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From the archives

The Path of Poetic Resistance

To disarm Canada and its canon

Are Interests Really Value-Free?

A salvo from the “realist” school of Canadian foreign relations

Going It Alone

The marvellous, single-minded, doggedly strange passion of citizen scientists

Identity Crisis

But for the Liberals, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Andrew Potter

In the fall of 2006, I participated in a day-long seminar in Toronto on the future of progressive politics. While it was not strictly a partisan event, most of the participants were Liberals of some stripe or another, including three of the candidates in the federal leadership contest that was underway at the time.

There was a great deal of anxiety in the room. Partly it had to do with the shock of the Liberals inexplicably finding themselves out of power after 13 years. But it was also driven by a recognition that the party had lost its way. Jean Chrétien was a crafty tactical politician who slew the deficit beast and delivered strong managerial competence, but as his tenure drew to a close it was clear that the long period of infighting with Paul Martin’s faction had left the party adrift, uninspired and bereft of ideas. Meanwhile, the endless tug-of-war between Chrétien and Martin had left so many senior Liberals exhausted or annoyed that an entire cohort of talent simply abandoned politics for the cushy realms of academia or the lucre of the private sector.

At the seminar, the question on everyone’s lips was what does this party stand for. Two leaders and another lost election later, it is a question Liberals are still asking, as their party struggles with a full-blown identity crisis. What initially seemed like the usual intellectual exhaustion after an extended period in power turned into a creeping rot that has affected every aspect of the party’s performance. The Liberals spent the last session of Parliament chasing headlines like an attention-starved puppy, scampering from one purported scandal or outrage to the next (stimulus pork, advertising propaganda, H1N1 failures, Torch Relay politics, Colvin memos) without any medium-term focus or long-range plan. Add to the mix Michael Ignatieff’s shaky and uncertain leadership, and the whole miserable session culminated in the legendary Night of the Long Faces, when a group of Liberals repaired to a bar at the Château Laurier for a bitch session that the Toronto Star breathlessly reported as a nascent coup.

The result is that even as public support for the governing Conservatives veers back and forth between the extremes of tepid and lukewarm, the Liberal Party of Canada has utterly failed to establish itself as a viable government-in-waiting, while its polling numbers still wallow in the historic depths plumbed in the last election. The Grits have big problems with money, with personnel and with their parliamentary tactics, but to a large extent these problems are all downstream symptoms of the real malaise, which is that the party has no electoral strategy. And the reason it has no electoral strategy is that it has no political identity. “The land is strong,” Liberals once believed. Maybe it is, but their brand is not, and where the brand is weak the people cannot follow.

That’s the bad news. The good news for the Liberals is that they have been here before.

When he was elected leader, Michael Ignatieff promised to hold some sort of thinker’s conference to re-energize the party and help give it some policy direction. It was initially scheduled for mid January 2010, but serious organizing only got underway last November. Intended as an arm’s-length “Blue Sky” event like the TED conferences that bring in visionaries from technology to business to entertainment, the Liberal caucus quickly demanded some oversight, responsibility for which was given to member of Parliament Mauril Bélanger. The big-idea ambition is still there, but eventually the project was taken over by Ignatieff’s office, and it is now scheduled for Montreal at the end of March. Heavy hitters at the conference will include Dominic Barton, managing director of McKinsey and Company; David Dodge, former head of the Bank of Canada; Linda Hasenfratz, CEO of Linamar, Canada’’s second largest auto parts manufacturer based in Guelph, Ontario; and Sherri Torjman, vice-president of the Caledon Institute.

A gathering of brainiacs, dreamers and policy wonks fits in with Ignatieff’s reputation as a public intellectual, but it is worth emphasizing that the idea of using a policy conference of some sort to help reboot the party is a proven part of the Liberal Party’s tradition. There have been three such meetings in the past—at Port Hope in 1933, Kingston in 1960 and Aylmer in 1991.

Liberals tend to talk about these events in tones whose level of excitement falls somewhere between VE day and Paul Henderson’s goal against the Soviets in ’72, but it is hard to deny their effectiveness. Each conference was motivated by two main factors: the Liberal Party was out of power, and the national and global order was undergoing fundamental economic and political shifts. Each time, within three years of each conference the party was back in power for an extended period.

