The Great Liberal Defeat of 2011 and the ensuing rebuilding process has been a favourite topic of Canada’s news media and political punditry class over the past several months. Yet, as we come closer to the one-year anniversary of the Grits’ stunning defeat, few have provided a comprehensive description of what it should mean to be a Liberal in the 21st century.

By this, I don’t mean a description of the values that should unite Liberals. Canada’s Liberal grassroots already know what they stand for — in a nutshell: social progress, fiscal responsibility and environmental sustainability. Rather, what I’m referring to is a clear vision for the future of the country arising from Liberal policies.

Successful Liberal prime ministers often owe their political achievements to their robust visions for the future of the country. Take, for instance, Canada’s longest-serving member of Parliament, Sir Wilfrid Laurier.

Laurier had a vision for Canada in which our country would become a land of decentralized federalism and individual liberty. “Canada is free and freedom is its nationality,” he said. A classical liberal, Canada’s seventh prime minister fervently believed in limited government. Laurier served as Canada’s prime minister for a record 15 uninterrupted years.

Laurier demonstrated another important quality: pragmatism. Edmund Burke — one of Britain’s greatest statesmen — once noted that there was nothing more dangerous than governing in the name of a theory.

Laurier’s pragmatism meant more than conciliation — which he employed so well to keep English and French Canada united. It also meant putting forward specific policies such as expanding Confederation westward and providing Canada with its own navy so that our country would become more prosperous, independent and well-equipped to address the challenges of the future. In short, it was all part of Laurier’s strategy to ensure that the 20th century would belong to Canada.

Pragmatic idealism: that’s what it means to be a Liberal and what it means to be a Canadian. We address concrete challenges to protect our way of life. We fight for our values and for our interests.

Put another way, the Liberal Party of Canada needs to become Canada’s only progressive party: a party — free from ideology but not from ideals — capable of drawing from the left and the right as necessary in order to deliver real results for Canadians.

In an op-ed written just days after the May 2011 federal election, public policy specialist David Eaves and academic Taylor Owen wrote just that in the Toronto Star, noting that both the Conservatives and the NDP are in fact conservative parties — conservatives of the right and conservatives of the left, respectively.

The conservatives of the right — ideologically rooted in the 1860s — adhere to a view of federalism of “watertight compartments” and avoid sitting down with the provinces to actively discuss issues of national importance such as health care funding and reform. The conservatives of the left, on the other hand, adhere dogmatically to a 1960s vision in which the unsustainable (e.g., the current incarnations of our health care and welfare systems) is protected.

If the Grits are to become Canada’s “coalition of the serious,” to borrow a term used by Andrew Coyne in a March 2011 Maclean’s column, the time is particularly opportune. The challenges that we as a society face today and will face over the coming decades are immense. Whether we can effectively weather the storm will determine whether Laurier’s vision of liberty for all Canadians becomes a reality.

At the global level, geopolitical realignment coupled with environtmental change will fundamentally redraw the world map. The generations ahead will be living in a more unpredictable, multi-polar world than the one in which we currently live. At the domestic level, continued economic inequality paired with a shift in demographics will leave the next generation either taxed to death or burdened with massive debt.

The Liberal vision for Canada should be one that addresses these domestic challenges so that we develop the fiscal capacity to defend against the global threats cited above. The Liberals of today need to act so that the Canadians of tomorrow can be both free from harm and free to achieve their highest potential.

The world map in future decades will be very different. As China, India and Brazil continue to grow economically, they will also grow more powerful. As a consequence, the United States is perceived to be in relative decline and may lose its position as the unique global superpower. This does not bode well for Canada: our principal ally will thus be less willing to come to our defence if we’re faced with a military threat. And faced with a military threat we may well be.

The Chinese clearly have their sights set on the Northwest Passage next. The thought of a Chinese submarine in Canadian waters isn’t particularly pleasant. And it’s not just the Chinese that have their sights set on Canada’s Arctic region, which is potentially home to as much as 25 percent of the world’s oil reserves. The Russians are also interested.

As climate change continues to advance, the Northwest Passage — an important shipping lane that runs between Canada’s northern islands and that significantly reduces the distance between the American northeast and Asian markets — continues to thaw.

China, meanwhile, in its hopes to make the transition from regional power to global power, has begun to take control of key choke points in the system of international shipping lanes. Beijing’s policy of economic nationalism has allowed it to work its way into controlling the Panama Canal and contributing to the construction of future Latin American shipping lanes.

Furthermore, its diplomatic and economic influence combined with an increasingly powerful navy have created friendly passageways for Chinese shipping between Pacific island nations. It is easy for China to buy the support of such small nations, yet the advantages for the former go beyond mere access to shipping lanes. Although small, these nations are many, and each one has a vote within many important international institutions.

