Why it is more important than ever to have a political narrative

“The poll found that the Liberals were supported most by older voters while the NDP was favored by the young. The Conservatives had their strongest support amid middle-aged voters. Conservative support is strongest in Alberta, the prairies and Ontario. Under the Trudeau scenario the Liberal numbers improve in most demographic groups, and the party becomes dominant over older voters.”

  • Liberals tied with Tories… but would win commanding victory with Justin Trudeau as leader: poll, National Post Staff, Last Updated: 13/03/08 3:39 PM ET

I was listening to the former PM of Australia, The Honourable John Howard, on The House. He said something which was interesting. He noted that political parties needed to understand what they stood for. Or as he put it, “Political Parties – in my experience – always get into trouble, in government or opposition, when they lose sight of what they fundamentally believe in. And.. and… it happens.” As a leader of the very conservative Liberal Party of Australia – and inspiration for the Rt. Hon. Stephen Harper – he should know. While Mr. Howard is now an observer, he was first elected in 1974 to serve the Australian Constituency of Bennelong. He held that seat until 2007. While I disagree with his policy proposals in general, his observations have some value.

This is especially true, at this point in our history, for the Liberal Party of Canada. As we consider choosing a new leader, we should think of what it means to be Liberal. For the polls show us that Canadians do not know what we stand for. The polls show us that Canadians cannot differentiate our positions from the Tories or the NDP. This could lead to a situation of irrelevancy, if we don’t stop it soon.

The most recent Forum Research provides us with one example. The Calgary Centre By-Election shows us another. Both events provide Liberals with data about one common event: the aging base of the Liberal Party of Canada. If one questions this demographic trend, just look at the data. The Forum Poll found that “Liberals were supported most by older voters while the NDP was favored by the young”. (Liberals tied with Tories… but would win commanding victory with Justin Trudeau as leader: poll, National Post Staff, Last Updated: 13/03/08 3:39 PM ET) This should not be a surprise.

While, the party itself is remembered fondly by many Canadians who immigrated to Canada in the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s, it did not try to bring in new Canadians in later years. Our party instead depended on a generation of people who grew up under “Trudeau-mania” to drive it forward. Those Canadians who were around for the “Centennial Year” and know the words to “Canada, A Centennial Song /Une Chanson du Centenaire (1967)” kept the flames of Liberalism alive throughout the country. They marveled over our new flag and championed our new Constitution. The problem is simple: that generation is aging. It is true that some of their offspring, like me, have taken up their banner. However, that is not true of various new immigrant groups and of today’s young.

Don’t believe me, just look at the Calgary Centre By-Election. It used to be the case that Liberals could count on Progressive Votes – Green, NDPers and others – to vote Liberal to teach the Tories a lesson. However, in Calgary Centre in 2012, when a huge swath of disaffected Tories temporarily changed their tone – holding their nose – and voted Liberal, Progressive Voters did not come to “our rescue”. Those Progressive Voters moved to the Green Candidate. Or put differently, they held to their values rather than the promise of a candidate which was the lesser of two evils. In their eyes, Progressives felt that they would rather maintain “their morals, ethics and standards” rather than turn the riding over to the Liberals.
In my mind, the reason is simple: they did not see their values in us. Liberals used to pull the Chretien trick: “I am the reincarnation of Trudeau”. As a result, in 1993, the journalists said that Chretien was “yesterday’s man”. However, the Trudeau-incarnation trick worked. Coupled with a split Opposition,
Chretien was able to say that the Liberals were a strong governing party because of our past. We reminded Canadians that we have fought for a National Medicare System and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Furthermore, we argued that our past dictated our future. Accordingly, we could fight for a new PharmaCare system and a strong carbon reduction strategy. At the time, it was often said that we “ran elections on the left and then governed on the right”.

