A Liberal Vision: Fight for the Future

“Does this mean an eventual merger between the NDP and Liberal party is inevitable? It depends on two factors: how long this political polarity lasts, and who gets elected as the parties’ leaders. Both Topp and Mulcair have publicly refused to consider merger, though Topp has said in a minority government situation, “maybe there will be something for us to talk about.” Merger is likely to figure more as an issue in the Liberal leadership, which falls a year closer to the next federal election, at the mid-point of the Tories’ mandate, a time when people start paying attention to public opinion polls and assessing their chances for the next fight.”

  •  Tasha Kheiriddin, Liberals play the Zombie to NDP’s leadership march, National Post, October 31, 2011

Ms. Kheiriddin is a smart Conservative political commentator. However, her assertion that the Liberals are like the Federal Progressive Conservative Party in 1993 is just wrong. It is true that both are Confederation Parties that have suffered from historic defeats. Furthermore, the Liberals, as did the Tories before them, are trying to figure out what this means. After selecting a number of less than popular leaders – Stanfield, Clark, Dion and Ignatieff – one might say that the Liberal Party is on its last legs. 

However, there are a couple of important differences. Firstly, the party is not dead. If we were to judge the Liberal Party by another measure, we would see that the party is still a vital force within the country. Up until this recent election, the NDP high point was reached in 1988. The NDP at that point had 43 seats with just over 20% of the vote. At that time, no one asked if the NDP was a dying party. In fact, those questions were only asked in 1993; when, under the leadership of Audrey McLaughlin, the NDP won only 9 seats with 6.88% of the vote. So by third party standards, the Liberal Party is not doing badly.

Furthermore, let us look at the Tories after the 1993 election. For those who do not remember, the Progressive Conservative Party was split after that election. The Mulroney Grand Coalition turned into three parties: the Bloc Quebecois, the Reform Party and the Progressive Conservative Party. Therefore, one could easily see why the Tories could not win any more than twenty seats. Or put differently, there was a five party race where three of the five parties were chasing the same vote. This multipolar world of five political parties (i.e. the Liberals, the Progressive Conservatives, the NDP, the Reform Party and the Bloc Quebecois) further muddied the water by providing new visions of the country for four elections.

Given that the Liberal Majority picked the best ideas from each, Canadians had the “stable-pragmatic-centrist” government they wanted. So no change was necessary.

I might be bold in saying this, but the world of 2011 is not the same. Much of the Conservative Party has returned home. The Reform Party, Alliance and Progressive Conservative Party are – for now – under one tent.  They have managed to capture some Federalists in Quebec and are fashioning new traditions.  The Bloc is questioning its existence; while, The Green Party’s future has yet to be written.  Accordingly, we are back to the Three Party Politics that ruled this country from 1921 to 1993.  

So there is a future for the Liberal Party and it should be noted that future is not just as an opposition Party. It took 144 years for the Liberals to become a third party, surely it could rise again. However, to Ms. Kheiriddin’s point, what “political real estate” will we sell? Where Ms. Kheiriddin hears “the wind whistles eerily” through the corpse of the Liberal Party, I see an opportunity to return to our traditional roots.

Our future direction is to become what we have been: reformists. Sir Wilfred Laurier is a Prime Minister that can give us such a model. His government came in as reformers and I think that we can do the same. By the time of the next election, Mr. Harper is going to have changed most of government without a vision for its outcome. For example, Mr. Harper is trying to create a free market for wheat in Canada. Yet, he is doing so without trying to move the Europeans and the Americans in the same direction. Their policies lead to huge market distorting subsidies which in part led to the collapse of the Doha Negotiating Round of the WTO. If you question this, the Cairns Group argues this case emphatically.

Or one can look at the recent criticism of the repeal of the Gun Registry by gun control advocates and police officers. When the Chrétien Government created the registry, they tried to get rid of some redundancy in the new system. One of the laws that it rescinded was the 1977 Criminal Law Amendment Act. It “required businesses to keeps records of firearm sales to help police trace firearms back to their original owners, according to the Coalition for Gun Control. That requirement allowed police to trace the man who killed 14 women in the 1989 École Polytechnique massacre. (Toronto Star, Tory gun bill delists sniper rifles, semi-automatics) ” Bill C-19, does not re-establish the rules that existed before the registry and therefore does not require merchants to keep track of gun purchases.

So it is not suprising that Denis Coté, president of Quebec’s municipal police federation (FPMQ), said:

“Without the long-gun registry, the government must re-establish the requirement that merchants keep records of gun purchasers, and the same requirement must be imposed upon gun owners who give, transfer or sell their firearms

The wheat trade and the gun registry are only two simple examples. By the time of the next election, Mr. Harper’s government will have been in power for a decade. Or in other words, they will wear a decade worth of decisions. If the Parliamentary Budget Officer is right, the Harper Government will still be running a deficit. They will likely be attacking government and its services. While, Labour unrest will be higher than it is today.  So it will look like the early 1880’s or the 1990’s. With an ideological dislike of government solutions, the Harper Government may not be well placed to deal with some issues.

On the other side, the NDP’s love of government puts them at another extreme. My argument is simple: Liberals can be the visionary managers of Government. All we have to do is lay out a vision. Laurier pushed Canada to a greater place. It was under his leadership that Parliament passed the Naval Service Act and created the Royal Canadian Navy. Composed of five cruisers and six destroyers, its creation was a Canadian solution to an Imperial problem. London wanted more support for its navy. The problem was that Canada was divided on the issue. French Canadian nationalists led by Henri Bourassa were against the idea, while English Canadians were for it. Laurier in an impossible position came up with an improbable solution: the Royal Canadian Navy.

This one leader devoted himself to building a truly national party and to regaining power gradually. Laurier argued for full reciprocity. As a free trade Liberal, in the 1880’s and 1890’s, he argued against the Tory’s National Policy. By gradually moving the party, he was able to hold “an impressive political convention in Ottawa which approved a new program and the basis for a truly national structure” by 1893. Issue by issue, reform by reform, Liberals updated the system. The immigration system was changed. A third railway line was built, while Alberta and Saskatchewan were created. The west was opened.

We reformed and changed the system. This is something that Liberals did then and something that we can do now. The Conservatives are stuck as being the governing party who is anti-government – in public perception and ideological bent. While, our friends the NDP are bent on Government ownership and Government Solutions. By looking towards a vision of the future, Canada in 2020, 2030 or 2040, we can explain complex terms easily. As I have argued in the past, our telecommunications industry should be treated as a public good – a good for industry as well as you and me – then we can have some public support. Like NAV Canada, the wires could be owned by the public and the content supplied by the private sector. This would allow us to update our communications technology which has now fallen behind much of the OECD, while making the private sector pay for this change through rental fees.

The truth is that there are many changes which are required in the field of research, innovation and governance. As Canadians we need to work together so that we can express our shared values.  I believe that our Party, the Liberal Party, is best situated to make the changes that are necessary. Our history teaches this, the question is will we learn from our past or exile it; and thereby, destroy our future.

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