credited with support for official multiculturalism as a means of integrating immigrants into Canadian society without forcing them to shed their culture.[16] As a result of this and a more sympathetic attitude by Liberals towards immigration policy, the party has built a base of support among recent immigrants and their children.

The most lasting effect of the Trudeau years has been the patriation of the Canadian constitution and the creation of Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms.[16] Trudeau Liberals support the concept of a strong, central government, and fought Quebec separatism, other forms of Quebec nationalism, and the granting of "distinct society" status to Quebec. Such actions, however, served as rallying cries for sovereigntists and alienated many francophone Quebeckers.

Logo in 1968
Logo in 1974

The other primary legacy of the Trudeau years has been financial. Net federal debt in fiscal 1968, just before Trudeau became Prime Minister, was about $18 billion, or 26 per cent of gross domestic product; by his final year in office, it had ballooned to $206 billion—at 46 percent of GDP, nearly twice as large relative to the economy.

From the fiscal years 1976 to 1985 the government ran not only an overall deficit, but an operating deficit. The overall deficit throughout the latter phase never fell below 3 per cent of GDP; it averaged 5.6 percent. In the final year of Liberal rule, 1984–85, total spending exceeded revenues by more than 50 percent. The deficit that year, at $38.5 billion, was equal to nearly 9 per cent of GDP. Interest payments alone were now enough to consume nearly one-third of all revenues dollar. With interest costs compounding at a rate of 13 percent per year, the debt doubled every three or four years.[citation needed]

Post-Trudeau party in opposition[edit]

After Trudeau's retirement in 1984, many Liberals, such as Jean Chrétien and Clyde Wells, continued to adhere to Trudeau's concept of federalism. Others, such as John Turner, supported the failed Meech Lake and Charlottetown Constitutional Accords, which would have recognized Quebec as a "distinct society" and would have increased the powers of the provinces to the detriment of the federal government.

Trudeau stepped down as Prime Minister and party leader in 1984, as the Liberals were slipping in polls. At that year's leadership convention, Turner defeated Chrétien on the second ballot to become Prime Minister.[16] Immediately, upon taking office, Turner called a snap election, citing favourable internal polls. However, the party was hurt by numerous patronage appointments, many of which Turner had made supposedly in return for Trudeau retiring early. Also, they were unpopular in their traditional stronghold of Quebec due to the constitution repatriation which excluded that province. The Liberals lost power in the 1984 election, and were reduced to only 40 seats in the House of Commons. The Progressive Conservatives won a majority of the seats in every province, including Quebec. The 95-seat loss was the worst defeat in the party's history, and the worst defeat at the time for a governing party at the federal level. What was more, the New Democratic Party, successor to the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, won only ten fewer seats than the Liberals, and some thought that the NDP under Ed Broadbent would push the Liberals to third-party status.[16]

The party began a long process of reconstruction.[15] A small group of young Liberal MPs, known as the Rat Pack, gained fame by criticizing the Tory government of Brian Mulroney at every turn. Also, despite public and backroom attempts to remove Turner as leader, he managed to consolidate his leadership at the 1986 review.

The 1988 election was notable for Turner's strong opposition to the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement negotiated by Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.[15] Although most Canadians voted for parties opposed to free trade, the Tories were returned with a majority government, and implemented the deal. The Liberals recovered from their near-meltdown of 1984, however, winning 83 seats and ending much of the talk of being eclipsed by the NDP, who won 43 seats.[15]

Liberals under Chrétien[edit]

Jean Chrétien, Prime Minister of Canada (1993-2003)

Turner announced that he would resign as leader of the Liberal Party on May 3, 1989. The Liberal Party set a leadership convention for June 23, 1990, in Calgary. Five candidates contested the leadership of the party and former Deputy Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, who had served in every Liberal cabinet since 1965, won on the first ballot.[26] Chrétien's Liberals campaigned in the 1993 election on the promise of renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and eliminating the Goods and Services Tax (GST). Just after the writ was dropped for the election, they issued the Red Book, an integrated and coherent approach to economic, social, environmental and foreign policy. This was unprecedented for a Canadian party.[15] Taking full advantage of the inability of Mulroney's successor, Kim Campbell, to overcome a large amount of antipathy toward Mulroney, they won a strong majority government with 177 seats—the third-best performance in party history, and their best since 1949. The Progressive Conservatives were cut down to only two seats, suffering a defeat even more severe than the one they had handed the Liberals nine years earlier. The Liberals were re-elected with a considerably reduced majority in 1997, but nearly tied their 1993 total in 2000.

