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Time for a new Liberal party?

Now that we know Bob Rae is not running for the permanent position of Liberal leader, many questions are left unanswered. On first reflection, Rae’s abstention bodes well for his reputation. Although the party decided he could run for the permanent position, Rae has avoided having to defend his integrity. When he said earlier that he would not run, he meant it. Rae performed admirably as interim leader by maintaining (if little else) the relevance of the Liberal Party after its historic defeat in May.

Bob Rae has run twice for the leadership, and he probably wonders how things woud have unfolded had Gerard Kennedy supported his candidacy over Stephane Dion’s in May 2006. That said, in 2006, despite the premonitions of defeat and stagnation, the Liberal party’s brand was still alive. At the time, it was still the Liberal party  – its leaders, its ideas, its image – and not yet the NDP, that Canadians turned to.

Bob Rae decided not to run either because he feared he would not win or because he thought that a candidate with youth, charisma, and vigour would contest the nomination. Perhaps he knew Justin Trudeau’s plans better than we? Given Trudeau’s insistent refusal to run, this seems a stretch. Was it a question of age? Although Rae claims that age is ‘bullshit’, Michael Ignatieff’s recent suggestions in a Globe editorial suggest the importance of ‘youth’ in the minds of the Liberal elite… Do Trudeau’s 40 years then discount him? What’s young today?

More likely Rae felt like the task was Sisyphean. For the Liberal party to reclaim some shred of its former glory, Thomas Mulcair would have to explode (or implode) and the Liberal brand so new, would have trouble capturing the majority of the electorate not in Harper’s camp.

It is clear to me that Bob Rae has good political skills and instincts, a warm and approachable demeanour, and an evident intelligence. Likewise, Trudeau knows how to work the media, has an abundance of natural and physical attributes, and a last name with a mixed-bag of consequences. That he would excite and stimulate some of the Liberal supporters seems obvious, but then again, the Liberal supporters that would go weak in the knees for Trudeau’s progeny aren’t really the ones that need to be convinced. The Liberal party is in desperate need of reinvention. If we compare the Liberals to the NDP and Conservative reinventions over the past decade the overwhelming stasis of the Liberal brand becomes apparent.

I’m not suggesting that the Liberal brand is stuck in its heyday of the 60s and 70s, but I think its brand and policy platform hasn’t evolved since the 90s, when the Canadian brand and the Liberal brand were one and the same. The troika of the 90s ‘brand’ was, and remains, a dogged devotion to the ideals of multiculturalism and peacekeeping, guided by a care-taker government (really, what large initiative of the era can you point to?). The Liberals wanted to rock no boats; they had grown complacent.

This must change. The Conservatives have been so successful at demolishing the 90s troika that the Liberals must, above all, find new symbols, new policies, and new faces around which they can build a new program, project and plan. The kind of thinking, internally consistent though it may be, that Trudeau brings to the table is the same kind that has suffocated any vitality in the party.

Trudeau is simply too soft, too idealistic, and too tepid. He is the consummate 90s Liberal, too reverential of the sacred cows of Canadian public policy and political correctness, and too idealistic in tone for someone who hasn’t done much nor proposes much that is new. He comes across as corny and not a little phoney when he gesticulates bemoaning the awfulness of the government and his aspirations for our people.

No, the Liberals would do well to heed the advice of many columnists, including Antonia Maoini, and tackle some of the major issues in Canadian politics with fresh eyes and bold suggestions. Millions won’t like it as it is very risky. If not properly explained or sold it could very well be party suicide, but what have the Liberals got to lose? Some issues I would like to see addressed would be coherent and would reflect the 21st century approach to problem-solving, within the context of a new image of Canada. An image that is centred on prosperity, adaptability, and a juvenile confidence.

Canada is well situated today unlike some of it’s OECD neighbours who are experiencing calamitous times. It is about time that Canada takes risks, spends some money, becomes creative, and asserts its relative stability. For the Liberals, the key is to be more conservative than the conservatives on some issues and more left than the NDP on others. But the point is not to present a wholesale package of political opinions, but rather, to look at each policy and case one by one and determine which work, ideology be damned. The Liberals would do well to address some of these issues. It is important to remember that for those that may seem risqué, the party would gain credibility from once implemented.

What I’m suggesting is that there are tons of ideas out there, there are tons of bold, drastic reforms that we can make. Today, there is a fundamental lack of imagination in the Canadian political and public sphere. There is a suffocating form of consensus which finds abrasive and treacherous recommendations that are outside of the box, or rarely mentioned. The Liberals have a golden opportunity to be a vessel for new individuals, with open minds and new ideas. A lot of these will rock boats, a lot of these will upset people, and they run the risk of being rejected at the ballot box. But when citizens claim to want change, we should at least grant them their demand. We should respect that they can handle different ideas, and maybe even consider some. Canada is not so great to merit the complacency it so often elicits. Politics can be important again. It can be refreshing and exciting. It can be the venue where things are changed, and where our future is shaped in accordance with our current reality, and our collective aspirations as a people.

The Liberal party should keep three and only three things that define it today: its name, its colour, and the long-held belief that it is this party which drives the forces of Canadian history and identity. The rest it can scrap. Imagine a new Liberal party, helmed by a great communicator, someone who will totally redraw the map of Canadian electoral politics, and get people involved again, not just in a partisan sense, but in a cultural and intellectual sense. Imagine the Liberal party proposed these (or some, or some others) ideas: (author’s biases and preferences included):

– Double immigration levels

– Double arts and culture funding

– Much more money for urban infrastructure, notably public transportation (Windsor-Quebec high speed rail, maybe?)

– Student loans that are repaid as a function of earnings (like in Australia)

– A serious consideration of a hybrid health care system, more home care, some private, very adaptable (like the French have)

– Legalize marijuana

– Reverse the hard-on-crime sentencing measures

– Reviewing equalization

– Deregulate telecommunications and dismantle supply-side agricultural and dairy economics

– Reverse the cuts to foreign service, expand diplomatic and trade missions and postings

– Ensuring the military is modern, but sufficient for our needs (yes, even when it’s expensive)

– End the lease payments from airports to the federal government (sounds trivial, but is important)

The party would be progressive in that it would be forward-thinking and dynamic without succumbing to the fallacy that ‘progressive’ politics is actually the dogged attempt to fit our world into some 60s social-democratic model.

Canadians want their politicians to be honest and talk to them plainly, as adults. To hold up their end of the bargain, the electorate needs to start considering ideas and proposals which shake orthodoxy. John Tory’s reasonable position to fund all denominational schools sunk his 2007 Ontario election, but why? On what grounds? Should we be funding public Catholic schools only in Ontario? The only consistent and logical position is to fund none or all. That Ontarians weren’t (and still aren’t after the gay-straight alliance fiasco) ready to rectify this seemingly obvious policy anachronism makes me doubt our ability to tackle the thornier issues of public policy.

Bob Rae was probably not the person who would have jump-started this conversation, re-imagined the Liberal party with this amount of boldness. I don’t think Trudeau has the temperament or the rigour for this task as he’s too dyed-in-the-wool to challenge the orthodoxies of his father’s party. There doesn’t seem to be much evidence that anyone in the party is of this thinking either. That said, it’s the only way out of obscurity, irrelevance and dormancy. This is unfortunate, because what is there to lose when you’re headed for extinction?  Someone, preferably not from the political sphere, needs to step up. He or she would have at least my vote, and that’s a start, no?



–  Christophe Cinqmars-Viau

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