Thursday, March 29, 2012

Mulcair poses an existential threat to the Liberals: what needs to be done

Bob Rae is a good debater, charismatic, well spoken, and funny. Hence, a common lament is that if not for his record as premier of Ontario, he would make a great leader.

This is not an opinion I share. I do not like him for other reasons. Philosophically Bob Rae and I are worlds apart. I do not believe in collective rights. Rae does. I do not believe in affirmative action. Rae does. I do not believe in asymmetrical federalism. Rae does. I generally do not believe in means tested social policy. Rae does. Rae remains a strong backer of the Charlottetown Accord; I believe that any remaining copies should be used as toilet paper. Rae is a status quo Liberal. I am not. I believe that the Liberal party's problems run far deeper than leadership and an absurdly decentralized organizational structure. The party needs to redefine itself in ways it has not done since Trudeau was leader. Rae is not going to do that.

Although it has not become apparent yet the NDP's selection of Thomas Mulcair as leader poises an existential threat to the Liberals -- and all but guarantees the disappearance of the Bloc. Mulcair will hold onto Quebec and in so doing will recreate the same conditions that saw the Liberals wiped out in Ontario in 2011. With no prospect of the Liberals winning anything out West or in Quebec, suburban Toronto will again break for the Tories, and urban Toronto for the NDP. Only this time the situation will be worse. The same thing could happen in Montreal.

The only thing that will forestall such a collapse is if the Liberals are able to recreate an attractive political brand. If the 2011 election proved anything, it was that the Canadian population feels no loyalty to the "natural governing party" whatsoever. After years of trying to convince the public that there was only ever two real choices, it is increasingly looking like the Canadian public agrees; either one votes NDP or one votes Conservative. In large chunks of the country the Liberals are fighting it out with the Greens for 4th spot.

The first step in recreating a successful Liberal brand is to recognize that what made it so successful under Pearson and Trudeau was the Liberals commitment to universality . The creation of Universal health Care, CPP and a commitment to universal rights embedded in the charter of rights and freedoms have been the backbone of the Liberal party for the last 50 years. Unfortunately under Martin and Chretien the Liberals abandoned universality in favor of means tested programs. This pleased Stephen Harper. "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" Dion and Ignatieff continued in this vein and Bob Rae also does. By turning every social program on offer into a form of welfare, the ability of the Liberals to offer anything other than tax cuts is very limited. It goes without saying that means tested social programs do not win elections; the populace is not going to get excited about paying for a service that only a small percentage of the public can use. Without returning to the concept of the universality the Liberals are destined to become virtually indistinguishable from the Conservatives on all but social issues and Ignatieff was hell bent on changing that last election. The Liberals need to again embrace universality.

Of course, a turn to means tested social programs to the exclusion of universal ones was part of trend within liberalism itself away from universal to the particular. The Liberals also adopted affirmative action policies under the rubric of equity. This proved to been a disaster for the working class. Equity sows division within Canadian society and is an anachronism given Canada's rapidly changing demographic profile. Also, as it does nothing to address underlying causes of inequality, equity does little to advance equality. A National daycare care system, for example, would do far more in a year for women's wage equality than 25 years of the putrid Employment Equity Act has. The former addresses the underlying causes of the wage gap, the later hurts the cause of young white males because 50 something white males earn more than than their 50 something female colleges. Worst of all, the focus on equity has meant that instead of trying to move the case of all workers forward, something that is desperately needed, liberals and progressives of all stripes have instead devoted virtually all their energies to shuffling the deck. Calls for a bigger share of the pie has been abandoned for sake of each of the ever smaller pieces having an equal amount of fruit.

Support for equity has also proved to be mistake politically. For starters, a commitment to equity destroyed the liberal ideal of a government built around merit. Hiring the "best" person for the job is a far cry from using the government as a counterpoint to perceived or actual deficiencies in the private sector employment. Government can not be seen or indeed be an affirmative action program. Government exists to further the public good and it furthers the public good not by who it hires but by what functions it carries out. So long as the philosophy of equity rules, Canadians will not have any faith that government is actually committed to that end and conservatives will have an easy time claiming that government hurts, as little more than a make work project for disadvantaged groups, more than it helps.

Luckily for the Liberals they were not the only ones to fall for the equity swan song. The NDP's support for these principles have long rankled many traditional working class voters. Most moved to the Reform party in 1990s and stayed on with the Conservatives, but others have slowly started to migrate back to the NDP. The Liberals need to rip open those scabs. They need to attack NDP's right flank by abandoning their support for equity and coming out against it.

Next the Liberals need to fully absorb what happened to Liberal level of support in Western Canada following the 1974 election. Some blamed the NEP and others have even claimed the gun registry played a part. The latter claim is ridiculous. The gun registry had no impact on the Liberals share of the popular vote or their seat totals. Most important of all it was passed 16 years after the Liberals first showed a significant decline in their level of support. As for the former, the chronology is also wrong. It was the fact that the Liberal vote collapsed in Western Canada in 1979 that paved the way for the NEP politically and not the other way around. The NEP was introduced after the 1980 election. The Liberals took 1 seat in the three most western provinces in 1979 election and 0 in 1980.

The source of the collapse was the more emphasis Trudeau placed on individual rights and a commitment to linguistic equality the more the rest of the country, particularly the West, resented the Liberals' inability to put a stop to bill 178 and and 101 and its willingness to make special accommodations for Quebec. Quebec's Official Language Act spelled doom for the Liberals in Western Canada from the mid 70s until collapse of the Progressive Conservatives in 1993. Ironically, it was the Mulroney's willingness to go even further in pandering to Quebec, particularly the Charlottetown Accord, that gave the Liberals some life again. 60.2% Albertans voted against the Charlottetown Accord, and 68.3% of British Colombians did. The later figure was by far the highest in country and the voter turn out in BC was second only to Quebec. Subsequently, the Torries went from 54 seats West of Ontario, Western Canada being their traditional base of support, in 1984 to 0 in the 1993 election.

Let the "coalition" be a warning to the Liberals; these feelings are still deeply felt in "Western" Canada. For the good of the party and the country, the Liberals need to learn from history and stay clear asymmetrical federalism and collective rights.

Finally, the Liberals need to drive a wedge between libertarians and theo cons by championing social liberalism in way that the Liberal party has not done since Trudeau introduced his omnibus bill. At least the media will support them if they do.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Congratulations on a very good post.

I am right-leaning, but the type of things you suggest are the type of things that could get me to support the Liberals. (Maybe some of your readers would consider that a downside to your points!)

I am concerned about the damage done by government programs. For example, welfare can encourage dependency and depression (I am thinking here of long-term able-bodied people, rather than the genuinely needy). Also, positive discrimination as well as being unfair to those it does not favor, seems to me to not actually help those it "favors", and causes division in society. Your idea of universality could get people like me to SUPPORT government programs.

Also, your point about exploting splits between libertarian and social conservatives is certainly true. I am libertarian-leaning, and certainly if the Liberals came out strong for liberty, if the Conservatives still pandered to the social conservatives, that too would get me interested in the Liberals. Within the same area, the Liberals MUST be a party of freedom of speech, even for views they don't agree with. That to my mind is currently the most off-putting aspect of the Liberals, and puts them in a group of hostile, anti-freedom leftist groups in my mind.

Good luck with your quest. I hope for a good Liberal governemnt when the current Conservative government ends.