For the next decade, the Liberals dominated Canadian politics in a fashion not seen since the early years of Confederation. This was because of the destruction of the "grand coalition" of Western socially conservative populists, Quebec nationalists, and fiscal conservatives from Ontario that had supported the Progressive Conservatives in 1984 and 1988. The Progressive Conservatives Western support, for all practical purposes, transferred en masse to the Western-based Reform Party, which replaced the PCs as the major right-wing party in Canada. However, the new party's agenda was seen as too conservative for most Canadians. It only won one seat east of Manitoba in an election (but gained another in a floor-crossing). Even when Reform restructured into the Canadian Alliance, the party was virtually non-existent east of Manitoba, winning only 66 seats in 2000. Reform/Alliance was the official opposition from 1997 to 2003, but was never able to overcome wide perceptions that it was merely a Western protest party. The Quebec nationalists who had once supported the Tories largely switched their support to the sovereigntist Bloc Québécois, while the Tories' Ontario support largely moved to the Liberals. The PCs would never be a major force in Canadian politics again; while they rebounded to 20 seats in the next election, they won only two seats west of Quebec in the next decade.

Ontario and Quebec combine for a majority of seats in the House of Commons by virtue of Ontario's current population and Quebec's historic population (59 percent of the seats as of 2006). As a result, it is very difficult to form even a minority government without substantial support in Ontario and/or Quebec. No party has ever formed a majority government without winning the most seats in either Ontario or Quebec. It is mathematically possible to form a minority government without a strong base in either province, but such an undertaking is politically difficult. The Liberals were the only party with a strong base in both provinces, thus making them the only party capable of forming a government.

There was some disappointment as Liberals were not able to recover their traditional dominant position in Quebec, despite being led by a Quebecer from a strongly nationalist region of Quebec. The Bloc capitalized on discontent with the failure of the 1990 Meech Lake Accord and Chrétien's uncompromising stance on federalism (see below) to win the most seats in Quebec in every election from 1993, onward, even serving as the official opposition from 1993 to 1997. Chrétien's reputation in his home province never recovered after the 1990 leadership convention when rival Paul Martin forced him to declare his opposition to the Meech Lake Accord. However, the Liberals did increase their support in the next two elections due to infighting within the Bloc. In the 1997 election, although the Liberals finished with a thin majority, it was their gains in Quebec which were credited with offsetting their losses in the Maritime provinces. In particular, the 2000 election was a breakthrough for the Liberals after the PQ government's unpopular initiatives regarding consolidation of several Quebec urban areas into "megacities." Many federal Liberals also took credit for Charest's provincial election victory over the PQ in spring 2003. A series of by-elections allowed the Liberals to gain a majority of Quebec ridings for the first time since 1984.

Liberal Party logo, 1992–2004

The Chrétien Liberals more than made up for their shortfall in Quebec by building a strong base in Ontario. They reaped a substantial windfall from the votes of fiscally conservative and socially liberal voters who had previously voted Tory, as well as rapid growth in the Greater Toronto Area. They were also able to take advantage of massive vote splitting between the Tories and Reform/Alliance in rural areas of the province that had traditionally formed the backbone of provincial Tory governments. Combined with their historic dominance of Metro Toronto and northern Ontario, the Liberals dominated the province's federal politics even as the Tories won landslide majorities at the provincial level. In 1993, for example, the Liberals won all but one seat in Ontario, and came within 123 votes in Simcoe Centre of pulling off the first clean sweep of Canada's most populated province. They were able to retain their position as the largest party in the House by winning all but two seats in Ontario in the 1997 election. The Liberals were assured of at least a minority government once the Ontario results came in, but it was not clear until later in the night that they would retain their majority. In 2000, the Liberals won all but three seats in Ontario.

While the Chrétien Liberals campaigned from the left, their time in power is most marked by the cuts made to many programs in order to balance the federal budget. Chrétien had supported the Charlottetown Accord while in opposition, but in power opposed major concessions to Quebec and other provincialist factions. In contrast to their promises during the 1993 campaign, they implemented only minor changes to NAFTA, embraced the free trade concept and—with the exception of the replacement of the GST with the Harmonized Sales Tax in some Atlantic provinces—broke their promise to replace the GST.

