This being 2011, and Happy New Year, it is time for resolutions, turned pages, etc. As this first post of the new year, I thought it a good idea to tackle an old subject: the "anonymous Liberal strategists."
They are, as regular political readers are aware, ubiquitous, as common as bedbugs or raccoons in urban centres. One appears today in a story from my colleague, Linda Diebel, saying, of the GTA election prospects: "I really think we're going to get our asses kicked."
No other political party in Canada, I'd argue, has as many so-called partisans willing to go off the record to trash their own fortunes/leadership/mood, etc. All of us in the political reporting world have found these folks useful at various times. Here's the three-pronged problem I'd like to see us resolve to tackle in 2011:
1. Why are they anonymous?
2. Are they really strategists?
3. Most importantly, are they really Liberals?
This third point has been nagging at me ever since one of the anonymous folks called me before Christmas, and in the process of explaining himself, let slip that he'd prefer that Harper win the next election.
That doesn't make this person a Liberal strategist -- it makes him an operative for the Conservatives. (He was a former Bob Rae supporter, but I don't believe Rae is condoning these calls.) I do know the Conservatives appreciate the help they're getting from the "anonymous Liberals." (They also find it amusing, as in laughing-at, not laughing-with, the sources behind these comments. Watch them in Question Period when they applaud Rae every time he stands up.)
In all my long years covering this dysfunctional party, I've noticed that there actually are two kinds of Liberal dissenters/malcontents: there are the folks who grudgingly don't like the leader, but work for the Liberal cause, and then there are the folks who would rather see the party fail while their chosen leader is not in charge. During the Martin-Chretien feud, circa 1999-2003, for instance, generally we knew who the dissenters were, but they tended to suit up for the electoral battles and work for the Liberals to win. And when we reported on the Martinites' discontent, we usually said it was because their guy was getting impatient to take over the reigns from Chretien. Context, in other words.
Political junkies will remember that Chretien was only moved to public fury twice: in March, 2000, when he got wind of conversations about the Martin folks contemplating Liberal defeat at the Regal Constellation hotel, and then, spectacularly, in June, 2002, when he heard about another band of Martinites, gathered in an Italian restaurant, crowing about Liberal problems in Quebec. And who can blame Chretien? What kind of Liberals want the party to lose the next election? We couldn't call this gang Conservatives -- they were in fact Liberal MPs -- but I think it was probably fair for Chretien to question their affiliation, and certainly their loyalty.
So back to the main point here. I think we in the media have to start asking some hard questions of the anonymous, alleged "Liberals" phoning us with tips (such as the one who told CTV that Julian Fantino was set to win the Vaughan by-election by 10,000 votes). In my experience, some of these purported Liberals don't hold a party membership card, haven't raised a finger for the cause in some time and, in some cases, are working actively to ensure the Liberals' defeat. Which makes them, well, not Liberals, for all intents and purposes. And we should say so -- if we're going to let them spout their dissent in the news pages, we should at least identify what axe they're grinding. If there's a reason that they're predicting the demise of their own party -- they want Rae to be leader, they're thinking of crossing the floor, or they want Stephen Harper to be prime minister for a few years longer, that's helpful context.
Right now, we know nothing about these anonymous Liberals and why they're working actively with the media to hurt their party's chances in the next campaign. What's their end game?
*** Update: I see Warren Kinsella has responded with a generally agreeable blog post of his own. Worth reading. A couple of replies, however: I have no problem with Toronto vs. Ottawa. I work for a Toronto-based paper and the more people writing about politics, the merrier I am. Linda's a respected colleague, as is Tom Walkom and all the folks writing down there about politics. And as for my "other" family, anyone who knows me well is aware that I don't write with their interests in mind. Most often, I think they wish I'd keep my views to myself.