TorStar Op-ed: Liberals have to create a next political centre

This past Saturday the Toronto Star published the following piece by Taylor Owen and myself on its op-ed page. Thought I’d put it here for those who might have missed it.

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

6 thoughts on “TorStar Op-ed: Liberals have to create a next political centre

  1. MoS

    Quite remarkable.  You managed to completely avoid the factors that will be driving political and social policy for the balance of this century.   Climate change, environmental degradation, overpopulation, global economic, social and political upheaval, energy  insecurity and peak oil, growing income and social inequality, the list goes on.  Bay Street’s agenda can no longer dominate Canadian political discourse.  We have embarked on a century in which the old rules will no longer function for any nation.  We have hit the wall.  Mankind consumes our planet’s renewables faster than they can be replaced.  While some resources remain in abundance other critical resources are nearing depletion, in some cases exhaustion.

    We need a new approach to policy centered on Canada’s place in the world.   Ours is one of but a handful of nations best suited, by virtue of geography alone, to meet the challenges of this century.   We have a number of strategic advantages, blessings if you like, but much of their potential benefit can be lost to us if we don’t acknowledge, evaluate and engage them.

    We’re typically focused on downward-looking policy.   But, today and in the coming decades, we’ll need policy based on looking around us and, more importantly, looking forward.  We need to begin crafting policy on the basis of what we will need two or three generations hence.   We need strong vision of the sort we haven’t seen in decades.

    1. David Eaves

      MoS Don’t think I disagree with anything you’ve mentioned and don’t think our op-ed contradicts it (certainly don’t think we are supportive of Bay Street’s agenda). Could we have expanded it to include the management of natural resources and climate change.

  2. WesternGrit

     MoS – I agree.  We need to discuss, for example, stewardship of our resources, so we may help a world in peril – rather than a wholesale “fire sale” of our precious minerals, ores, fuels, and non-renewables.  

    I think the article does appeal to the logic of “telling it like it is”.  I often use the example of Ralph Goodale.  As lone Liberal MLA – and Liberal Provincial Leader in 1980s Sask – Ralph was the only wise voice in the Legislature, urging fiscal restrain (while the corrupt Devine Conservatives spent money like drunken sailors – and the opposition NDP offered their own drunken version – same idea, different pet projects).  Ralph was celebrated by the provincial media – and that, in no small part contributed to his continued political success.  

    As Liberals we can learn from Mr. Goodale.  He had it right then, and he’s continued to be a pragmatist – even as Canada’s Finance Minister.  Contrast that with the free-spending, “structure-deficit poster-child” Flaherty.  

    One point I do not agree on, however, is healthcare.  I’ve listened to the rhetoric – and many Canadians buy into it (that healthcare is too expensive, etc., etc.).  Realistically, I’ve seen the statistics (and let’s compare them on a per-capita basis) which indicate that we’ve seen real world cost increases of roughly 5% over the past decade (per annum).  Sure costs are rising, but then (and I agree we should be candid) how do we fix that?  Let’s consider how governments leasing facilities from private groups has hurt the system.  Costs of long-term leases of private property continue to grow.  Would we have been better served by healthcare properties being all crown-owned (I think so).  Leasing buildings and solutions from the private sector are great short-term solutions, but long-term leases bleed away funds.  

    And what about generic medications?  Canada has the capability to grow our very advanced generic drug industry, if we’d simply stop listening to the foreign private drug lobby.  We COULD provide much cheaper drugs to our citizens, if we would go that route – just as countries like India can produce our drugs at pennies on the dollar (fractions of pennies really).  

    What about logistical factors?  Our slowly deteriorating public infrastructure makes it very expensive to transit patients, reach remote areas, etc.  We end up flying patients via helicopter or jets since we don’t have a solid transit infrastructure.  A solid public transit system would ensure cheaper patient transfer, less waiting in traffic jams, and thus less “bad results” (ie patient deaths) in transit.

    The resulting cleaner environment would ensure less people become ill from pollution and such factors.  

    A simpler way of training recent-immigrant foreign experts would allow us to Lower wait times and the associated costs of a clogged system.  Growing a base of nurse-practitioners would also help.

    Computerized access to health records would be a HUGE cost saver.  Imagine how much time would be saved (which = man hours/wages/$$$) if every medical professional – from ambulance attendants, to emergency room staff, to surgeons had access to a patient’s medical file?

    Our system only costs more because we’ve allowed the private sector to drive a wedge into it.  there are many ways we can reform it – without going the private route.

    1. Stephen Downes

       > Our system only costs more because we’ve allowed the private sector to
      drive a wedge into it.  there are many ways we can reform it – without
      going the private route.

      I think this is key to understanding the strains on the health care system in Canada.

  3. Stephen Downes

    > On the left is a party whose vision is to return Canada to the 1960s.

    Either your characterization of the left is wrong, or I’m not a leftist. I suspect it’s the former. I don’t see the left as being “the unreformed arc of old ideas” but rather as a forward-looking and progressive vision of the empowerment the people as a whole, as opposed to a wealthy subset of them.

    And indeed, either your characterization of the issues – “evidence-based policy vs. ideology; meritocratic governance vs. patronage; open and fair markets vs. isolationism” – is wrong, or I’m outside your political discourse entirely. None of these three represents a valid choice; there is a path to governance that addresses these three from the perspectives of reason, equity and social justice, respectively, rather than one or another of the dilemmas offered.

    Honestly, I don’t care whether my government is left, right or centre. But we do not preserve health care by pricing it out of the reach of the poor. We do not address the issue of pensions by reserving them only for the wealthy. We do not meet issues of poverty and unemployment by throwing people into the street or under the bus.

    We are all individuals, and fundamental to any political philosophy will have to be the idea that each of us wants maximal freedom, maximal self-governance, and maximal prosperity int heir own right. But no sense of governance or social progress may be achieved unless there is also a sense that we’re all in this together, that while we each strive separately for personal goals, we watch out for each other, and take care not to harm those around us.

    The Canadian centre, I think, lost the plot, becoming consumed by financial matters and competitiveness, even with its own ranks, that it forgot the damage this does to the whole.

  4. MoS

    I don’t believe there has been a greater policy vacuum in our country’s history.  We simply don’t have policies to help us meet the challenges that future generations of Canadians will have to confront.  This overstuffed human hamster cage we live in that is already at 7-billion and now expected to exceed 10-billion by 2100 can’t be ignored.

    One challenge for keeping Canadian society healthy is inequality.  The wealth gap between rich and poor needs to be substantially narrowed.  The middle class (blue and white collar) needs to be bolstered.   Recent books such as “The Spirit Level” make clear the broad reaching and utterly corrosive consequences of income inequality.   We’re going to need as strong and cohesive a society as Canada can achieve and the time for working toward that is now.

    What are the challenges ahead?  We have a rough idea of what’s coming but the rate of onset and resulting impacts are somewhat uncertain.  We can develop specific policies addressing each of them on a piecemeal basis of we can identify core policy principles out of which we will derive answers to all of these problems.  I think we need a grand restatement of our country and our people, the principles on which we’ll be governed, the principles we shall live by and defend.   The Scandinavians seem much better at this than we are.

    I no longer have confidence in the international community to meet the world’s challenges.  There is too much distrust, too much ideology and too much self-interest at play to expect meaningful solutions.  We’ll have to find a balance between international cooperation and self-reliance.


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