After a proposal for Quebec independence was narrowly defeated in the 1995 Quebec referendum, the Liberals passed the "Clarity Act", which outlines the federal government's preconditions for negotiating provincial independence.[27] In Chrétien's final days, he supported same-sex marriage and decriminalizing the possession of small quantities of marijuana.[28][29] Chrétien displeased the United States government when he pledged on March 17, 2003, that Canada would not support the 2003 invasion of Iraq.[30] A poll released shortly after showed widespread approval of Chrétien's decision by the Canadian public. The poll, which was conducted by EKOS Research Associates for the Toronto Star and La Presse, found 71 per cent of those questioned approved of the government's decision to not enter the United States-led invasion, with 27 per cent expressing disapproval.[31]

Into the 21st century[edit]

Several trends started in 2003 which heralded the end of the Liberal Party's political dominance. Notably there would be a high turnover of permanent party leaders, in contrast to their predecessors who usually served over two or more elections, particularly Trudeau and Chrétien who each led for over a decade.[32] The Liberals were also hampered by their inability to raise campaign money competitively after Chrétien passed a bill in 2003 which banned corporate donations, even though the Liberals had enjoyed by far the lion's share of this funding due to the then-divided opposition parties. It has been suggested that Chrétien, who had done nothing about election financing for his 10 years in office, could be seen as the idealist as he retired, while his rival and successor Paul Martin would have the burden of having to fight an election under the strict new rules.[33] Simon Fraser University professor Doug McArthur has noted that Martin's leadership campaign used aggressive tactics for the 2003 leadership convention, in attempting to end the contest before it could start by giving the impression that his bid was too strong for any other candidate to beat. McArthur blamed Martin's tactics for the ongoing sag in Liberal fortunes, as it discouraged activists who were not on side.[34]

Martin succeeds Chrétien[edit]

Paul Martin, Prime Minister of Canada (2003-2006)

Paul Martin succeeded Chrétien as party leader and prime minister in 2003. Despite the personal rivalry between the two, Martin was the architect of the Liberals' economic policies as Minister of Finance during the 1990s. Chrétien left office with a high approval rating and Martin was expected to make inroads into Quebec and Western Canada, two regions of Canada where the Liberals had not attracted much support since the 1980s and 1990s, respectively. While his cabinet choices provoked some controversy over excluding many Chrétien supporters, it at first did little to hurt his popularity.

However, the political situation changed with the revelation of the sponsorship scandal, in which advertising agencies supporting the Liberal Party received grossly inflated commissions for their services. Having faced a divided conservative opposition for the past three elections, Liberals were seriously challenged by competition from the newly united Conservative Party led by Stephen Harper. The infighting between Martin and Chrétien's supporters also dogged the party. Nonetheless, by criticizing the Conservatives' social policies, the Liberals were able to draw progressive votes from the NDP which made the difference in several close races. On June 28, 2004 federal election, the Martin Liberals retained enough support to continue as the government, though they were reduced to a minority.

In the ensuing months, testimony from the Gomery Commission caused public opinion to turn sharply against the Liberals for the first time in over a decade. Despite the devastating revelations, only two Liberal MPs--David Kilgour (who had crossed the floor from the PC Party in 1990) and Pat O'Brien—left the party for reasons other than the scandal. Belinda Stronach, who crossed the floor from the Conservatives to the Liberals, gave Martin the number of votes needed, although barely, to hold onto power when an NDP-sponsored amendment to his budget was passed only by the Speaker's tiebreaking vote on May 19, 2005.

In November, the Liberals dropped in polls following the release of the first Gomery Report. Nonetheless, Martin turned down the NDP's conditions for continued support, as well as rejected an opposition proposal which would schedule a February 2006 election in return for passing several pieces of legislation. The Liberals thus lost the no-confidence vote on November 28; Martin thus became only the fifth prime minister to lose the confidence of the House, but the first to lose on a straight no-confidence motion. Due to the Christmas holiday, Martin advised Governor General Michaëlle Jean to dissolve Parliament and call an election for January 2006.

Liberal Party logo, 2004–2009

The Liberal campaign was dogged from start to finish by the sponsorship scandal, which was brought up by a Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) criminal investigation into the leak of the income trust announcement. Numerous gaffes, contrasting with a smoothly run Conservative campaign, put Liberals as many as ten points behind the Conservatives in opinion polling. They managed to recover some of their momentum by election night, but not enough to retain power. They won 103 seats, a net loss of 30 from when the writs were dropped, losing a similar number of seats in Ontario and Quebec to the Tories. However, the Liberals managed to capture the most seats in Ontario for the fifth straight election (54 to the Tories' 40), holding the Conservatives to a minority government. While the Conservatives captured many of Ontario's rural ridings, the Liberals retained most of the population-rich Greater Toronto Area. Many of these ridings, particularly the 905 region, had historically been bellwethers (the Liberals were nearly shut out of this region in 1979 and 1984), but demographic changes have resulted in high Liberal returns in recent years.

Martin resigned as parliamentary leader after the election and stepped down as Liberal leader on March 18, having previously promised to step down if he did not win a plurality.

