Progressive or Pragmatism: The two “P’s” that Liberals are arguing about?

  • “The time is always right to do the right thing” (Martin Luther King Jr.)

I have been thinking a lot about the future of the Liberal Party recently. Given the nerdy tendencies of my friends and myself, this should probably not be a surprise. Ever since the resignation of Lee Richardson, we have been making predictions about the number of by-elections and when they would be called. Given that these conversations started in late May, I am glad that we are now getting some resolution. 

With that being said, I am glad that I have had a great prediction rate. More or less, most things that I have predicted have happened. For example, it was always my contention that all of the by-elections were called at once. Furthermore, many of the actions of other players including the Liberal Party, the NDP and the Greens were on track. However, I was not perfect for I did not see the Supreme Court upholding the 2011 Etobicoke Centre election result. Therefore, while, I am not perfect, I am satisfied with my understanding of the variables at play.

This is why the most important prediction is yet to come. In my mind, that prediction will be the result of the by-elections in Calgary Centre, Durham and Victoria. For, I have a thesis that I need to see played out. My opinion is a simple one: our success in those three by-elections will be determined by our view of ourselves. Or put differently, will the progressive vision that we want to “sell” to the electorate work? I feel it won’t and the upcoming by-elections are my testing ground for this thesis.

Ever since our 2011 defeat, I have heard a variety of people say that the Liberal Party of Canada is a “Progressive Party”. If one listens to Bob Rae, Justin Trudeau or a number of other party stalwarts, one might think that the Liberal Party is a left leaning one. However, history tells a different story. History tells us that the Liberal Party is a pragmatic one.

This difference is important. For if you take the view that we are a progressive party, one can easily see that Liberal success in the future will come from leaning to the left. That has been the argument of the progressive wing of our party. Take Warren Kinsella. He was in Calgary this week to promote his book and his view. His argument has been simple: the NDP and the Liberal Party would have to merge because they are both “Progressive Parties”, trying to fight the oncoming Right Wing/Conservative Storm.  This has been a point Mr. Kinsella has made repeatedly.  In a piece entitled, “Lib-Dipper merger, etc. etc.” Mr. Kinsella said that “It took a decade for the Right to come together, and I think that Harper is correct – it’ll probably take a full decade for the Left to do so, too.” (April 18th, 2012, 8:14 am

However, this argument fails to recognize one important thing: our Party has leaned to the Right just as easily as it has leaned to the Left. Think about the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. While, getting it entrenched in the Constitution was a win for Trudeau, one would be lying to say that it was a Liberal victory alone. Two Progressive Conservative Premiers – Bill Davis of Ontario and Richard Hatfield of New Brunswick – lined up with Trudeau to push for the Constitutional Amendments that are now called the Constitution Act, 1982. 

Or one can look to our Past. In many ways, the patriation of the Constitution Act was the continuation of acts of many other Prime Ministers.  Prime Minister John Diefenbaker – a Progressive Conservative – brought us the first Federal Bill of Rights. While, since 1927, various Prime Ministers including Mackenzie King, Pearson and Diefenbaker tried to patriate the Constitution and/or its amending formula.

But this notion of a pragmatic political party is not isolated to constitutional issues. Pearson managed to fill-flop on the issue of BOMARC nuclear missiles. While initially against having nuclear weapons on Canadian soil, when the Diefenbaker government fell in 1963, Pearson continued the Diefenbaker policy towards nuclear weapons. As a result, the Government of Canada accepted delivery of the nuclear weapons from the US on New Year’s Eve in 1963. It would take seven years later and a new Prime Minister to begin to roll back our nuclear weapon capacity.

Or think of our entry into the world of Peacekeeping. Pearson – as a diplomat – would only be able to offer the use of Canadian Troops in the Suez Canal Crisis because Canada had fought two wars in the previous fifteen years: World War II and the Korean War. Therefore, the RCAF had the capacity to ferry troops and the RCN had an aircraft carrier that could be used as a mobile base. In fact, Canada had such a strong Armed Forces that it could be the back bone for the UN’s first peace keeping mission. The “Hawkish” Prime Minister that maintained a strong military policy was named Louis St. Laurent. He was a Liberal. He was the same Prime Minister who did leftish things like build the Trans-Canada Highway, the St. Lawrence Seaway and various pipelines.  Mr. Laurent, though, also maintained a Military Force that rivalled Great Powers like the British and the French. Or put differently, the same Liberal Prime Minister that brought Newfoundland into Confederation was also the one who brought us into the Suez Crisis after bringing us into the Korean War. Hardly the sign of a leftist or progressive party, the Liberal Party has always moved on a pragmatic basis and not an ideological one.