From Port Hope came the party’s plan for dealing with the Depression, while the Kingston meeting, which invited proposals for economic and social reform from 200 thinkers, served as the blueprint for the construction of the welfare state under Lester B. Pearson. The Aylmer conference saw the party make its peace with free trade and balanced budgets, and resulted in the famous Red Book that Chrétien clutched like a security blanket on the campaign trail two years later. The historical lesson is that every generation or so the Liberal Party finds itself in the opposition benches and, after convulsing its way through the three stages of Liberal grief (denial, denial, denial), it eventually finds a way of renewing itself.

For all the potential upside, these sorts of exercises can be dangerous. The most serious concern this time is that the conference is being sold as the solution to three distinct challenges: it is designed to renew the party at the intellectual and policy levels, energize the demoralized base and solidify Ignatieff’s leadership brand in the mind of the electorate. These are difficult tasks to address on their own, and they frequently work at cross-purposes. To ask a single conference to do all three is to risk confusion, contradiction, even disaster.

The problem is that neither the grassroots nor the big thinkers have to worry too much about the practicalities of policy, governance and consistent messaging, and the last thing Ignatieff wants is to have his agenda hijacked by a mischievous media or a bunch of wild-eyed visionaries. At the same time, if the conference degenerates into a Liberal pep rally, all symbols and empty gestures strong-armed out of Ignatieff’s office, the party will be back where it started, having wasted six months of the leader’s time, the media’s attention and the public’s goodwill.

Still, there is a lot to like about what Ignatieff has planned. In the months leading up to the conference, he asked Liberal MPs and senators to host round tables and town halls in their communities, while the leader himself took advantage of a prorogued Parliament to conduct a surprisingly successful speaking tour of university campuses. The theme of the conference itself is pegged to Canada’s 150th anniversary in 2017, and it promises to address nothing short of the question of just what kind of country we want to be at that point.

The conference is called “Canada 150: Rising to the Challenge,” and its agenda will focus on five challenges facing Canadians: jobs, creativity and innovation, families, energy and the environment, and our global presence. These are solid topics, very much of the moment, but as with everything in politics a lot depends on the packaging. After all, the most important policy initiative in Canada of the past decade was Stéphane Dion’s Green Shift, and thanks to inept salesmanship both Dion and the policy have become politically marginalized.

From the ideas perspective, the one big advantage the party now has is, in theory, Michael Ignatieff himself. Their leader’s entire image—indeed, the whole reason it was thought wise to woo him back to Canada in the first place—is that he was the real-life embodiment of Canadian Liberalism’s idealized self-image: a postmodern cosmopolitan and a grounded intellectual who could bring the world to Canada, and Canada to the world.

The downside is that the space for big ideas about Canada’s future has seriously contracted over the years, even in the relatively short span since the beginning of the Chrétien years. To appreciate just how much our ideological elbow room has shrunk, it is interesting to look at the rough and tumble of the decade and half between the re-election of Pierre Trudeau in 1980 and the second Quebec referendum in 1995, and contrast it with the relatively calm 15 years since.

That early period was marked by the introduction of the National Energy Program (which alienated the West), the first Quebec referendum (which alienated Quebec nationalists) and the patriation of the constitution (which alienated everybody). After sweeping to power in 1984, Brian Mulroney responded to Trudeau’s economic nationalism by selling off dozens of Crown corporations, cancelling the NEP and signing a free trade agreement with the United States and then negotiating a continental agreement with Mexico. He tried to one-up Trudeau by bringing Quebec into the constitutional fold, which led to the acrimonious and failed mega-constitutional negotiations at Meech Lake and Charlottetown.

In comparison, the decade and a half since that white-knuckle ride of the second referendum in October 1995 has been very quiet. On the economic front, the two major accomplishments were the taming of the federal deficit and slashing tax rates, while the main constitutional events were the Supreme Court reference on secession and the subsequent Clarity Act, which set out the rules under which any future referendum would be fought. The wide acceptance of these rules by both federalists and separatists has gone a long way toward eliminating the constitution as a point of stress in our national conversation.

