Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Liberal Turning Point

It will be many years before the results of the last election are fully understood but I have no doubt that that election will be viewed as a watershed election in Canadian history. The simple story is that this election marked the death of the Liberal Party as it has been known for close to a century. While there may be a re-birth of the Liberal Party in some form over the next decade the interesting question will be “what will it look like?” This question really starts to point at what is really interesting about the last election, namely that there are many signs that it marks a fundamental shift in the subject matter of national debate in Canada. There are all the signs in place that a number of major changes have occurred (over a span of twenty years or so) in what people in Canada want to talk about and what actually determines their vote. This change is going to force a lot of people to think carefully about where they want to place their political efforts (if they want to place them at all).

The most obvious re-alignment that has occurred is in the emergence of a clear left versus right debate in Canada. While many Conservatives have viewed the Liberal Party as a quasi-socialist party the reality is that most true left-wingers have not thought of the Liberal Party in that way. Indeed, many NDP supporters have had a poor view of the Liberal Party for precisely this reason – that is, they viewed the Liberal Party as something of an economic wolf in sheep’s clothing. There is a great deal of merit to this position, particularly when one looks at the last twenty years. During the Chretien-Martin era the Federal government, under the leadership of the Liberal Party, engaged in a determined program of cost cutting and program termination which eliminated the deficit and greatly reduced the significance of the national debt. It also effectively removed the Federal government from almost any significant role in the development of social policy in areas such as health, education, childcare, social welfare or housing. These matters were left to the Provinces and much of the debate since then has really, for better or for worse, been a series of provincial debates.

This period began the process, I think, of disengaging young progressive voters (who by the way will often grow up to be old regressive voters) from the Liberal Party. The Liberal Party had captured a significant number of these voters in the past by harkening back to the days of Lester Pearson and the early Trudeau era when the Liberals were instrumental in rolling out a range of national social programs. That era is long ago now – the first Trudeau government is as far away from a new voter today as St. Laurent was from me when I cast my first vote; Pearson is as far away as Mackenzie King or Bennett. Even in the Trudeau era it is hard to identify a lot in the way of society changing social programs. Trudeau’s main contribution in the economic world was in the form of large scale economy engineering efforts to address the economic crises of the 1970’s and early 1980’s (for example the Anti-Inflation Act and the National Energy Program).

Despite these limited economic social progressive credentials, the Liberals managed to keep hold of many progressive voters because socially progressive people were largely gripped by other topics and, more importantly, the political agenda in Canada was largely gripped by other topics. If a person between the age of 18 and 33 or so were dropped into 1970’s and early 1980’s Canada they would not recognize the debate.

At that time the dominant topics of debate outside of French Quebec were: (1) how to maintain Canadian unity; (2) how to advance Canada’s interests on the world stage and (3) how to protect individual human rights inside of Canada. The Liberals and the Progressive Conservatives (who are definitely not the same as the Conservatives) did not argue over whether or not these topics mattered. Instead they argued over which party could best advance these interests. The Liberal Party with its strong French contingent, its internationalist leader and its agenda of introducing a Charter of Rights and Freedoms won all of these debates hands down. They further managed to keep the left-right debate from heating up by having a strong Bay Street cohort running the economic files and keeping a good chunk of the economic progressives engaged by riding on momentum from the Pearson era.

Then things changed. The Liberal agenda and mystique started to disappear. First, the Liberals won a number of their wars. Trudeau and Chretien successfully scotched the separatist threat by winning two referendums and passing the Clarity Act. In doing so though they burned all bridges to French Quebec. Second, Trudeau successfully embedded the Liberal’s old core agenda of protection for minority rights throughout Canada into the legal system (thus reducing the need to have a pro-minority rights political party). Third, the Pearson progressive momentum ran out.

On the other side of the ledger there was a concerted effort underway to change the channel. Preston Manning (a career politico), the NCC, the Fraser Institute, and the young Stephen Harper started a concerted campaign of ideas in Canada that paralleled the longer standing effort in the United States to move the debate to “why should the government be allowed to take my money?” As such these people framed the debate around the concerns of “taxpayers” (rather than citizens) and around the core principle of personal economic independence (and responsibility). While the social conservatives came along for the ride, fundamentally the focus for about twenty years was on making this the issue. National unity became an unimportant sideshow and, as the West become more powerful, increasingly a negative – many in the West would say “let Quebec go if it enhances my economic freedom.” Internationalism – the only international position to advance is that which advances Canada’s interests. The old 1970’s idea of being an “honest broker” or international boy scout does not matter. That is why, despite all the ballyhoo, the loss of the election to the Security Council did not matter – Stephen Harper did not care and he (and his movement) have convinced most Canadians not to care. In essence a majority of Canadians have internalized “it’s the economy stupid” and when they do the Conservatives win hands down in the present climate.

This may make things very challenging for socially progressive people over the next few years. No doubt it is exciting to have the NDP as a pure party of social progress and to have a clean left-right fight with no mushy Liberal middle. It will not be as exciting if that fight is always lost and there is no coalition or brokerage party such as the Liberals to advance a few of these causes. What may also be shocking to many on the left is that over the next decade the Liberals may well rebuild themselves as a party on the centre-right to resume their role as the alternative party to the Tories. They will be the weaker party – playing the role of alternative party to the new Natural Governing Party of Canada (the CPC) – but they would then become the home for Canadians wanting to ‘refresh’ governments when the CPC has been in power too long. For progressives this will not be a happy story as this will be a story of truly right wing parties switching places. It should not be discounted though – the Liberals have re-invented themselves many times: Blake was a Provincial rights advocate; Laurier a Free-trader; Pearson-Trudeau strong centralists and economic nationalists; Pearson-Trudeau big government; Chretien-Martin small government. The Liberals have a history of figuring out how to give the people what they want.

An even sadder story for progressive voters would be to see a strong progressive opposition that never, ever becomes a government. Think it can’t happen? See Alberta.

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