The Federal Liberals can still make Economic Arguments

“The prime minster has been playing a long game since his return to politics in 2002. He has no intention of stopping.”

  • Stephen Harper’s not-so-hidden agenda, Friday, December 28, 2012, By Peter Loewen, By Ottawa Citizen, As printed by

I would love to say that Peter Loewen is wrong or that he is full of it. I would love to say that Peter Loewen is crazy or losing it. However, if I did say that I would just be putting my head in the sand. In many ways, Mr. Loewen has proven why he is an assistant professor at the University of Toronto. He has shown why his specialties are Canadian politics and political behaviour. For, he is so very right. The question is: “can we as Liberals do something to upset the apple cart”?

I think we can. Mr. Loewen noted that “the strategy space has now changed. The principal dimension of Canadian political competition is now economic, as it is in nearly every other long-standing democracy. As a result, the Liberals’ position between the Conservatives and the New Democrats has become a liability rather than an advantage, in no small part because Harper and NDP leader Thomas Mulcair share the goal of a weakened Liberal party.”

In many ways, he is correct. In most democracies, there is a political alignment that takes place along an economic spectrum. In other words, parties have a choice: they either defend those who have or they defend those who don’t. The Right-Left divide as seen in the UK, Australia and much of Europe is clear and evident. 

However, my optimism is in what Mr. Loewen does not note: the inevitable and historical rise of third parties. If one thinks of the Republican Party in the United States, one will see the point. The Republican Party rose by having a unique philosophical viewpoint on a social-economic issue. This viewpoint was so unique that it could not be measured by the existing political consensus. For those who may not know, the issue in question was slavery. For the 1860s, Republicans did a “crazy” thing; they called for the abolition of slavery. In the Slave Debate, this position was unlike the Constitutional Union, Southern or Northern Democrats. For, each of existing parties believed that Slavery was inevitable. They all fell onto the “existing Slavery Spectrum”. However, the Republicans broke that consensus or spectrum by providing a different answer to an age old problem.

The same thing can be said of the arrival of Kadima in Israeli politics. Ariel Sharon needed to break the ideological deadlock created by the leftist Israeli Labour Party and the right-wing Likud Party. Mr. Sharon created a third party, a centrist party. Today, our party can play the same role.

The Liberal Party of Canada has an ability to remain relevant – and even become the Governing Party again – through smashing the Left –Right Political divide. As has been noted before, the question becomes are we capable of developing a platform that can do that. From my point of view, we can do this. All we have to do is remember our history. The roots of our party lie in pre-Confederation politics. At that time, our party was the party of reform, modernization and innovation. George Brown crossed the floor – to support Liberal-Conservative Government of John A. MacDonald – to ensure that progress toward Confederation could be made.

More than fifty years after Confederation, St. Laurent and Howe revived that trend. For, St. Laurent’s Liberal Government built much of the economic background that Canada still uses today. They breathed life into the Canadian Aerospace Industry, developed CBC and the infrastructure for most of Canada’s present pipelines. It is due to their hands that the St. Lawrence Seaways and the TransCanada Highway system were built. It was a reformist Liberal Government that built the Canadian Navy – a compromise between the pro-Empire Conservatives and the isolationist elements, symbolized by Henri Bourassa. Our Party’s DNA does not come from a left-right tradition.

This Reformist Element can come to the fore today. Let us take a look at the Keystone XL Pipeline debate as Mr. Loewen has. As noted by Mr. Loewen, “the economic benefits of the pipeline are clear, being as it is a near perfect example of comparative advantage. On the political side, the issue works directly to the prime minister’s advantage, and to a lesser extent to the advantage of the NDP.” A point to which I concede.

Furthermore, Mr. Loewen is right in saying that “opposing the pipeline is an easy decision for Thomas Mulcair. There is little potential upside for his party in Alberta. To the extent that he can link it to the Northern Gateway pipeline project in British Columbia, he gains traction in that province. And it allows him to continue to portray Harper as a leader captured by the oilsands, a man obsessed with Western development at expense of the manufacturing sectors of Ontario and some who is careless with the environment.”

However, if Liberals take a reformist point of view, we can make the Pipeline policy discussion work for us. For example, the Liberal Party could accept the XL Pipeline as a part of a greater policy proposal. As we have seen, energy discussions can lead to other problems. In the last year, the XL Pipeline Proposal has raised issues like Aboriginal Land Claims, Inter-Provincial Trade and Sustainability. Liberals could talk to the reformist ideal and describe how the XL Pipeline could be a vehicle to have everyone to sit down at the same table. Alberta, for example, needs to find a compromise with its neighbours, so it can truly benefit from its resources. Given that most Provinces still fight over inter-provincial trade – a fight that has been happening since 1867 – there is a place for another player and a Grand National vision.

Our place is to provide a policy position that allows for the Growth of the Energy Industry while protecting the environment. Our position must allow for goods to travel across provincial boundaries without tearing apart the Federation. Our position must recognize the Treaty Rights of our Aboriginal People, while not isolating them or alienating them from our society. Our party’s place is to provide new ideas.

If our Party can understand its places as a Reformer, we have a chance. If those reforms provide the greatest benefit to the greatest number, while balancing the needs of the Other, we have a place. For as History has taught us, the Left – Right Dynamic alone does not solve problems. In fact, it usually creates more problems than it solves. FDR came to the fore because his “Big Deal” redefined the American Left – Right Dynamic. MacKenzie King, Pearson and Trudeau did the same. Our ability to grow as a party is dependent on our ability to shed the right-left spectrum. I only hope we recognize that before it is too late.

2 thoughts on “The Federal Liberals can still make Economic Arguments

  1. I agree, Russell. And I’m hopeful. I think Canadians as a whole are tiring of Harper, and I think over time they’ll tire of the anti-Harper. Particularly, as you say, if the Harper and the anti-Harper don’t seem to be supplying anything but the old answers to new problems.


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