The truth of the matter is that Canada’s political space has undergone a great deal of convergence over the past few decades. Nobody on the left wants to nationalize major industries any more, and nobody on the right wants to privatize health care or criminalize abortion. In a way, we have reached the domestic equivalent of what Francis Fukuyama called the End of History, in that what were recently live ideological opinions have been shuffled off the main stage into the arms of the lunatic fringe. The result is that while our politics has become less angry and confrontational, it has also become far less oppositional. Such is the broad agreement on so many of the old sticking points that it is hard for any of the competing parties to get any solid traction.

What all of this means for the Liberal Party of Canada as it seeks to reposition itself for the politics of the 21st century is that it should probably lower its expectations for the thinker’s conference. The lesson of the last 30 years is that Canada does not do Big Ideas very well, and the country does much better when it thinks small and works toward steady, marginal improvements in how we run the place.

But all of this is not to argue that Canada has achieved some sort of post-partisan consensus or that there is no room for ambitious policies. What it does mean is that the Liberals should be looking not for a couple of Big Ideas to get the country riled up, but for a storyline for Ignatieff’s leadership that can place a whole bunch of useful initiatives in a coherent narrative. In other words, what the Liberals need more than anything is a new brand.

When Ignatieff first arrived on the political scene in 2005, the buzz among Liberals was that he was the new Trudeau. That reputation was always based entirely on the fact that he was book-smart, and ignored the extent to which his actual writings disagreed with Trudeau’s vision on many fundamental issues. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that the party needs to find a way to frame Ignatieff’s hawkish brand of liberal cosmopolitanism so that it is consistent with its traditional identity.

Ever since Trudeau, the Liberal Party has stood for a strong central government and a united Canada, an identity that was never popular out West and that was ultimately rendered forfeit in Quebec by the sponsorship scandal. Yet there is one still relevant aspect of Trudeau’s legacy that the majority of Canadians have always supported but that no one really talks about anymore, and that is the idea of a just society. The notion that Canada must become a just society was Trudeau’s rallying cry upon his arrival at 24 Sussex Drive in 1968, and it helped motivate policy initiatives throughout his political career.

For Trudeau, the essence of the just society was that it was dedicated to equality: equality of opportunity, equality of status and equality of treatment, for all Canadians. In the realm of social policy, the just society meant making Canada more liberal by decriminalizing homosexual acts, legalizing abortion and making it easier to get a divorce. It also underwrote his highly egalitarian approach to federalism, which paired official bilingualism at the federal level with a strict policy of no special status for Quebec. The just society came to its final fruition with the adoption of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which established Canada as a society committed to the equality of the individual as the building block of the civic order.

The challenges Canada faces in 2010 are not the ones it faced in 1968, or 1980, or even 1993. As we approach our sesquicentennial, the major challenge will be to figure out what it means to be a just society in a world of open borders, massive inequality and a fragile but integrated world economy. Today, the country is a node on a networked planet, fully integrated into the global economy of fluid borders and instant communications. What does it mean to be a just society in such a world? How does international terrorism, predominantly committed by radical Muslims, influence the demand for equal treatment before the law? How does equality of opportunity play out in an economy when some industries are deemed too big to fail, while others are deemed too unimportant to save? What does equality of status mean for a population faced with the threat of a deadly pandemic where the inevitable need to ration scarce vaccine might mean making hard choices about who gets to live and who might have to die?

Take a second and make a quick mental list of the biggest policy challenges of our time: security and terrorism, employment insurance, pensions, public health, climate change, Arctic sovereignty, banking regulation, cybersecurity, intellectual property. What do they have in common? While the provinces devote the lion’s share of their attention and budgets to everyday services such as health care, education and municipal infrastructure, the real action is almost entirely in areas that cry out for coordinated response and collective action, which is something only the federal government has the power and ability to deliver.

Michael Ignatieff has not exactly lit up our collective imagination, but the idea of the just society of the 21st century is an agenda tailor-made for the current Liberal leader. The Liberal Party has spent the last four years trying to figure out what it stands for, and the answer is that the party needs only to look back to its traditions and realize that Liberalism today needs to be an updated version of what it has always represented, in one manner or another, for most of the last half-century.

