Without McKenna in Ottawa Centre, anything is possible

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An internal Liberal fight in Ottawa Centre would sap the strength of party volunteers, and definitely cut into the enthusiasm of key election workers. It would also help the NDP.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on July 12, 2021.

OTTAWA—Inside party politics you find the toughest fight of all.

Last week, I wrote about some rumours flying around about the surprise departure of popular Liberal cabinet minister Catherine McKenna.

Turns out those rumours were wrong. The last time McKenna, Liberal guru Gerald Butts, and former bank governor Mark Carney were in the same room was at a European negotiating session on climate change.

They did not break bread in Ottawa recently, nor did they hatch a plan to have Carney replace McKenna and vice-versa.

The story came from other insiders in the Ottawa Centre political world.

McKenna left with the intention to spend more time with her family and to work on her passion for climate change, in whatever shape that might take.

She has previous experience in international negotiations so it is natural that she might consider something on the global stage. However, she did not, nor would she entertain, an offer to switch jobs with Carney.

So how did the rumour start?

The interest in taking a shot at the vacant seat is not surprising.

The Liberals are running high in the polls and the Ottawa Centre seat has been considered among the safer seats in the country. Former provincial attorney general Yasir Naqvi has already announced his intention to run for the Liberal nomination.

There was a tremendous amount of internal support for his decision, and he moved quickly to block the path of a potential chosen candidate like Carney.

Carney is certainly entitled to pursue the nomination if he chooses. But in a political city like Ottawa, many local executive members have already backed Naqvi against an outsider.

Carney actually lives in Ottawa, so the accusation of parachute would not actually stick.

And parenthetically, the NDP would be hard-pressed to claim interloper status because at one point, Ottawa’s mayor Marion Dewar, and mother of beloved Paul Dewar, actually became the NDP MP for Hamilton Mountain.

After McKenna’s unexpected announcement, the New Democratic Party has its eye on the prize as well. Within hours, the NDP made it clear that this is now a riding in their potential win column.

Historically, the riding has flipped between Liberals and New Democrats federally and provincially.

And with the possible exception of Ottawa-Vanier, there is no other Ottawa-area riding where the New Democrats even come in second.

So, they will be strategic and pour their considerable human resources into the open riding in the heart of the capital.

The other thing that separates the New Democrats from the Liberals is that party in-fighting on the left is less prevalent.

That is partly because they usually are not fighting to form government.

But their origins in the labour movement also promote a belief in solidarity, with all for one and one for all.

In the Liberal Party, there is a tendency for the insiders to take many sides.

In the last municipal election, even though there were no party labels on candidates, the New Democrats threw all their support behind one candidate in Capital Ward.

The Liberals split their votes in two, thus managing to ensure that New Democratic Shawn Menard emerged as a winner.

The NDP work as a combined team on education, municipal, provincial, and federal politics.

They will do their best to jump on the opportunity created by the McKenna vacuum.

Liberals must work hard to remain united.

An internal nomination division runs the risk of creating enmities with the party that could be costly.

In that scenario, a united New Democratic organization could close the huge gap that existed in the last election.

When McKenna defeated Dewar in 2015, it was by the slimmest of margins. He was a hugely effective local member, and she was a newbie.

Her margin was only five per cent in a Liberal majority sweep. But a testament to McKenna’s own work ethic and popularity was the 2019 result, where she led her NDP opponent by almost 20 points.

Her work in the environment and tireless commitment to the riding stood her in good stead, and she seemed unbeatable.

All that has changed, and it would behoove the Liberals to remember Julius Caesar’s motto regarding “divide and conquer.”

An internal fight would sap the strength of party volunteers, and definitely cut into the enthusiasm of key election workers.

On what appears to be the eve of an election, Ottawa Centre Liberals need to come together to carry the seat.

Without McKenna in Ottawa Centre, anything is possible.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.