The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: liberalism


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.

The Mythical Middle

The parliamentary cycle begins once again and already the Liberal Party is getting its fair share of pundits offering advice on how it should renew itself. Time and again we hear of how Liberals must begin the process of finding the “centre” or the “middle.” I understand the allure of it; after all, it was the Liberals themselves who held the middle ground during many recent decades. Yet one wonders if there is a point to such a pursuit anymore.

Let’s just state at the outset that there is no such place as a static “centre” of the political spectrum – it moves with the times. Jean Chretien’s middle ground was far to the right of Lester Pearson’s, just as Mulroney’s was to the left of Harper’s. Provincially, in Ontario, Dalton McGuinty’s policies are much more akin to those of Bill Davis, and Tim Hudak’s to Mike Harris. To those in power the centre has been a moveable feast; to those outside of it, it’s been more like a moveable target.

Put succinctly: the centre is whatever the government in power makes it. The longer it retains the reins of administration, the more it cements in place its own version of the political centre. As long at Stephen Harper could only reside over a minority government, the political centre remained a difficult reality to nail down. With four years of majority ahead of him, the PM will get his chance to define that advantageous position.

All this is just to say that the Liberal Party should talk less about recapturing the centre and locate a more permanent position to concentrate its still considerable expertise. Chasing after voters when they say they want one thing and then vote in a fashion that gets them the opposite is a dangerous political proposition at any time and a rather precarious way of putting out good public policy.

Then again, the political dynamic has changed so much in Canada that it’s not about healthy competition between parties but rather a steady state of war to either retain power or overthrow it. “War,” as Herodotus put it, “is the father of all things.” It is likely true that no single phenomenon throughout history has produced so much upheaval as war itself. There are economic and social cataclysms as well, but neither contains the sheer ability to overthrow, maintain, or alter states as war itself.

Whereas politics in Ottawa was once a very serious set of contests, it has now become the political equivalent of war on a 24-hour basis. In such a setting the political centre isn’t the place of most effectiveness in public policy but the pyrrhic strategy for maintaining power at all costs. Democratic institutions, cheques and balances, voter accountability – all these become obstacles to a political party desiring power at all costs because they limit its ability to wage an all-out campaign with little ethical consequence.

As long as Liberals opt into such a campaign, the reduction of the public space will only follow their efforts. The old Hebrew prophet mulled over the question all Liberals should be asking: “Thoughtfully I pondered what goes on within this world whenever men have power over their follows.” Indeed. No moral test can have such dire consequences as the temptation to misuse power over others, and that is especially true of governments, given the resources as their disposal. Like it or not, holding power is tantamount to a massive ethical burden, for it opens the door to self-indulgence. Power’s possession only creates the thirst for more of it. When the only way to get and retain power is to undermine, even repudiate, those democratic institutions meant to protect society’s overall health, then we suffer national decline.

I witnessed it all first-hand in Ottawa. Power has the pervasive influence to harden people’s hearts without them being aware of it. Those that have power find it remarkably difficult to understand the challenges average citizens actually face; eventually some even lose the capacity to care. It is just such manifestation of power that the great moral leaders of the ages renounced. If history has proved that reality repeatedly, there’s no point in Liberals mulling around the centre in pursuit of it.

One of the great mysteries of history is how the same conditions that can promote change, creativity and entrepreneurship can also activate abuse, inequality, injustice, and eventually social upheaval. Canada appears headed in that direction, albeit slowly, and Liberals will have to present a stronger alternative to such an outcome than just striving to possess the middle. The old admonition that “he that is greatest among you shall be your servant” hardly seems to apply to the government in our national capital and many of its members know it.

Liberals would be better advised to pursue the advantage of progressiveness instead of just the centre. It connotes the idea of moving on an evolving path that leads to the enfranchisement of all citizens and not just a few. Politicians have the power to help people or hurt them, to lift them up or cast them down to despair through sheer bad governance. It is time for the Liberal Party to embrace the high ideal – one that empowers all citizens and refuses to just see them in economic terms. The only cure for any struggling economic power is to make it work for all citizens, and that includes its cultural, educational, ethical, citizenship, environmental, and health dimensions. Liberals must build a new structure for Canada, based upon the empowerment of all individuals to pursue a collective life together that is progressive. It’s not about the variable power located at the centre, but the moral stamina to govern effectively in all our communities. If Liberals can’t establish it there, winning power in Ottawa won’t change anything.

Tomorrow: The Muddled Middle


Even for someone as brilliant as Charles Darwin, it took a while to figure it out. He had chafed at the iron rules of scientific societies, feeling that they were populated by elite patrons who would only verify certain scientific advancements and discoveries that came through established channels. But he was about to face a new experience that challenged even his own thinking.

Sailing on the Beagle in 1835 provided him with an entire new series of revelations. Alighting on the Galapagos Islands broke his thinking wide open, however. The diversity and uniqueness of species he discovered in his brief time there formed the germ for what would later become his Origin of the Species. None of the species he found existed anywhere outside the region, but what shocked him was the variety within the islands themselves. He not only found new species but also discovered that those same species varied on each of the islands – they had adapted to their local surroundings in ways that made them different from their cousins on the other islands not far away. The same was true with the plants he found. Though it took him some time to figure out, he finally concluded (rightly) that each island had its own ecosystem. It came to be known as “speciation”.

This is a far cry different from the “group think” referred to in an earlier post. We considered at that point the book The Best and the Brightest about the smartest men in the country and how they ended up creating the debacle that was the American Vietnam war effort. President Lyndon Johnson had placed around him people of great expertise, including former Ford Motor president Robert McNamara. Indeed it was a great plan. Unfortunately a system was established that made sure any divisions or separate points of view were kept from the president. Over and over again, McNamara harmonized their advice before they approached Johnson, insuring he only received one point of view. Vital details and problems were filtered out and Johnson hardly knew what he was descending into. There’s no need to continue here; we all know the rest of the story.

These two examples provide insight into so much of what is going wrong in Canada’s politics. Things are decided “from the top” and little dissension is permitted. The party becomes everything while diverse constituencies are left the morsels at the end of the meal. In the modern setting it’s hard for the individual MP, or even top-level bureaucrats to really matter. Even as far back as the Nixon era, politician Elliot Richardson alerted his nation to what was really happening in Washington D.C.:  “There is an increasingly pervasive sense not only of failure, but of futility. The legislative process has become a cruel shell game and the service system has become a bureaucratic maze, inefficient, incomprehensible, and inaccessible.”  He might as well have been describing modern-day Ottawa. By extension, if the individual MP is inconsequential except for his or her use to the party, the ridings are even more insignificant. As each year passes, there remains no clear-cut direction as to how to overcome our great challenges – we are merely getting by. Group think has seized Ottawa in its clutches and refuses to relinquish its grip.

This is the setting in which the Liberal Party is trying to find its footing for the way forward. It has existed for so long practicing variations of the McNamara model that it struggles at reigniting its grassroots. And that will remain a problem as long as it views constituencies as recruiting stations for its own designs.

Far better, and indeed more timely, would be the Darwin model – speciation. No two Liberal ridings are alike but among them the diversity is impressive, in part depending on which part of the country they function. My own riding association is undergoing a renaissance of its own as it learns to be innovative outside of just regular party operations. It’s coming to terms with its own maturity and strengths – something that might not have been discovered in previous years. And, above all, it’s learning that small “l” liberalism is far more essential to rediscover than its larger “L” cousin. In fact, the latter can only follow the former.

There are literally hundreds of riding associations across the country and they are all different from one another. It’s time to stop trying to unite them through uniformity to party central but rather to unify them through the diverse manner in which they apply their common love for this country. There might be only one Liberal party but there are thousands of roads going to and emerging from that destination. It’s time to evolve instead of conforming.

A Knight’s Tale

“I miss you in this place. I so badly wanted a better form of politics, but now it’s all about power, and who has it, and not participation.” This email popped up on my iPhone a couple of days ago from a Conservative MP who’s tired of the same-old, same-old. We shouldn’t be surprised at this; there exists in the House of Commons today, and perhaps more particularly in the Senate, good Conservatives who know in their heart that they’ve become unmoored. Now with power fully in their grasp, they feel they may never find their way back to a more participatory democracy that defends modern institutions and invests in their effectiveness. The same MP said that he envied my freedom and I believe him.

Politics in recent years has become the immoral equivalent of war and in our heart of hearts we know it. Numerous MPs sense it isn’t the noble calling it once was and they are troubled by that sad reality. It’s not just about big battles like elections, but the ongoing negatives in which relationships are always seen as adversarial. When politics becomes all about controversy, contest, and conflict, then public service is degraded and the public good is marginalized. A consequence of all this is the inclination to journey to the extreme.

For Liberals in their rebuilding phase this same temptation exists. We become trapped in our own “us-versus-them” philosophy. Yet the issue isn’t about Stephen Harper or the Conservative party but rather about the same yearning that characterized that Conservative MP’s email to me – freedom, the desire to serve, individual accountability. What we become and not what the Conservatives are should be the primary focus of all of us seeking a progressive centre that sticks, imagines, and, yes, ultimately governs.

We forget at our peril that this politics of intimidation continues to be an unattractive option to most Canadians. Sure, the tactic of voter suppression has worked for the present government but it results in a great part of the electorate turning away in their disgust and lack of enfranchisement. It’s not the successful path for rebuilding. Somewhere along that journey citizens have permitted themselves to become victims and there are some in Liberal party grassroots that are playing the same card repeatedly. Angered by both the Conservatives and how they lost relevance under the Liberals, they have become angry agents of change, little realizing that this same form of negativity is what turned the public off in the first place.