However, the more we used this “Trudeau Glory Days” argument, the less effective it became. For as time passed, Trudeau’s legacy faded. Where Chretien could contrast Ms. Campbell and Mulroney against the successes of the Trudeau regime, Paul Martin had to live up to the successes and failures of Jean Chretien. Time passed and Liberals did not roll with it. Therefore, it should not be a surprise that when Paul Martin tried to use the same trick – in trying to relive the Trudeau days by painting the Tories as “unLiberal” and therefore “unCanadian” in the 2004 election – Mr. Martin was only able to retain a minority government. Canadians were demanding that Liberals explain their core and we could not.

Consequently, it is not a surprise that many centrists turned away from our Party. Those who grew up during Trudeau years were forced to choose between a party with social and economic conservatives, a group of parties with an optimistic but statist vision and a party without a sense of itself. Many who remember the energy of the Trudeau years, and younger people who wanted to be a part of such a time, left for Jack Layton and Elizabeth May. While many pragmatic Canadians turned to the sedate policies of the Conservative Party. Without a core to encourage people to stay, the Liberal Party was in trouble.

With all of that being said, it is easy to see why the Forum Poll says that Justin Trudeau could change our fortunes. Justin Trudeau has been in the public spot light for over thirty years. There is an expectation that he has the same fire and sense of purpose as his father. That older generation feels that this is the case and is willing to try him out, sight unseen. My problem is this – what if that mirage fades?

This has happened before. In 1984, John Turner was seen as the golden boy. He was a Bay Street Lawyer who had a soft touch and a golden smile. In 2003, Paul Martin ascended to the throne of the Liberal Party after more than a decade of effort. While on May 2, 2009, Michael Ignatieff became the sixteenth leader of the Liberal Party. Each was supposed solve all of the ills of the party and each did not. Each was supposed to rebuild the foundation of the party but each failed to. Our Party has been here before. So the question should be asked, what happens if our Party chooses a leader which fails to develop a political framework or narrative and that same leader fails to attain government?

That question leads to a painful answer: our Party will fade and our Party’s true problems will come to the fore. Central to them, is our party’s identity crisis. Just take the simple question of building more pipelines in Canada. Represented by the Keystone and Gateway Pipelines, the Harper Tories have argued that development should be subject to the minimum level of environmental protection. When there is a question, the Harper Tories have made it clear that environment will suffer because they believe that economic growth solves all problems. They are willing to forsake climate science or democratic opposition for that belief. On the other hand, the NDP has argued that resource development is problematic for two reasons: “Dutch Disease” and environmental degradation. As such, the NDP and Tories have been clear.

If one looks at our own party, one would find a lot of confusion. Joyce Murray does not talk about our need for resource development; she only talks about the need to move on Climate Change. Ms. Murray is clear that there is sufficient “scientific evidence for global warming and climate change”. According to her website, she is sure that “the changes already set in motion in the earth’s atmosphere will affect every one of us, and the longer we wait before taking action, the higher the economic, environmental and social costs will be.” Therefore, it is not a surprise that she argues that “transitioning Canada to become an efficient, clean energy economy” is part of the solution. In fact, Ms. Murray wants to have a comprehensive national greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction targets. However, if she was serious about such a plan, she would argue about the benefits and drawbacks that her policies would create. She would talk about how her plan would not harm oil industries in Alberta, Newfoundland and Nova Scotia because other industries could result. This would be detailed in a document so that all Canadians – Liberals included – could discuss the ideas presented.

On the other hand, Mr. Trudeau has found himself both sides of the pipeline issue in less than three months. On October 4, 2012, Petti Fong of the Toronto Star reported that “Liberal leadership hopeful Justin Trudeau played up his western roots during a visit to B.C. with a strong and forceful opposition to the route of the controversial Northern Gateway pipeline.” (Justin Trudeau: Northern Gateway pipeline not a ‘good idea’, Toronto Star). Yet, on January 28th, 2013, Dawn Walton reported that “during a campaign stop in Calgary on Monday night, Mr. Trudeau restated his opposition to the Northern Gateway pipeline through British Columbia due to environmental concerns and lack of consultation with first nations, but said he is ‘not opposed to pipelines’ in general”. (Trudeau tells Alberta he’s ‘not opposed to pipelines’, by Dawn Walton, The Globe and Mail, Jan. 28 2013)

