The Liberal Party must listen, not just to its own members but also to what the majority of Canadians are saying. Liberal voices are critical, but the party cannot move forward if it looks only inward.
The task ahead is simple enough — the Liberal Party of Canada must reposition itself so that a majority of Canadians see it as the best political vehicle for Canada and for Canadians to achieve their greatest potential.
But key in that sentence is “majority of Canadians.”
The numbers don’t lie. Most Canadians no longer support the Liberal Party — fewer than one in five voters did so in last May’s election. Yet in terms of rebuilding, in terms of policy development, the Liberal Party continues to look only to its own. To be fair, the Liberal Party just had a very successful convention, and most encouraging was that a full third of the delegates were under 30. But although the numbers were excellent for a political convention, we live in a country of over 34 million people. The number of card-carrying members of the Liberal Party is a tiny fraction of the Canadian population — in Ontario, barely 0.15 percent of Ontarians. In large swaths of the country, that fraction is even more minuscule or, worse, nonexistent.
The Liberal Party must do more than preach to, and listen to, the already converted. Current Liberal voices are important, but we can’t move forward if we only look inward.
The good news is that there is a huge opportunity facing the Liberal Party, but we must pay attention, not just to Liberals, but to what the rest of the country is trying to tell us — to all those who really wanted a better alternative the last time.
In the last two elections, many of the Canadian voters who chose something other than Liberal were happy with their choice, and most of those people will vote the same way again, regardless of what the Liberal Party does or doesn’t do. But we also know that many Canadians voted without enthusiasm, as a compromise — people who chose an option that they saw more as the best of a lacklustre group — or, sadly, as simply the lesser of the evils. The type of comment often heard: “I really don’t like Harper, and I don’t support the Conservatives on crime, but they’re doing okay with the economy” or “I don’t agree with the NDP’s economic policies, but I wanted to see things shaken up a bit.” There was a political void — and the Liberal Party wasn’t there to fill it.
Far too many Liberals still believe that the last couple of elections were anomalies, that people were unfairly swayed by the attack ads, that our last couple of leaders just didn’t resonate enough, that we were outspent, that we didn’t attack back enough. All true, but the problem was far bigger. Because we’d been all over the place on so many issues, because we’d waffled on various policies, no one knew where the Liberal Party stood on fundamental issues. We looked weak and indecisive.
So what to do? Looking inward and only listening to ourselves isn’t enough. Liberals keep using the same vague language that describes how Liberals already see themselves, like “progressive centrist,” “balanced” and “moderate.” We say that we support “jobs, jobs, jobs,” “individual rights and freedoms,” “economic responsibility,” “social justice,” “education and innovation”; we say that we are “inclusive,” that we must “fight poverty” and “punch above our weight internationally.”
But what do these nice-sounding words really mean? How do they differentiate the Liberal Party from other political parties? Unfortunately for Liberals, they don’t. Most if not all of that language can be used by many Conservatives and New Democrats just as easily as Liberals. What do those words tell Canadians the Liberal Party would actually do in government that would be different, that would be better than the other options? Not much. I don’t even call myself a centrist any more. My views on any particular topic, and those of many Canadians, are plenty firm — they aren’t in any mushy middle. They aren’t “a little bit left” and a “little bit right” and therefore somehow in the “centre.” The whole paradigm of left and right, of a neat, straight-line spectrum of political thought stretching from one side to the other has disappeared. And without a “left” and “right,” the concept of “centre” doesn’t mean much.
Far too many Liberals still believe that the last couple of elections were anomalies, that people were unfairly swayed by the attack ads, that our last couple of leaders just didn’t resonate enough, that we were outspent, that we didn’t attack back enough. All true, but the problem was far bigger.
Making things even less clear, Liberals often disagree fundamentally among themselves over what these words mean, exemplified by the often very different positions that Liberals have taken publicly on any number of topics. Worse, thanks to almost perpetual leadership campaigning, Liberal leaders — and potential leaders — have been unwilling to take a stand on most issues or to clarify Liberal Party positions because they’ve been trying too hard to please everyone in the party, vying for leadership support. No wonder people don’t know where Liberals stand.