On May 11, 2006, Montreal's La Presse reported that the Government of Canada will file a lawsuit against the Liberal Party to recover all the money missing in the sponsorship program. Scott Brison told reporters that same day that the Liberals has already paid back the $1.14 million into the public purse, however the Conservatives believe that there is as much as $40 million unaccounted for in the sponsorship program.[35]

2006 Convention and Dion[edit]

Stéphane Dion makes a speech on October 10, 2008 in Brampton West. Former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien was among notable Liberals at this rally; this was his first time campaigning for anyone since retirement.

After their election defeat Martin chose not to take on the office of Leader of the Opposition. He stepped down as parliamentary leader of his party on February 1, and the Liberal caucus appointed Bill Graham, MP for Toronto Centre and outgoing Defence Minister, as his interim successor.[36] The date for the leadership convention was decided by the party executive in April and Martin officially resigned as leader, with Graham taking over the remainder of his responsibilities for the interim.[37]

The leadership election was set for December 2, 2006, in Montreal, however a number of prominent members such as; John Manley, Frank McKenna, Brian Tobin and Allan Rock, had already announced they would not enter the race to succeed Martin.[38] Throughout the campaign 12 candidates came forward to lead the party, but by the time of the leadership convention only eight people remained in the race; Martha Hall Findlay, Stéphane Dion, Michael Ignatieff, Gerard Kennedy, Bob Rae, Scott Brison, Ken Dryden, Joe Volpe.

Throughout the campaign Ignatieff, Rae, Dion and Kennedy were considered to be the only candidates with enough support to be able to win the leadership, with Ignatieff and Rae being considered the two front-runners.[39][40] However polling showed Ignatieff had little room to grow his support, while Dion was the second and third choice among a plurality of delegates.[41] At the leadership convention Ignatieff came out on top on the first ballot with 29.3 per cent, followed by Rae with 20.3 per cent, Dion with 17.8 per cent, Kennedy with 17.7 per cent, Dryden with 4.9 per cent, Brison with 3.9 per cent, Volpe with 3.2 per cent and Hall Findlay with 2.7 per cent. Brison and Volpe voluntarily dropped out before the second ballot while Hall Findlay was eliminated. Dryden was eliminated after the second ballot and while the order of the other candidates remained the same the gap between Dion and Kennedy grew. In what was believed to be a pre-arranged agreement Kennedy dropped off after the second ballot and threw his support behind Dion.[42] With Kennedy's support Dion was able to leapfrog both Rae and Ignatieff on the third ballot, eliminating Rae. On the fourth and final ballot Dion defeated Ignatieff to become leader of the Liberal Party.[43]

Following the leadership race the Liberal Party saw a bounce in support and surpassed the Conservative Party as the most popular party in Canada.[44] However in the months and years to come the party's support gradually fell.[45] Dion's own popularity lagged considerably behind that of Prime Minister Harper's, and he often trailed NDP leader Jack Layton in opinion polls when Canadian's were asked who would make the best Prime Minister.[45][46]

Dion campaigned on environmental sustainability during the leadership race, and created the "Green Shift" plan following his election as leader. The Green Shift proposed creating a carbon tax that would be coupled with reductions to income tax rates. The proposal was to tax greenhouse gas emissions, starting at $10 (Canadian) per ton of CO2 and reaching $40 (Canadian) per ton within four years.[47] The plan was a key policy for the party in the 2008, federal election, but it was not well received and was continuously attacked by both the Conservatives and NDP.[48][49][50][51] On election night the Liberal Party won 26.26 per cent of the popular vote and 77 of the 308 seats in the House of Commons. At that time their popular support was the lowest in the party's history, and weeks later Dion announced he would step down as Liberal leader once his successor was chosen.[52]

Leadership campaign and coalition[edit]

New Brunswick Member of Parliament Dominic LeBlanc was the first candidate to announce he would seek the leadership of the Liberal Party on October 27, 2008. Days later Bob Rae, who had finished third in 2006, announced he would also be a candidate for the leadership. The party executive met in early November and chose May 2, 2009, as the date to elect the next leader.[53] On November 13 Michael Ignatieff, who finished second in 2006, announced he would also be a candidate.

