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No room in the middle of the road (AP)
No room in the middle of the road (AP)

Gordon Gibson

No room for the Liberals in the middle of the road Add to ...

The Liberal Party is in great danger of becoming an irrelevance unless it does something about it. Alas, that assumes there is still a thing called "the Liberal Party" that is capable of doing anything. What used to be a party - a genuine, large and co-operating organization of like-minded people - has long since been turned into an empty shell by centralizing leaders.

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The shell became populated largely by celebrity followers and power-seekers. The dynamics of our modern political system work in that direction. There no longer being any celebrities or early prospect of power, away these cohorts will drift.

The Conservatives and NDP are fortunate, for now, to still be parties in the "like-minded people" sense, the Conservatives because of the residual legacy of Reform and the federal NDP because they have never been corrupted by power.

Do the few remaining Liberals have a chance, and if so, what should they do? There are two needs, both simple in concept and difficult of execution.

First, the Liberals have to stand for some things on which they broadly agree, and that the other parties won't steal. Not easy.

Second, the remaining professional Liberals need to concentrate on weakening the NDP. If they can again become the Official Opposition, they will again eventually become government.

It is a tough reality that the first transition, from also-rans to opposition, is the harder of the two. But addressing this point is still easier.

The New Democrats have shown a remarkable survival capacity over the years, buoyed up by a philosophy and trade union support. While this has seldom attracted more than 20 per cent of the voters, it has been a durable base and enough to survive. But the 2011 NDP vote of just over 30 per cent has two giant vulnerabilities: Jack Layton and Quebec.

There can be no question as to the importance of the Layton effect. His sunny disposition and polished sound bites were very attractive when compared to the often sour presentations of his opponents. Today, Mr. Layton almost is the NDP.

But I also recall an ancient Greek syllogism from logic classes: "All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal." The NDP is clearly aware of this truth and will aggressively seek to develop a succession, but they will be big shoes to fill when the time comes.

The Quebec vulnerability is where the Liberals can actually do something. They still have a grassroots following in the province, while the NDP's base there looks more like AstroTurf, despite providing the majority of the caucus. This will be a hard, riding-by-riding slog to find more credible candidates and undermine the NDP incumbents, but it is doable.

Now the hard other part - defining what Liberalism means in a unique, substantive and saleable way.

Today is a time when less-activist government is fashionable, not just in Canada but across the English-speaking world. Stephen Harper's government is an exemplar of that idea. The Liberals have always been a party of activist government. Can they change? Should they?

Running against that is a deeper trend, the unending search for a balance between the rights of the individual and the needs of the collective. There is a good argument that in recent times, we have paid too much attention to "rights" (claimed by individuals) and not enough to "responsibilities" (owed to others, the collective).

The NDP has always been the collectivist party, the power of the state and so on. But even Mr. Harper's government is now mining this deep vein of concern with its crime legislation, tough on individual criminals in favour of society.

What are the Liberals to do in this environment? It is not enough to say, "We are in the middle of the road." That is where road kill is found in these polarized times. I feel this deeply, having been leader of the centrist late-1970s B.C. Liberals, continually squeezed between the socialist left and the free-enterprise right (in the jargon of the day).

Where to find unique policies? The obvious places are the "third rails" of politics, the ones others fear to touch. These are things like our drug policy (insane), our prison policy (likewise), our immigration policy (revolutionizing Canada on an ongoing basis without debate), democratic reform, the importance of supporting Canadian culture, a leadership of ideas (not cash) in things that matter to ordinary people like health and education, a focus on the young (who are the future) instead of the old (who are the past, but have the votes), aboriginal policy (an ignored disgrace) and so on.

Dangerous waters requiring great care and skilled navigation? Yes, indeed. And the easier option is try to hang on, be bland and bilingual and conventional, and hope something will turn up.

But the easier option holds its own risk. Charles Darwin's rules about natural selection also apply in politics. Today, the mighty dinosaurs and the passenger pigeons that used to blacken the sky in their numbers are all of them gone. Dodo birds, anyone?

ggibson@bc-home.com

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