Thursday, October 30, 2008

What the Liberal Party should and shouldn't do

This article by a vet of the "unite the right" outlines some of the steps that would have to happen for the Liberals/Greens/NDP to unite as one progressive party. Near the end of the article, the author says the united right hopes that any calls to unite the left will not be as successful for the hypothetical party as the Conservatives have been so far. While Conservatives say that a united progressive party would be a serious threat, the reality is that a united centre-left party would be the key to making the Conservatives the new natural governing party of Canada.

The Liberal brand is a centrist brand, and the party fails, at different levels of government, when it strays too far from the centre, or is unable to capture the centre. In Saskatchewan and Manitoba, for example, the provincial Liberals have struggled in recent years, due in large party to being shut out of the centre, thanks to a centrist NDP in both provinces (funny how NDP parties that actually get into power regularly have a bad habit of doing things like being responsible and being pragmatic, while the permanent opposition federal NDP blasts the Liberals for being "unprincipled") and particularly in Saskatchewan, where the Liberals have been shut out for 2 elections in a row as Brad Wall brought the Sask. Party into the middle. In Ontario, the provincial Liberals struggled for decades as the Red Tory machine that was the Ontario PC's dominated the centre, often times being more centrist then the rural based, prohibitionist Liberals, who have only found long-termish success under McGuinty by ensuring the centre does not slip from them. Federally, Liberals have failed when we have not been successful in upholding the centrist mantle, such as when Diefenbaker was able to break the decades long electoral hold of the Liberals by running on a Red Tory, spending platform, under Turner, who despite being a centrist leader was unable to shake off the leftist Trudeau shadow, the defeat of the similarly centrist Paul Martin who focused on social programs while in power in an attempt to target the NDP, and the last election, as we were unable to break past the image the Conservatives painted of Dion as a leftist. The Liberal base and coalition contains centre-right as well as centre-left parts, and a significant part of the base on the centre-right (myself included) would not hesitate to break away from a united left party to go to the Conservatives, and would be unable to win back swing areas like semi-rural and suburban ridings where the Conservatives have established themself, which would further cement efforts by them to build themselves as the new party of the centre. The Liberal brand, while definitely needing some re-building and re-imagining, still has strength, and this strength is in the centre.

Some have argued that the centre is dead, that Liberal values of pragmatism and gradualism cannot be sold in the era of 24 hour news cycles and spin, in which grand bombast and iron-fisted leadership are seen as positives. Others say that from a fundraising perspective, the Liberals need to drift to the left, in order to gain the support of leftist ideologues, as the centre is not a good position in which to draw donations. While both of these points of view do have some validity, the Liberals don't need to abandon the centre, we need to re-invent the centre in order to be a functional national party. An interesting article in the Globe and Mail the other day compared the policies and voter profile of every party inside and outside of Quebec, and the Liberals were the only party to have any real policy continuity nation-wide. This is a strong fact which which to re-build our centrist party. While the Conservative alliance between nationalist francophones, francophobic Reformers of the west, the Ontario mix of rural social conservatives and more pragmatic suburban centrists, and traditional Maritime conservatism has inherent instabilities that could prevent it from becoming the new natural party of government, and the NDP remains a protest party everywhere, the Liberal centrist coalition, when it is functional, is one of a national scope, but taking local and regional concerns into consideration.

Some new ideas and policies are needed to reinvigorate the Liberal brand as one of solid, reliable centrism, and here are some suggestions:

