Long-term decline of a great party
TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Wed Aug 10 2011. Mike Crawley
Many Canadians reacted with shock to the federal Liberal party’s distant third-place finish in the last election. Was it an anomaly brought upon by a flawed leader or a sudden change in the Canadian political order? The answer is neither. It is simply the latest milestone in a long-term decline in a party that previously had contributed greatly to making Canada one of the best countries in the world.
The myth of the federal Liberals as Canada’s natural governing party has been propagated by its members and political observers long after its potency had already begun to wane. A Liberal opposition, many thought, was simply a government in waiting until the next election set the world right. The elections of the last 30 years, however, tell a different story. Only once since 1980 has the Liberal Party of Canada defeated a united Conservative party. In the last 37 years, Canadians have just once elected a majority Liberal government when a unified Conservative party was an option. Observing more recent trends, the actual Liberal vote has declined in every election but one since 1993. How in the face of such objective facts has the perception of the omnipotent Liberal party been sustained?
The emergence of the Bloc Québécois and the Reform party in the 1990s masked the protracted and entrenched decline of the Liberal party in Western Canada and Quebec. Despite various appeals, the Liberal party has never been able to attract meaningful levels of support in Western Canada since 1968. The Reform party’s rise, beginning in the West, initially allowed some Liberals to get elected as the right of centre vote split. This simply distracted many from the fact that the Liberal party had become largely irrelevant in the fastest growing region of the country. Moreover, the influence of huge Ontario caucuses in Liberal governments in the 1990s may have led to policies that further alienated Western voters. In Quebec, the Bloc performed a similar role as a shiny spoon that diverted our attention from the fact that the Liberal party had failed to regain the dominant position in Quebec that it had lost in the 1980s. During the Bloc’s reign, Quebec seemed out of reach for all federalist parties so, perhaps, this was not a problem particular to the Liberal party. This year’s election results should have shaken Liberals from this false comfort.
During this period of decline, the federal Liberal party began to rest on three key strategies. Indeed, to some the electoral success of the party in the 1990s made it appear that a fool-proof formula had been crafted.
First, the Liberal “brand” began to be seen as a powerful electoral juggernaut in and of itself. Public opinion research argued that Canadians were, perhaps genetically, predisposed to vote for a political party called “Liberal.” The waning days of the last election campaign saw perhaps the saddest execution of this “strategy” as Michael Ignatieff was left to holding signs reading “Liberal” at rallies to remind Canadians of what their deep subconscious should drive them to do. Putting aside the last election campaign, how strong can a brand be that is largely rejected in Canada’s second largest province and in its fastest growing region, the West? Like any commercial brand, the Liberal “brand” began to carry with it a perceived list of attributes and characteristics that to a great extent has stifled debate and suppressed new ideas within the party.
One oft-repeated attribute of this Liberal “brand” is that the party is centrist, moderate and progressive. As Liberals struggle to come to grips with the party’s decline, each of these have become touchstones or, perhaps, security blankets. Take the first two attributes: centrist and moderate. By definition both of these mean that the Liberal party is really defining itself by positioning itself relative to policies advocated by others and is, therefore, reactive. To be centrist or moderate, some other party must first define what is left and right. This is hardly the basis for bold, visionary leadership. As far as “progressive” goes, it is one of the most broadly used and ill-defined political terms. Many provinces have Progressive Conservative parties advocating right of centre of policies, whereas the Progressive party of the 1920s and 1930s promoted free trade but was also aligned with some socialist ideology. The least that can be said is it is very difficult to be both reactive, at the core of the centrist and moderate monikers, and progressive at the same time.
Third, the Liberal party began to distinguish itself from the rebounding Conservative party by presenting that Liberals saw government as a force for good. To create electoral contrast, this became twisted into thinking that every problem could only be solved by a new government program.
The unintended consequence of the above three-pronged formula for Liberal party success has been the squelching of internal debate and stifling the emergence of new, innovate policy positions. Why devise new ideas when the Liberal “brand” already resonates so well with Canadians? Constant care had to be taken not to take positions that risk abandoning the “centre.” The emerging view that “government is good” should be the solution to every problem when coupled with fiscal constraints meant that only so many challenges could be confronted at once. Finally, “gotcha politics” came to be an arrow in the party’s campaign quiver as a growing number of sacred cows could not be challenged within or beyond the party. For example, the discussion on health care has to go beyond guaranteeing funding and castigating any consideration of new delivery methods. While American Republicans have nearly bankrupted their federal government with dogmatic adherence to unsustainable tax cuts, Canadian Liberals should not allow the politics of health care to prevent a true and honest debate of this great fiscal and social challenge.
After years of lusting for power, once given the mantle the Conservative party has done very little. Challenges are ignored and opportunities are not seized. With all that we have been given, abundant natural resources and geographic positioning next to the greatest market in the world and along the exploding Pacific Rim, this is gross negligence. Silly political plays pass for policy, such as the paternalistic activity-based tax credits (why should the government take my money and then give me some of it back if I spend as I’m told?) and the irresponsible HST tax reduction. There is a tremendous need for an alternative to the current government other than the socialist wealth redistribution at the core of the NDP.
The Liberal party needs to find its raison d’être independent of pollsters and pundits. The great successes of the Liberal party never came from being the “Goldilocks party” — not too left, not too right. Nor did it come from a belief that government must be the first option to address any challenge in society. Certainly, the great achievements of Liberal governments did not fall out of a slavish devotion to an immutable Liberal “brand.”
Liberal governments introduced the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, pursued markets for Canadian products around the world, created a Canadian flag, brought our Constitution home, created the foundation for a bilingual nation, righted the government books in the 1990s, introduced guaranteed basic health care and ended discrimination in civil marriage. These policies and initiatives can be placed all across and, in some cases, nowhere on a political spectrum. They are not based on a blind faith in the power of government or constrained by a suspicion of it. The common denominator in all of them is that they were bold, innovative and impactful on the country. Nobody would call these initiatives “moderate.”
The foundation of the Liberal party, I would argue, is based on two simple yet powerful concepts:
1. That each individual has a fundamental right to freedom and should be unleashed to achieve his or her highest possible potential.
2. Blessed with abundant natural resources and access to robust markets, a unified Canada can be the freest and most prosperous nation on Earth.
The Liberal party would do well to drop the words centrist, moderate and progressive from its lexicon. The party should stand on top of innovative and bold ideas and not hide behind overused, focus group tested terms. In the coming months, as the Liberal party rebuilds, a robust and unrestrained debate of new ideas should emerge. We are not the party of the status quo. Sacred cows should be expunged. New ideas should be welcomed and encouraged.
Canada did not become what it is today through caution and passivity. All that has been achieved could easily slip away if we do not confront real challenges, seize opportunities and relentlessly seek to strengthen and unify the federation. If the Liberal party can find its soul and free itself from its own constraints, it can play a big role in writing the next chapter in the incredible story of Canada.
Mike Crawley is past president of the Liberal Party of Canada (Ontario).
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