This culture of helplessness makes for a poison in the ranks of those seeking genuine renewal. It’s supposed to be about inclusiveness, about a party more interested in restoring faith in the political system of dedicated public service than about creating an atmosphere of constant conflict.  We have permitted our politics to only be fought by well-prepared troops drawn from the ranks of the professional political classes, rather like the peasants of the Middle Ages who watched as knights went off with their minions to fight in distant fields.

We in the Liberal grassroots, in our own way, let it come to this, though we frequently refuse to admit it. In the “glory days” of Liberal majorities not so long ago, we revelled in power, had our pictures taken with our knights as we permitted them to draw from our ranks for support. There were some calling for democratic renewal, but most comforted themselves in the fundraisers, success of the party, and the fact that our knights faced divided tribes that made victory all the easier. We participated in all this and we evade personal responsibility by suddenly blaming everything on the party and their elites. True, they pulled from us our resources to support their distant efforts, but we gave willingly, little realizing that we were sowing the seeds of grassroots demise.

Liberals are what they are because of the choices they have already made – good and bad. They will now be what they will be because of the choices they will make in the next few weeks, months and years. Philosopher Simone Weil might as well have been speaking to Liberals when she wrote, “Someone would be a complete slave if what he or she did were controlled by the bad things other people do. We are only really free if what we do is directed by our inner sense of what we think we should be, by our own choices.”

My Conservative MP friend who wrote the email is in the same box as we are in. He assisted in permitting his party to be taken over by the knights because power is intoxicating. It’s a strange world we are living in where power now strips one of accountability and personal liberation. Liberals must be careful that lacking power doesn’t produce the same result.

The Rough Beast

                                                                                                                    W. B. Yeats

Is this us? Are we Liberals akin to the “rough beast” Yeats is referring to? Likely we are. The great Irish poet and playwright lived to see the hopeful glories of the 19th century lost in the bloody trenches of the 20th. The hoped for era of progressive liberalism gave way to the deathly toll of fascism, communism, and ultimately the rather harsh realities of unbridled capitalism that brought on the Depression.

The brutal characteristics of that earlier time find their counterparts today, only in more refined clothing. In their search for the centre, Canadian Liberals find it’s not as black and white as it used to be. The socialists have cast much of their ideology aside and the hard-nosed Conservatives have slid towards the middle while securely moored in their penchant for profits and isolationism over public policy. These two realities crowding the middle lane are all about the pursuit of the sweet spot of power, while, for the moment at least, resisting the tension to pull them back to their more intensive ideological roots. But they are there nevertheless, leaving the Liberals crowded and unsure in a domain they once used to own in seeming perpetuity. To make matters worse, the average voter (if they do indeed vote) cares not a whit for such political machinations.

In other words, Liberals are experiencing difficulty finding the purchase point that will permit them to stake their claim and hold it against incursions from left and right. The phrase in the Yeats poem that struck me most – “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity” – acutely describes the fix Liberals are in. They look one way only to discover that voters appear to lack interest in the great national accomplishments Canada is still capable of, and then they swing their gaze in the other direction only to find themselves confronted by an aggressive group desiring the strip any future federal governments of the tools and money required to build a national dream again.

Yet despite all this crowding to the centre, real or tactical, one irrefutable fact remains: Canadians in general are disengaged from politics regardless of political positioning. All the hullabaloo about increased engagement through social media or increased youth activity barely brought about an increased voter turnout or the kind of change the majority of citizens were hoping for in this recent election. So, something is still wrong; whichever point the various parties are situated on the compass, they are largely viewed as irrelevant. All the talk about gaining the centre will mean nothing unless the imagination of the Canadian people is recaptured.

Liberals themselves fit the “rough beast” classification. Their innocence is gone (as is the country’s), and, accosted on both sides, they nevertheless struggle towards new birth in a time when a kind of political blood lust floods the country. Liberals are hardly pretty at the moment, their divisions highlighted not merely by party struggles but because they had once been successful at drawing from all points on the political spectrum to enhance their appeal and this has populated the party with opinions and convictions.

As they “slouch” towards their own rebirth they have this one reality as their consolation: citizens yet await a party of relevance. And there is the incontrovertible fact that these same citizens comprehend politics as nothing more than a constant factional conflict designed to produce winners and leaving no place for serious public discussion by those who care less about who achieves power and more about defining common purposes and goals. And here is the key point of all. The decline of the political system’s legitimacy, in the eyes of citizens at least, is serious and fatally flawed. Reviving the party system, or one party’s role in it, fails to address this weakness.

Here is the best Liberal opportunity in perhaps a generation. Rather than pinning all our hopes and fortunes on party renewal, we could shift our emphasis to one of inclusiveness. A political movement with inclusive goals rather than a string of single issues will initially have trouble gaining visibility, raising more funds, and will possess fewer publicists as the special interest groups. But the road to Bethlehem, though painful at present, is the one sure path to political and public legitimacy. It’s the road less traveled and Liberals would be wise to take it.

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