How Lib-Realism Hurt (and Hurts) Canada's Liberals
The Liberal Party of Canada has traditionally been a party that embodies the spirit of liberalism and added a measure of realism to its political judgment. The Party stands for progress, democratic capitalism, working towards a better future for Canadians based on liberal values, the welfare state (since Trudeau), and positive liberty, and suffuses that platform with pragmatism, a clear conception of the what it defines as "the Canadian interest," and power. This mix has worked fantastically well for the so-called "natural governing party" of Canada, but it seems that in recent years someone has meddled with the formula, and realism has moved to the forefront, overshadowing the liberal features of the Liberal Party. Allow me to explain.
Power--its preserveration, maintenance, and expansion--is the core tenet of realism. It is attractive, and when enjoyed for particularly long periods of time, it can become an object in and of itself. In 2004 I first noticed that the Liberals were running out of ideas and making their calculations based on power; not the power of Canada in the world (that's something still reserved for France), but the power of the Liberals in Canada.
The 2004 election was not a particularly policy-heavy election, strange given the two main contenders were Paul Martin and Stephen Harper. All throughout his run to the leadership of the Liberal Party, Martin seemed to be overflowing with ideas and a vision for Canada in the 21st century, which is what attracted my interest in the party in the first place. Harper is known to eat policy books after reading them by the dozen so that he can maintain a leg up on everybody else. Paul Wells surmises that the reason the 2004 election was so awkward and short on real policy was that nobody was truly prepared for it, the Tories having just completed their leadership conference and the Liberals (Martin especially) shell-shocked from the revelations of the sponsorship scandal. The Liberals' mantra seemed akin to Raiders' owner Al Davis's dictum--"Just win, baby"--so that they could remain in power and then eventually get around to doing some policy stuff.
Because of the growing importance attached to retaining political power and the diminished value placed on ideas, values, and Canada's future, Canadians were increasingly fed what renowned political scientist Kim Richard Nossal refers to as "ear candy" by their government: political platitudes that are appealing to the ears of Canadians, if not a little insulting to their minds. On a couple of occasions I saw Paul Martin go through the pep-rally speech and then turn his tone to something grave and deadly serious. The topic was Darfur, a matter that is truly grave and deadly serious. I listened as Martin talked about the genocide going on there, and about how Canada had/has a responsibility to protect people from this type of inhumanity and he was going to do something about it. I have no doubt that Paul Martin truly believed in the cause of stopping the genocide in Darfur. But nothing ever came of it. As a result, two years after I first heard the Martin speech in Penticton, the violence is still ongoing and may threaten to cross into neighbouring Chad. Ear candy. Make Canadians feel good about themselves, and do nothing to change that perception.
Concurrent with the rise in ear candy, the national interest was replaced with the Liberal interest. Ballistic missile defence was an issue that Martin himself had indicated his support of, it was something that would benefit Canada at no cost to us, and would signal our readiness to stand by our allies. But Quebec opposed it, and, with the party reputation in tatters already over Adscam, the calculation was made that it would cost even more votes in that crucial province, and so Canada said no, only three days after its voice in Washington had said almost certainly yes.
Eventually even the ear candy was snatched away, and the Liberals' primary interest was how to prevent losing their power. Election 2005-06 was the most poorly-run campaign I have ever seen in this country from a legitimate political party. Stephen Harper will turn Canada into a military police state. Without us around, you'll get nothing to help raise your children except a pithy cheque from Stephen Harper. U happy? Stephen Harper will bring in a "road map" that outlaws abortions. Stephen Harper will turn Canada into a country that would make a Republican blush, and he'll be best friends with George Bush. What was Martin's vision for Canada in 2006? Implementing legislation to ban the federal government from using the notwithstanding clause, the implication being that Harper would use it to deprive your rights, and convening an international convention to outlaw weapons in space (he's only 50 years too late to prevent that). OK, so maybe the ear candy wasn't totally taken away.
The obituaries for the Liberal Party all had a common theme, expressed best by Adam Radwanski shortly after the election. It had become "a party that was so much more about ambition and opportunism than any sort of values." Ambition is, of course, the pursuit of power, while opportunism is the use of power to expand power. I knew that the jig was up two days before the vote, and said this on January 21st: "After doing an about-face on everything that he once stood for, he has ran a disastrous campaign, replete with anti-Americanism and fear and smear, and devoid of any true vision for a future prosperous Canada. The Liberal website today features no positive messages about the party's platform, merely desperation attempts to tear down Harper's lead and image." The worst manifestations of realism hurt the Liberal Party to such an extent that even Jack Layton was picking at the carcass and getting away with it.
Here we are now, 10 months after the vote. Have the Liberals gotten it through their heads that people aren't interested in giving them power unless they have something to offer? Signs aren't positive. My former colleague Riley characterizes their recent efforts to promote themselves as a "party built to win" as more in line with being a "party built to spin." There are some ideas out there, but they are potentially disastrous for the future of Canada. The Quebec "nation" debate is political hemlock, and that Michael Ignatieff is drinking it so deeply is a cause of deep concern. They remain hopelessly divided on Canada's participation in Afghanistan, and the anti- side's platform is being used by the Taliban as evidence that Canadians are weak and will withdraw from that country if the terrorists maintain their own resolve. The party website's main page is full of anti-Harper references, but offers no hope and vision other than that Howard Dean is coming to speak to them.
Until the Liberals realize that they are liberals, and start acting like liberals, they will remain in trouble. Their venture into politicking realism--the use of realism for political advantage--has paid miserable dividends. Bring back the grand vision of a strong and united Canada, with national programs that reach out to Canadians who seek to pursue a path of excellence in their lives and in their world, a Canada that plays a strong role in implementing the pillars of its international policy instead of merely talking about them. That's the Liberal Party of Canada I signed up for back in October 2002, and many others did in the following year. I don't know the current numbers, but I wager that it is a fraction of the 531,000 members in the ranks in November 2003. The about-face, which has abandoned the best tenets of liberalism and embraced the ugliest facets of realism, has left them bereft of both ideas and power. Through knowledge and understanding comes power, not the other way around. Liberals in this country have forgotten that. On a weekend in which we remember, it is clear that the Liberals have something more to retain in their minds.