The Chinese clearly have their sights set on the Northwest Passage next. The thought of a Chinese submarine in Canadian waters isn’t particularly pleasant. And it’s not just the Chinese that have their sights set on Canada’s Arctic region, which is potentially home to as much as 25 percent of the world’s oil reserves. The Russians are also interested.

There happens to be one other small problem. The United States, in hopes of gaining unfettered access to the passage, wants it to become an international shipping strait, leaving it vulnerable to Chinese or Russian infiltration. The American position is in line with the general post-Cold War trend in which Western states prioritize achieving short-term commercial gain over securing long-term strategic interests (such as the Northwest Passage). Canada, on the other hand, demands sovereignty over the passage.

The Harper government hasn’t seemed to place a priority on settling this difference in position with the United States, despite the fact that if Ottawa and Washington shared the same goals relative to the passage, they could together represent an incredible force in negotiations with Moscow and Beijing over their interests in the Arctic region.

Nor have the Harper Conservatives demonstrated any interest in looking at alternatives to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to ensure Canada’s military competitiveness in the north, despite its soaring cost and possible ineffectiveness. Initial supporters of the F-35 — myself included — are now starting to look at the Super Hornet as a possible bridging purchase before a fifth-generation jet is acquired, combined with increased investment in missile and surveillance technology to maintain Arctic sovereignty.

Overall, I would urge Liberals to confront their traditional view of the role of Canada’s military. It’s easy to see that international peacekeeping isn’t going to solve the conflicts of the future. And at 1.5 percent of our GDP, we clearly don’t dedicate much public money toward core military funding if one compares Canada’s numbers with those of our NATO allies. If we don’t invest in core military funding early on to ensure deterrence, we’ll be spending a lot more on a war over the Arctic once it breaks out.

The Northwest Passage is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Canada’s security threats and liabilities of the future. Liberals need to provide answers to those as well, and not just those that are popular in the news media (e.g., Iran’s nuclear aspirations).

Global inequality and environmental change threaten also to spark mass atrocities (i.e., war crimes, genocide, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity) in the developing world, which in turn could result in border spillovers, the spread of pandemics and the establishment of safe havens for terrorists, which all pose a threat to international peace and security.

A Liberal government could make Canada lead the pack in NATO efforts to prevent mass atrocities abroad. This is particularly notable, since on this topic our interests (fighting terrorism, halting disease and stopping the porousness of borders in the developed world) are directly in line with our values (putting an end to genocide).

The direct consequences of environmental change, besides the thawing of the Northwest Passage, will also require investment from the Canadian government. For instance, the increasing occurrence of irregular weather events will at times require rapid response from government public safety operatives and investment in infrastructure to protect certain coastal cities from hurricanes or floods.

Much as when it comes to national defence, more money spent on core services and infrastructure now means fewer consequences for society down the road. One need not look farther than the consequences of Hurricane Katrina for the people of New Orleans — which were far greater than physical displacement of people and destruction of property — to understand why we need preventive action against climate change.

The Northwest Passage is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Canada’s security threats and liabilities of the future. Liberals need to provide answers to those as well, and not just those that are popular in the news media (e.g., Iran’s nuclear aspirations).

These are all existential challenges for Canada. For example, a potential Russian invasion of Canadian territory in the Arctic would be an immensely destabilizing act for the North American continent. The baby boomer generation takes our relatively peaceful and calm way of life for granted, despite the fact that future generations will be living in a very different world: a world in which China, Russia, Brazil and India — all of whom can be strategic partners on particular issues but none of whom is necessarily a natural Canadian ally — may have as much say in international economic and security affairs as our closest ally — the United States.

If the Liberal Party is to demonstrate that it is Canada’s only progressive party, then it will have to have a concrete plan to ensure that Canada has the fiscal capacity to address the environmental and geopolitical challenges of the future. That is, Canada will have to find innovative ways to generate revenue for the government while reducing expenditures. Luckily, Liberals have already taken important steps in this direction.

Even before the last federal election, Liberals were voicing their opposition to the Conservatives’ “tough on crime” agenda — an agenda being implemented despite the fact that crime is at its lowest level since 1973 — which includes the construction of American-style megaprisons at an estimated cost of $13 billion. Such funds would be much better spent on reducing our national debt or investing in long-term sectors where a little money goes a long way over the long term, such as education or high-speed rail.

Furthermore, at the Liberal Party’s biennial convention this past January, fully 77 percent of delegates endorsed making the legalization and regulation of cannabis in Canada official Liberal policy. Such a policy, if enacted, would result in a net gain of billions for the government, which would be winning revenue through taxation of the product and would be saving on expenditures by scaling back the failed war on drugs.

Another important way to increase government revenue is to finally get serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions by implementing a carbon tax. It would be particularly opportune if such a policy were negotiated and signed in tandem with the United States, for two reasons.

