Liberals have to create a new political centre
Canadians may have once valued the Liberal party, but they reject what it has become. The reason is simple. The centre is dead. Worse still, Liberals let it die. What once was the pragmatic core of Canadian politics, today is a wasteland devoid of an imaginative, progressive vision, occupied by a largely obsolete electoral strategy.
Don’t believe us? Consider the issues the Liberal party managed over the 20th century. The creation of universal health care and the social safety net. The management of the Canada-U.S. relationship by balancing opportunities for Canadian businesses with our desire to preserve our identity. Engaging Quebec and seeking to affirm its place within the country. Cultivating multiculturalism while simultaneously securing individual rights in a charter. Fostering peacekeeping to ensure local conflicts did not escalate into nuclear confrontation.
These were significant accomplishments that defined three generations of Canadians. They are also no longer relevant.
Today Canadians, especially young Canadians, are confident about themselves and their identity — no longer is there a “lament for a nation.” The sovereignty movement, while not dead, struggles. Individual rights continue to erode discrimination and the hierarchical relationships that impeded free expression and liberty. While some progressives continue to bang these drums, no one should be surprised that they no longer resonate.
In other cases, the solutions offered in the 20th century are no longer relevant. Canadians know — as health care threatens to eat up 50 per cent of provincial budgets and service levels remain mixed — that their health-care system is broken. Young Canadians don’t even pretend to believe a pension system will exist for them. Anyone can see that peacekeeping cannot solve today’s international conflicts.
On all of these issues, the traditional offerings of progressive rings hollow. But there is an opportunity for progressives. An opportunity to build a new centre. A centre that moves beyond the debate between conservatives of the right and conservatives of the left.
On the right is a Conservative party that, at its core, doesn’t believe in the federal government. It’s a vision for Canada grounded in the 1860s, of a minimalist government that is responsible for little beyond law and order and defence. Its appeal is the offer to dismantle the parts of the system that are broken, but in so doing it will leave behind many of those who are protected and enabled by the government.
On the left is a party whose vision is to return Canada to the 1960s. It’s a world of a strong national government, of an even bigger health-care system, social safety net and welfare state. Its appeal is a defence of the status quo at all costs, which in the long run will be many. The conservatism of the left means protecting what is unsustainable. It is the unreformed arc of old ideas.
If there is going to be a new centre between these conservative poles, Liberals will need to stop lying to themselves — and to Canadians. They need to acknowledge — loudly and publicly — that they failed to reform the institutions of the 20th century and, as a consequence, health care is broken and the welfare state as presently constructed is financially insatiable. A progressive future lies in taking these challenges head on rather that passively avoiding them.
Moreover, a modern progressive view of government needs to meet the consumer expectations created by Google, Apple and WestJet. Fast, effective, personalized, friendly. In short, progressives need a vision that not only safeguards citizens against the extremes of a globalizing market, but also meets the rising expectations Canadians have of services in the 21st century — all this in a manner that will be sustainable given 21st century budgets and demographics.
No party has figured out how to accomplish this, on the left or the right. And trolling through 20th or 19th century ideologies probably isn’t going to get us there.
The future for progressives rests in figuring out the political axes of the 21st century around which new solutions can be mined and new coalitions built.
We suspect these will include open vs. closed systems; evidence-based policy vs. ideology; meritocratic governance vs. patronage; open and fair markets vs. isolationism; sustainability vs. disposability, and emergent networks vs. hierarchies. It is these political distinctions, not the old left versus right, that increasingly resonate among those we speak to.
The challenge is enormous but progressives have done it before. In the 19th century, the rise of industrial capitalism led to a series of tense societal changes, including the emergence of an urban working class, increasing inequality and the terrifying possibility of total war.
A centrist party turned out to be the place where three generations of pragmatically driven progressives were able to lead nearly a century of Canadian politics. Doing this again will require starting from scratch, but that is the task at hand.
David Eaves is a specialist on public policy, collaboration and open source methodologies.
Taylor Owen is a Banting Fellow at the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia