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  • The Liberal Party as Hegemon?
  • Lowell Murray (bio)
The Big Red Machine: How the Liberal Party Dominates Canadian Politics. By Stephen ClarksonVancouver: UBC Press, 2005. 352 pp. $85.00 (cloth). ISBN 0-77481-195-1. $24.95 (paperback). ISBN 0-77481-196-X.

Stephen Clarkson closes this book with a chapter titled "The Liberal Party as Hegemon." Well, yes. They've won six of the nine elections in the 30 years surveyed (1974-2004), have been in office for 78 of the past 110 years and, in today's fractured, multi-party system, occupy "a position of centrality unrivalled since Sir John A. Macdonald first put together a government for the newborn Dominion of Canada" (2005, 283). Future prospects must surely be bright for a governing party that Clarkson's research sources show still has the biggest, youngest, most female, and best educated membership at the grass roots—and the most active, a high proportion of them attending meetings, serving on local executives, and identifying their allegiance by displaying election signs. To all that, add one of the longest periods of economic growth on record plus the absence of an opposition party with a national base or national appeal, and you might believe the "natural governing party" will go on and on and on. Still, if I were Stephen Clarkson, I would have put a question mark after the word hegemon.

In late November, as Canada heads into the winter election of 2005-2006, the "Hegemon" is on thin ice. In the 2004 election, says Clarkson, Paul Martin "managed to fritter away the hegemonic position he had inherited" (266). In fact, the Liberals lost their Commons majority in 2004. They lost their hegemony when they lost Fortress Quebec—the key to their longevity in power—to favourite son Brian Mulroney in 1984. Their standing sank deeper there in 1988 when John Turner put them on the wrong side of free trade and of Liberal Premier Robert Bourassa, who was an ardent supporter of that Mulroney initiative. The Liberals did the party serious, long-term damage in Quebec when Jean Chrétien, an early opponent of the 1987 Meech Lake Constitutional Accord, displaced Turner as leader in 1990, defeating Martin and Sheila Copps, all three of whom supported the Accord and believed with Mulroney (and with most Quebeckers) that Quebec nationalism and Canadian federalism are compatible.

Under Jean Chrétien the Liberals won three elections by sweeping centrist Ontario against right-wing Reform/Alliance/Conservative opposition, but they never came close to recovering their dominant position in Quebec. When the votes were counted after the 1997 election, says Clarkson, "the pan-Canadian [End Page 232] Grits had morphed into a 'party of Ontario' whose national vocation had been undermined for the second time in a row" (203). By 2000, their status as a national party was "dependent on their quasi-monopoly" (234) in Canada's biggest province. That is where they were when the campaign began for the January 2006 election—utterly dependent on another near-sweep of Ontario to hold on to power.1

The Big Red Machine is the mother of all briefing books, whether going into or coming out of the Liberal Party's unwelcome winter rendez-vous with the voters. The basic material is the prodigious research compiled by academics and published after each of the federal elections since 1974 under such titles as Canada at the Polls and The Canadian General Election of whatever year. Subsequent data published by scholars or available from official sources such as Elections Canada has been well selected by Clarkson to provide a definitive retrospective on those past campaigns and insight into the dynamics that somehow led to the recent unlovely state of play in Canadian politics. There is abundant use of polling on issues, personalities and parties, and on vote-switching from one election to the next.2 There is just enough information on Liberal campaign organization and funding, platform-making, regional and national advertising strategies and messages, leaders' debates, media management, and media coverage to tell the Liberal story without excessive detail to the interested voter or the political activist. Clarkson's description of the Liberals' tentative and ineffective...


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pp. 232-238
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