If the recently concluded Liberal convention in Ottawa showed anything, it was the pundit’s penchant for predicting the end of the party was as futile as their conclusions of the end of the Conservative party a decade ago or the NDP even a few years previous. It’s a fool’s game, made all the worse by the smug certainty of forecasts that fail to materialize. If they were stockbrokers they’d be broke.
I wasn’t in attendance at the convention but have heard repeated reports of just how many young Canadians were present, eager and expectant of change. With such a vital core of youth, memberships continuing to climb, and fundraising becoming more successful, exaggerated claims of demise reveal how removed many in the media have become from the aspirations of average Canadians.
For Liberals themselves, it was primarily an event ushering in a new party apparatus that opened the door wider to citizens and smoothed the process of running a modern political party in a time of change.
All of that success nevertheless still leaves Liberals with one vital question that remains to be answered: are they Liberals of the small “l” kind or merely a political party of the large “L” variety? Underneath all of it, the answer will determine whether they achieve a greater future relevance.
Ultimately liberalism itself is a philosophy, an outlook designed to free citizens from forces that could curtail their future promise. Its emergence in the 19th century coincided with a growing desire to cast off autocracy, moving aside kings, queens and dictators, in favour of more opportunity for the masses. Liberalism at its core was about the individual and his or her capacity to make their life count through education and the opening of doors to new possibilities.
The success of that early form of liberalism altered the political landscape in Europe, North America and South America. It made for constitutions, independence and more than one bill of rights, and worked effectively with an emerging capitalism that brought more goods and services to average citizens. Ironically, it often strengthened the hand of the elites who had the resources to take advantage of the progress – a development that challenged the viability of liberalism itself. The 1920s revealed that all the new opportunities were being accumulated by the wealthy in ways that threatened the very nature of democracy itself. It eventually became apparent that average citizens required institutional support if they were to break free of the repressive powers of the past. If they were to succeed, large-scale investments had to be put in place, along with restrictions on those elites who attempted to gobble everything up for themselves. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and the pension/healthcare/labour reforms put forward by Liberal leaders like Louis St. Laurent and Lester Pearson opened the doors to public goodwill and opportunity. The great middle class was born and liberalism itself had much to do with its delivery.
For those attending the Liberal convention this past week there was little talk of such things. Attention was concentrated on the Chretien/Martin era – that time of repeated majorities and a seemingly endless hold on power. Those were the glory days. Except in many ways they weren’t. The need to slay the deficit brought about a commensurate lowering of the bar for national opportunity for many – especially the marginalized. In the name of fiscal conservatism great issues were put on the back-burner – effective legislation on climate change, aboriginal renewal, a national housing strategy, a comprehensive early childhood training program, an expanded international presence, and a dedicated anti-poverty initiative. Such essential values had been central to the Liberal core because they were small “l” liberal. Efforts to pay off Mulroney’s $40 billion deficit hangover happened so quickly that, while it brought about lofty kudos for fiscal management, it ripped into the sinews of Canadian social life. The reasoning was that by getting the books in order, future Liberal governments could eventually tackle the social and human deficits created by the national fiscal austerity. But in politics a decade in power is a long time, and by the time Paul Martin ascended to power the Liberal salad days had run out.
Stephen Harper’s rise to government not only saw the blowing of federal surpluses; it continued the hollowing out of the Canadian social fabric in ways that were designed and often recriminatory. His belittling of Martin’s Kelowna Accord was especially brutal and only added to the travesty of the aboriginal situation today.
In these past two decades, the social and human investments required to rebuild the citizenry, especially for the vulnerable, never materialized – leaving us with growing class divisions. Liberals must accept responsibility for their part in this scenario and acknowledge that in their speed to utilize fiscal austerity a human deficit transpired that was never repaired.
Small “l” liberalism is all about the removal of barriers to individual growth and prosperity. A quick look around reveals a host of significant obstacles that threaten such opportunity – climate change, joblessness, a puny green economy, regional tensions, aboriginal failure, the erosion of the middle-class, the decline of educational opportunity, and the loss of international prestige and diplomacy. True liberalism would first and foremost tackle these issues. It would propose bold and innovative initiatives in an effort to stop the formidable Canadian reversal. It would side with the marginalized in every sector and remove the barriers to their possibilities for a better life.
The convention’s Liberals must determine if acquiring power is more vital to them than taking bold and perhaps unpopular stands on liberal principles. Corporatism has predominated the Canadian landscape and a political party determined to seriously take on the growing income disparity would be the party worthy of the small “l” title. This past convention showed that Liberalism is alive and well. What’s still unknown is whether small “l” liberalism itself will infuse the party with the validity of its roots and the courage required for a future of relevance.