"The Liberal Party Of Canada is about to go the way of the Eaton’s stores."
Thursday night at the Canadian War Museum, in a debate presented by the Macdonald Laurier Institute (macdonaldlaurier.ca), sponsored by the Ottawa Citizen and moderated by historian Jack Granatstein, Michael Bliss and John Duffy debated the resolution: The Liberal Party has no future in Canadian politics. To read John Duffy’s opening argument, click here.
The Liberal party in Canada, like liberalism itself, has a great past, and very little future.
The great past almost goes without saying. The party of Wilfrid Laurier, Mackenzie King, Louis St. Laurent, Lester Pearson, Pierre Trudeau, and Jean Chrétien dominated Canadian politics in the 20th century. But it has all fallen apart for the Liberals, a pathetic shadow with their 35 seats in the House of Commons, and real or pending collapse in every province except their Lego-fortress, Prince Edward Island.
Liberalism has already died in the countries from which we take our political lead. In the United Kingdom the Liberal party never recovered after the First World War. In the United States the word “liberal” has become something of an epithet, a term shunned by even Democrats.
Political liberalism is in crisis because in much of the western world its job is done — over, finished. Classic liberalism was about advancing political liberty — the struggle against authoritarian rule, the expansion of parliamentary freedoms, expansion of the franchise, and, in the 20th century, expansion of the idea of inalienable human rights. The Canadian struggle involved our evolution from imperial rule through responsible self-government and then our gradual march towards independence, all the while trying to preserve and strengthen national unity. It was also the development of democracy and respect for individual autonomy as expressed in the expansion of human rights and the personal security guaranteed in the modern welfare state.
The milestones on the Canadian Liberal road begin with the achievements of Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine, and go on through Laurier, King, Pearson, and, above all, the senior Trudeau. Pierre Elliott Trudeau was not a Canadian political maverick. In his political writing and in his political action, Trudeau was a classic Canadian Liberal, and as prime minister he finished the job begun by his predecessors. He gave us our own Constitution, he gave us our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, he preserved our country when its future was in grave doubt because of Quebec separatism.
After Trudeau, Canadian Liberals had little left to do. The Chrétien government got us through the ultimate counter-attack on the Trudeau settlement, the 1995 Quebec referendum, and it took precautions for future battles by passing the Clarity Act. It also tackled the Trudeau-Mulroney legacy of reckless debt increase.
Then, nada. Canadians were not ready for further constitutional change — such as abolishing the monarchy or perhaps the Senate. The pillars of our welfare state were all in place and more in need of repair and repainting than expansion.
In 2008 Stéphane Dion tried to forge a new Liberalism based on environmentalism, highlighted by his proposed carbon tax. Voters were not interested. In 2011 Michael Ignatieff tried to return to old Liberal ideas about fighting tyranny and the abuse of Parliament. But demonization of the Conservative government as enemies of liberty was simply not credited by the voters. Nor is there traction left in the old national unity card: the concept of unity, like identity, seems old-fashioned in an age of pluralism, diversity, distinctiveness, post-modern politics, and the Conservative government’s resurrection of classical federalism.
Now the Liberal party has no ideas at all. Instead of being the party of the vital centre, or the bourgeois revolution, the Liberals are the party of the mushy centre, the party of bourgeois confusion. The party’s old organizational muscle, sinews that worked even as its intellect ossified, has eroded in scandal and rot.
What’s left today is a skeleton party, dominated by Liberals bred in the bone, genetic Liberals — Trudeaus, McGuintys, Daveys, Raes. About all that glues the skeleton together these days is dislike of Conservatives. This is mainly useful in masking Liberals’ intense dislike of one another.
Parties without ideas can stay alive in the hope that their stronger opponents will be destroyed by arrogance and/or scandal. For the most part that doesn’t work for third parties. In today’s Canada the NDP is best situated to pick up the pieces if the Conservatives crumble. Think integrity issues. Think Senate reform.
Will young, charismatic, pragmatic leadership, make a difference? Justin Trudeau might succeed in postponing for another decade the inevitable creation of the Liberal Democratic Party of Canada. His problem is much like that of recent descendants of the great retailers, Timothy Eaton. They tried in vain to save a once-impregnable Canadian institution, a mighty national brand, whose time was past.
The Liberal party is about to go the way of the Eaton’s stores. Like Eaton’s, the Liberal party will live on in the pages of our history books, and maybe in the galleries at our new Canadian Museum of History.
Historian Michael Bliss, professor emeritus at the University of Toronto, is the author of 14 books.
Cartoon by kind permission of
Graeme MacKay at mackaycartoons.net