Do Canada’s, or Ontario’s, Liberals matter any more: Thomas Walkom
By Thomas Walkom, Toronto Star, January 23, 2013
As a party, the Liberals haven’t had a new idea since the 1980s. Individual party members have (Stéphane Dion’s green shift comes to mind).
But the party, as a whole never signed onto Dion’s environmental agenda. Nor has it signed onto anything else.
The Liberals talk of holding policy conventions that would replicate that golden period of the 1960s, when the party embraced medicare, public pensions and welfare reform.
But they never do. Former federal leader Michael Ignatieff hosted a thinkers’ conference that headlined prominent conservatives. Nothing came of it.
The conventional wisdom among Liberals is that strong policy positions should be avoided at all costs in order to avoid alienating voters. Instead, Liberals prefer to talk about what they call values.
For a long time, that worked. Now it doesn’t. Ontario’s provincial Liberal leadership candidates are remarkably vague. But there is no indication that this will save their party from going down the drain whenever an election is called in the province.
Part of the problem for the Liberals is that the values they trumpet are not unique to them. Liberals are for equality of opportunity, fiscal sobriety and helping those who need a helping hand. Fine. But who isn’t?
Tom Mulcair’s New Democrats aren’t agitating for collective farms. And Harper’s Conservatives don’t oppose helping those they believe to be deserving of aid.
The real divisions among political parties in this country are not based on values. They are based on specifics: Just who does merit that helping hand? What kind of tax system best promotes opportunity? Who gets to be defined as poor?
These are the political questions political parties should be able to answer.
And some do. We have a pretty good idea of where the Conservatives of Harper and Hudak stand. Harper’s Conservatives like guns, don’t like criminals, hate environmental regulation and would prefer a tax cut to a social program any day. Hudak’s Ontario Tories have no use for welfare recipients and labour unions.
The new NDP, while more slippery than it once was, still takes positions on fundamental issues like taxes and climate change.
But the Liberals? Who knows?
Who are they? If they suddenly disappeared from the face of the earth, would anyone notice?
As a former "Trudeau Liberal" having licked stamps in his leadership bid, and carefully but avidly supported his unity stance, (no special status for Quebec) and his embrace of bilingualism and French Immersion for English speaking students, as well as in insouciance and his intellect, I have grown weary of more than the lack of clear policy definition of the Liberal Party.
It is, from this vantage point, little more than a collection of backrooms, no longer filled with cigar smoke, which seems to have been replaced by something the culture might call political correctness...wanting everyone to like them, without offending anyone by saying anything....of what I might call self-imposed political emasculation.
It was Vermont Governor Howard Dean who proclaimed, in his brief run for the presidency, that the Democratic Party needed to have its spine restored. A similar observation seems appropriate for the Liberal Party, both in Ontario and in Ottawa. While there are bursts of "fiscal austerity" under Martin and Chretien, and a firm "No" to Dubya on his invitation to join the Iraq war following 9/11, and the Kelowna Accord, under Martin, in response to First Nations injustices, there is little in public memory to the trace of Liberal "achievements" over the last two or three decades. Sadly, much of the public memory is filled with internecine inner-party, personality and ambition-driven conflict to rebuild the party.
Trudeau, unfortunately, was not interested or pro-active in providing succession steps with both policy and personalities in leadership, as a lasting emptiness in his legacy.
Is the Liberal Party just another party of big business, loyal and obsequious to Bay Street in the Manley/Martin/Turner tradition, or is it really interested in levelling the playing field for the middle class, for the poor and for the disenfranchised? Of course, the loud chorus from all leadership contenders is, "We are socially liberal and fiscally conservative," just as Mr. Walkom points out.
That's no longer adequate as a political mantra, without some flesh on those bones.
Tinkering with the age to begin OAS, or tinkering with the rate of the GST, or putting the Queen's picture back in all Canadian embassies and consulates, or pouring $50 million into self-promotion in a constant campaign...these are not signs of a healthy and substantive and responsible government.
As Susan Riley puts it in her farewell column in today's Ottawa Citizen, too many of the current crop of Conservative MP's are opportunistic careerists.
There are signs that similar evidence has been creeping, if not parading itself, into the leadership races in Ontario, Quebec and Ottawa.
And after the record of Liberals in all three theatres, much of it inflicted by themselves on themselves, the public expects more muscle, more vision, more courage and more leadership.
In a world where every hair-do (Trudeau let's Ezra Levant touch it!) is a sound byte, and where a boxing match is an authentic sign of political muscle (how ridiculous!) and where the playing field is littered with opportunities to counter the Harper catering services to the wealthy and the energy and military production corporations (we now sell weapons to Columbia!), there is a paucity of substance coming from the races.
Canadians are detached from all three races, and the responsibility rests in part on the shoulders of those seeking leadership posts in all three parties.
In answer to Walkom's question,"If they suddenly disappeared would anyone notice?" we would have to respond, probably not many.