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Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)
Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)

Jeffrey Simpson

There was a time when the Liberals stood for something Add to ...

It is said, often with a sigh, that politicians should have the courage of their convictions. But that aphorism presumes that politicians do, indeed, have convictions, apart from the desire to be in power.

Just now, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff is touring the country, visiting university campuses, where, to his credit and in contrast to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, he is actually taking questions. But does he have convictions? And if so, what are they?

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The question is especially relevant in Mr. Ignatieff's instance, since something must be done to improve his limp public image. And the question is the more relevant, since he leads a party that's lost a sense of itself.

There was a time when the Liberal Party stood for three things: a strong central government, an activist state that tried to redistribute income and opportunity, and an internationalist foreign policy.

A lot of Canadians disagreed with these ideas, and still do, but through all the twists and turns and full or partial reverses, these were the Liberals' core convictions. Today, it's hard to know just what Liberals believe, apart from being largely (but not exclusively) against what the Harper government is doing.

Stéphane Dion led the Liberals into a carbon tax offset by lower personal income tax and more social spending, and the party lost an election. From this, the party concluded: Never mention taxes of any kind, and don't put forward any arrestingly new ideas, since they'll become the focus of the election.

Mr. Ignatieff has been around long enough for Canadians to know he's not going to excite them. The issue, then, is whether he can intrigue them - not by his persona but by his ideas. Without compelling ideas from the opposition, the voters who supported the Conservatives will stick with their team.

Mr. Ignatieff, therefore, has to appeal beyond the travails of today to offer a better tomorrow and, in so doing, reconnect with those convictions that once defined the Liberal Party. Giving effect to those convictions - a strong central government, an activist state and an internationalist foreign policy - will take money that the federal government doesn't have, and won't have without raising taxes.

At the party's upper echelons these days, the pervasive emotion is fear: fear of providing the Conservatives' attack machine with a target, fear of saying anything controversial lest voters be offended, fear of the polls, fear of negative media, fear of voters' unwillingness to accept serious debate.

When a party, like an individual, is guided by fear, then courage is banished, convictions are buried, and politicians will talk but not say much. Or, to be more charitable, the party of fear will offer alternatives to the government, but they will be timid and at the margin of difference, the theory being that governments defeat themselves rather than opposition parties winning by the force of their ideas.

This is the mind space now occupied by the Liberals. As one of the most senior Liberals asked recently (privately, of course): Has any party in Canada ever won an election proposing to raise taxes? The answer is no. Case closed. We're not throwing ourselves over that cliff.

Closing the option of raising the GST by two points for deficit elimination, debt reduction, lower personal income taxes and higher spending on key social and environmental programs - the bold option - will leave the Liberals battling at the margin of debate. Gone will be the chance to make the moral case that deficits burden the next generation and inadequately prepare society for the aging of the population.

A little more money here, a little longer deficit there, the occasional dissent but not a clear alternative: As a result of these calculations, the Liberals seem fearful of challenging the basic framework of debate established by Mr. Harper, and will thus argue at the margins of his framework rather than trying to create an entirely new one themselves.

The result will be a Liberal Party of little policies without much vision, and certainly without the tools to reconnect with those core convictions that defined the party in its better days. The result, too, will be a leader whose own core convictions will be challenged.

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