We used to know. The Liberal Party has a great history and some incredible nation-building accomplishments to be proud of: universal health care, the Canada Pension Plan, the Canadian flag, the Charter, the Clarity Act and official multiculturalism, which has helped build the inclusiveness and appreciation of diversity that makes Canada a pluralistic success that is the envy of the world. But Canadians are looking to their futures, not the past. They want firm positions on the things that matter to them and their families, and they want action. Canadians want leadership, not waffling.
The opportunity is here now for the Liberals to show that leadership, and to be the party for Canada’s future. But Liberals must have the courage to take the stands that a majority of Canadians are asking for.
This Liberal has been incredibly fortunate over the last several years to have had thousands of conversations with Canadians across the country, from all walks of life. The following summarizes what I’ve been hearing, and my views on what Canadians are looking for — Canadians, not just Liberals.
Canadians want prosperity. They want jobs. They appreciate diversity. They don’t mind what other people do as long as they don’t hurt anyone else. They don’t want anyone to suffer in poverty. They want people to be able to retire and die with dignity. They want, not equality — they appreciate rewarding competition, talent and hard work — but they want equality of opportunity. They want a better future for their kids. They want to be proud of Canada internationally. They want a clean environment but they know that we can’t go backward, so they want pragmatic solutions to environmentally sustainable growth and prosperity. And they want respect.
The Economy Is Key: Canadians want prosperity, for themselves and their neighbours. We must not be ashamed of business and the role of the market — instead, we must embrace what they can do to bring prosperity, and then reinforce how to use that prosperity for the greater good. Too often I’ve listened to Liberals scorning “big corporations” as if they were the devil incarnate, even though there are far more Canadians whose jobs depend on those large corporations than there are members of the Liberal Party. Without prosperity, there’s less that we can do for others. And key to prosperity is investment, competitiveness, productivity, innovation — and attitude. Fundamentally, the option is whether we think Canada can embrace globalization, compete with the rest and succeed. And we can. Canada is beautifully poised not just to compete internationally, but to embrace the opportunities offered by globalization. We have world-competitive levels of education; we have a diversity of language and culture that provides a comparative advantage we’re only just barely tapping into. We have extraordinary natural resources that, developed properly, can add immensely to the prosperity of all Canadians — but we need to have the courage and the political will to support and move some of the major proposed projects forward, with the confidence and the will to do so on an environmentally sustainable basis.
And to take full opportunity of the world economy, we must focus on education, skills and encouraging innovation — our wealth isn’t just in the ground, the water and the forests, it’s in our brains, too. We need to work with all orders of government, business and educational institutions to foster, cultivate and encourage the most educated and skilled population in the world.
As a trading nation, with so many Canadians depending more on both exports and imports than many countries, we must encourage more free trade. Just because Harper is saying the same thing doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea. It is the right thing to do. We can either hide behind protectionist walls because we’re afraid we’ll lose out, or we can open those walls even further because we have the confidence that Canada and Canadians can compete and succeed. Critics say that we need to “protect” jobs, that we need to “protect” Canada from the rest of the world. But Canadians do not want Canada to be a low-cost-labour destination. As the world economy evolves, yes, some jobs will move away. But Canadians want to build the prosperity that will bring the higher paying, higher value-added jobs, the kinds of jobs that internationally successful Canadian companies can provide. For those who worry about human rights, labour and environmental standards — yes, we can work those in — but fundamentally and philosophically, we need to believe that the more engagement we have with another country, the more the people in that other country will see the options and work to improve conditions in their own country. And to enable greater trade, to open up markets for Canadian goods and services, academics, economists and virtually every Canadian business and farming enterprise (other than dairy, poultry and egg producers) are saying that Canada must move away from the protectionist policies of supply management.
To encourage investment (and to dissuade enterprises from going elsewhere) we need competitive corporate taxes, and instead of blindly supporting unions as does the NDP, business and government need to work with the unions for compromises that allow us to compete and to prosper together.
Canadians rightly applauded the Liberal Party for the elimination of a decades-long federal deficit and the reduction of what had become a massive debt — the Liberals put Canada back on its fiscal feet — balancing the books and creating the fiscal dividend. Canadians appreciate fiscal responsibility. People understand the need for government and the essential services it provides, but they don’t want a nanny state. They want government to be smaller, more efficient, effective, to spend responsibly and to balance its budgets. We’ve done it before, we can do it again.
