Friday, May 05, 2006

The Liberal Party is broken: A new Policy focus needed

The Liberal Party of Canada is broken. Its political strategists are grossly incompetent and the party has no long term strategy to speak of. However that is not the worst of it; the party has lost the ability to inspire; it is party without a soul or character.

The confrontational, impish, poetic and witty Trudeau is gone, as is the crusty, cagy street fighter Chrétien. The last Liberal leader neither inspired Canadians with his intellect and humor, nor did he have our grudging respect as many had for Chrétien’s plebian tenuousness. Martin was not hated; he was the kind of Prime Minster a focus group would prefer; he was good on paper. However, in reality Martin’s temperamental conservativism, stuttering, dithering and lack of conviction, corporate world view that shone through even in the name given to Liberal candidates, viz., “Team” Martin, dampened the enthusiasm for those how supported Liberal social policy. Such was the case with child care and SSM. His naïve belief that he could use Gomery to win the Liberal civil war and still come out unscathed was one of the biggest blunders in Canadian political history. Such was Martin’s talent, people thought he was lying even when he was telling the truth.

Graham is little better, but he is only a temporary plug.

In order to capture the imagination of Canadians the Liberals need to develop policies that are as readily comprehensible as tax cuts are. Simply promising to improve health care, the environment and education mean nothing. Indeed, as a rule of thumb if the negation of a promise makes no political sense, then such appeals are so much hot air and noise. Furthermore, although promises to increase funding to the aforementioned big three are not completely void, Canadians need to know just how increased funding will be cashed out, so to speak.

The Liberals need to look beyond our borders as a guide, but they need first look back at the past. Trudeau’s lasting legacy will be the Charter and the Charter, or more correctly the longing for “a Just Society” that the Charter symbolized are still part of the Liberal brand name. The Charter is designed to help make a dreams come true. Incidentally, unaware of the significance and meaning of Trudeau’s legacy, Martin perverted Trudeau’s vision in defending SSM. For Martin, the Charter was not a tool to better ourselves with and not a symbol of hope for a better tomorrow, but a legal framework compelling us to act a la Max Weber’s Iron Cage of Rationality. “Our hopes are high. Our faith in the people is great. Our courage is strong. And our dreams for this beautiful country will never die” became one can not “cherry pick rights”; the implication being that SSM was not a cherry. For Martin’s Liberals, SSM was not a righteous cause, but was rather the straight man’s burden.

Part and parcel of rediscovering Trudeau’s legacy is that the Liberals need to rediscover universality. Under Mulroney and Chrétien universality died as Stephen Harper duly and happily noted in 1994.

"Universality has been severely reduced: it is virtually dead as a concept in most areas of public policy…These achievements are due in part to the Reform Party.”

Under Martin the Liberals did rediscover universality again – well sort of. They promised to implement a “universal” early childhood education program that would in drips in drabs grow bigger over literally decades with no time line as to when the program would become truly universal. The more the Liberals talked up the need for more child care the more inadequate and lackluster their proposal appeared. Needless to say, piece meal universality is no universality at all and if the Liberals want to capture the imagination of Canadians by promising a universal program they better make sure that they are able to deliver and all at once.

One issue worth exploring is expanding the Canada health care to include dental care. As business picks up most of the dental tab already, the idea of offloading the coasts of dental to the public sector will have its supporters even on the corporate right. Paul Martin may be of some use still.

Alas it is unlikely that the current crop of Liberals will move beyond their commitment to universal early childhood education for 10 to 15 percent of children 3 to 6 in 5 to ten years time. Worse, the way Harper is going the ability of the Federal government to implement any social programs is quickly being crippled.

One thing that Liberals can certainly do is to steal a page from the rest of the Western world minus the US and give Canadians more vacation time. Everyone else gets at least 4 weeks: Canadians deserve no less.

If the Liberals going to recapture the hearts of Canadians they are going to have stop acting and sounding like a bunch of ninnies and above all stop trying to please everyone. Paul Martin sometimes acted as if he was heading up Disney and not a political party. Martin acted as if scandal and controversy were of a piece. They are not. The foundation of many a government is controversy and confrontation. Isn’t that right Ralph Klein? The foundation of Klein’s rule has been opposition to Ottawa and it not just a coincidence that Klein was being ushered out the door as a new Conservative Prime is being ushered in. Anyway, back to Trudeau for second. Could anyone ever picture Martin saying the following?

“Yes, well there are a lot of bleeding hearts around who just don't like to see people with helmets and guns. All I can say is, go on and bleed”

Rhetoric only goes so far though. If one is really going to piss off a targeted group and have them scream bloodly murder, there is no substitute for policy. Now, pitting one region of the country against region is not good long term strategy. It limits one potential for growth. The targets should be selected on primarily on the basis of ideology and the nature of the confrontation should be just that. For the Liberals, as I have said time and again, angering social conservatives and the Bush administration is winning strategy, particularly with regards to Quebec. And as I have said time and time again, promise to legalize marijuana, for one, and force Stephen Harper into defending an intellectually bankrupt prohibitionist along with Bush administration and James Dobson. Every bad word from Dobson and Bush is a free ad time as far as the Liberals would be concerned. What seals the deal is that unlike opposition to SSM employed by Karl Rove in the States, legalizing marijuana is a good politics because in the long term it is the right thing to do and as such a good long term play.

Kyoto represents one of the failings of the Martin government. Martin was not entirely to blame. The opposition successfully saddled Martin with Chrétien’s poor environmental record even when Martin’s financial commitments to Kyoto were quite substantial. Where the Martin government fell down was that Martin’s environmental policy depended upon the public understanding Kyoto. They did not and quite frankly never will. The same thing can be said about Global warming. It is an abstract concept and one that probably appeals to many Canadians in winter. Moreover, as with SSM, Martin emphasized not the merits of Kyoto, but Canada’s Kyoto obligations. I image many Canadians recalled their mothers urging them to eat their broccoli as homage to the starving kids in Africa whenever they heard Martin talking about Canada’s Kyoto obligations.

Kyoto is important yes, but the Liberals have quite a bit of leg work before it can become a burning issue. What the Liberals need to do is they need to draw out the immediate to long term consequences of smog, say. In order to sufficiently appeal to Canadians the Liberals need to forget about thinking globally and focus locally.

Vancouver and Toronto should be two of the focal points. Vancouver is rightly regarded as one of the world’s most beautiful cities, the ocean and the Mountains being its two biggest selling points. However every summer brings more smog and the view of the North Shore Mountains becomes a little less stunning. If this continues, there will be potentially huge long term consequences for Vancouver’s tourist industry to mention just one. This point can brought home by juxtaposing older clear pictures of mountains of Santiago Chili and LA with newer ones taken from the same vantage point showing them obscured by smog.

As for Toronto, the emphasis should be on how air pollution is affecting the daily lives of people who live there. How many smog days are there? What is the impact on the cities most vulnerable? As with Vancouver, juxtaposing older and newer pictures of cities aboard should be used. Pictures of people in Tokyo; the older ones showing people walking around without masks and the newer ones of people walking around wearing masks, should hit home. Two pictures of the same person would be good.

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