Redefining Canada’s Liberal party: Priorities of equality and community…

TheStar.com – Opinion/Comment – Redefining Canada’s Liberal party: Priorities of equality and community should guide its future progressive agenda
Published On Sun Dec 27 2009.   By Thomas Axworthy

Today the Star launches a debate on the policy choices facing Canada’s Liberal party. After two election defeats and two leadership changes since 2006, the party has not only been out of power but, at times, out of ideas. A long-delayed Liberal policy conference is now slated for March in Montreal. In this occasional series, prominent Canadian thinkers challenge the party to do some fresh thinking.

Liberalism is an old faith, defined succinctly at its origins in the 18th century battle cry of the French Revolution, “liberté, égalité, fraternité.”

Canadian Liberals will be attempting their own redefinition of how to apply these enduring values when they assemble in March 2010 in Montreal in a much-delayed thinkers’ conference.

The risk for the Liberal party is that it may not have the luxury of time. Party strategists are hoping they have a year or more to get ready for an election, but Stephen Harper has the option of going to the people whenever it advantages him most. This could be either following the Winter Olympics extravaganza in February or the massive publicity of the June meetings of the G8 and G20 conferences of world leaders in Canada.

The values of liberty, equality and fraternity often contend and every generation must try to strike an appropriate balance. The liberty of bankers and their corporate boards to set enormous compensation levels, for example, set in motion the massive risk-taking that brought the world financial system to its knees and caused the recent recession. The liberty of Wall Street risk-takers should have been regulated in the interest of stability in the wider community.

My advice to the Liberal party as it contemplates its future is that Canada needs a much stronger commitment to equality and community. A commitment to fairness would contrast with the excessive devotion to individual pursuit that is characteristic of the neo-conservative movement. How we relate to each other, care for each other and compromise for the common good are the values Liberals should promote in the next election.

Pierre Trudeau is most identified with liberalism’s traditional commitment to individual rights. His proudest achievement was the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. But, in his last major essay reviewing his life’s work and assessing the Canada of the 1990s, Trudeau emphasized that the fight for freedom was now “yesterday’s battle,” and that the value with the highest priority in the future just society should be equality of opportunity.

He wrote: “For where is the justice in a country in which an individual has the freedom to be totally fulfilled, but where inequality denies him the means? And how can we call a society just unless it is organized in such a way as to give each his due, regardless of his state of birth, his means or his health?”

Trudeau’s insights about equality have been confirmed in an important new book, The Spirit Level, which should be read by every progressive interested in knowing why more equal societies almost always do better. The authors, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, are epidemiologists, not political ideologues. Interested in trying to understand the causes of differences in life expectancy, they took their approach of “evidence-based medicine” and applied it to “evidence-based politics.”

The evidence they present is overwhelmingly persuasive – unequal societies do worse according to quality of life indicators, such as infant mortality, obesity, life expectancy, crime and literacy. Even small decreases in inequality make large contributions toward improving the quality of life of society as a whole. Preventing disease is the cost-effective way of achieving overall quality health, they argue, and in a similar fashion, prevention of social maladies is the most cost-effective means to promote and protect societies.

People certainly need a decent income to be happy and productive, the evidence shows, but beyond this medium level, striving to get ever-larger amounts of income weakens family, lifestyle balance, the environment and the community. The authors conclude: “Greater equality is the material foundation on which better social relations are built.”

How should the priorities of equality and community guide a future progressive agenda?

THE DEFICIT: Canada is now running deficits of more than $50 billion annually and this is plainly unsustainable. In making the cuts and tax increases necessary to right the balance, the first question to be answered should be: Will this action reduce inequality in Canada or make it worse?

ONLY WORK WORKS: With the boomer generation soon to retire we need policies that create quality jobs to pull people out of dependency at home and attract immigrants from abroad. The perverse interaction of our tax and social policy regime ensures that those making less than $20,000 a year, precisely those who need economic opportunity the most, remain disadvantaged.

GLOBALIZATION: In terms of sensitivity to community needs, Canadian-owned companies have an obvious advantage over global behemoths. The fire sale of Nortel to foreign buyers, for example, was a real tragedy. How to create an ongoing Canadian edge in a globally competitive world should be at the forefront of public policy.

SOCIETAL HEALTH AND POVERTY REDUCTION: The best preventive health policy is a poverty reduction strategy and the best poverty reduction strategy is a pro-work and pro-family strategy. Families are the core of community. So in our social spending children must be one essential focus and seniors the other. We must especially prevent the millions of Canadians who do not have adequate pension protection from slipping into poverty. Those at the start of life and those in the sunset of life must never be forgotten.

FIRST NATIONS: If poverty among children is the widest, deprivation among our aboriginal peoples runs deepest. Water quality on reserves must rise from Third World status, urban aboriginals must come into policy focus, and our three northern territories, which have such significant aboriginal populations, must finally be treated equally by Ottawa by devolving resource revenues to them.

ENVIRONMENTAL SUSTAINABILITY: Community demands that the air we breathe and the water we drink should be a common good. Stewardship of the planet is humankind’s greatest responsibility. It is a duty that Canada is failing.

DEMOCRATIC INSTITUTIONS: Community requires a commitment to civility. We cannot learn from each other if we do not respect each other. Our political system alienates Canadians because our parties have allowed their partisan instincts to become overbearing. Our representative institutions are dying a slow death.

Vaclav Havel, the former president of the Czech Republic, writes: “It is my responsibility to emphasize again and again the moral origins of all genuine politics.”

Liberals in Canada should emulate Havel’s example. Morality demands a fairer Canada that places community at the centre of public policy. Bringing us together to secure opportunities for all is liberalism’s next great challenge.

Thomas S. Axworthy was principal secretary to former PM Pierre Trudeau.

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