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A Victory that Sowed Defeat

The way Paul Martin took over the federal Liberal Party in BC and Canada will likely cost him the 2006 election.

Bill Tieleman 18 Jan

Bill Tieleman is president of West Star Communications, a strategy and communications consulting firm, providing services for labour, business, non-profits and governments for the past 13 years. Previously, he was the communications director in the B.C. Premier's Office and at the BC Federation of Labour.

Bill is a former columnist with The Tyee and 24 Hours. He regularly comments on TV, radio, print and Internet media outlets.

Most recently Bill was Strategist for Fight HST, a grassroots organization he started with former Premier Bill Vander Zalm and others, that successfully overturned the Harmonized Sales Tax in British Columbia through a citizens’ initiative petition and binding referendum.

Bill holds a masters degree in political science from UBC.

Twitter: @BillTieleman

Website: Bill Tieleman

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"Be careful that victories do not carry the seed of future defeats." - Ralph W. Sockman

To understand why the federal Liberal Party might be about to lose the 2006 election, you must go back in time to June 23, 1990.

That's the date of the Liberal leadership vote that saw Paul Martin come in a distant second to Jean Chretien and marks the start of an internal party war that has never truly stopped.

Nowhere has that war been fought as fiercely as here in British Columbia. And it will soon rage again as those who succeed in toppling Chretien in 2003 to install Martin as prime minister pay the price for not only political failure, but their arrogance and vicious tactics that alienated many party members.

The results of the federal Liberals battling among themselves will soon be clear, as the "natural governing party" that has been in power for most of the past 100 years is relegated to opposition and Martin is forced to resign the prize he spent 13 long years chasing.

An incoherent and stumbling campaign, a severe shortage of experienced political staff, volunteers and money, and an abundance of bad blood between the Martin and Chretien camps has left the Liberals lurching towards disaster.

BC's big Liberal losers

Among the impending big losers in B.C. are such key federal Liberal players as:

'The Godfather': David Anderson

Two things tie this group of federal Liberals together: their involvement in taking over the federal Liberal Party while Jean Chretien was sitting as one of the most electorally successful Liberal prime ministers ever and their connections to David Anderson, the retiring Victoria Liberal MP and former cabinet minister who served as a political godfather to them all.

Ironically, Anderson's longtime and often secret support of Martin, even while he sat as Chretien's Environment Minister, went spectacularly unrewarded, when, in 2004, Martin unceremoniously dumped him from cabinet.

But when the Martinites began their long march to power and plotted to get rid of Chretien, it was David Anderson who provided them financial and moral support. Marissen, Bornman, his brother Ray Bornman, Elmhirst and others all found jobs in Anderson's ministries or government with his help at various times.

The other connection is through the University of Victoria federal Liberal organization, a constant recruiting ground where promising operatives like Basi were found.

'Cancerous presence'

To call the battle the Martin forces launched to take over the federal Liberal Party in British Columbia vicious would be an understatement.

The most damning comments one can find about Paul Martin and his B.C. takeover team are not found on Conservative or New Democrat websites - to get the measure of the malevolence, check out the words of former Chretien Liberal activists.

Warren Kinsella, former Chretien aide and political commentator, has been among the most outspoken critics of Paul Martin - or "Dithers" as Kinsella constantly calls him.

Kinsella recounts how he almost quit the Liberal Party when then-cabinet minister Herb Dhaliwal had his Vancouver South-Burnaby riding association taken over by the Martin forces in November 2002:

"For me, this week's controversy stirred memories of one dark evening, approximately three years ago, when I very nearly quit the Liberal Party of Canada."

"It was the night that Mr. Martin's British Columbia apparatchiks took over the riding association of former Cabinet minister Herb Dhaliwal, knowing (a) Mr. Dhaliwal was out of the country; and (b) his wife was dying of cancer."

"Having written a book with the title Kicking Ass in Canadian Politics, and having seen more than a few political donnybrooks in my day, I cannot claim to believe that politics is ever played with the Marquess of Queensbury rulebook. It is not, it has never been, and it never will be."

