Rising from the ashes

One doesn’t have to cast back very far to the time when the future of the tarnished Liberal brand in this country could reasonably be questioned.

One doesn’t have to cast back very far to the time when the future of the tarnished Liberal brand in this country could reasonably be questioned.

How about less than two years ago?

It was October 2012, when Dalton McGuinty resigned as Ontario premier and one could argue that once-proud brand was at a nadir in recent history.

The leader’s job was open federally and in Canada’s two largest provinces. On the West Coast, Christy Clark’s Liberals, a party that uses the name if not the ideology, was publicly musing about changing the party’s name as a way to change her fortunes.

It had lost stalwarts such as Gordon Campbell, Jean Charest, Bob Rae and McGuinty.

In all, there were seven Liberal leaders’ jobs up for grabs in the country and only Robert Ghiz, premier of tiny Prince Edward Island, could find stability in the Liberal name.

And then it started.

Clark kept the party name and rose from the dead to win British Columbia. A new Liberal leader in Quebec, Philippe Couillard wrested majority power back from the Parti Québécois.

In Nova Scotia, Liberal Stephen McNeil defeated New Democrat Darrell Dexter, marking the first time in 131 years that Nova Scotians defeated a government after one term.

Kathleen Wynne kept power in Ontario and on Monday night, out of the electoral chaos, came New Brunswick’s election of 32-year-old Brian Gallant, who tossed one-term Progressive Conservative Premier David Alward on the political scrap heap.

And, for the record, pre-election polls in Newfoundland and Labrador have the Liberals well ahead of the PCs, who, at one point, had trouble finding anyone to take the party helm.

Federal lessons cannot always be gleaned from provincial experience, but the New Brunswick parallels were too enticing to ignore.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s team had already advertised that this campaign was going to be a dry run of their federal strategies and get-out-the-vote efforts.

They brought in some familiar names from Ontario and Nova Scotia campaigns in pollster and strategist David Herle, and their Halifax-based East Coast guru, Chris MacInnes.

Trudeau campaigned with the eventual winner in all three provinces. Dominic LeBlanc, a New Brunswick MP who is close to Trudeau, co-chaired Gallant’s campaign.

In Gallant, Liberals had a young, untested, bilingual leader trying to unseat a Progressive Conservative government seeking a second majority.

He ordained his caucus would be pro-choice, he kept a key environmental issue in abeyance, voters were warned he was not worth the risk because of his inexperience and he almost squandered a huge pre-election lead with a spectacular late-campaign stumble.

In campaign ads, the Liberals linked Alward to Stephen Harper, referring to the Alward-Harper alliance as bad for New Brunswick and deliberately dropping the word “Progressive” from the ousted premier’s party, using the same name adopted by Harper’s Conservatives.

In an echo of the party’s Ontario strategy, Gallant pledged spending on infrastructure to create jobs, while Alward backed fracking, which has sparked demonstrations in the province, as a way to revive the provincial economy.

In an embarrassing misstep, Gallant completely botched an explanation of his tax policy in a CBC interview, but survived, which could lead Trudeau’s team to believe their man might be allowed some wriggle room from voters in his first campaign.

But there was one other reason for Canadians to examine what happened in New Brunswick, and it is frightening.

Democracy did not die in New Brunswick on Monday, but for almost two hours it was immobilized and on life support in prime time.

It was the first Canadian election to use electronic tabulations to such an extent and the problem stemmed from discrepancies between uploaded numbers and paper receipts of votes, so results in a tight race were frozen as the late night dragged into the next day.

As debate grows in this country regarding mandatory voting or means to boost participation by using existing technology to make it easier to vote, it is instructive to keep the New Brunswick fiasco in mind.

Toronto-based Dominion Voting Systems also provided the technology for the Liberal leadership vote that elected Trudeau, a process that party sources described as “chaotic.’’

In 2012, results at the NDP’s leadership contest were slowed by a computer glitch. We could be one fiasco away from a complete voting “do-over” somewhere.

In the rush to make voting easier or get results out faster, it is worth remembering that accuracy and confidence in the system trumps all and security — not speed or ease — is paramount.

Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer. He can be reached at tharper@thestar.ca.

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