Federal Liberals must choose wisely and well and plan for 2019

This weekend, Liberals from across Canada will gather in Ottawa for the party’s mandated bi-annual policy conference.

It marks the first national gathering of Liberal party members, of both mover and shaker and rank-and-file classes, since the Liberals slipped to “other party” status, vastly diminished in its claim to be a national entity and losing the role of official opposition to the NDP in the 2011 federal General Election.

That’s quite a change in fortune for a national political party that had controlled the fortunes of the House of Commons for most of the history of this country.

But the mourning period is over and this weekend policy meeting must be a time for both the intellectuals and the worker bees of the Liberal Party of Canada to begin to determine how they will once again present the Liberal brand as a viable alternative for Canadian voters.

Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper is a canny politician and he has certainly grown into the job of leading a majority government after two stretches of Conservative-led minority governments.

Mr. Harper will have this four-year term and, all things being equal, should be good for back-to-back majority governments.

That will have left him, through minority and majority governments, as prime minister for a dozen years by 2019 and it will be this 2019 federal election that the Liberals must look to as their next best chance to take back government.

Canadians like to change the party in power every so often, put new faces on the government side of the House of Commons.

The Liberals will, of course, try to accomplish this in the 2015 election but if Mr. Harper and his cabinet carry on in the same fashion and don’t wrong-foot themselves too often, this one will be theirs to lose.

The Conservatives have managed to present themselves as a party of the centre (the Liberals’ old domain) but also show some right-wing tendencies. The bill currently under scrutiny in the House of Commons that deals with stiffer penalties for a range of crimes, the abolition of the gun registry and the construction of more jails is an example of a right-leaning nod to those voters who chose them in 2011 with the expectation that, once in power, the Conservatives would enact just this kind of legislation.

Whoever the Liberals choose as their national leader later on this year had better be someone young enough to still look electable in 2019 and the field had better be honestly open to the absolutely most suitable candidate, by any and all measure, or the party will surely carry on down the path to the long good night.

This weekend’s policy conference had better give out signals that the Liberal Party of Canada is a slightly left-leaning centrist party.

That’s all it has to do at this point to create some national buzz. A few policies must be framed this weekend that are new ones and that give Canadians a notion that, eventually, the Liberals will represent a clear alternative to the Conservatives even though in reality the parties will continue to have more in common than the positions that divide them. But these points of differentiation will be the ones that will eventually give voters an excuse to once again elect a Liberal government in Ottawa.

This doesn’t mean that the NDP doesn’t count. Of course it does. But it was Quebec that surprisingly gave them the seats, taking them away from both Bloc Quebecoise and, to a lesser extent, Liberals, to give them second party status in the House of Commons.

Quebec voters decided they liked Jack Layton. Quebec voters are also very fickle and vote for what is best for Quebec.

Sadly, Mr. Layton is no longer with us and if the NDP turns out not to be able to force some high-profile perks into Quebec, then there will be a better-than-average chance that many of the NDP seats in that province will go elsewhere as soon as the 2015 election.

No doubt the Liberals will be polishing up their Quebec bona fides in order to capitalize as much as possible come the next election.

But Quebec is only one region of this large and diverse country and the Liberals will definitely need the next eight years, together with an ideal leader, to rebuild, re-market and reposition themselves for government in 2019.

If this weekend’s policy sessions produce nothing more than acrimony and further hand-wringing, then this will be a good signal that the 2019 game could easily go to the NDP, assuming, of course, that this party can also find an ideal leader and market itself as centrist but with leftist prerequisites.