Michael Ignatieff speaks during a news conference in Toronto

On November 27, 2008, Minister of Finance Jim Flaherty provided the House of Commons with a fiscal update, within which were plans to cut government spending, suspend the ability of civil servants to strike until 2011, sell off some Crown assets to raise capital, and eliminate the existing CAD$1.95 per vote subsidy parties garner in an election.[54][55] The opposition parties criticized the fiscal update, and announced they would not support it because it contained no stimulus money to spur Canada's economy and protect workers during the economic crisis.[56] With the Conservative Party only holding a minority of the seats in the House of Commons the government would be defeated if the opposition parties voted against the fiscal update.[56] With the Conservatives unwilling to budge on the proposals outlined in the fiscal update the Liberals and NDP signed an agreement to form a coalition government, with a written pledge of support from the Bloc Québécois.[57] Under the terms of the agreement Dion would be sworn in as Prime Minister, however he would only serve in the position until the next Liberal leader was chosen. Dion contacted Governor General Michaëlle Jean and advised her that he had the confidence of the House of Commons if Prime Minister Harper's government was to fall.[57] However before the fiscal update could be voted on in the House of Commons Prime Minister Harper requested the Governor General to prorogue parliament till January 26, 2009, which she accepted.[58]

While polls showed Canadians were split on the idea of having either a coalition government or having the Conservatives continue to govern it was clear that due to Dion's personal popularity they were not comfortable with him becoming Prime Minister.[59][60] Members of the Liberal Party therefore called on Dion to resign as leader immediately and for an interim leader to be chosen, this person would become the Prime Minister in the event that the Conservatives were defeated when parliament resumed in January.[61] With an estimated 70 per cent of the Liberal caucus wanting Ignatieff to be named interim leader, Dion resigned the post on December 8, 2008 (effective December 10, upon Ignatieff's becoming interim leader).[61][62] LeBlanc announced on the same day that he was abandoning the Liberal leadership and endorsing Ignatieff as the next leader.[63] The following day Rae announced he was also dropping out of the race and was placing his "full and unqualified" support to Ignatieff.[64]

Ignatieff and the 2011 election[edit]

With Ignatieff named interim leader of the party (on December 10), the Liberal's poll numbers saw significant gains, after they plummeted with the signing of the coalition agreement.[65][66] When parliament resumed on January 28, 2009, the Ignatieff Liberals agreed to support the budget as long as it included regular accountability reports, which the Conservatives accepted. This ended the possibility of the coalition government with the New Democrats.[67]

Graph of opinion polls conducted between the 2008 and 2011 elections

Throughout the Winter of 2008–09, opinion polls showed that while the Ignatieff led Liberals still trailed the Conservatives their support had stabilized in the low 30 per cent range. However by the time Ignatieff was confirmed as party leader on May 2, 2009, the Liberal Party had a comfortable lead over the governing Conservatives.[68][69][70] After a Summer where he was accused of being missing in action, Ignatieff announced on August 31, 2009, that the Liberals would not support the minority Conservative government.[71][72][73] After this announcement the Liberal Party's poll numbers, which had already declined over the summer, started to fall further behind the Conservatives.[74] On October 1, 2009, the Liberals put forth a non-confidence motion with the hope of defeating the government. However, the NDP abstained from voting and the Conservatives survived the confidence motion.[75]

Liberal Party logo, 2010–2014

The Liberal Party's attempt to force an election, just a year after the previous one, was reported as a miscalculation, as polls showed that most Canadians did not want another election.[76] Even after the government survived the confidence motion popularity for Ignatieff and his party continued to fall.[77] Over the next year and a half, with the exception of a brief period in early 2010, support for the Liberals remained below 30 per cent, and behind the Conservatives.[78] While his predecessor Dion was criticized by the Conservatives as a "weak leader", Ignatieff was attacked as a "political opportunist".[32]

On March 25, 2011, Ignatieff introduced a motion of non-confidence against the Harper government to attempt to force a May 2011, federal election after the government was found to be in Contempt of Parliament, the first such occurrence in Commonwealth history. The House of Commons passed the motion by 156–145.[79]

The Liberals had considerable momentum when the writ was dropped, and Ignatieff successfully squeezed NDP leader Jack Layton out of media attention, by issuing challenges to Harper for one-on-one debates.[80][81][82] In the first couple weeks of the campaign, Ignatieff kept his party in second place in the polls, and his personal ratings exceeded that of Layton for the first time.[83] However opponents frequently criticized Ignatieff's perceived political opportunism, particularly during the leaders debates when Layton criticized Ignatieff for having a poor attendance record for Commons votes saying “You know, most Canadians, if they don’t show up for work, they don’t get a promotion”. Ignatieff failed to defend himself against these charges, and the debates were said to be a turning point for his party's campaign.[84] Near the end of the campaign, a late surge in support for Layton and the NDP relegated Ignatieff and the Liberals to third in opinion polls.[85][86][87]