However, as I have noted, one does not have to look far into our past to see this truth. In my lifetime, the Party has managed to swing back and forth to find the best solutions – coming from the left or the right – to solve problems. In 1993, the Chrétien Government came on a Change Platform. At that time, we were going to take the Canadian Government back to the mythical Trudeau years; but we didn’t.  Instead of turning to the Left, we turned to the Right. We cut the budgetary deficit and created a surplus. We reshaped the Federal Government and left it on a sustainable path. While, not a bad thing, the Chrétien Government rode a wave of pragmatism that allowed us to bypass the ideological left and right. Consequently, we were pragmatic and not progressive.

Should one still have any doubts, please look to the history of each party. The Liberal Party has a heritage that extends to the Uprisings of 1836-7. At the time, the Grits and Les Rouges – spurred on by outrage and injustice – wanted change. They opposed the hold that the Château Clique and Family Compact – both Tory interests – had over Government and Society. Over the next thirty years, various political streams fought to overcome those bonds. Liberals – like George Brown – and Liberal Conservatives – like John A. MacDonald – fought for that “New World”. They brought us a Dominion called Canada.

Our history is different than the NDPs. For, they came into existence through a different line of political struggle. The Story of the NDP is a story of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation and the Regina Manifesto. Their history includes the Winnipeg General Strike and the creation of the first system of provincially-run Medicare. The narrative of the NDP was started by Unions, Progressives, Farmers, Socialists and Fabians in the 1920’s. It is a proud tradition but it is not a Liberal Tradition.

Warren Kinsella and others in the Party have argued that we will inevitably become New Democrats. That all “Progressives” must merge into one Party. However, all of the numbers, I have seen would say that that truth is mistaken. But more importantly, history tells us that the “Merger Truth” is not as solid as some would have us believe. It is true that the Right fell apart in the wake of the Mulroney years. However, it is also true that Liberal Governments’ have existed in spite of the three way split in our political system. This truth goes back over eighty years.

The problem for the Liberal Party is simple: we need to identify our core. We need, as a party, to understand what we believe and fight for it. As Liberals, this means more than just talking about it. We need to “evangelize” others.  However, we need to do this from a core set of values or beliefs or visions. Given that the Liberal Party has not done this in a while, it will not be easy. But we have to understand what we believe in and what we stand for. I argue that we should believe in pragmatic approaches to various public policy problems. We need to care and “Respect the Other” because that means that my self-interest will also be taken care of.

Liberals are, therefore, not progressives, and this gets me back to the beginning of this piece. Our success in the upcoming by-elections will be dictated by the simple understanding that we are Pragmatists. In many places in the country, Liberals have reflexively asked “Progressives” for their support. We have pointed to the Conservatives as our enemies and asked for Progressives support to stop them. This has been to our detriment. For, Conservatives has slowly eaten away at our support on the right; while “true Progressives” have been turned off by our rhetoric. Instead, they have turned to the NDP or Greens because they are appalled by our lack of spine.  If you don’t believe me, look at Carolyn Bennett. She is the MP a swing riding: St. Paul’s. Since its creation in the late 40s, and prior to 2006, it had only voted against the Government twice. Now, the riding of St. Paul’s has run against the grain in three elections: 2006, 2008 and 2011.

While, Dr. Bennett is a wonderful MP, her personality alone cannot account for this change in political and electoral behaviour. I would contend that her success comes from her ability to be a Pragmatic MP that stands up for her constituents. She has spoken up against Liberals and Conservatives alike. Dr. Bennett has supported balanced budgets in the short term to allow for Government sustainability in the long term.

It is the type of message that would win in Calgary Centre. As has been pointed out repeatedly, Lee Richardson was more of a Joe Clark Liberal than a Stephen Harper Conservative. This can just be seen in the fact that he resigned his seat to leave for the more progressive Government led by Allison Redford – herself a Red Tory with strong ties to Mr. Clark. Furthermore, as if to put icing on the cake, before Mr. Richardson held the seat, it was held by Joe Clark. Mr. Clark courted Liberals to win the seat away from the Canadian Alliance. Therefore, it is pragmatism that our party should be aiming for.

It is my contention that this type of pragmatism will win us seats. To date, we have ignored this simple doctrine. Under Dion and Ignatieff, we have simply appealed to the Left. We have antagonized the Right and not embraced or invited them into a conversation. The Harper Conservatives have embraced those leaving our tent and simply widened their margins of victory. In my opinion, these by-elections serve as a testing ground for my thesis. If I am right progressivism is not a winning strategy. Our victories, Liberal victories, in November will be determined by the level to which we embrace a Pragmatic Future. That is why I am waiting for the end of November – to see if I am right again.

A PDF version of this essay can be found at:

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