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Can Justin Trudeau save the Liberal Party? (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Can Justin Trudeau save the Liberal Party? (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

What exactly defines a liberal nowadays? Add to ...

If the campaign debates are anything to go by, when the leadership candidates for the Liberal Party of Canada make their final pitches at a televised “showcase” in Toronto this weekend, they will avoid the two questions that matter most: What are liberals now? And can the Liberal Party represent them?

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The punditocracy is virtually unanimous that Justin Trudeau will win when the vote is announced on April 14. And while Pierre Trudeau’s eldest son will inherit a third-place party that has lost three consecutive elections, recent polls show the Liberals matching, even surging ahead of, the ruling Conservatives.

Midterm polls are a some-time thing, of course. But there seems to be a hunger out there for … Well, there’s the rub.

Are voters eager for an attractive, charismatic leader? A politician, like Mr. Trudeau, who will legalize marijuana and strengthen postsecondary education? Someone who will halt the Northern Gateway pipeline and put a price on carbon?

Or are they in search of something more elusive, more difficult to define, let alone act on: a renewed national discourse on small-l liberal ideals?

That discourse once dominated the Anglosphere, just as liberal parties, under one name or another, dominated governments. Their values included an embrace of capitalism, but with a measured redistribution of wealth. They stood for the protection of minorities from the tyranny of majorities. And they established, entrenched and expanded the welfare state.

In Canada, liberalism was the copyright of the Liberal Party. The party that wove the social safety net, brought home the Constitution, entrenched the world’s most welcoming immigration policy and delivered full equality to gays and lesbians was “our” party.

“To be a Liberal is to be part of the central Canadian narrative, a very proud narrative,” historian Michael Bliss says.

But Liberals have lost the plot of late. It’s not clear how Mr. Trudeau can achieve his goals (isn’t postsecondary a provincial domain?) or how they fit into a cohesive vision for his party. And how are the Liberals all that different from other parties, anyway? Stephen Harper has carefully edged his party toward the middle. Thomas Mulcair wants the NDP to abandon its commitment to socialism at its Montreal policy convention (on the same weekend that the Liberals choose their leader).

This could explain why, according to polling by EKOS Research from 1997 to 2012, there has been a steady growth in Canadians who identify as small-l liberals – but not necessarily a spike in votes for the Liberal Party.

The cleavage of ideology from party politics can partly be explained by a decades-long anxiety about money. Canadians’ social values have become increasingly progressive (see the accompanying data on our changing attitudes toward abortion, gay rights and the legalization of marijuana), but we’re still struggling with how to create a progressive economy.

In polling conducted from 1977 to 2013, we have consistently returned to the economy, unemployment and inflation as our biggest national concerns.

The challenge to traditional liberalism first emerged with the stagflation of the 1970s, when liberal economic assumptions just didn’t seem to work any more. The free-trade debate of the 1980s put the liberals (and the Liberals) on the losing side of what is now settled wisdom.

And the economic crisis of 2008 haunts us still. Nik Nanos, head of the polling firm Nanos Research, calls the economy “an open wound” that still dominates all other issues.

“For many Canadians, the Liberal Party is the party of their parents,” he says. “The Liberals have lost relevancy to the day-to-day life of Canadians.”

Stephen Harper seems to understand this. At a time when the economy matters above all, the Conservatives have taken it away from the Liberals as an issue – and have courted an economically conservative flood of new immigrants from China, India and the Philippines, whose numbers over the past 20 years make up the equivalent of two Torontos.

Meanwhile, the Liberals have failed to capture voters by speaking to deeper ideals – perhaps the social democratic aspirations of the French in Quebec, or of social crusaders elsewhere – has been increasingly difficult. “We are the party of the environment,” Stéphane Dion said. But the voters weren’t buying the environment. We are the “big red tent” that can accommodate progressive aspirations within an economically realistic framework, Michael Ignatieff insisted. The party finished third.

Three decades of internal strife culminating in the regicide of Jean Chrétien coupled with the sponsorship scandal, have not helped. In fact, says Christopher Cochrane, a political scientist at University of Toronto, “the Liberals are the only party that has witnessed a steady decline in enthusiasm among partisans of their own party.”

But then there’s Justin Trudeau, and the polls and the crowds. Can he finally revive the flagging Liberal spirits? Will he be able to articulate a new liberalism for our time, a vision that will once again unite the French in Quebec, the immigrant and native-born in the burgeoning Ontario suburbs, the Maritimers desperate for a solution to their economic problems?