The Liberals suffered their worst defeat in history in the May 2, 2011, federal election. The result was a third place finish, with only 19 per cent of the vote and returning 34 seats in the House of Commons. Notably, their support in Toronto and Montreal, their power bases for the last two decades, all but vanished. All told, the Liberals won only 11 seats in Ontario (all but four in Toronto) and seven in Quebec (all in Montreal)--their fewest totals in either province. Newfoundland and Labrador was the only province with majority Liberal seats at 4 out of 7. They also won only four seats west of Ontario. The Conservatives won 40 per cent of the vote and formed a majority government, while the NDP formed the Official Opposition winning 31 per cent of the vote.[88]

This election marked the first time the Liberals were unable to form either government or the official opposition. Ignatieff was defeated in his own riding, and announced his resignation as Liberal leader shortly after. Bob Rae was chosen as the interim leader on May 25, 2011.[89]

Justin Trudeau[edit]

Justin Trudeau

On April 14, 2013 Justin Trudeau, son of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, was elected leader of the Liberal Party on the first ballot, winning 80% of the vote.[90] Following his win support for the Liberal Party increased considerably, and the party moved into first place in public opinion polls.[91][92]

Prior to Trudeau being named Liberal leader a by-election was called in the riding of Labrador for May 13, 2013.[93] The riding, which was a former Liberal stronghold, was narrowly won by Conservative Peter Penashue in the 2011 federal election.[94] Penashue's campaign had accepted illegal donations during the campaign and he announced he would step down and run in a by-election.[95] On by-election day Liberal candidate Yvonne Jones, the former leader of the provincial party, defeated Penashue. The Liberal win marked the first that the Conservatives lost a by-election in a seat they previously held since the founding of the party in 2003.[96][97]

Party systems and realignment model[edit]

Scholars and political experts have recently used a realignment model to explain the collapse of a once-dominant party to third place and out its condition in long-term perspective. According to recent scholarship there have been four party systems in Canada at the federal level since Confederation, each with its own distinctive pattern of social support, patronage relationships, leadership styles, and electoral strategies.[98] Steve Patten identifies four party systems in Canada's political history[99]

  • The first party system emerged from pre-Confederation colonial politics, had its "heyday" from 1896 to 1911 and lasted until the Conscription Crisis of 1917, and was characterized by local patronage administered by the two largest parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives.
  • The second system emerged following the First World War, and had its heyday from 1935 and 1957, was characterized by regionalism and saw the emergence of several protest parties, such as the Progressives, the Social Credit Party, and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation.
  • The third system emerged in 1963 and had its heyday from 1968 to 1983 and began to unravel thereafter. The two largest parties were challenged by a strong third party, the New Democratic Party. Campaigns during this era became more national in scope due to electronic media, and involved a greater focus on leadership. The dominant policy of the era was Keynesian economics.
  • The fourth party system has involved the rise of the Reform Party, the Bloc Québécois, and the merger of the Canadian Alliance with the Progressive Conservatives. It saw most parties move to one-member-one-vote leadership contests, and a major reform to campaign finance laws in 2004. The fourth party system has been characterized by market-oriented policies that abandoned Keynesian policies, but maintained the welfare state.

Clarkson (2005) shows how the Liberal Party has dominated all the party systems, using different approaches. It began with a "clientelistic approach" under Laurier, which evolved into a "brokerage" system of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s under Mackenzie King. The 1950s saw the emergence of a "pan-Canadian system", which lasted until the 1990s. The 1993 election – categorized by Clarkson as an electoral "earthquake" which "fragmented" the party system, saw the emergence of regional politics within a four party-system, whereby various groups championed regional issues and concerns. Clarkson concludes that the inherent bias built into the first-past-the-post system, has chiefly benefited the Liberals.[100]

Commentators in the wake of the 2011 election stressed the theme of a major realignment. Lawrence Martin, commentator for the Globe and Mail said, "Harper has completed a remarkable reconstruction of a Canadian political landscape that endured for more than a century. The realignment sees both old parties of the moderate middle, the Progressive Conservatives and the Liberals, either eliminated or marginalized."[101] Maclean's said, the election marked "an unprecedented realignment of Canadian politics" as "the Conservatives are now in a position to replace the Liberals as the natural governing party in Canada." Andrew Coyne proclaimed "The West is in and Ontario has joined it", noting that the Conservatives accomplished the rare feat of putting together a majority by winning in both Ontario and the western provinces (difficult due to traditionally conflicting interests), while having little representation in Quebec.[102][103]

Regional Liberal parties[edit]

Each province and one territory in Canada has its own Liberal Party. However those in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec are split into provincial and federal wings. The provincial parties have separate policies, finances, memberships, constituency associations, executives, conventions and offices.[104]

