Lost in the Wilderness: Canada’s Liberal Party

Hard to believe, isn’t it? More than four years after losing power, the Liberal Party of Canada is still struggling to regain its stride. The party that, aside from perhaps Mexico’s PRI, built the greatest 20th century political dynasty of the western democracies; the party that, until Paul Martin came to lead it, looked like it might govern forever, remains unable to find itself, and the party’s recent “thinkers conference,” formally known as Canada at 150, showed they are still searching without success.

The problem is simple: the Liberals need more votes. The solution is far from obvious. The root cause isn’t Stéphane Dion’s disastrous tenure as leader, nor Michael Ignatieff’s heretofore uninspired time at the helm. Their dilemma is far more complex than that, and some of it is beyond their control. They are fighting against democratic and geographic changes that favour their opponents. They are grappling with how to retain core constituencies and bring in new ones. The Right has its act together; now the Left is the divided side of the political spectrum. Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have replaced the Liberals as the country’s most polished political machine, decimating the once-mighty Grits in crucial areas such as fundraising, communications professionalism, caucus discipline and ethnic outreach. The sloppy amateurism that once characterized the Tories is now a Liberal affliction.

Policy (or lack thereof) is another part of the quandary. The Grits have had no clear, overarching vision or policy direction since, at best, the middle of the Chrétien era. Back then, they seemed to know where they were going: strong leadership, balanced budgets, pragmatism and timidity on the international stage. Today, most Canadians couldn’t name a single thing the Liberals stand for. Part of the credit for this is due to Harper, who has pursued a deliberate strategy to make the Tories virtually indistinguishable from the Liberals on certain big-ticket issues, while simultaneously drawing clear distinctions on questions that can move Conservative votes: crime, taxes and support for Israel, for example.

The Liberals know all this. So the solution to the policy void was deemed to be the holding of a new thinkers conference in Montreal at the end of March. Like most good ideas, it wasn’t a new one. The Liberals had done this in 1960, when then-Liberal leader Lester B. Pearson famously convened a group of scholars, journalists and politicos in Kingston after the Grits were trounced by John Diefenbaker in the 1958 federal election.

At that confab, not only were the ideas hatched that would animate the Pearson years, but many of the individuals were identified who would later occupy senior government posts charged with executing Pearson’s agenda. Throughout his two minority governments from 1963–68, Pearson would implement some of the most expansionist policies of any government before or since, building important branches of the federal state apparatus that continue to frustrate the advancement of Canadian conservatism to this day. The Liberals held a similar, though less-famous meeting in Aylmer, Quebec in 1991, which hatched some of the policies that Jean Chrétien successfully ran on in 1993.

Attendees to this year’s conference, therefore, had understandably lofty ambitions. The media built it up as a pivotal moment in modern Liberal history—an event where new ideas would be unearthed, policy would be debated in intricate detail and maybe even history would be made.

All the right people were there. Liberal luminaries of past and present were to be found in every corner. The room had plenty of gray hair—all living ex-leaders were present at some point during the weekend, as were many former cabinet ministers and ex-staffers. (The average age of the participants was very high and may have had something to do with the prohibitive cost of attending—the delegate fee was $695, excluding travel, lodging and food.) The rest of those present consisted of those professional conference-goer types (i.e. people claiming to work as “consultants” of one sort or another), party stalwarts from the Trudeau and Chrétien eras, some academics and journalists, and ambitious young Liberal activists. Some of the most interesting conversations of the weekend took place in the lobby just outside the main conference room, where many of the participants spent a great deal of time hushing in corners sipping coffee.

The agenda for the weekend was to devote a chunk of time to a series of themes, which can be boiled down roughly to jobs, family issues, the environment, competitiveness and foreign policy. The idea was to come up with policies that would guide Canada in these areas—under a Liberal government, of course—to the year 2017. The typical platitudes were tossed around using the familiar old buzzwords: learning, innovation, responsibility, competitiveness, etc., but in the end, very little in the way of new material was generated. And perhaps that is to be expected, given that in this era of sound bites and image management, political operatives care about putting on a good show above all else.

