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Canada's 'Natural Governing Party' Falls on Bad Times

September 13, 1987|KENNETH FREED | Times Staff Writer

OTTAWA — If Canada's Liberal Party were a baseball team, it probably could be compared to today's Los Angeles Dodgers: a once-powerful dynasty now fallen on bad times, confused, riven by bitterness, torn by internal dissension and faced with long-term second-rate status if not oblivion.

With a federal election expected within the next year and a half, the Liberals, once known as Canada's "natural governing party," stand a distant second to the formerly discounted New Democratic Party and barely ahead of the ruling but demoralized and largely discredited Progressive Conservatives. The party that ruled the country for 40 of the last 50 years even faces the possibility of losing its current status as the official parliamentary opposition.

And like the Dodger front office, the Liberal leadership appears unable to hold even the party's current precarious position, let alone develop either the new talent or the modern tactics necessary to restore past glories.

But unlike baseball, in which a shrewd trade or two or the emergence of a couple of promising prospects from the farm system can turn a faltering team around, it appears that it will take more than a few new faces to salvage the Liberals.

In fact, many experts say that if the party's disintegration continues--and there is no sign of an abatement--Canada's "natural governing party" probably will end up like its British namesake, a tiny rump group with no national constituency or power--not the Dodgers but the Cleveland Indians.

Ironically, while the national Liberal Party and its leader, John Turner, threaten to disappear as nationwide forces, Liberals in at least a few provinces are doing better than ever.

In Ontario, for example, the party has taken total control of the government for the first time in 44 years and its leader, David Peterson, is considered one of Canada's best politicians.

Liberals won power in Quebec more than a year ago, recently captured the government in Prince Edward Island and are favorites in upcoming elections in New Brunswick. But although provincial Liberals are gaining strength, those parties generally disassociate themselves from the national organization and its leaders.

Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa spends more time cultivating and praising Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, a Progressive Conservative, than Turner, while Peterson pointedly declined to invite Turner to take part in the campaign for this month's Ontario election.

Unlike U.S. political parties, Canadian parties, particularly the Liberals, are divided organizationally and often ideologically. This schism is widened when, as now, the national party is weak and unpopular. "Turner is a loser and the Ottawa (national) party is wilting," said a Peterson aide. "We don't need their help, and we certainly don't want it."

This state of affairs seemed inconceivable less than four years ago. The Liberal Party enjoyed a comfortable majority in Parliament. It was rich; its leader, Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, was in total control and enjoyed an international reputation as an in- tellectual and statesman.

The Liberal caucus in Parliament appeared to have a strong reserve of young and bright politicians, fully capable of carrying on the party's dominion for yet another half century.

Even Trudeau's retirement didn't dim prospects. Turner, his successor, was considered Canada's political golden boy, a John F. Kennedy type who attracted young and old, conservative and progressive, English and French--the perfect man to carry on after Trudeau.

He entered the 1984 national elections an easy favorite. It didn't work out. Turner proved to be a remarkably ineffective campaigner whose clumsy manner was overwhelmed by Mulroney's slick and persuasive approach. Furthermore, neither Turner nor his advisers sensed a deep public dissatisfaction with the Liberals.

The Liberals were crushed, retaining only 40 of Parliament's 282 seats and losing some of their most promising politicians and nearly all of the confidence, unity and vision that had marked their long reign.

The signs of 1984's destruction remain. The party is $4 million in debt and cannot recruit new members or new candidates.

The party is torn by disagreement over key national issues, and Turner, who now ranks a fading last in popularity among the three national party leaders, spends more time fending off intraparty coups than trying to rebuild the Liberals' fortunes.

Even the critics and analysts are confused and contradictory. Turner, for instance, has been accused of being distant and dictatorial on one hand and too conciliatory on the other. Some say he doesn't work hard enough, drinks too much and spends too much time playing tennis. Others accuse Turner of over-involvement in minutiae.

Recent developments include:

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