"But to humiliate a Cabinet colleague whose wife was dying of cancer? I've witnessed a lot of political thuggery, but I had never before seen anything as disgusting as that. It was only a friend in Ottawa who talked me out of quitting the Liberal party, on that night."

Dhaliwal himself made news when he blamed the takeover in part on David Basi, who he claimed was a key organizer along with Martin supporter and would-be Liberal candidate Shinder Purewal, the Simon Fraser University political science professor who became riding president in the move.

"I was just amazed that there were people in Victoria who were actively trying to take over my riding," Dhaliwal told the Burnaby Now "Mr. Purewal should come out and clear the air. This was an orchestrated coup, and that's unfortunate. This is the sort of sleazy part of gutter politics that people have to sometimes deal with, and it's regrettable."

Former Dhaliwal aide Jonathan Ross, a consultant who also runs a political blog regularly critical of the Martin Liberals, pulls no punches in taking about the impending election loss:

"A Paul Martin defeat will be the best thing to happen to this party in a long time. He and his supporters have been a cancerous presence within the organization for the better part of a decade, and their conquer and divide tactics and mentality are finally catching up to them."

And what is to come seems no secret to Ross. "Like we said last night to a reader, let's first get rid of Martin. Then, we can focus our efforts on returning the party to its former glory."

Iron man Chretien

After the 1990 leadership campaign, Paul Martin settled into the number two spot in the Liberal opposition and then became Finance Minister after Chretien destroyed the Kim Campbell Progressive Conservatives in 1993.

Over the next few years, Martin and his team operated quietly, publicly supporting Chretien while working the neglected grass roots of the party. Chretien's imperial style and old-school approach to politics formed from first being elected as an MP in the 1960s alienated many, despite his electoral success.

The Martinites felt Chretien and his skills were highly overrated. He won three elections facing a scary Reform Party/Canadian Alliance led by evangelical fundamentalists - Preston Manning and later Stockwell Day - who could not gain the support of the former Progressive Conservatives.

In B.C., the takeover was led by Mark Marissen, who had been a Chretien-appointed political staffer.

Prior to 1999, the Martinites in B.C. were working in cooperation with supporters of then-cabinet minister Allan Rock, who also had leadership aspirations, to run the provincial wing of the federal Liberals.

But at the notorious Liberal Party of Canada B.C. convention in Victoria in 1999, Marissen and the Martinites took control of the executive completely, bumping Rock's backers out. [The party also got unwanted attention after the Young Liberals there engaged in a drunken hotel-trashing. The Liberals were sued for $10,000 in damages by Traveller's Inn president John Asfar, but eventually settled out of court.]

Following the November 27, 2000 election, the effort to oust Chretien was fully underway.

Mass membership sign-ups

One of the keys to taking over the federal Liberal Party in British Columbia was the use of mass membership sign-ups.

The party's growth was nothing short of remarkable.

In 2001, there were about 4,000 federal Liberal members in B.C. By January 2004, that number had rocketed to more than 37,000, primarily through new memberships sold in the South Asian community. At $10 per adult member, the Liberals raked in over $300,000.

In Herb Dhaliwal's Vancouver South-Burnaby riding, the membership jumped from about 500 to a whopping 5,000.

At the time, former Vancouver Quadra Liberal membership chair David McCann openly questioned the source of the membership fees.

"It's pretty straightforward - where did the money come from?" McCann told The Province on January 8, 2004, calling for an investigation.

Shinder Purewal, then the pro-Martin candidate in the riding, called questions about the membership money "irresponsible speculation" at the time.

But it was far too late for Chretien's supporters to complain - Chretien had announced in August 2002 that he would not run for re-election and on November 14, 2003, Paul Martin overwhelmingly won the leadership convention vote in Toronto.

The battle for control of the Liberal Party, in B.C. and across the country, had been decisively won.

But the cost of that internal Liberal war was then still to be determined. And now, every indication is that on January 23, 2006 the price of that victory will be the end of the Liberals' 13 years in power and of Paul Martin's political career.

Bill Tieleman writes a column on BC politics every Tuesday in 24 hours, the free weekday newspaper. He will be a commentator on CKNW AM 980 [] on election night January 23. Email him at [email protected]  [Tyee]

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