The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: liberal party

Election 2015: The Son Outshines the Father

 

My new Huffington Post piece on how Justin Trudeau’s victory was greater than his fathers – http://goo.gl/qYtK2R

 

‘PEOPLE EXPECT WHAT THEY EXPECT,” says Vaibhav Mehta, “But they never realize the possibility ofimages surprise beyond expectations.” It is a sentiment that, just as good as any, describes what happened on Election Night 2015. Justin Trudeau accomplished what many thought impossible, or at the very least improbable.

Regardless of what one may have thought of the remarkable results, it reminded everyone that the Canadian people, subtle and polite as they are, hold within them the seeds of quiet revolution, occasionally teaching us that even in the familiar there can be surprise and wonder.

Almost every prediction was wrong.

Virtually no one expected the early signs of Red Tide on the East coast to transform into a tsunami by the time the evening was over. Watching Stephen Harper at the end of it all was something like reading Donna Tartt’s observation in her The Secret History: “How quickly he fell; how soon it was over.” A watered-down version of that fate described the outcome for Thomas Mulcair. Things didn’t go as expected.

I sat in the House of Commons with the party leaders for a number of years and came to know their traits. When Justin Trudeau was elected in 2008 it was clear to everyone that he could never be destined for the backbenches. Out of the ashes of that difficult campaign for the Liberals rose a kind of phoenix that would lead to their redemption.

They sat Justin Trudeau directly behind me in the House and for almost three years I got a ringside view of his development. His rhetoric, at times bawdy, nevertheless carried intensity in the Parliamentary chamber. I was asked more frequently than I could count whether he was the real deal or just his father’s son. My answer was always the same: both.

The Conservatives knew from his very first day that they would, at some point, face him in a greater capacity than what he held at present. They couched their nervousness of him in words of belittlement, and then, in one of the sad ironies of politics, would bring a constituent over to him and ask for his autograph. Those of us around him just shook our heads — in mild disgust for how he was treated, and of quiet respect for his signing every autograph.

People never thought he’d win his Papineau riding during his first campaign against a popular Bloc member — yet he did. When he took up the challenge for charity by stepping into the ring with celebrated fighter and senator Patrick Brezeau, Conservatives said he be KO’d in the first round and couldn’t win — yet he did. By the time Justin won the Liberal leadership it was clear the seeds of determination and leadership resided in him.

And now we know the rest of the story.

When one Conservative operative said at the campaign’s outset that he hoped Trudeau would wear his pants to the first debate, he represented the hollow tones of the government’s bravado and irreverence. The Liberal leader not only arrived well-attired, but with a sense of respect for the Canadian people and their distinctiveness that the government had never understood in their entire nine years of office.

By the time the leaders moved into the Munk debate on Canada’s role in the world, Trudeau was already putting to bed the notion that he just wasn’t ready for the job. It now appears that Trudeau and his young team were far more composed than Harper and his experienced professionals. In a great irony, he was rising and the others weren’t.

It does us well to remember — those of us who can — what advantages Pierre Trudeau, Justin’s father, had going into his first election for prime minister. In 1968 the country was still lost in the glow and pride of the Centennial year that had just ended. Trudeau was replacing Lester Pearson, who was retiring after significant accomplishments as PM. Pierre’s win was hardly surprising, and the forces arrayed around him had already been in the previous government.

The son had precious little of these advantages. He was leading a party many had said was just one election away from extinction. They had been decimated in previous campaigns and left broke as a result. When Stephen Harper called for the longest election campaign in modern Canadian history, pundits spoke of how the Prime Minister would have an extra few rounds to pummel the youngster in the business of politics.

We now know how foolish that was, just as we understand that, perhaps without realizing it at first, the Canadian people were longing for a change that they couldn’t quite describe but which resonated in their collective spirit once Justin Trudeau called it forth. What the son accomplished was infinitely more complex and difficult than his father’s first win and yet it was just as stellar.

