The Liberals shall rise again

NationalPost.com – fullcomment
December 4, 2010.   Conrad Black

The current malaise of the federal Liberal Party is temporary, and could end at any time with a bit of leadership panache and original policy thinking. But a national day-care program, a policy of tying foreign aid to abortion rights, and Bob Fowler’s paean to the virtues of soft power at the recent pallid reenactment of Lester Pearson’s famous Diefenbaker-era Kingston thinkers’ conference, won’t do.

Michael Ignatieff, Bob Rae and Stéphane Dion are intelligent men, and the Liberals retain the advantage in access to cutting edge academics and professionals. It should not be beyond the wit of these leaders to patch together some interesting ideas that would get even the consumptive cynics of the political press buzzing about some novelty in the camp of the Liberals.

The political media have no love for the Conservatives, who are competent but not especially popular and widely believed to be a monolith whose every move beyond basic administration is widely thought to be wholly political. The media are ready to proclaim a Liberal renaissance, if they had anything to work with.

What sort of fresh ideas could fuel an invigorated Liberal party?

The economy is the major issue. And while Jim Flaherty is an able finance minister, and the government and central bank’s policies have been defensible and quite effective, there is plenty of room to propose corporate and personal income tax cuts, compensated for on the revenue side by taxes on certain types of sales and transactions that are elective and not especially stimulative.

Canada has an opportunity to lead the world in policy innovation, but it is unlikely that the Conservatives will get us there. Persevering readers will recall that I have plumped for a modest and self-liquidating wealth tax that would go to poverty-reduction projects that could be devised and administered by the taxpayer, and regulated in the same manner as charities. This would put the most agile financial minds behind poverty reduction and give the wealthiest an interest in addressing the issue. It would also make at least a modest start on income disparities, which should be attacked mainly by lifting the lowest, rather than tearing down the high earners.

I have already proposed stand-by tax adjustments that would incentivize savings and discourage spending on all but essential items, as the first line of defense against inflation, instead of just cranking up interest rates. Each 1% increase in the borrowing rate increases inflation by half a percent. This is a cure that pours gasoline on the fire until a back-breaking recession is induced to slice inflation off at the knees. And I believe the central bankers of the hard-currency countries do this, just because they have done it, as a habit. The Liberals have had innovative finance ministers, including William Fielding (for 19 years), James L. Ilsley, Douglas Abbott, Walter Harris, Walter Gordon, John Turner, Donald Macdonald, John Manley, Paul Martin (the younger), and Ralph Goodale. There is general puzzlement why there now are not more original ideas coming from the Liberal Party.

There is no discernible Liberal policy on national security matters, and foreign policy is awfully soggy at the edges; just worm-eaten chestnuts and tired pieties about the United Nations, a degraded institution that is now just primal-scream therapy for the most wretched and contemptible regimes in the world. Last week, I suggested a doubling of the size of the armed forces, as a method of achieving a number of desirable goals simultaneously: directly or indirectly taking 75,000 people off unemployment insurance and employing them, while training and invigorating them; promoting the economic stimulation of increased aerospace and shipbuilding activity and advanced research and development; and raising Canada’s standing in the world. We have just about played out the old peacekeeping routine, which has now been largely discredited as the misuse of United Nations funds to pay underdeveloped countries to provide under-trained forces as mercenaries in factional disputes in failed states, and call it peace-keeping. The armed forces could be partly merged with a job corps, conservation corps, and community-service units, and soldiers could be used in suitable tasks after basic military training has been provided.

Improved military capacity could have foreign-aid potential, as in Haiti, where, predictably, the aid effort has been a disaster, with the U.N. personnel widely blamed, fairly or not, for aggravating the deadly cholera epidemic. Canada should propose a joint protectorate of Haiti, between this country, Brazil, the United States, France, and if it would contribute, the U.K., and work out a long-term program of public health, education, administration, transport, tourism, light manufacturing, development and reforestation.

Liberals should not imagine that their malaise is just the end of the tribal bloc-vote in Quebec that gave the Liberals a lead of 50 to 70 MP’s coming westward into Ontario in every election between 1921 and 1984 except 1930 and 1958. Building on the Conservative conscription debacle of 1917, the Liberals romped to huge victories in Quebec in 17 of 19 federal elections in that period, representing themselves in Quebec as the party that would make Confederation work for Quebec, and outside Quebec as the party that would keep Quebec in Confederation. The Liberals formed the government after 14 of the 17 elections in which they swept Quebec (and the three that they lost, 1958, 1962, and 1979, produced parliaments that did not last a year). They will not get that advantage back. The Conservatives have just as strong a claim on Quebec voters now. And that is for the best: While King and Trudeau, especially, performed unique service in preventing the disintegration of the country, their strangle-hold on Quebec was unhealthy.

I proposed here two weeks ago that the three federalist parties co-operate to run a single candidate in each Quebec riding, to squeeze the anomalous Bloc Québécois. It appears that the Conservatives are cranking up to concede Quebec another $2.5-billion in annual tax revenue in exchange for the Bloc supporting the next budget and keeping the government in office until it can add about 12 MPs in Alberta, British Columbia, and Conservative-leaning parts of Ontario. It may be a legitimate tax-concession, so strident moralism is not called for, but the Liberals and NDP should take after this unholy alliance with the Bloc, hammer and tongs.

The Liberals will quickly end talk of a malaise if they revert to traditional Liberal positions. The government’s harsh treatment of convicted criminals — longer sentences, severe visiting restrictions, ending many vocational and recreational programs — is popular with the Conservative base. But it is a regressive and repulsive policy of the kind that past Liberal leaders would have opposed, as W.E. Gladstone raised Britain in the 1870’s against the atrocities of Disraeli’s Turkish ally. Michalel Ignatieff should be proposing reduced custodial sentences for non-violent felons, complete decriminalization of marijuana offenses, and more treatment and less incarceration for most drug offenders.

The Liberals have never really had a malaise before, even when they lost badly. There was no malaise under William Blake, Lester Pearson, or John Turner. All talk of a malaise will be banished when there is leadership that is both imaginative and faithful to the Party’s reforming traditions. It will come, either under this leader or his successor.

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