Certainly, charisma alone isn’t enough: “Personal popularity doesn’t cut it in the polling booth,” Mr. Nanos warns.

Instead, Mr. Trudeau must, finally, provide a robust definition of what it means to be a liberal and a Liberal in a way that penetrates the fog of voter indifference. He must develop “a consistent message,” Prof. Cochrane believes.

Or just wait. Mr. Bliss says he’s “not sure there is a future for the Liberal Party,” but learning from the past suggests sometimes all that leaders need to succeed is patience.

“You bide your time, you learn in office, you continue to pay your dues,” the historian says.

Most important, you wait for the government to defeat itself. It’s how the Conservatives staggered through the past century.

THE LIBERAL CANADIAN

Social values

Over time, Canada has become more socially liberal, particularly on issues related to abortion, gay rights and drugs. The Liberal Party under Pierre Trudeau was in step with that evolution, and his son promises to continue the trend by standing for more permissive marijuana laws.

Abortion rights

In 1977, 52 per cent of Canadians told Environics that they were against abortion on demand.

By 1985, a majority (53 per cent) polled by Environics agreed that a woman who wants an abortion should be able to have one.

That increased to 55 per cent in 1990 and 67 per cent in 2000, when a majority of Canadians told EKOS they were pro-choice.

In a 2010 Nanos poll, 75 per cent said that women should have the right to an abortion. Only 16 per cent disagreed.

Gay rights

In 1968, the country was split down the middle in a Gallup poll on whether “homosexual behaviour” should be a criminal act.

In 1977, 76 per cent of Canadians told Gallup that homosexual relations were always or almost always wrong.

In 1990, a majority of Canadians (56 per cent) said they disapproved of homosexuals in an Environics poll. But, by 1996, that had dropped to 48 per cent.

In 1999, 53 per cent of Canadians (and 58 per cent of Liberal voters) told Angus-Reid that they supported recognizing gay marriage, with 44 per cent opposed.

In a 2010 Angus-Reid poll, 61 per cent said they supported same-sex marriage, 23 per cent said they supported civil unions, and only 16 per cent said they opposed both. Support for same-sex marriage among the youngest generation polled (those born after 1980) was 81 per cent, with only 3 per cent opposed.

Marijuana

In a 1977 Environics poll, 77 per cent of Canadians were against legalizing marijuana.

In 1980, 63 per cent thought that punishment for marijuana use was strict enough or could be stricter.

Opposition to legalizing marijuana dropped to 69 per cent by 1995, while in 2000 a plurality (45 per cent to 37 per cent) agreed that possession of small amounts should not be a crime. By 2010, the number who disagreed fell to only 30 per cent.

Last year, 66 per cent of Canadians polled by Ipsos-Reid supported decriminalization, while 57 per cent polled by Angus-Reid supported full legalization.

Money matters

The Liberals have been on the right side of public opinion on some key issues – be it health care, national unity or the environment – but if you look at polls asking about the most important problem facing Canadians and the Canadian government, there’s a consistent pattern: In surveys conducted by Environics and Nanos Research over the past few decades, voters come back again and again to concerns over jobs, money and the economy.

1977

Unemployment: 24%

Inflation: 18%

Government administration: 11%

National unity: 11%

Economy: 7%

1987

Unemployment: 47%

Economy: 13%

Public administration: 6%

Inflation: 5%

Social problems: 4%

1997

Unemployment: 44%

Economy: 12%

Poor leadership: 6%

Deficit/debt: 5%

National unity: 4%

2007

Health care: 22%

Environment: 22%

Economy: 5%

Unemployment: 4%

Taxes: 4%

2013

Economy: 22%

Health care: 12%

Environment: 9%

Debt/deficit: 8%

Education: 3%

Identity

According to polling by EKOS Research that asked Canadians whether they self-identify as “small-l liberal,” “small-c conservative” or “neither,” Canadians are increasingly calling themselves “liberal.” So why has the Liberal Party’s support at the ballot box steadily declined since the 2000 election? More and more Canadians with small-l liberal values are voting for other parties.

1997

Small-l liberal: 37%

Small-c conservative: 27%

Neither: 35%

2007

Small-l liberal: 27%

Small-c conservative: 28%

Neither: 41%

2012

Small-l liberal: 45%

Small-c conservative: 27%

Neither: 23%

Eric Grenier

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