Social Justice: Canadians are concerned about the increasing disparity between the highest and lowest earners, but they’re not socialist, either. This is a key reason why the NDP will never be in government. Canadians appreciate competition, the value of the market, rewarding talent, hard work, innovation. But they also know that, even in Canada, not everyone gets the same chance to succeed. It’s not equality, but equality of opportunity that matters. That is something that a majority of Canadians wholeheartedly support. And that means education, and it means community programs and social safety nets that ensure that children in poor families aren’t disadvantaged due to things beyond their control. The more people in Canada who have full opportunity to succeed, to build on their talent, their hard work, without being held back because of poverty or other circumstances, the better off we all are.
Canada is beautifully poised not just to compete internationally, but to embrace the opportunities offered by globalization. We have world-competitive levels of education; we have a diversity of language and culture that provides a comparative advantage we’re only just barely tapping into.
We must stand firm for a woman’s right to choose. Abortion is a tough subject. As with most of these issues, not everyone will agree. But the tough ones are often when we need to be the toughest. We must stand fully behind same sex marriage, because we stand behind the Charter, equality before the law and the individual rights and freedoms of all Canadians. Most Canadians understand that certain behaviour may offend or upset someone’s own views, but as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone, it must be allowed — indeed, protected — in a democratic society.
Most also agree that marijuana should be completely legalized (happily, a resolution roundly supported at the recent Liberal convention). This is supported by all the arguments that finally ended Prohibition, and reinforced by polls, and by criminologists, academics, economists, jurists and police — and my own very wise 87year-old mother, who saw the failures of Prohibition. Yes, we must proceed carefully, but the hypocrisy of one approach for alcohol but another for marijuana that puts kids in jail, endangers innocent people and makes criminals rich is untenable.
And despite the barrage of propaganda from the Harper government, a recent Environics poll found “an increasing majority of Canadians think the emphasis should be on crime prevention strategies (e.g., education, prevention programs) (63 percent), up five percentage points since 2010 and now at the highest level recorded [since 1994]. Fewer than half as many (31 percent, down 5) now take the opposite perspective” of putting more people in more jails. Most Canadians would agree that the best victim’s right is to not become a victim in the first place.
Demographics: We have an aging population. It is not an invention of the Harper government, it’s a fact. We will have to address the challenges this poses to programs like Old Age Security and the Guaranteed Income Supplement and our overall approach to income and retirement security. But we must address them substantively, not with knee-jerk reactions to either cut, on the one hand, or simply spend more on the other. We need to over-haul the system in a responsible way. Canadians want Canadians to be more responsible for their own retirement. But no matter what we do, there will be people who will need help, and Canadians do not want a government that will stand by and let fellow Canadians, in a country as affluent as Canada, live their retirement years in poverty.
Health Care: That same aging population will affect health care and how we provide it. It already is. Most of us know that we cannot simply keep spending and spending, but for too long politicians have been unwilling to talk about this, while Canadians who can have been increasingly speaking with their feet and their credit cards. Canadians are extremely proud of our publicly funded universal health care system, but it’s being eroded. We must address what we can do, and how, in a time of aging population and soaring costs. Yes, we need to look at options for private delivery within that system. We need to be tough on what the system should pay for and not — what is medically necessary as opposed to a luxury. We need to look at pharmacare and its funding. Most importantly, we need to be brave enough to have the discussions needed to prevent further erosion of the system we want to maintain. And health includes mental health. Most Canadians are exposed to the challenges of mental illness one way or another — whether it’s themselves, a friend or a family member who is suffering. Yet they see politicians turning the other way.
Aboriginal Canadians: According to the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, over the next 10 years 400,000 Aboriginal youth will enter the workforce. More precisely, they will be available to enter the workforce, but many will be without the education, skills or even social capacity to participate. This is a massive concern, not just for them but for Canadian society as a whole. That is a staggering number. At the same time, industry is calling for greater immigration of skilled labour because we don’t have enough people already here in Canada to do those jobs. The opportunity is obvious, but the challenges are huge. The root causes need solutions, for sure. In the meantime, this country needs to figure out how to match these young people with the jobs that are available.
