What are we willing to change?

Over the last couple of weeks, I have been talking to a lot of good friends. Some of them have been Liberal and others have been ex-Liberals. I am lucky that I am surrounded by a large group of politicos. They come from all walks of life and they all love to talk about politics. In one of these discussions, a particularly good question arose: if given Government what will the Liberal Party change?

As my friend noted, democratically-elected Governments are coalitions of interests. In Canada, these interests include regional and provincial blocks. They include urban coalitions and rural industries. If one thinks of the Chretien Government, while many of its seats came from Ontario, small amounts of MPs were also elected in Maritimes and urban areas of Western Canada and Quebec. Consequently, the Chretien Government was attuned to urban issues. So it is not a surprise that the Chretien Government sought to move forward on Kyoto or the Gun Registry. Furthermore, in dealing with the deficit, it is not a surprise that the overhauls were made to the Employment Insurance System, while only small changes came to funding programmes provided to groups that sought to create a rights-based, secular civic society. Or put differently, the Court Challenges programme was protected under the Chretien Government.

In that same way, the Harper Government is not immune from its own constituencies. Given its urban, suburban and rural mix, it will not consider abortion legislation. However, that same consistency does not feel the need to push for a strong federal approach to environmental regulation. Former Minister Jim Prentice learned this the hard way. As an MP from Alberta, Mr. Prentice understood the dependence of Alberta – if not Western Canada – on the revenues developed through Oil Sands and other resource sales. However, as the Environment Minister, he clearly understood that Alberta’s Oil Sands development had a lot of critics. Those critics could be found in Aboriginal Communities, in Environmental and Health Circles and in foreign lands. His solution was simple and laudable: continue development of those oil sands but have strong environmental regulation. To this end, he called for a Federal Panel that reviewed existing Alberta Development Policy.

This action was well within the powers of the Federal Government because some of the affected watershed crossed provincial lands. This action was constitutional because provincial and federal governments have co-equal responsibility for environmental stewardship. However, when this board reported, it made waves because it found Alberta’s existing system to be wanting. (Ottawa, Alberta blamed for lax oil-sands oversight, by Shawn McCarthy, The Globe and Mail, Aug. 23 2012)

Instead of following those recommendations, the Federal Government has largely gone forward with more loosening of environmental regulation. This is in opposition to what the Hon. Mr. Prentice is still saying. In fact, he is still arguing for greater inclusion for critics. Or as it was noted in a Canadian Press article, “Prentice says First Nations — some of the most vocal critics to Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline — need to play a central role in the discussion.” (Canada must better manage energy wealth, Jim Prentice says, by Canadian Press, Last Updated: Feb 9, 2013 4:26 PM MT) Yet, Mr. Harper does not have to listen to those words because he still has a strong coalition within specific regions.

So the question for Liberals is simple: what do we think we can change in our first term? Or for that matter, what will we have to leave alone? Just think about it, a Liberal Government could argue for a strong role for the Canadian Federal Government in the area of the environment. However, that argument would be out of line with the last three federal governments (i.e. Chretien, Martin and Harper Governments). Or put differently, since 1994, the Liberals and Conservatives have reduced the Federal Government’s role in this area. For the Chretien Government such changes were introduced for two reasons: providing proof of the value of asymmetrical federalism and reducing costs. In the Harper Government, their reductions to the federal governments’ stewardship responsibilities have been connected to an ideological dislike of government. Whatever the reason, the result has been the same: the Federal Government no longer has a lot of heft in the area of environmental regulation. So the question becomes will we as Federal Liberals overturn almost twenty years of policy.

However, this will not be the only example. Think of the new terrorism legislation – known as S7. It introduces the idea of preventative arrests/detentions. This means that “someone can be held without charge for up to three days just on suspicion of being involved in terrorism. The person can then be bound by certain probationary conditions for up to a year, and if he or she refuses the conditions, can be jailed for 12 months.” (Controversial anti-terrorism tools revived as bill passes, by CBC News, Posted: Apr 24, 2013 5:18 PM ET) That’s right, someone can be held and tried for the suspicion of being a criminal.

Or even better, through the new “investigative hearing” procedure, one no longer has the ability to remain silent; because, if silence is used or if questions are not answered, a person can be imprisoned for up to 12 months. (Controversial anti-terrorism tools revived as bill passes, by CBC News, Posted: Apr 24, 2013 5:18 PM ET) These are policies – I would argue – which run counter to the idea of caring for the “Other”. As we know, these procedures have not stopped any terrorism plot in Canada. They seem to be a questionable abuse of State power. This is especially true given that the Canadian State has failed to prosecute a number of guilty parties; while convicting Canadians of crimes that they are not responsible of. Through the cases of Donald Marshall Jr. and David Milgaard, we know that the abuse of state power is possible. So, even with a trial, it is possible to have a Miscarriage of Justice. Consequently, why would we, Canadians, allow a system to exist where one cannot prove their innocence? Though, getting back to my main point, since our party has supported this system while in Opposition, surely we would do the same while we are in government. So the question becomes what will overturn, if we ever became Government.

Would we bring back funding for secular NGOs working domestically or aboard; or would be bring back the Charter Challenges Programme? Would we launch a large national pharmacare or childcare programme that would likely cause arguments with provincial governments? I am not sure because this is something that we, as a party, have not thought about. My previous writings might indicate that our values would be based on the concept of helping and assisting “the Other”. For in helping your fellow citizen, one is helping one’s self. Since, for example, Canada has a public health care system, our taxes protect our fellow citizens from getting the flu, bacteria, STDs or other communicable diseases. This means that my chances of getting a communicable disease are reduced. Consequently, I will just live a longer life. Accordingly, assisting the “Other” is in my self-interest. For by improving everybody’s lot in life, I improve my own. Therefore, society has a system which can find the greatest good for the greatest number, while recognizing my individual rights. This is my way of viewing Liberal values. Values that have guided Trudeau & Brown, King & Baldwin and Laurier & Pearson.

However, my friend, Akaash Maharaj, would argue that Liberalism is based on the idea that “liberty is the highest political good, and that as a result, the first duty of government is to seek the greatest liberty for the one that is compatible with liberty for all.” He has said that liberalism is about the balancing of every right against “a corresponding responsibility”; therefore, elections are not about obtaining “a licence to rule, but a contract to serve.” (Thatcher’s Verdict on the Liberal Party of Canada, by Akaash Maharaj, Globe and Mail, 12 April 2013) Ultimately, he would say, “liberalism holds that a nation is bound together by a social contract, because the interests of each individual are inextricably linked to the well being of every other member of society, making prosperity and social justice inseparable.”

While, Akaash and I are intelligent men, one could easily see that we cannot command the party to act in a certain way. Consequently, no one knows what that same party will do, if we do get into office. To understand what we believe, we need to have a conversation. We need to talk to identify problems; we need to talk about our values and the preferred policy prescriptions. We need to talk about what we stand for; and to date, we have not had that conversation. I hope we remember that we need to be brave and ask the hard questions. We need to ask what we are willing to change.

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