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Only three years ago, Canada’s Liberal Party was seen as destined to play the same apparently invincible role in the 21st century as it played throughout the 20th, but it has now slid into so deep a malaise that current speculation centers on whether it will survive at all.

No fewer than 11 candidates are contesting the leadership left vacant by the resignation of Prime Minister Paul Martin following his defeat in last January’s election, but not one of them has a powerful national profile. Nor have any of them the long experience of office that characterized most previous Liberal leadership candidates.

One contender, considered by some the front-runner, is Bob Rae, former NDP (i.e., socialist) premier of Ontario. In a single term at the helm of that province, Rae plunged it into such ruinous debt as to trigger the election of a radical cost-cutting Tory regime – which catapulted Ontario to the opposite policy extreme, and saved it fiscally.

Another supposed front-runner is Michael Ignatieff, elected in January as Liberal MP for a suburban Toronto constituency. A Harvard political science professor who hadn’t lived in Canada for the last 30 years, Ignatieff had to launch his political career as a Canadian Liberal by renouncing long-held right-wing views that included support for the Iraq war.

Something else, hardly propitious for the party, is the fact that only one of the candidates is a francophone: St?phan Dion, a cabinet minister in the Chretien and Martin governments. English is the native language of the other 10 hopefuls.

Underlining and exacerbating this circumstance was a “report card” on the bilingual capability of the 11, front-paged last week by the Globe and Mail. (Dion was assessed on his English, the other 10 on their French.) Five of the Anglos were pronounced inadequate in French.

Some of the five bitterly (and with justice) denied the rating assigned them, but the exercise nevertheless spread alarm through the party. Are the Liberals ready to go into an election where their success depends critically on regaining support in Quebec, with Tory Prime Minister Stephen Harper (who hails from redneck Alberta) speaking better French than the leader of the Liberal Party?

It was a thought truly horrifying to the Liberal faithful. Quebec, after all, was traditionally their party’s great bastion. More recently, traditionally Tory Ontario stepped in as their bastion – but now Ontario, too, shows signs of returning to the Tory camp.

And the Tories have undeniably been gathering strength in Quebec. They picked up an unexpected 10 seats there in the January election, although expected to win none. The separatist Bloc Quebecois swept the province with 51, and the Liberals won 13. But for the Liberals there was worse news in the total voting. They took only 764,000 votes, 20 percent of the provincial total. The Tories got 906,000, nearly 25 per cent.

The cause of the Liberal collapse in Quebec is rarely disputed. The so-called sponsorship scandal revealed unrestrained pilfering and graft that ran right to the cabinet level in Jean Chretien’s Liberal government. This enabled the separatist Bloc to convincingly portray the supposed Liberal commitment “to Canada” as nothing more than simple avarice. Many voters, instead of turning in disgust to separatism, seem to have turned instead to the Tories, who do not propose to break up the country, or pillage it either.

Another factor ill-serves the Liberals in Quebec. The provincial Liberal government of Premier Jean Charest, instead of supporting its federal colleagues, is working in close accord with the federal Tory government of Stephen Harper. Little love is lost between federal and provincial Liberals in Quebec. The latter bitterly blame the thievery of the former for eroding the popularity of the Charest government.

And there is one final irony: Charest himself is a former federal Conservative leader. He quit the federal Tory leadership and returned to his native province as a Liberal to help stem the rising separatist tide there, so the fact he is now co-operating with a federal Tory government is perhaps not all that surprising.

If Harper’s minority government wins a majority in the inevitably oncoming election, this will present an interesting historical oddity. It would be the first time in just under 50 years that a prime minister not from Quebec won a majority government in Canada. The last such government was that of Saskatchewan’s John Diefenbaker, elected in 1958. And Harper perhaps will have done it, just as Diefenbaker did, through unforeseen and unprecedented support from the very province where he may least have expected it.

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