Speakers ranged from fair to interesting, but a few were thoroughly gripping (in content, not in speaking style). The much-discussed critique of Canadian foreign policy launched by retired diplomat Robert Fowler was one. The man who had been held hostage by al-Qaeda in 2008 launched a withering attack on both the Liberals and Conservatives, chiding both for what he perceives as a lack of vision for Canada’s role on the world stage. Whatever one makes of the content of his remarks—portions of it were certainly contestable—it was thoroughly refreshing to hear someone speak so frankly and passionately at a partisan political event. (The video of Fowler’s speech and those of all the conference panels are still viewable online at www.can150.ca.) Media reports about the conference also focused on the remarks of former Bank of Canada governor David Dodge, who told the assembled that Canada needed to have an “adult conversation” about the spiraling costs of healthcare. Groundbreaking it wasn’t, although provocative enough given the presumed views of most people in the room.

While the content of the speeches was far from revolutionary, the execution of the conference itself was, and for that the organizers should be lauded. The use of the Internet enabled thousands of people (presumably those who couldn’t afford to attend) to participate online. A total of 70 satellite sites were set up in cities across the country. According to the Liberals’ numbers, the Canada at 150 website had 52,000 hits throughout the weekend, 20,000 viewers watched the conference via webcast and 6,200 participants took part in a live chat during the conference.

Still, when all was said and done, I couldn’t help but ask myself: what was the point of this? Who were the Liberals trying to speak to? Was it potential new adherents, disgruntled ex-believers or the already converted? There was no serious talk about how to reconquer Quebec, or whether or not cooperation with other parties on the Left ought to be pursued. The main ideas coming out of the weekend were that Canada needs to be more innovative and competitive, invest more in education, protect universal access to healthcare and consider implementing a carbon tax.

We’ve heard all this before. There was very little discussion about how all these promises would be paid for. Specifics were avoided all weekend. Ignatieff took pains to declare the Liberals weren’t interested in creating grandiose new federal government programs, but that’s what speakers and delegates seemed to be proposing. During his closing remarks, Ignatieff took the opportunity to unveil a plank of the Liberals’ next election platform: to freeze, rather than continue to cut, Canada’s federal corporate tax rate. He also announced that he would try to shrink the deficit to 1% of GDP by the end of his second year in office. Electrifying stuff.

The point is, while the discussion was frank and honest, little new came out of this that wouldn’t please current Liberal sympathizers, which, if polls are to be believed, represents 25–30% of voters. I was reminded of a comment made last fall by Conservative strategist Patrick Muttart, who was asked to react to a set of slick, sophisticated TV ads that had just been released by the Liberals in an attempt to reintroduce Michael Ignatieff to Canadians. “Quite frankly, he doesn’t need additional ‘snob’ votes as there are none left on the table,” Muttart had said. “He’s got a lock on this corner of the political marketplace.” It took a Tory partisan to make this observation. The Liberals know they need to appeal to a broader range of voters yet can’t seem to break out of their current mould. For the most part, the conference featured Liberals (or at least liberals) talking about ideas that would please Liberals. This isn’t the path back to power.

The contrast between the Tories and Liberals in terms of grasping the strategic game is incredibly stark. Consider the difference: while Harper implements tax credits for everything from trade apprenticeships to hockey skates, the Liberals offer a carbon tax and insist on the pressing need for a national daycare program. But of course! Everyone knows young parents are practically begging for the chance to have strangers raise their children!

The problem isn’t just the ideas—it’s the paradigm itself. The Liberal brass, while acutely aware of their vote deficit, still doesn’t seemed to have accepted what Andrew Coyne, Brian Lee Crowley and others have so convincingly written about: that the zeitgeist has fundamentally shifted since the Liberal glory days (and even more so since their 2006 ouster) and it isn’t coming back. Indeed, it will continue shifting further. Nothing less than a full-scale renewal of the party, its strategy and vision is required. Tinkering around the edges won’t do. Canada has changed and the ground is still shifting, particularly demographically. The old Liberal coalition of urban Ontario, Quebec and a few seats in the Maritimes and the West won’t lead to majority governments in the next few decades.

The country’s economic power base continues to slowly shift westward, where, aside from a few urban Vancouver ridings, the Liberals still inhabit the political backwoods. The problem will only get terribly worse once the next parliamentary seat redistribution comes into effect. Under proposed legislation, the House of Commons is set to gain 30 new seats—18 in Ontario (where the Tories are continuing to make gains) and the remaining 12 in B.C. and Alberta. None of the ideas discussed during Canada at 150 will help the Grits win new seats in Alberta, British Columbia or urban Ontario—which is in some cases becoming solidly Conservative because of issues like crime (think of the seats surrounding Vancouver) and in others is trending NDP (think Hamilton, Ontario). Advantage: Conservatives.