Ms. Martha Hall Findlay, though, has taken a different tack. She has criticized the Harper Government indicating that “the proposed Keystone XL pipeline is in jeopardy because of the actions of the Harper government, while the Northern Gateway line to British Columbia may never win enough public backing to go ahead.” Or put differently, like the Conservatives, Ms. Hall Findlay argues that public sovereignty is the only determiner of public policy.

This lack of clarity can be further demonstrated by our Energy Critic’s – David McGuinty – response to President Obama January 18, 2012 decision:

“The Liberal Party of Canada supports the sustainable development of our natural resources. Nevertheless, large-scale developments like the Keystone XL pipeline, the oil sands or the Northern Gateway proposal must adhere to the most stringent environmental assessment and review.

In approving these projects federal governments have a unique and crucial responsibility to balance economic development, energy security, environmental and socio-economic factors to arrive at a decision that is in the best interests of their citizens.

In that vein, President Obama made a decision which he feels is in the United States’ national interest. In Canada, we encourage our federal government to develop and adhere to free and open environmental assessment processes that allow for substantive public debate and input from stakeholders, including Aboriginal peoples, as it considers our future economic prosperity.” (Liberal Statement on the Keystone XL Pipeline Decision, Liberal.ca, Posted on January 18, 2012)

Or put differently, if I paraphrase William Mackenzie King’s famous remark on the issue: “not necessarily oil development but oil development if necessary.” Mackenzie King was able to get away with those types of remarks because he headed a Government that could craft legislation. Consequently, citizens could wait and see what the policy might be. Today, our problem is simple: we are in opposition. We have very little, if any opportunity, to create legislation. Therefore, people have to know what our narrative is. Only in that way can they tell what we believe and if we could do a better job. So to win government, we have to be able to say what we believe. The only problem is that we have not had that conversation. Subsequently, while, our party would love to win government, we cannot do so without having a strong conversation about what we believe in.
As a result, while our party may oppose Stephen Harper, our raison d’etre cannot be the defeat of the Stephen Harper Government. History tells us – look at Klein, Harris, Mulroney or Trudeau – that all democratically elected leaders leave the stage, either by resignation, defeat or retirement. Leaders like Trudeau, Harris and Klein resign because their government is tired and in need of new blood, new energy and new ideas. In the case of victories, McGuinty, Chretien and Mulroney teach us that they won government because of new blood, new energy and new ideas. Each of those examples tells us what the former PM of Australia, The Honourable John Howard, said on The House: “Political Parties – in my experience – always get into trouble, in government or opposition, when they lose sight of what they fundamentally believe in. And.. and… it happens.”

We are at the point where our party has lost sight of what we believe in. If we acknowledge that Our Party will live longer than the reign of any one leader, we should take the next couple of weeks to understand what our party believes in. We should think of our party in relation to its history and its values. Before and after April 14, 2013 – the Election Day for the next Liberal Leader – we should think not about the mortality of any particular leader’s political life but of what we want the next Liberal Government to do. If we do that our Party will not be relegated to the trash bin of history, if we win or lose the next election.

In my case, I believe that Liberals argue for the “most benefit of the most people”, while at the same time balancing the needs of various minorities and stakeholders. I believe that Liberals have to take a very long view of any development to mitigate its long term damage. I believe in cost effective approaches which encourage the private sector to come up with new and innovative products. All of this is sustainable, all of this is measureable and we should strive for this best of all possible worlds. If we look at Norway or England, both are growing their petroleum industries while abiding by European Green House Gas emission targets. In the days before we have to vote for our Leader, I hope that we can get that same type of clarity from our prospective leaders. It is what we expect, it is what Canadians deserve and, more importantly, – it is what they, the Canadian people, want.

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