Bruce Anderson, writer and pollster, on election night made the striking claim that this had been a “campaign for the ages.” Seasoned heads on the television set nodded in affirmation.

It turns out that Justin Trudeau caught the spirit of citizens and mood of the country just right. But a far greater task lies before him: to lift a noble people even higher in their pursuit of prosperity, equality of opportunity and compassion.

Judging from his election performance, we shouldn’t put it past him.

The Time for Tinkering is Over

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THE FEDERAL LIBERALS CAUCUSED IN LONDON this week and it was good to see some old friends. Justin Trudeau was struggling through a bout of food poisoning and his caucus was focusing on the one issue they believe will prove critical to the coming election: the economy.

I get it. Each party is talking about our struggling economy, hoping to leverage some advantage from it, one way or the other. But I wanted to ask my Liberal friends one question: will you stop tinkering this time? All parties have been doing so, but this occasion in London could represent a turning point within the party.

We all understand that each time we bounce back from some kind of recession, severe or light, that we never land back where we were. The unemployment rate continues to climb, as do the obstacles confronting the poor. On other occasions, all parties have focused on economic solutions but they never quite pulled it off. Yes, deficits were slayed, or, yes, trade was enhanced, but the growing disillusionment and worry among Canadians is inevitably creeping up to the levels found in the United States. People don’t really trust government to get things right anymore because, well, our problems have grown regardless of who was in power.

The real problem confronting the political order these days is not financial capital but social capital. Somewhere along the line, the political order lost touch with the mood of the people and now everything is about pursuing the vote of a relatively few number of people in order to gain power. We, as Canadians, understand that. But will you go back to the origins of our difficulties and repair them from their very source? There was a time when the corporate good transcended the public good and ever since then we have watched as wealth has been accumulated in record measures at the same time as less and less of it went to average Canadians.

In a very real and increasingly tragic way, Canadians have felt the withdrawal of institutional supports, both private and public. This has created a crisis in confidence that can’t be simply solved by an election. Forget talking about the lower, middle, or upper class; this is about the “anxious” class, and how the worry they feel about the future of their kids and a more dangerous world is far more serious than any political party’s electioneering. These people are struggling to preserve their standing, their sense of worth in an increasingly alienated culture. And now they have slowly begun pursuing individual survival over social solidarity. Signs of this are everywhere, but it’s important to acknowledge that the political and financial classes oversaw this development, and to merely give us the same-old, same-old, will only erode that reality further.

There used to be a time when individual identity and social identity crisscrossed repeatedly in Canada. In rural communities and big cities there was always the sense that this country was “under construction” and going somewhere. Now we have no idea where the politicos are taking us, and our confidence in the future and ourselves is eroding.

Liberals have always prided themselves as the party of balance. Okay, but our sense of equilibrium has been shot for some time now. All parties played a role in that disruption and we won’t get things right unless we go back to the origins of our difficulties. Why has the political class forced us to choose between trade and jobs, between comfortable houses and homelessness, between remaining in the middle-class or poverty, between meager governments or no governments at all? These are sincere questions that should be asked of all parties.

Even at the best of times in recent decades we have felt the tearing at the fabric of the Canadian identity. We have failed our aboriginal people seriously enough that we can’t even muster the strength or sense of social justice to launch a commission to locate the roughly 1,000 missing or murdered aboriginal women in this country. What is that about? Is this the vitality of our social consciousness these days? Must we watch as parties bludgeon themselves to a depraved degree and walk away with any sense of hope diminished?

You believe in balance, right? But can we all bring ourselves to acknowledge that we lost that tenuous tension that was Confederation years ago? The number of poor is growing. Good jobs are becoming scarce. Veterans are being denied. Seniors are fretting. And students can’t even afford to learn anymore. This is not the Canada we envision in our finest moments. So, enough with balance already; let’s get on with finding answers to these, our deepest problems.

In the U.S., Obama has opted to use the last two years of his tenure to attempt to bring about social and economic change. Yet there was a time when people thought he would start with such things, not end with them in a lame duck scenario. Enough with institutional cynicism; get on with the task of remaking the country on the basis of our progressive ideals and not some corporate ideology.

