Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Canadian fight for the "centre"

By Edward Greenspon, Toronto Star, March 28, 2011
Under five leaders in the first 84 years of the 20th century, the (Liberal) party didn't, with a single exception, fall below 37 per cent of the popular vote. Its average electoral take was 43.5 per cent. Michael Ignatieff, the fifth leader since Pierre Trudeau, can look back on eight recent elections in which the average tally was 34.1 per cent. Last time out, the Liberals won the lowest proportion of the popular vote, 26.2 per cent, since John A. Macdonald thumped them in 1867.

University of British Columbia election specialist Richard Johnston says Liberal support, although camouflaged at various junctures, has been on the wane since 1921. The party's base steadily peeled away — first Western Canadians and farmers, then small-town residents and small business owners, eventually francophone Quebecers and suburbanites. Now the Conservatives are making their play for visible minority communities. “That's the last rampart,” Johnston says.
Through it all, the Liberals at least retained definition. They were successively anti-imperialists, social reformers and keepers of national unity. Mostly, they were the party that governed.
Trudeau fashioned a coalition of Quebecers, urban progressives, linguistic minorities and those new Canadians now in play. Through such measures as bilingualism, multiculturalism and a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, his Liberals stood for an essential inclusiveness in the Canadian dream. Since 1984, the party has failed miserably in redefining its mission — New Canadians could reasonably ask “What have you done for me lately?” — while indulging magnificently in perpetual leadership politics.
In a digital world in which access to everything produces concentration on very little, centrists are disadvantaged in the battle for definition. The left and right can more easily mobilize a corps of militants — such as trade unionists or evangelical Christians — who will provide organizational muscle and funding packets. Liberals must work all that much harder....
For all its neglect, Liberalism actually stands for something important. It is, in the words of Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, not a neutral concept but “a fighting creed.” It says: “That is not the way we do things” in the face of illiberal behaviours, whether these be misleading MPs about signatures on documents, failing to disclose the costs of fighter jets or prisons, proroguing Parliament rather than abide by rulings, attacking the legitimacy of independent watchdogs from Elections Canada to the Parliamentary Budget Officer, jamming the judiciary or weakening the channels of knowledge by which decisions can be taken on the basis of evidence rather than belief.

It is not an accident that our actual paper constitution is quite brief, leaving much to the intuitive grasp of Canadians to "know" how it is that things take shape here. We know, for example, when someone oversteps or over-reaches in the exercise of power; it is not something that we need to litigate, in the formal sense of that word. We know, also, when the country is being led in a direction that is not in keeping with the tenour of our history. We know, for example, that "sovereignty" as expressed by the Bloc Quebecois, is not in keeping with our national traditions, even though we would prefer to debate them with words than with bullets, as is the case in many parts of the world.
We also know that our heritage of a public health system is one of our signature traditions requiring our detailed and attentive focus, in order to preserve the best parts of its care for all, no matter what our economic status or ability to pay. We know that we are a "peacekeeping" nation, that strives to engender a modest view of the application of political and military and economic power, in the interests of all segments of the society. We also know that we are not American, and find many of the public policies of the former Bush (Dubya) administration quite offensive, (for example, both the privitizing of the prison system and the rapid growth of that "industry") and do not wish to replicate it here. We know that the "way" we do things is as important as the "content" of the legislation we pass, and when that way is contravened, it does not take either a somewhat sleep-walking media or a legal degree to figure out that it has been transgressed.
We know that tolerance for and embrace of the French fact of our history and culture, including the open acceptance of the difference(s) of Quebec from the rest of the country, enriches all of our people, including those who have arrived here in the last three or four decades, from other countries. And the choice of these hundreds of thousands of immigrants is largely based on the belief and confidence in our capacity to embrace a multitude of cultures within our national vision.
These features of what it means to be a Canadian are the result, not merely of a "managerial" party having governed for much of the last century, but of a capacity of the Liberal party to seek "the centre of the road" and in so doing, to resist veering too far into the ditch on the right or the ditch on the left. In fact, there is a maritime expression, when one is leaving on a trip that quips, "keep it between the ditches" to the prospective motorist...
Tony Blair, in his memoir My Journey, notes that all politicians must "get it" about the real dimensions of any specific issue, in their governing. When it came to the issue of "the fox hunt," he readily acknowledges that he did not "get it" that so many people felt so deeply, on both sides of whether or not to keep the tradition or to ban it. Consequently, he was dragged into a political quagmire from which he nearly failed to emerge with his political hide.
It is, arguably true, that in Canada, a prime minister has to "get it" as Blair contends, only in our case, it is about much broader and more complex and more subtle matters of how the state is governed. And, if we could apply one word to that, as the essential, the sine qua non, it would be "modesty."
Stephen Harper simply does not "get it" that Canadians want and even demand a "modest" prime minister..
  • whose ministers do not have to shout and scream in parliament to make their points,
  • whose ministers do not even wish to mislead parliament,
  • whose ministers become exceptionally proficient in "getting" the details of their portfolio and do not rely exclusively on the Prime Minister to do their heavy lifting for them
  • whose ministers know and respect the legitimate right of parliament to access to the information needed to debate the issues fully
  • whose ministers eagerly explore new edges of possibility in legislation to untangle, for example, the terrible treatment we have afforded our First Nations people, with new and creative and effective ways of giving them a hand up, and not a hand out
  • whose ministers are passionately engaged in the minutiae of their portfolios, without constantly seeking the approval of their political "master," the Prime Minister
  • whose government is readily welcomed at the table of the Security Council of the United Nations and
  • whose government does not have to put on millions of dollars of make-up when world leaders visit
  • whose ministers are not so dependent on polls and targeted segments of voters that they can and do see the broader interests of the nation in an increasingly complex and segmented society
Canadians want, need and even demand a Prime Minister who "gets it" that ordinary people have legitimate needs, aspirations and dreams with which the federal government can offer encouragement, without the state becoming a "nanny state" that phrase so despised in the U.S. And, in seeking to meet those needs, aspirations and dreams (of the ordinary people) the government and the nation it leads become more sensitive, more compassionate and more enlightened, not less, and the differences in personal incomes decline rather than grow, as they have been for the last several years.
It was former Toronto Star columnist Jim Travers who wrote that Canada is a centre-left country by nature and by tradition and that Stephen Harper was attempting in everything he did to change that. Succinctly, he simply "doesn't get it" about who we are and who we are proud of being.
Can Mr. Ignatieff succeed in bringing a renewed Liberal party with platform that "gets it" about the core nature of the Canadian essence? We can only watch and hope he and his team can achieve that goal, for our country's long-term stability.

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