-Broad support for free trade agreements and real free trade, to capitalize on Canada's advantage as a trading nation, while making us a leader of the Western world in lobbying other developed nations to lower their own tariffs (including our own) to make free trade more effective and fair.
-New federalism. The Conservatives talk a lot about "open federalism", supposedly a landmark change in the way federal-provincial relations are done. In practice, however, it has done little but throw money at whatever province is politically convenient to throw money at, attack whatever province is politically convenient to attack, and overall make no actual changes to administrative frameworks. A Liberal policy of "co-operative" federalism is needed, with provinces and the federal government, on both a one on one and group basis, sitting down, and having landmark discussions like the one Martin had with the premiers over health care, and figuring out the most effective framework for service delivery to citizens. Other aspects of co-operative federalism would be the federal government encouraging provinces to remove barriers to inter-provincial trade and labour agreements, giving all provinces at least a voice in important federal appointments, and ensuring that broad agreement is existent between all provinces in the case of future potential constitutional changes.
-A re-discovery of the individual. Conservatives often claim that they have inherited the mantle of classical liberalism, that both big L and small l liberalism have been overly influenced by collectivist ideas, and that conservatism offers the only place for individualist voters. Often times, we have allowed these claims to go unchallenged, but it is time to stand up as Liberals and claim back the ideas of great liberal individualists like Adam Smith, and re-finding the balance with social liberalism great contributions. Concrete ways this could be done would be the addition of private property rights to the Charter, and making changes in tax law to encourage individual saving and responsibility
-On a related note, building up the ideas of Green Liberalism, and that the free market, with some appropriate government interventions, is the best tool to fight climate change. Measures individuals are taking to make themselves more environmentally aware, such as buying hybrid cars, retrofitting homes, etc, should be rewarded with increased tax credits. Additionally, corporate tax cuts could be tied into how environmentally friendly a business is.

These are just some basic ideas and proposals by a Young Liberal, but I hope the ideas of re-building our broad national base from the centre becomes an overriding theme of the upcoming leadership and renewal period.


Mike said...

Can you give any examples of how McGuinty's latest platform (or better yet his platform from 2003) was any more centrist than the Liberals platform was? After all McGuinty raised taxes and is against lowering corporate taxes, wereas Dion was proposing the reverse.

I know image is everything and I don't doubt the perception was that Dion was left and McGuinty is seen as more centrist, but are McGuinty's policies really any more "centrist" than Dion's were?

Red Tory said...

What an excellent post!

Very thoughtful and full of provocative ideas...

Personally, I've always had some difficulty with this whole notion of "left" and "right" and the "mushy middle" in between (to borrow an expression from Andrew Coyne), but I do think there's a strong argument to be made for a moderately progressive approach to governing that incorporates the best elements and innovative concepts of all parties without being constrained by doctrinaire restraints of our respective ideologies.

Anyway, again... nice job.

The Liberal Bag said...

McGuinty's last budget was admittedly a bit too leftist for my personal liking (it was drafted in response to losing a series of by-elections to the NDP), but yes, perception and context are important. For example, despite criticizing the rhetoric of the Common Sense Revolution, McGuinty has left much of the ideological infrastructure of it in place.

Provincially last election, the PC's made a play for the centre, while Hampton's NDP remained leftist. McGuinty basically played the Bill Davis card of "status-quo centrism"/Red Toryism so well that John Tory, who is a genuine Red Tory, was unable to get much space to convince voters to support him over McGuinty since the platforms were broadly similar, and incumbant governments are always much better at playing the status quo card then the opposition.

Similarly in the federal election, the Conservatives played the status quo card, and because of Dion being percieved as a leftist, and Layton making a play for the centre, the Liberals got squeezed as we were unable to tell a convincing story to vote for us over either the Conservatives or the NDP.

WesternGrit said...

I could not agree with you more. I've been ranting about "being Liberals again" for a long time. We need to be the "center extreme". Be vocal about who we are, and what we stand for.

While other parties have to bend their ideologies, compromise their principles, and basically lie and pretend to be "perceived" as centrist, we've been here all along. I hope to remain here. Talk of a merger with the NDP and Greens would be idiotic. Deals during elections, sure. Coalition government even, but NO, NO, NO to any sort of "unite the left". Especially since we aren't even part of the left.

By being associated with the left, we gave up entirely too much ground to the conservatives. While they painted us as "leftists", we did very little to call them right wing extremists. Rather, we focused on their financial mis-management too much - signaling to voters that "Harper isn't so scary anymore, just incompetent". That led to us having to prove his incompetence - which was very hard to do when his millions of $s in ads were saying otherwise.

We need to get back to the basics - which means being proud of who we always were, bring people into that fold whenever we take the time to celebrate our liberalness (fund-raisers, rallies, policy meetings)...