Now that the Liberal Party leadership is wide open, the way is clear for a new generation to stake out a 21st-century Liberal vision. They have an unprecedented opportunity to rid the party of the baggage of the past and reinvent it as the party of the future.
For that to happen, the old guard will have to hand over the keys to the next generation. Throughout my political career, I was inspired by young Canadians, by their vision of a green, prosperous and just country, at peace with itself at home, engaged with the world beyond and ambitious to win against the world’s best in science, business, technology and culture.
The party has the time now to give life to this vision. The leadership candidates who step forward should be judged on one key question: Do they offer young Canadians a vision of Canada that is both realistic and inspiring?
There are those who think the only question left for the party is whether it should strike a deal with the NDP. Leaving aside the fact that the NDP doesn’t feel it needs a deal and the fact that many Liberals would leave the party if a deal were done, Liberals have better things to do than arrange their own funeral.
There is life in us yet. We may want to co-operate with the NDP in government or in opposition, but first we need to stay true to some stubborn facts. The NDP are not liberals in a hurry, and we are not a party of the left. We are a free enterprise party, and they are big-government social democrats. We have done good things for Canadians when we worked together in the past, and we can do so again, but we should do so maintaining our separate identities.
Instead of negotiating surrender, we need to become a national party in our own right once again. We can only do so if we refuse to win votes in Eastern Canada by running against Western Canada. We can leave that game to the NDP, just as we can leave them the game of saying one thing to Quebeckers and another to the rest of the country about national unity. Same message in every room: It should be our motto.
By 2015, Stephen Harper will have been in office for nine long years. There are already enough Canadians who believe he runs a mendacious, mean and arrogant government. These Canadians will be looking for an alternative, but it has to be a government that is competent and calm in the face of economic storms. If they turn to us, they will expect more than the old mantra that we are fiscal conservatives with a social conscience. To win, we will have to take the economy away from Mr. Harper. We used to own it as an issue. He has moved into our house; we will have to evict him.
In 2015, Canadians will be looking for a government that sets a different tone; that doesn’t treat its opponents as enemies; that respects Parliament instead of railroading it; that makes policy on the facts rather than ideology; that listens rather than bullies; and that knows the difference between being tough and being mean. Canadians will be looking for a party leader with a warm and generous set of instincts – about increasing our role in the world, about working with the provinces to strengthen our energy system, about a growth strategy tied to justice, about the idea that our prosperity depends on making sure no Canadian is left out in the cold.
We truly have the fight of our lives on our hands. We’ve allowed our enemies to caricature us. We’re not and never have been the party of big government. We’re not and never have been a party of paternalist snobs. We don’t believe this is a liberal country, just waiting to take us back, any more than we believe it is a conservative country, out of our reach forever. We believe what Wilfrid Laurier believed – and he was in opposition for most of his career – that politics is about earning trust, by offering Canadians a vision of Canada that appeals to their hopes, not their fears, that summons up the best in their natures, not the worst. Most of all, we Liberals have to regain trust in ourselves and in the brave new generation who have joined up for the fight and who want to win.
Michael Ignatieff teaches at the University of Toronto and is a former leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.