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Moribund Liberals should get beyond their grief - and their grassroots

Editorial cartoon by Brian Gable

Brian Gable/The Globe and Mail

The Liberal Party of Canada appears to be going through what Elisabeth Kübler Ross famously described as the five stages of grief - the transition from learning you might die to being ready for death.

This doesn't mean the Liberal Party is dying. But the end could come, unless the party is brave enough to make the selection of the next leader something that all Canadians can be a part of.

The first of the five stages of grief is denial. "It was just one bad election." Most Liberals are already past this stage. They know their party has been in trouble since at least 2000, that the May 2 election was the latest landmark in a decade of decline.

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The second stage is anger. Many Liberals are locked in this stage: It was those damn Conservative attack ads. It was Michael Ignatieff's inability to connect. The national executive should be fired. This faction is to blame. No, that faction. Purge them all.

Some are past anger and into the third stage: bargaining. Maybe we need to unite with the NDP. That the two parties have different histories, cultures and philosophies is something that can be worked out. We'll make a deal with the devil, if we must, to bring our party back to power.

Depression and acceptance are the last two stages. Some Liberals are terminally depressed about their party's future. They are only a step away from accepting that their party is fated to drift into marginality, possibly oblivion.

To prevent slipping into these final, fatal stages, many Liberals want to delay a leadership convention until the party has talked through with its own membership what it should stand for. But what will come out of that conversation, other than platitudes?

The Liberals might want to think about going past the grassroots. Why not ask all Canadians to have a say in the party's future? One way would be to scrap the current membership rules and hold a year-long leadership race that culminates in a series of primaries, which is how Americans choose their party leaders.

Anyone could cast a ballot for Liberal leader just by showing up on primary day. The primaries could be staged over a number of days or weeks across the country. Not only could this get millions of Canadians involved in the choice of the new leader, it could see a candidate from outside the party establishment capture the leadership by galvanizing a new base of supporters. Barack Obama did this in 2008, when he won the Democratic presidential nomination despite the party establishment's determination to nominate Hillary Clinton. Bill Clinton did much the same thing in 1992 and Jimmy Carter in 1976.

The Liberal Party would be something very different after such a contest. Its new leader might be someone no one is even thinking about right now. That leader might take that new, mobilized base of support and convert it into a mass movement that brings her to power. You want to engage a new generation of voters? This is the way.

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The Liberal Party might be unrecognizable after such a process. But at least it would be alive.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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