Affiliated provincial parties, current seats, and leaders
Party Seats/Total Leader
New Brunswick Liberal Association 26/49 Hon. Brian Gallant, Premier of New Brunswick
Liberal Party of Newfoundland and Labrador 16/48 Dwight Ball, MHA
Nova Scotia Liberal Party 33/51 Hon. Stephen McNeil, Premier of Nova Scotia
Prince Edward Island Liberal Party 22/27 Hon. Robert Ghiz, Premier of Prince Edward Island

Electoral history[edit]

Liberal Party Federal Electoral Results
Year
Seats
in House
Liberal
candidates
Seats
won
Seat
Change
Popular
vote
 % of
popular
vote
Result
Liberal
leader
1867 180 65 62 +62 60,818 22.7% Cons. majority Brown
1872 200 111 95 +33 110,556 34.7% Cons. minority Blake
1874 206 140 133 +38 128,059 39.5% Majority gov't Mackenzie
1878 206 121 63 −70 180,074 33.1% Cons. majority Mackenzie
1882 211 112 73 +10 160,547 31.1% Cons. majority Blake
1887 215 184 80 +7 312,736 43.1% Cons. majority Blake
1891 215 194 90 +10 350,512 45.2% Cons. majority Laurier
1896 213 190 118 +28 401,425 41.4% Majority gov't Laurier
1900 213 209 132 +14 477,758 50.3% Majority gov't Laurier
1904 214 208 139 +7 521,041 50.9% Majority gov't Laurier
1908 221 213 133 −6 570,311 48.9% Majority gov't Laurier
1911 221 214 85 −48 596,871 45.8% Cons. majority Laurier
1917* 235 213 82 −3 729,756 38.8% Coalition gov't Laurier
1921 235 204 118 +36 1,285,998 41.2% Majority gov't King
1925 245 216 100 −18 1,252,684 39.7% minority gov't King
1926 245 189 116 +16 1,294,072 42.7% Majority gov't King
1930 245 226 90 −26 1,716,798 44.0% Cons. majority King
1935 245 245 173 +83 1,967,839 44.7% Majority gov't King
1940 245 242 181 +8 2,365,979 51.3% Majority gov't King
1945 245 236 125 −56 2,086,545 39.8% Majority gov't King
1949 262 259 190 +65 2,878,097 49.2% Majority gov't St. Laurent
1953 265 263 171 −19 2,743,013 48.6% Majority gov't St. Laurent
1957 265 265 105 −66 2,703,687 40.9% PC minority St. Laurent
1958 265 265 49 −56 2,444,909 33.5% PC majority Pearson
1962 265 264 100 +51 2,862,001 37.2% PC minority Pearson
1963 265 265 128 +28 3,276,995 41.5% minority gov't Pearson
1965 265 265 131 +3 3,099,521 40.2% minority gov't Pearson
1968 264 263 155 +24 3,686,801 45.4% Majority gov't Trudeau
1972 264 263 109 −46 3,717,804 38.4% minority gov't Trudeau
1974 264 264 141 +32 4,102,853 43.2% Majority gov't Trudeau
1979 282 282 114 −27 4,595,319 40.1% PC minority Trudeau
1980 282 282 147 +33 4,855,425 44.4% Majority gov't Trudeau
1984 282 282 40 −107 3,516,486 28.0% PC majority Turner
1988 295 294 83 +43 4,205,072 31.9% PC majority Turner
1993 295 295 177 +94 5,598,775 41.2% Majority gov't Chrétien
1997 301 301 155 −22 4,994,377 38.5% Majority gov't Chrétien
2000 301 301 172 +17 5,251,961 40.9% Majority gov't Chrétien
2004 308 308 135 −37 4,951,107 36.7% minority gov't Martin
2006 308 308 103 −32 4,477,217 30.1% Cons. minority Martin
2008 308 307 77 −26 3,629,990 26.2% Cons. minority Dion
2011 308 308 34 −43 2,783,175 18.9% Cons. majority Ignatieff
Source: "The Electoral System of Canada". Elections Canada. Retrieved 2008-12-15. 

* In 1917, some Liberals ran under the Unionist banner, figures only count those who ran as "Laurier Liberals"

* 1949–1968 includes one Liberal-Labour MP who sat with Liberal caucus.

