Where do the Alberta Liberals go from here? Since May 5th, I have heard that question many times and I think the answer comes from understanding what it means to be Liberal. Since 2011, I have written a lot of words about this topic on my blog. Over that time, some words have been used more than others. For example, when my hands type about the purpose of a Canadian Government, my minds flows back to the balance established by over 100 years of effort: to preserve “peace, order and good government” through the establishment of reasonable limits that are “demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society”. It is that balance which is essential for it both respects the will of the majority; while not imposing a state of tyranny on the various minorities that remain within society. It is these words that I cherish for they provide the balance that society should wish to obtain.
Like John Stuart Mill, we start with a basic idea: to provide policies or measures which give the best outcome to the majority without harming individuals or minorities within society. For, it is when society does not abide by that balance that problems occur. One can look at the example of Quebec. In Quebec, for much of its history, its English minority controlled much of its economic life. It became so severe that Quebec had its famous Quiet Revolution and, through a serious of referendums, almost succeeded in separating from Canada. Balance and Conversation, as history shows us, have value and Liberals embrace their value.
This simple truth has been repeatedly replayed. Blacks participated in the Underground Railroad and the American Civil War to ensure this balance. The American, French and Russian Revolution had their sparks in the imbalance that comes with “tyrannical acts”. While, Separatist Movements in New Brunswick (1867), Nova Scotia (1867) or Western Canada (1980s) came to be because of the imbalance, perceived or actual, of the rights of majorities and minorities which are essential for any society to thrive. If unchecked, as in the case of the Irish and the English, one could end up with a battle which extends for over 400 years. As Churchill taught us in the depth of World War II, when he intrusted the English Parliament with information which was vital to the survival of Great Britain, more liberty allows the Human Spirit to thrive. As other great men like Lincoln have shown us, to defeat ideologues, sophists, and to maintain liberty, from the Peace in Versailles to the Marshall Plan to the Good Friday Agreement, the answer is always more freedom and information rather than less, while keeping balance through social cohesion, inclusion and constant conversation.
However, that balance is difficult to achieve and maintain. In trying to create policies or measures which give the best outcome to the majority without harming individuals or minorities within society, as Liberals, we understand that some measure of change will come with our policy tools, utensils and trappings. To improve society, we understand that we need to bring changes to individuals’ lives through reforming the system. Accordingly, policy tools like Rights and the Rule of Law are not absolute and need to change with and due to time. Though, the tools change the outcome, the Balance needs to remain the same. Therefore, Reform brings more than just change. It brings improvement for most and negotiated compensation for the few that are harmed. This improvement protects society from the very change that disrupts its present, guarding its future and thereby ensures its survival and continuity: the majority and minority both get more, while leaving tyranny for neither.
The only question is how does one know, beforehand, if the Change is beneficial for most – if not all – and not Tyrannical in nature. Our Liberal Predecessors always used Objectivity, Pragmatism, Honesty and Strength of Character to understand the difference. Our Liberal Predecessors would turn to academia, historians and other experts to compile a case for acting. They would produce reports and seek data to try and understand possible policy outcomes and they would only move if the outcomes for society looked good when balanced against Individuals who might be harmed. These are the words I have come to use and come to understand.
For those who might not be persuaded by the strength of those words, one can see that the outcome is even more powerful. The outcome comes in two parts. Firstly, just look at the length of time that our party – governed by those aforementioned words – has been in power. From Mackenzie King to Louis St. Laurent, from Pearson to Trudeau and onward, our pragmatic and objective policy proposals, at the federal level, have allowed us to govern longer than any other political party.
Secondly, look at the longevity of those ideas. Consider this: our party is the only one that dates back to Confederation. The CCF/NDP descends from a political tradition which comes of age just before World War I; while the Conservatives have merged and remerged with other political parties to maintain their relevance. The success of the Federal Liberal Party is not only seen in its mere existence, but its ability to be a dominant player decade after decade. Consequently, our problem is not remaining in power. I would argue that given the strength of our policy prescriptions, our Party’s federal legacy has been ensured.
With that being said, in the past, Liberals have had a problem in ascending to the role of Governing Party. Or put differently, we have had problem convincing the public to get the “first crack at the can”. Wilfred Laurier ascension to power, for example, was largely because he was the other option. Or put differently, before the 1940s, the Liberals had a hard time attaining power on Parliament Hill. Hence, the dilemma: why does such a successful philosophy of governing have such trouble getting initial consent from the electorate?