First, this move would protect Canada’s natural resources and energy assets from the wrath of the American Environmental Protection Agency, which may seek to exploit a loophole in the Canada-US free trade agreement, which allows for one side to sanction the other over threats to the environment or to public health.

Second, the policy could be extended to Mexico as well as to willing European and Asian markets over time, essentially setting a common international environmental standard in the process and demonstrating Canadian leadership on this important file following our embarrassing withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol.

The reason why Stéphane Dion’s green shift was rejected by voters was not because it was bad policy, but rather because it wasn’t sold properly to the Canadian public. Canadians should be told that revenue from such a carbon tax could be put toward paying down debt or reducing corporate or personal income taxes, hence ensuring a fair and competitive economy. Clearly, environmental sustainability and economic growth can go hand in hand.

Fully 77 percent of delegates endorsed making the legalization and regulation of cannabis in Canada official Liberal policy. Such a policy, if enacted, would result in a net gain of billions for the government, which would be winning revenue through taxation of the product and would be saving on expenditures by scaling back the failed war on drugs.

These moves, however, are but a start. The larger fiscal issues are set to arrive with the retirement of the baby boomers. By 2030, the percentage of Canada’s population above the age of 65 will have increased from 12 percent to 25 percent, while the ratio of available workers to retirees will have been reduced to two to one from five to one.

If no substantial reforms are implemented, paying for the programs that provide benefits to seniors (including health care) would necessitate revenue increases roughly the size of an entire additional income tax system, according to the president of the C.D. Howe Institute, Bill Robson. Reducing costs on this front is clearly a must.

Stephen Harper toyed with the idea of increasing the age of eligibility for Old Age Security (OAS) at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Putting the merits of this initiative aside, it is undermined somewhat by the fact that the increased cost of health care over the decades ahead will dwarf the OAS increases. Despite this, Harper’s government has provided little leadership or vision when it comes to health care reform, likely because of his “watertight compartments” view of federalism in which the federal government has little to no role to play in health care.

Seeing as the federal government has to provide the provinces with revenue so that the latter can actually provide the service — and seeing that public health and the health of one’s economy are intrinsically tied — health care reform must be treated as an issue of national importance. Although I am certain that there are many paths to take regarding such reforms, I have personally long been an advocate of allowing for-profit and not-for-profit private health insurance plans to be introduced so long as universal, publicly-funded, quality health care is maintained.

The merits of this are numerous: government spending on health care will be curbed; more doctors and nurses will come or stay north of the border to help end the Canadian brain drain; wait times will be reduced for all; research and development will flourish and benefit public health care; etc. With no political party currently arguing for competition in health care, this is ripe territory for the Liberals to seize.

This list of policies is by no means complete. The principal point that I am advancing, however, with the help of the list above is twofold. First, due to an upcoming labour shortage and service sustainability crises as a result of a demographic shift, we will naturally have to find ways to increase revenue for the government and bring down public expenditures. The problem can also be partly alleviated by keeping Canadians in the workforce for longer, increasing immigration rates, shifting immigration quotas to make Canadian economic requirements a primary deciding factor, and coming up with creative policies designed to increase both productivity and fertility.
Only Nixon could go to China. Similarly, only Liberals will be able to make the necessary cuts to government spending without facing the wrath of the Canadian people. Unlike the GST-cutting Conservatives, Liberals recognize that a strong central government enhances individual liberty. Only Liberals will be able to advance Laurier’s vision for Canada in which all are free from harm and free to achieve their true potential.

Second, Liberals should not fear advancing bold visions and ideas at this point in the party’s history, and not simply because Canada needs these ideas. Rather, with a long — possibly decade-long — rebuilding process ahead, saying something new, controversial or different should be viewed as a positive. It’s not “next election or bust” for us Liberals, so we can afford to begin championing causes and well-thought-out policies on a more consistent basis. These causes and policies will reach caucus only if the grassroots advance visions of their own.

Nor is a clear vision the only necessary component of a rebuilding strategy. Liberal strategist John Duffy has said that the party must master both the software (i.e., policy) and the hardware (i.e., technology, fundraising and strategic messaging) in order to catch up to the Conservatives and the NDP.

I spent my time from August 2011 to January 2012 outlining a vision to Liberals on how we could modernize our hardware, particularly when it comes to our party’s policy process. Of course, we must continue these hardware-related conversations. Yet we must not over-debate party structure at the expense of substance. Canadians are counting on us to deliver real results — to build a strong yet compassionate country that is truly the envy of the world.

Zachary Paikin
Zachary Paikin is senior researcher in international security dialogue at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy as well as a research fellow in grand strategy at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft in Washington, D.C. He also directs the project Canada’s Interests in a Shifting Order at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy. X: @zpaikin

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