Stephen Harper once said that Alliance party needed to be more than “Paul Martin in a hurry”. The Liberal party needs to realize that it needs to be more than Stephen Harper on Prozac and that is all it has been for a very long time. Despite all the talk in the media about Dion having moved the party to the left, the central plank in the Liberal platform was reducing income taxes and replacing it with a regressive tax. The Federal Liberal platform hardly differs at all from the one Gordon Campbell will be running on in May! Now granted the makings of “universal” daycare plan was in place when Martin lost in 2006, but in terms of implementation since 1993 the Liberals have only cut taxes and social spending. They have not implemented a major entitlement program since the 1960s. What has confused people is that the Liberals have failed miserably when it comes to standing up to “special interests”. Whether it be the Kelowna Accord, the Atlantic Accord, asymmetrical federalism, and Liberal party affirmative action, the Liberals have come to resemble at best a new social movement and provincial clearing house and at worst their servant.
The belief that Liberal party have moved left reinforces my belief that the Liberals need to reverse their traditional modus operandi. Instead of talking left – new left -- and governing right, they need to talk right and govern left. They can start by sending the right message to the public by cleaning up their own house. The core of liberalism as an ideology is universality; special provisions inevitably damage the party’s brand. Abolish the Women and Aboriginal People’s commissions, revamp the delegate selection process or dump it altogether and stop insisting on a quota of women candidates. The Liberals need simplify and de-clutter their message. Stop talking about women, aboriginals, Quebecers, rural Canadians, “cities” in speeches and talking points that reach a broad audience and get back to talking about just “Canadians”. Micro messaging turns off more voters than it attracts.
The Liberals also need to stop trying to minimize the differences between themselves and the Conservatives. When it comes to Quebec, taxes and most recently crime the Liberal party has been chasing after the Conservative party for years. Not only is this a daft strategy short term, long term it has been disastrous. These issues can not be “neutralized” in the way that Afghanistan was. Trying to match the Conservatives tax cut for tax, for example only serves to focus all the attention on an issue that the Conservatives will win on every single time.
The flip side of trying to minimize the differences between themselves and the Conservatives and not running on a truly alternative vision is that the Liberals have proclaimed themselves to be the champions of the status quo. Needless to say, this is an odd position for an ostensively liberal party to take. However, with Harper having been in power for 2 plus years now and the Bush regime thankfully at an end, the days of railing against the Conservatives “hidden agenda” are over.
The Liberals need to embrace universality again and I do not mean just the rhetoric. The Liberals need to promise to end the war on drugs instead of sitting back and letting the Conservatives box their ears in with their get tough on crime agenda. Finally the Liberals need to be confident that social liberalism and universal social programs are a better sell in Quebec than being called a “nation” and having a seat – or not -- at unesco.