This is about the battle for the heart and soul, not of the Liberal Party, but of the country. The sweet spot isn’t the middle-class, but the aspirations of a good people. The time for tinkering is over; the time for renaissance has come.

 

Long In The Tooth

The call caught me somewhat by surprise. From a West coast publishing firm: “Would I be willing to write a book on my years in Parliament?” I thought about it for a minute and then asked, “Why?” “Because you knew a lot of the players,” the publisher said, “and you have a transparent style of writing – might be some juicy tidbits there.” I listened politely, but declined.

What’s the point of penning a book that only confirms what people think about politics already? Some wonderful things happened to me while I was in Ottawa and I met some terrific MPs and civil servants. But such things were easily outnumbered by the numbing sense of negativity and sheer disrespect. There were enough mistakes to go around for all parties, but the tone, the sheer feeling of powerlessness, came from a government in a love affair with its own base, not its country’s future.

And now Nanos Research has just come out with a poll showing that Canadians are growing increasingly pessimistic. You can read about it here. A decade now of negative campaign ads, partisan bashing, has sapped the optimism of citizens from their feelings concerning the future.

Some were surprised to discover that older Canadians are actually more pessimistic than their younger counterparts. Nic Nanos said that an increasing number of Baby Boomers are missing the “good old days.” Actually, I believe that. Speaking to so many in this cohort in the past year has convinced me that they are aware that some bad policy decisions have ruined many of the chances for their children that they had enjoyed in earlier decades.

We are learning that more and more Gen X’ers are moving back home because of a lack of financial opportunity – minimum wage work, unemployment, no benefits, unwillingness to start a family. And there are those that never left – growing numbers of them who are staying on with their parents despite being in their thirties.

Increasingly these Baby Boomer parents and grandparents are understanding that the world they handed their kids is not the one delivered to them following World War Two and they are going to seek policy solutions that can reverse the decline – something the present government is reticent to provide. Stephen Harper’s legacy will inevitably be one of improving the lot of the wealthy while marginalizing the previous gains of the middle-class. It will not go well. He’s banking on the Boomers wanting to keep their money when in reality many of them will be bemoaning the lack of proper policy infrastructure that permitted their kids to slide back a generation or two. The PM is placing his bets on their self-absorption just at the time when they are having to come to terms with the sad realization that their kids will be the first generation in living memory to fail to accelerate past their parents in economic opportunity. The PM sees them as the promised land of Canadian voters. It’s time some party turned that on its head.

This chasing after the undecided voters is much like wringing out a towel that only has a little moisture left in it. The very exertion of the effort is making politics look like … well, a wrung-out towel. The imagination appears gone, and all that is left is bickering and fighting over the scraps from off the table. This is the present government’s legacy to our children – steep debt, unemployment, underemployment, financial decline, a disillusioned age, and the belief that the Boomers have grown to accept it. There is no vision in this, merely the desire for power and pessimistic endurance. In furthering the efforts of voter suppression, the Conservative government believes it can leave the majority of Canadian Boomers dormant in their desolation.

Perhaps not. Chasing the “sweet spot” is a lot like watching toddlers play soccer, where they all follow the ball across the field, leaving their positions unheld. All parties spend so much time chasing the declining pool of voters that significant challenges like climate change, deficits, unemployment, and future security remain untended.

We require a party to come out fully on the side of the next generation, plain and simple. Banking on decline is not a vision. Neither is it sustainable. Of course we’re getting grumpy as a nation, just as Nanos suggests. But much of that is due to the reality that parents miss their kids who have moved away in search of declining opportunities. They pine for their grandkids, whose future looks even bleaker.

The Liberal Party, now in search of policies that can assist it and the country in renewing a sense of optimism, can step into these times of disillusionment and reverse the tide for the Gen X’ers and Y’ers.. We require a party that doesn’t pretend to be young again but actually makes it so by siding outright with those young generations whose positive future is in jeopardy. We just need a party that will make that it’s policy and not just use it as a sentiment.