The conference made me wonder whether the Liberals are really taking advantage of their voter-imposed wilderness years. It was critical for the Liberals to lose the 2006 election, not just for their own long-term well-being but for the integrity of Canadian democracy itself. As evidenced by the sponsorship scandal, the party had been in power too long. It’s difficult to imagine the anger that would have resulted, particularly in the West, had the Grits held on to government and the Harper Tories lost a second straight time in that election. There was already simmering anger from when Paul Martin hung on in 2004, after Adscam had already been unearthed. A repeat win would have confirmed that the Liberals simply couldn’t lose, no matter how appalling their behaviour.

Just as important as a Conservative win in 2006 was a Tory re-election in 2008. It was necessary not only to show that the 2006 victory wasn’t just a fluke, but it was essential for the Liberals to understand that their defeat wasn’t simply a two-minute trip to the penalty box. To return the Liberals to power in 2008 would have denied them the critical exercise the Canadian right went through from the period between Kim Campbell’s crushing 1993 defeat to the reuniting of the two conservative parties in 2003—a period Tasha Kheiriddin and I call “The Lost Decade.”

The wilderness years are critical for successful long-term rehabilitation, particularly for a dynasty party like the Grits. Until Canada at 150, the Liberals had engaged in virtually no policy renewal activities, hoping Canadians would vault them back into power based on … I don’t know. Harper fatigue? Loyalty to the Liberal brand? Love for Ralph Goodale? Whatever it was, it didn’t and won’t work. Since the 2008 election, the Tories have continued to solidify their grip in power, working along the theory that the longer Harper stays in office, the more Canadians get used to used to him and realize he isn’t that bad. Coming back to power by default is no longer a possibility for the Liberals.

Despite the nattering nabobs in the media, the problem isn’t just Michael Ignatieff, who, despite his underwhelming performance so far as leader, is a thoughtful and decent man. The problem is a new reality that is increasingly at odds with statist liberalism. Combine this with the professionalization of the Tory party under Stephen Harper—particularly in the area of appealing to targeted demographic groups of voters—and the rebounding economy, and the Liberals have a great big problem. That’s not to say it isn’t insurmountable; Liberalism has struggled at various junctures in modern history. Shortly after Ronald Reagan became president of the US, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan declared that the Republicans had become “the party of ideas.” It was the conservative movement who put forward bold proposals to take America out of its economic rut and rehabilitate its might on the international stage. The US Left has, of course, been revived, due in part to the popular appeal and victory in 2008 of President Obama. America is still a centre-right country—the unpopularity of President Obama’s policies has brought this reality into plain view—but liberalism is still a competitive ideology. In Europe, statism has dominated politics for decades and the economic collapse we are seeing unfold on TV every day is the result. Opinions differ as to whether what’s happening in Europe will result in a resurgence of the left or have the reverse effect. One thing’s certain: the Canadian right is in splendid shape in the global context. It is making great strides on the ideas side—the Tories dominate in the battle of ideas and nearly all the interesting policy prescriptions now come out of Canada’s small but ever-growing cadre of free market think tanks. Overall, Canada is probably still a more centrist country than our neighbours to the south, although it’s not clear for how much longer.

There are some signs the Liberals at least understand the need to move outside their comfort zone. Ignatieff recently announced a national food policy to promote local farmers markets and local foods, as well as toughening up food inspection standards on imported food. It also includes a new program to educate Canadians on healthy eating and new regulatory standards on trans-fats. This is not the stuff of far-sighted visionaries, but it’s at least something.

Federal Liberals must realize that the path back to power is not what it used to be: to simply show up and wait for the Tories to screw up. Things have irreversibly changed. Only by presenting a clear alternative vision with policies that reflect the changing Canadian reality and appeal to new, non-traditionally Liberal groups will they ever win new votes and find their way back to prominence. One idea they might consider is to outflank the Conservatives on the right in areas where they are vulnerable—particularly program spending. Now that would really shake up the political landscape.

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