Since the Harper government tossed aside the Kelowna Accord, the Liberals have become loath to really engage. The Kelowna Accord would have provided much-needed funding, but funding alone is not the answer. The challenges are far greater, and more complex. Criticizing Harper for not addressing the problem but without offering concrete alternatives isn’t enough. We should talk, with the Aboriginal leadership, about dismantling the Indian Act and the Department of Aboriginal Affairs in order to create, together, something that reflects today’s needs. We need, together with Aboriginal leadership, to perhaps re-think the concept of reserves, to consider the concept of private property ownership, to talk both about the limits to what a non-Aboriginal government can do and about what Aboriginal leadership needs to be more responsible for. What we’re doing now isn’t working, and all Canadians, not just Aboriginal communities, want change. As with health care, the Liberal Party must show that it is prepared to engage in the tough discussions and to make some hard choices.
Immigration: Although many Liberals have reservations about some of the changes being implemented by the Harper government, many, many Canadians applaud what is being done. There is a huge resentment among many Canadians over the view that far too many people are coming to Canada illegally, gaming the system. Canada has indeed become a target — we have wanted to help and to be fair (good goals, to be sure), but we’ve been taken advantage of by many. It’s not enough for Liberals to simply object. Canadians are willing to help real refugees, but they don’t want the system, or the opportunities offered by Canada, to be abused. The Liberal Party should be listening and responding to these concerns.
Canada and the World: Canadians are proud of our history on the international stage — stepping up when needed in the First and Second World Wars, helping create the United Nations, spearheading the notion of peacekeeping, promoting the concept of responsibility to protect. Canadians like balance, and many are worried about Harper turning Canada into the world’s strongest, unilateral supporter of Israel. We all support Israel, but with moderation and understanding, toward a goal of lasting peace. Many Canadians were embarrassed at Canada losing a seat at the UN Security Council. We have a long, proud history of supporting multilateralism, peace where possible and international development. On international issues, many Canadians do not support the Harper government. There are some clear opportunities here for the Liberals.
Environment/Pollution: Canadians understand that we can’t go back to living in caves. For a zero-damage environment, we’d have to take every car and truck off every highway; we’d have to shut down every mine, every hydro project, and almost all of our manufacturing plants and factories. But Canada’s future doesn’t lie in shutting things down. It lies in building the major energy projects of the future. It lies in the prosperity under the ground. But as noted above, Canada’s future isn’t just in the ground — it’s in our brains, too. And those brains are busy working on mitigating environmental degradation; on developing technologies that get oil and ore out of the ground with less damage; on developing the remediation technologies to reverse past damage; on building navigational radar systems and multiple-hull ships to reduce the chance of a sea spill — and on the technologies to clean one up if it happens. The future of this country and its prosperity depend on our ability to find a positive balance between business and the environment.
The Harper approach of demonizing all opposition is appalling. But Canadians, most of whom think of themselves as environmentalists, also know that zero risk, zero damage, zero development is not an option. We need to support the oil sands. We need to support the building of the national infrastructure needed to reap the prosperity from being a world energy and natural resources producer — and that includes the Northern Gateway, the Keystone pipeline, the Lower Churchill Falls and the myriad other projects in the works — as well as enhanced rail, ports and electricity transmission. It doesn’t mean we should sacrifice the work needed to ensure environmental sustainability — on the contrary, by insisting on environmental sustainability, on adherence to strong environmental standards, technologies will be developed that will then, in turn, be exportable to other countries.
Not all current Liberals will agree with all of these positions. Indeed, it is guaranteed that quite a few will object to at least some of them. But if we agree that the Liberal Party needs to represent that majority of Canadians who didn’t support us last time, the party must be prepared to be firm. We cannot please everyone. Taking a stand sometimes requires being able to say no — and in doing so, Liberals should be prepared to lose some of their members and supporters to other parties. But over thousands of conversations, over several years, with all sorts of Canadians — I’m convinced that this is where a majority of Canadians want us to be. Many, many Canadians want a political alternative that can proudly espouse both the economic responsibility and business understanding that is missing with the NDP, and the concern for social justice, human rights and equality of opportunity that is missing from the Conservatives. This has nothing to do with being in some vague “middle.” It has everything to do with pragmatic solutions to Canada’s challenges, to embracing the opportunities for our future in a new, confident, positive way.
This is a huge opportunity for the Liberal Party. Although many Canadians all across the country support the foregoing, no political party currently, clearly, represents them together. If the Liberal Party embraces and stands proudly behind this collection of fundamental principles, we will win over many, many Canadians — not just current Liberals — who are looking for the right party to take them, and Canada, into the future. Not left, not right, but forward.