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John Ibbitson

Will the New Centre hold for Liberals? Add to ...

As the Liberal Party lifts the curtain this week on its effort to reinvent itself, a central question emerges: Is a New Centre emerging in Canadian political life?

In his speech to the Economic Club of Canada in Toronto Wednesday afternoon – which ranged far and wide beyond the prepared text – Interim Leader Bob Rae attempted to paint the governing Conservatives and the Official Opposition NDP as parties based on the right- or left-wing margins of society, pale reflections of the Tea Party or Occupy movements.

Neither party, he maintained, truly speaks for the broad centre – the home turf of the Liberals for generations.

That centre, he told the audience of business leaders, craves a party committed “to change, to innovation, to improvement and to reform.”

But the Liberals sold themselves as the party of all these things – whatever they actually mean – in 2006, 2008 and last spring. They appealed to stressed middle-class voters seeking economic innovation and social protection. And the voters responded by kicking them from office and ultimately reducing them to third-place status.

So the old centre does not hold for the Liberals. If the party is to be reborn, it must define and appeal to a New Centre. But what might that New Centre be?

One way to answer a question is to ask other questions. And Mr. Rae’s address prompted several, the answers to which could determine his party’s future. If it has one.

1. Does Canada need a national education strategy? Stephen Harper would say no, because education is a provincial responsibility, and the Prime Minister is a great respecter of provincial jurisdictions. But Mr. Rae disagrees.

“We’ve got to have a national learning agenda for Canada,” he declared, if the next generation is to power a truly innovative economy that relies on more than selling oil, lumber and minerals to other countries.

2. Is Employment Insurance a tax issue or a social issue? The Liberals advocate freezing increases to Employment Insurance, as part of their emphasis on shifting taxation away from payroll and onto income. But the Mowat Centre, an Ontario think tank, will issue a report next week that looks at the inequities that penalize Ontario workers in favour of workers elsewhere, even though Canada’s biggest province now chronically suffers from above-average unemployment. So is EI reform about freezing premiums, or about wholesale changes to how the system works?

3. Do people still care about the environment or aboriginal poverty? Mr. Rae’s speech emphasized the need to grow the economy while protecting the environment. He also lamented the poverty, poor health care and inadequate education on first nations reserves.

“Filling our nation’s prisons with aboriginal youth is hardly the better or the wiser course, and yet that is the course that is being set by Mr. Harper’s government,” he maintained.

Paul Martin made improving the quality of life for aboriginal Canadians one of his greatest priorities, and Stéphane Dion championed a carbon tax. Look where it got both of them.

4. Does Canada need a national health strategy? Again, this is a jurisdictional question. The Conservatives have increased health funding generously, while leaving it to the provinces to administer the system. But Mr. Rae wants to increase national – read federal government –involvement by improving financial assistance for people with catastrophic prescription needs and by combating mental illness, especially among the young.

Is that something that voters in the broad middle of Canadian political life want Ottawa to be doing?

The answer to these questions could help determine whether a New Centre emerges this decade, or whether it stays the same old centre, voting anything but Liberal.

There is, perhaps, one other question: Are these questions Bob Rae should be answering? He is, after all, only supposed to be the interim leader.

Mr. Rae ended his speech with a ringing invocation of Sir Wilfrid Laurier. But Laurier died with his party in disarray. It was Mackenzie King, a new leader from a new generation, who restored the Liberal Party as the voice of the Canadian Centre.

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