 

Roots

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.

Advancing Civilization

It suddenly dawned on me yesterday that I might be getting anachronistic. Once a year I smoke dad’s old pipe as a way of remembering him. Sitting on the porch swing, I recalled the smell of that pipe when I was a boy, listening to him as he expounded on some of his war experiences and why he enlisted in the first place. There were many reasons, but his favourite topic was about what Canada would add to the world. Lester Pearson was his friend, so perhaps he came by it honestly.

I say “anachronistic” because it struck me that I may no longer be relevant. Growing up, I understood that my country had more to offer the world than just a successful economy or a peaceful co-existence. My father believed that the world was progressing, marching onward, and Canada should never be embarrassed at living beyond itself to advance civilization.

The Liberal party summoned its greatest efforts at following that paradigm. At some point in the post-war years, we stopped looking so much at the world and realized that the world was looking a lot more at us, at our successes. Suddenly we were growing up, knowing that we could move civilization ahead by being a progressive society that put human rights, citizen advancement, economic health, and creating a productive environment for investment. We took on social programs and a sound business model because we knew we might even change our world by example.

Some say we are living in a post-democratic world and maybe they’re right. Lester Pearson used phrases like “make the world better through democracy.” Now it’s almost as if we are fighting just for our own essential democratic values at home. We have elections that nobody can figure out, a citizenry disinclined to vote, parties that have lost their underpinnings, a media struggling for its sober objectivity and a corporate world becoming increasingly global. A contemptuous government goes on to win a majority. People end up voting for candidates they neither saw nor knew. I hardly know what all this portends, but it’s likely taking us away from empowering democracy.

The freedoms gleaned after World War Two have sufficiently filled us and left us stuck in place. I’m reminded of Rousseau’s saying that “liberty is a food easy to eat, but difficult to digest.” Perhaps we lack the maturity required to make the democratic experiment advance in this country. We definitely seem to lack the sense of alarm or urgency that could better prepare citizens to engage in the overall process. Indeed, we have become so successful that we might be witnessing the same kind of hollowing out of the citizen that we are seeing in the political realm. Benjamin Barber, writing in Harper’s Magazine, maintains that modern democracy has devolved into two principal forces: tribalism and globalism. He sees them both tearing the citizen apart, as people divide into camps on the one hand while being pressed into homogenization by globalization on the other. I liked this when I first read it, until I started to think more about it. To be sure, there are regions, faiths, cultures, languages, values, that could easily pull us apart. But that would mean a more engaged citizenry pulling at the seams. Yet, in the main, that’s not what’s happening. Globalization is making us homogeneous, but so is our domestic life. We seem incapable of rousing ourselves to greater exploits, let alone to advance civilization.

The links between our citizens and institutions are fraying as economic preoccupation fills our collective life. As long as we’re paying the bills, securing the things we desire, we don’t seem all that preoccupied with the welfare of others – at home or overseas. Economic factors have become such a dominating feature of our national life that they become the barometer of our existence. This has always been true to some degree, but of late it has become an inoculation against greater civic and national action. Our deficit and debt are significant. A shoddy environmental record is curtailing our productivity. The new jobs of tomorrow have yet to materialize in great enough numbers to propel us into the future. Great social challenges – healthcare, aboriginal justice, poverty, to name a few – remain unresolved. But it’s okay; we’re fine – right?

For Liberals, in disarray and desperately trying to find a space on the political map, there is the hope that a re-engaged citizenry will hearken to its policies on offer. But it’s going to take far more than that. As long as we continue to present programs that take care of people without demanding their sacrifice, we will be just like the rest. Our political system is now designed to foster self-interest rather than cooperation and as a result those great aims that lie beyond ourselves, like advancing civilization, remain not only unattained but unimagined. The attainment part will require power to enact; the imagination portion is something we can partake of now, involving citizens so that they feel strong, involved, and meaningful again.

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