Provincial Liberal Parties in Western Provinces know that history well because all of them have had to search for their relevancy. The Liberal Movement at a provincial level has been moribund in those provinces at some point in the 20th Century. In Alberta and Saskatchewan that search continues. The Alberta Liberal Party has not governed Alberta since 1921 and the Saskatchewan Liberals are dying a slow death after many of their members joined with the Saskatchewan’s Progressive Conservative Party to form the Saskatchewan Party.
If one compares and contrasts, the rise of the BC Liberals with the Ontario Liberal Party and the Quebec Liberal Party, one would come to the conclusion that the Liberal brand succeeds if it is the only other choice. In the case of BC, the Liberals went from being third party to a governing consideration because of the fall – and disintegration – of the BC Social Credit Party. While, in Ontario and Quebec, the Liberals were the other governing party. So all Liberals in those provinces have to do is argue for a change election and allow the electorate to “storm the castle”.
This is unlike the present state of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, where Liberals are not seen as a Governing Party. For in those provinces, there is usually one governing choice on the right and another on the left and as experience shows, Liberals tend to be squeezed out of the conversation. Accordingly, Provincial Liberals need to do more than wait. It is at times like these that Liberals need more than just good policy. We need more than Objectivity, Pragmatism, Honesty and Strength of Character. Consequently, Alberta Provincial Liberals need a compass that is more specific than the Reform of Institutions or the Hope that, by the Grace of God, the electorate will choose us at random.
So for the moment, I will eschew the words of Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill or Jeremy Bentham. Instead, my thoughts will turn to a nineteenth century evangelical Liberal. He was an Abolitionist and he was named William Wilberforce. For, the words, I will use are “Mercy” and “Witness”. Mr. Wilberforce was a passionate English Liberal MP who stood to observe the ills of slavery and report them. When no others acted he did by baring Witness to the atrocities and sharing His Mercy to relieve that suffering. It was people like he who stood against the tyrannies of the nineteenth century English Majority.
While, his story is remarkable, his act of Witness was a deed that was both simple and dynamic. He wrote to friends and family. He wrote books like “An Appeal to the Religion, Justice, and Humanity of the Inhabitants of the British Empire, in Behalf of the Negro Slaves in the West Indies” and “The Life of William Wilberforce – 5 Volume Set”. He wrote letters and spoke in Parliament against the ill of Slavery. For he understood his test: he understood that the way we treat the least of us, reflects the thoughts and attitudes of all of us. Mr. Wilberforce understood that the greatest test of good government is a government which benefits the greatest number and does not subject minorities or individuals to a form of “majoritarian tyranny”.
With Mercy, William Wilberforce reached out to others to build a better society. By telling others of the ills of his society, Mr Wilberforce was able to raise an “army” of concerned citizens who peacefully pursued a new course – one without slavery. The Alberta Liberal Party needs to remember that act. We need to remember that we need to Witness the wrongs in our society and mention them to the populace. We need to build coalitions with the least of us by extending the mercy in our hearts.
If we want to have a place where our kids get the best possible education, we have to ask our governments to stop funding education with a provincial lottery, donations and bake sales. If we want to have the highest quality primary health care system and be able to access it when we need it, we need to ask our neighbours to walk with us to obtain this change. If we want to have safe, high quality home care and long term care, we have to be prepared to ask hard questions about the structure of the system and whether we are actually funding it to adequate levels. All of this starts with a strong economy that produces more than enough for all, so that we can save for the unknowns that the future brings. It means being committed to providing the greatest benefit for the greatest number, while taking into account the specific needs that a fair society wants to provide to its minorities and less fortunate. All of this means that we will have to be prepared to change our ways, to reform our system and maybe to pay more in taxes or other costs to get this. As Liberals this means we need to have coffee houses and talk to people who might be Progressive Conservatives, New Democrats, Greens, Wildrose or Alberta Party supporters. If this is what we want, Alberta Liberals will have to talk to fellow citizens who are non-voters and encourage them to vote. If this is what we want, we need to have a strong direction of our past and a strong confidence to walk towards our future. If this is what we want, as a party, the Alberta Liberal Party needs to change its ways. Is it prepared to do that? I think it is.