Rebranding the Liberals as the party of the just society might go a long way toward stabilizing its core support. It could even help push its appeal out past the ramparts of its urban strongholds, behind which it has been cowering for most of the past decade, by reminding disaffected voters that the party actually stands for something. A great many voters are simply looking to be led; the specific direction is often of secondary importance.

At the same time, politics remains the art of the possible, and certain facts must be faced. The persistence of the Bloc Québécois, along with the rising popularity of the Green Party, has so fragmented the electorate that a majority government is going to be extremely hard to achieve under even the most favourable conditions. Minority government is the new normal, and any serious strategy for winning and keeping power needs to keep that reality firmly in view.

A recurring suggestion is that the best response to this is for the Liberals to swallow their pride, open the flaps of their tent and invite the NDP and the Greens to join them in some big centre-left party. The obvious model for this is the success of the unite-the-right campaign, which put an end to Gritlock and allowed Stephen Harper to put a hammer hold on the federal government. This idea was first seriously floated three years ago by former NDP strategist Jamey Heath in his book Dead Centre: Hope, Possibility and Unity for Canadian Progressives. It was seconded by a couple of old Tories, Norman Spector and Rod Love, as well as the left-leaning Toronto Star columnist David Olive. Lots of Liberals are talking about it as well, mostly off the record, but Lloyd Axworthy came out in favour of the idea in an opinion piece he wrote for the Ottawa Citizen last year.

It is a terrible idea. Forget big tent—big top would be more like it. Can you imagine what a three-ring circus this new party would be? To begin with, the merger of the PCs and the Canadian Alliance was hardly the historic accomplishment its architects seem to think it was. Given that we are talking here about two factions of a party that had been united, in one form or another, since before Confederation, the 15 years they spent living apart counts as little more than a trial separation after a brief marital spat.

In contrast, the NDP and the Liberals have no known common ancestor, and if Frankenstein politics is really your bag you might as well throw the Marxists and the Libertarians into the mix and watch the nuts and bolts fly. Most NDP supporters have a manic hatred for the Liberals, and—no small thanks to Jack Layton’s role in bringing down Paul Martin and installing Stephen Harper at 24 Sussex—Liberals generally feel the same way about the NDP.

The unite-the-left movement assumes that support for the united party will at least match the sum of its parts, but there is absolutely no reason to think that is true. Many, perhaps even most, Liberal voters would be more comfortable voting Tory than they would for a party that had absorbed the NDP. Meanwhile, a great many NDP voters would sooner vote Green, or even Conservative in some parts of the country, than for a party that was dominated by the Liberal caucus. A united party could very well leave Canada’s centre left even more shattered and demoralized than it is now, leaving the Tories to feast on the carcass for decades to come.

It is surprising that so many people seem to think that it is likely, or even necessary, for the Liberals and the left to merge, when all they really need to do is find some common ground from which to scope out a clear strategic vista. Instead of thinking about outright merger, the Liberals should start talking with the NDP about applying a defibrillator to the corpse of their failed coalition agreement from the fall of 2008.

Sure, it was a disaster that almost caused a constitutional crisis while transferring a great deal of popular support to the Conservatives. The thing is, though, that the mistake was not with the very idea of a governing coalition. What the public did not like was the breathtaking self-interest that sparked it (Harper had proposed eliminating the per-vote public subsidy to political parties), not to mention the formal involvement of the Bloc Québécois. There is every reason to believe that an explicit Liberal-NDP coalition, in which the general terms of power sharing were laid out for the public before the next election, might attract a great deal of popular support.

Of all the challenges the Liberals face, the biggest one might turn out to be psychological, since a coalition with the NDP is a long toss from what the majority-starved rank and file members are desperate for. It certainly would not be the return of the Natural Governing Party—Canadian federal politics is probably done with those, and that is a good thing. What it would do is provide the Liberals with a new strategic identity: they would be the senior partner in a stable and ideologically consistent governing partnership that would see the federal government resume its leadership role in Canada’s ongoing development as a just society.

There’s the challenge. The only remaining question is whether the Liberals can rise to it.

Andrew Potter wrote The Authenticity Hoax and, with Joseph Heath, The Rebel Sell.

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Laurel MacDowell

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