March 22, 2013 – With the Liberals weak in every region of Canada and now in third place in Parliament, is a permanent realignment coming in our politics? Would the country be better or worse off without the Liberal Party? In last night’s latest Great Canadian Debate, historian Michael Bliss and John Duffy, former political advisor to Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin and Interim Leader Bob Rae, debated the future of the Liberal Party. Read their opening statements published in the Ottawa Citizen (also copied below).
Also, catch the debate broadcast courtesy of CPAC on Saturday, March 23 at 10 am ET and Sunday, March 24 at 6 pm ET.
Today’s Liberals are now the party of the mushy centre, writes Michael Bliss, the party of bourgeois confusion.
By Michael Bliss, Ottawa Citizen, March 22, 2013
The Liberal party in Canada, like liberalism itself, has a great past, and very little future.
The great past almost goes without saying. The party of Wilfrid Laurier, Mackenzie King, Louis St. Laurent, Lester Pearson, Pierre Trudeau, and Jean Chrétien dominated Canadian politics in the 20th century. But it has all fallen apart for the Liberals, a pathetic shadow with their 35 seats in the House of Commons, and real or pending collapse in every province except their Lego-fortress, Prince Edward Island.
Liberalism has already died in the countries from which we take our political lead. In the United Kingdom the Liberal party never recovered after the First World War. In the United States the word “liberal” has become something of an epithet, a term shunned by even Democrats.
Political liberalism is in crisis because in much of the western world its job is done — over, finished. Classic liberalism was about advancing political liberty — the struggle against authoritarian rule, the expansion of parliamentary freedoms, expansion of the franchise, and, in the 20th century, expansion of the idea of inalienable human rights. The Canadian struggle involved our evolution from imperial rule through responsible self-government and then our gradual march towards independence, all the while trying to preserve and strengthen national unity. It was also the development of democracy and respect for individual autonomy as expressed in the expansion of human rights and the personal security guaranteed in the modern welfare state.
The milestones on the Canadian Liberal road begin with the achievements of Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine, and go on through Laurier, King, Pearson, and, above all, the senior Trudeau. Pierre Elliott Trudeau was not a Canadian political maverick. In his political writing and in his political action, Trudeau was a classic Canadian Liberal, and as prime minister he finished the job begun by his predecessors. He gave us our own Constitution, he gave us our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, he preserved our country when its future was in grave doubt because of Quebec separatism.
After Trudeau, Canadian Liberals had little left to do. The Chrétien government got us through the ultimate counter-attack on the Trudeau settlement, the 1995 Quebec referendum, and it took precautions for future battles by passing the Clarity Act. It also tackled the Trudeau-Mulroney legacy of reckless debt increase.
Then, nada. Canadians were not ready for further constitutional change — such as abolishing the monarchy or perhaps the Senate. The pillars of our welfare state were all in place and more in need of repair and repainting than expansion.
In 2008 Stéphane Dion tried to forge a new Liberalism based on environmentalism, highlighted by his proposed carbon tax. Voters were not interested. In 2011 Michael Ignatieff tried to return to old Liberal ideas about fighting tyranny and the abuse of Parliament. But demonization of the Conservative government as enemies of liberty was simply not credited by the voters. Nor is there traction left in the old national unity card: the concept of unity, like identity, seems old-fashioned in an age of pluralism, diversity, distinctiveness, post-modern politics, and the Conservative government’s resurrection of classical federalism.
Now the Liberal party has no ideas at all. Instead of being the party of the vital centre, or the bourgeois revolution, the Liberals are the party of the mushy centre, the party of bourgeois confusion. The party’s old organizational muscle, sinews that worked even as its intellect ossified, has eroded in scandal and rot.
What’s left today is a skeleton party, dominated by Liberals bred in the bone, genetic Liberals — Trudeaus, McGuintys, Daveys, Raes. About all that glues the skeleton together these days is dislike of Conservatives. This is mainly useful in masking Liberals’ intense dislike of one another.
Parties without ideas can stay alive in the hope that their stronger opponents will be destroyed by arrogance and/or scandal. For the most part that doesn’t work for third parties. In today’s Canada the NDP is best situated to pick up the pieces if the Conservatives crumble. Think integrity issues. Think Senate reform.
Will young, charismatic, pragmatic leadership, make a difference? Justin Trudeau might succeed in postponing for another decade the inevitable creation of the Liberal Democratic Party of Canada. His problem is much like that of recent descendants of the great retailers, Timothy Eaton. They tried in vain to save a once-impregnable Canadian institution, a mighty national brand, whose time was past.
The Liberal party is about to go the way of the Eaton’s stores. Like Eaton’s, the Liberal party will live on in the pages of our history books, and maybe in the galleries at our new Canadian Museum of History.
