Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Can the Liberal Party recover its spine?

By Lawrence Martin, Globe and Mail, October 18, 2011
Under the Conservatives, Canada is a country that venerates the military, boasts a hardened law-and-order and penal system, is anti-union and less green. It’s a government that extols, without qualms of colonial linkage, the monarchy, that has a more restrictive entry policy, that takes a narrower view of multiculturalism, that pursues an adversarial approach to the United Nations. In a historical first, Canada’s foreign policy, its strident partisanship in the Middle East being a foremost example, can be said to be to the right of the United States.

In a nutshell, the cliché about Canada’s being a kinder, gentler nation is being turned on its head. In hockey parlance – the preferred Canadian way of communication – we’re shifting, with voter approval, from a country of Ken Dryden values to one closer to those of Don Cherry.
Given the extent of the transformation, it’s happened rather quietly. Stephen Harper has skillfully avoided hitting too many hot buttons at once. He has avoided the appearance of a radical right-winger by playing down social conservatism and taking a flexible, big-spending approach to the economy. He has been moderate in his approach in some other policy domains.
But while his work has the look of being incremental, there’s no mistaking the ideological turn that has been made. The new kind of branding is not something traditional Canadian governments would have favoured. Throughout our history, the big centre as represented by Liberalism and Red Toryism was the dominant political force, fostering a national character rooted in compromise and accommodation. Harder left- and right-wing elements operated on the fringes. Now, with the NDP having surged, the Liberals prostrate, Red Toryism weakened, those fringe elements are the main players. Although there are signs the political centre is holding in the provinces, we’re in uncharted territory at the more imposing federal level, with a recipe for American-styled polarization. A culture war, someone called it.
To the observations in Mr. Martin's piece coming indirectly from some former Mnisters of Foreign Affairs in the hallways at a recent conference, let me insert a quote from a recent interview we did with Dr. Brooke Jeffrey, formerly a researcher for the Liberal Party, currently teaching Political Science at Concordia:
Let me say first of all that I am strongly opposed to any attempt at merger with the New Democrats. These are two completely different parties, with different values, and a merger makes no sense at all. And Canadians have not moved to the left, or to the right for that matter. (The full interview is at acorncentreblog.com for October 16, 2011)
It is the contention of the Martin piece that the Liberals have/had lost their political muscle, resulting in the emergence of both strong right and strong left parties in Canada. And with that there can be little doubt.
Niceness, political correctness, and C.Y.A. (cover your ass)....these will never sustitute for leadership, in any political movement. The Liberals have to recover their spine, to borrow a phrase from Howard Dean, he of the infamous scream while running for the Demoncratic ticket for the White House, back in the day.
That recovery of the spine will entail a full laying open all the sins of both commission and of omission of the last few decades, not necessarily in public, but certainly where it counts in the rooms where the power still remains.
That will include an acknowledgement that the Liberal Party permitted a coup based almost exclusively on ego, in the Martin takeover; that the Liberal Party were not serious about their responsibility to the people of Canada for their pan-Canadian, centrist, big-tent, good-government history and tradition stretching well over a century; that discipline of both the leadership and the membership was neither defined nor monitored; that winning elections was a given not requiring the discipline of serious policy formation; that the party membership will not comply with only a grabbing hand from Ottawa for money, without serious, open and defined pathways for influencing policy; that the country has not moved either left or right, and that the need for a strong, vibrant, disciplined Liberal Party has never been more evident as a political force mediating the "fringe" politics of Harper or the potentially equally "fringe" politics of some in the NDP.
This recovery of spine will include a full commitment by the Liberal Party to the Occupy Together movement, not a meeley-mouthed, half-assed encouragement; in fact, it will include full participation with those willing to sleep in the streets rather than roll over to the steam-roller of financial institutional control; the recovery of the Liberal Party spine will include a recovery of the capacity to commit to visionary, pragmatic and utilitarian policies that come from careful study by both the bureaucracy and the rank and file membership, not from only a few "old white men" meeting in some restaurant or bar over drinks, and then telling the rest of the party where it will go.
Recovery of the Liberal Party spine will include an acknowledgement that the rules of the party cannot and must not enable a take-over by anyone, no matter how seductive is his or her pitch, charisma, financing, backroom menipulation, image or even policy proposals. The party, in short, must wake up to its individual responsibilty to insist on both rules and procedures, and a sound monitoring and accountability mechanism, to preserve the "democracy" within the party, in order to enable the party to fight for the "democrary" outside the party.
And, so far, there has been little evidence that a house-cleaning, and a mea culpa, in specifics, publicly, openly and completely is coming down the pipe.

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