History of leaders[edit]

Picture Name Term
start
Term
end
Date of Birth Date of Death Notes
George Brown.jpg George Brown 1867 1867 November 29, 1818 May 9, 1880 Unofficial
(actually leader of the Clear Grits, a forerunner of the federal Liberal Party)
Edward Blake.jpg Edward Blake 1869 1870 October 13, 1833 March 1, 1912 Unofficial
Alexander Mackenzie portrait.jpg Alexander Mackenzie March 6, 1873 April 27, 1880 January 28, 1822 April 17, 1892 2nd Prime Minister
Edward Blake.jpg Edward Blake May 4, 1880 June 2, 1887 October 13, 1833 March 1, 1912
WilfriedLaurier.jpg Wilfrid Laurier June 23, 1887 February 17, 1919 November 20, 1841 February 17, 1919 7th Prime Minister
DanielDuncanMcKenzie.jpg Daniel Duncan McKenzie February 17, 1919 August 7, 1919 January 8, 1859 June 8, 1927 (Interim)
King1947.jpg William Lyon
Mackenzie King
August 7, 1919 August 6, 1948 December 17, 1874 July 22, 1950 10th Prime Minister
Louisstlaurent.jpg Louis St. Laurent August 7, 1948 January 15, 1958 February 1, 1882 July 25, 1973 12th Prime Minister
Lester B. Pearson with a pencil.jpg Lester B. Pearson January 16, 1958 April 5, 1968 April 23, 1897 December 27, 1972 14th Prime Minister
Pierre Trudeau in 1968.jpg Pierre Trudeau April 6, 1968 June 15, 1984 October 18, 1919 September 28, 2000 15th Prime Minister
Fmr CDN PM John Turner.jpg John Turner June 16, 1984 June 22, 1990 June 7, 1929 living 17th Prime Minister
Jean Chretien 2010.jpg Jean Chrétien June 23, 1990 November 13, 2003 January 11, 1934 living 20th Prime Minister
Paul Martin in 2011.jpg Paul Martin November 14, 2003 March 19, 2006 August 28, 1938 living 21st Prime Minister
Bill Graham by Rod Brito.jpg Bill Graham March 19, 2006 December 1, 2006 March 17, 1939 living (Interim)
Stéphane Dion.jpg Stéphane Dion December 2, 2006 December 9, 2008 September 28, 1955 living
Victoria, BC Liberal Town Hall Forum public libéral.jpg Michael Ignatieff December 10, 2008 May 24, 2011 May 12, 1947 living Interim leader from December 10, 2008 until May 2, 2009 when ratified as permanent leader
Bob Rae.jpg Bob Rae May 25, 2011 April 13, 2013 August 2, 1948 living (Interim)
INC 2009 Justin Trudeau2.JPG Justin Trudeau April 14, 2013 Incumbent December 25, 1971 living

Presidents of the National Liberal Federation/Liberal Party of Canada[edit]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Bickerton, James, and Alain G. Gagnon. Canadian Politics (5th ed. 2009), 415pp; university textbook
  • Blais, André. "Accounting for the Electoral Success of the Liberal Party in Canada," Journal of Political Science, Dec 2005, Vol. 38#4 pp 821–840; Argues that in 1965 to 2005 the party's success depended largely on strong support from Catholics and voters of non-European origin.
  • Bliss, Michael. Right Honourable Men: The Descent of Canadian Politics from Macdonald to Mulroney (1994), essays on Prime Ministers
  • Clarkson, Stephen. The Big Red Machine: How the Liberal Party Dominates Canadian Politics (2005)
  • Cohen, Andrew, J. L. Granatstein, eds. Trudeau's Shadow: the life and legacy of Pierre Elliott Trudeau (1999).
  • Gagnon, Alain G. and Brian Tanguay. Canadian Parties in Transition (3rd ed. 2007), 574pp; university textbook
  • Granatstein, J.L. Mackenzie King: His Life and World (1977).
  • Hillmer, Norman, and Steven Azzi. "Canada's Best Prime Ministers," Maclean's June 20, 2011 online
  • Jeffrey, Brooke. Divided Loyalties: The Liberal Party of Canada, 1984–2008 (2010) excerpt and text search
  • Koop, Royce. "Professionalism, Sociability and the Liberal Party in the Constituencies." Canadian Journal of Political Science (2010) 43#04 pp: 893-913.
  • McCall, Christina; Stephen Clarkson. "Liberal Party". The Canadian Encyclopedia. 
  • McCall, Christina. Grits: an intimate portrait of the Liberal Party (Macmillan of Canada, 1982)
  • Neatby, H. Blair. Laurier and a Liberal Quebec: A Study in Political Management (1973)
  • Whitaker, Reginald. The Government Party: Organizing and Financing the Liberal Party of Canada, 1930–1958 (1977)
  • Wallace, W.S. (1948). "History of the Liberal Party of Canada". The Encyclopedia of Canada IV. Toronto: University Associates of Canada. pp. 75–76. 
  • Wearing, Joseph. The L-Shaped Party: The Liberal Party of Canada, 1958-1980 (McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1981)

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