Historian Michael Bliss, professor emeritus at the University of Toronto, is the author of 14 books.
With an enduring brand and a strong appeal to a new generation of voters, things are looking bright, writes John Duffy.
By John Duffy, Ottawa Citizen, March 22, 2013
I come to praise the Liberals, not to bury them. Praise their faith, their endurance, their resilience. Praise them for what they have done, and for what they are about to do. It may be too early to proclaim a Liberal Spring. But it is not too soon to speak of the Liberals’ long winter coming to an end.
In Quebec, provincial Liberals were by now supposed to be a third-place rump party. Instead, the PLQ forms a healthy opposition under Philippe Couillard.
About now, Ontario’s Grits were supposed to be ground to dust. Instead, under Premier Kathleen Wynne, they’ve surged past the formerly front-running NDP, to a dead heat with the Progressive Conservatives.
In Nova Scotia, with an election looming, Stephen McNeil’s Liberals are leading. So, too in New Brunswick. In P.E.I., Robert Ghiz’s Liberal government is becoming a fixture.
And the federal Liberals? Perhaps their winter is ending as well. They are currently in first or close behind in every national poll. In the critical race to raise funds, the Liberals, in their slough of despond, have out-performed their competitors, the NDP, during the full flood tide of that party’s possibilities coming out of the 2011 election. In the adoption of technology, the Liberals have at last turned the corner, mounting a sustained, multi-year effort which has kept going through changes of management and party leadership.
The results are starting to show. The Grits made a smart bet in creating a supporter class last year. Their leadership candidates have got the message, and taken an overwhelmingly digital approach to campaigning. In consequence, the Liberals have returned to a world where they have a sound base of approximately 125,000 participants whom they can reach at a keystroke. This is a base they have not enjoyed since Paul Martin’s 2003 membership juggernaut.
What is driving all this? Some of it is the return of political smarts to the Grits under interim Leader Bob “the Rebuilder” Rae. Some of it is a willingness to roll up sleeves and restructure. But there are other, deeper factors. And they belie the fashionable image of the Liberal party as a shipwreck, being battered to death on the rocks of history.
Instead, I see the Liberals afloat — sometimes barely through these past two years — on an enduring tide: the underlying liberal makeup of Canadian voter opinion. Look at the statistics, which show the Harper Conservatives consistently located within the band of support we historically associate with the Joe Clark PCs. Ask Prof. André Turcotte, who pointed to the “nagging resilience of the Liberal brand” regarding his polling report last month to the conservative Manning Institute. Look at the Harper government, resting on a narrow base, and with each passing week, a growing sense that it is time for a change in Ottawa.
Look as well on the weakness of Thomas Mulcair’s NDP, whose principal vote base is sovereignists who grew bored of the Bloc Québécois. Moreover, Mulcair’s insincerity in the pursuit of national unity is effectively ruling him out from the prime ministry. And most of all, he is not the late Jack Layton.
Like a lot of Liberals, I have struggled to come to terms with Layton. Until the advent of Justin Trudeau, that is. More and more, I am seeing Jack Layton in a continuum of next-generation leadership, alongside figures such as Gerard Kennedy in Ontario, Naheed Nenshi in Calgary, and yes, Barack Obama. He wasn’t even demographically part of this next generation, but he felt like he was. And Justin Trudeau is part of this group as well, and he feels the part, too.
The demand for this new generation of leadership is immense. There are millions of Canadians — as there were Americans until recently — who have refrained from first-time voting longer into their lives than any before them. A consensus exists among pollsters and social scientists that if and when these people come into the electorate, it will shift radically away from the older, greyer, more conservative-complected political nation we know today. These are not just the young people on their interwebs; their ages now reach into the early 40s. Their numbers now outstrip those associated with the baby-boomer voting influx of the 1960s and ’70s.
Justin Trudeau is one of their candidates. So are the others mentioned above, who have explored the possibilities of bringing this massive demographic into the political equation.
Generational transition knows not the norms of what has gone before — at least not in the moment. New Democrat critics who point to Trudeau’s thin resume sound to me like folkies in 1962 noting that the Rolling Stones don’t really know how to play the blues. The Tories who dismiss him sound like Sinatra fans scratching their heads about Elvis. Their criticisms feel mystified, even cranky — turn that thing down!
Liberals felt this way about Jack Layton in 2011 — hey, what’s he got that we don’t? Then, Liberals could only look at the NDP jealously. Now I sense the shoe is on the other foot.
So what happens when you put together the broad appeal of the Liberal brand and the generational momentousness of Justin Trudeau?
It’s too early to tell. But it’s something with a future. A future for the Liberal Party of Canada.
A lifetime Liberal, John Duffy is a founding partner of Strategy Corp. He has served as a senior strategic adviser to several federal and Ontario Liberal leaders, including former prime minister Paul Martin.