On Being Liberal in Tough Times

There’s no question that this is a challenging time to be a federal Liberal. Yes, we’re currently in the uncomfortable position of being the third party in Parliament and yes, some typically short-sighted commentators have written us off for dead. Despite all that, I passionately believe Canada now needs a revived Liberal Party more than ever before.

The future is not immutable – it’s what we collectively choose to make it. The forces currently at play in Canada and the world are driving us towards a darker future, one in which the lives of most of our children and grandchildren are likely to be harsher than ours. Those forces include increasing income inequality, a rapidly warming planet, other environmental degradation, a weakening social safety net, citizen disempowerment, and a precipitous decline in the influence and high regard Canada and Canadians once enjoyed in the world. One of the most pernicious consequences has been a loss of hope for a better future on the part of our youth (as evidenced by the May 2012 Frank Graves poll).

We humans who share this planet have the knowledge and the capability to forge a different and better future if we could only muster the collective will to make it happen. In the past, Canada would have played a positive leadership role in that respect. Tragically, almost every Harper government policy and action seeks to exacerbate rather than counter those negative forces, to the short-term benefit of a few at the long-term expense of practically everyone. Absent the Liberal Party, voters will have a stark choice between two opposing ideologies: neo-conservatism and socialism. They are two sides of the same coin, one promoting “econo-man” (an idealized purely rational and utterly selfish economic actor) and the other “socialist man” (an equally uni-dimensional caricature). Real people are far more complex and diverse, just like Canadians. True Liberals revel in that diversity, accept Canadians as they are and base public policy on the evidence – what works – rather than simplistic ideology. That’s why it will take a Liberal-led government to deliver the kind of future in which all Canadians can again thrive.

I sense a growing unease amongst our fellow citizen, the kind that resulted in almost 300 Kingstonians packing our April town hall meeting on climate change action rather than the 25 that Stéphane Dion was expecting. The Harper neo-conservatives have held onto power by discouraging civic engagement and voting, actively disempowering Canadians. Only 26% of the eligible electorate actually voted for Conservative candidates in the last election, compared to almost 40% who stayed home. The future that Mr. Harper is building doesn’t serve the interests of that 40%, who have the power to relegate the Conservatives to the dustbin of history if ever they choose to exercise it.

Regardless of how badly Canada needs a renewed Liberal Party, there’s no guarantee that we Liberals will rise to the occasion. I remain hopeful, which is why I continue to devote myself to party renewal and rebuilding, but realism requires that I recognize that unless we collectively reject expediency and return to principled policy leadership, we will continue to fade into irrelevancy. Quite frankly, I attribute our decade-long decline to the rise of the “apparatchik“, an apt Russian term which a former diplomatic colleague who has given up on our party astutely applies to the anonymous, unelected political operatives who have been calling the shots from our leaders’ offices and elsewhere in our organization throughout that period. Short-term tacticians all, they have wielded far more influence than either our members or our elected MPs. The results (where we are today versus where we should and used to be) speak for themselves.

While I’ve long been a critic of a Leader-driven party (precisely because that leads to apparatchik-driven policies and positioning), I have come to accept that the upcoming leadership race represents our last hope for the kind of deep changes that I see as essential to our survival and hence will be very significant for Canada’s future. My preference is to remain neutral in the race out of respect for the Party offices which I hold, but I will use these pages to articulate and explain the key challenges facing Canada and will analyze and score the platforms of the leadership candidates on the basis of the degree to which they do or don’t truly address those challenges.

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