A few weeks ago, I had dinner with a friend who’s been involved in right-of-centre politics for most of his life. Ottawa’s rumour mill was busy that evening with speculation that Prime Minister Stephen Harper might not lead the Tories into the next election, and so our conversation turned to the obvious question: If not him, who?
Employment Minister Jason Kenney’s name came up, as it does. My supper companion predicted that, despite the prospect of power, Mr. Kenney would eventually decline to seek the top Tory job. “He’d rather lead the conservative movement than the Conservative Party,” my friend told me.
I wondered: Could the same be said for any Liberal leadership prospect, past or future? It’s unlikely; having spent most of the last century in government – or tantalizingly close to it – the Liberal Party has long since subsumed anything that might be called a “liberal movement” in Canada. Building that base – not for the party, but for the ideology it ostensibly represents – is the chief challenge for Canada’s liberals (and Liberals) in 2014.
In a country as zealously moderate as ours, the promise of power eventually replaces purity with pragmatism as any political party’s cardinal virtue. Such ideological mellowing has defined the Reform-Conservative coalition since its reincarnation as the Conservative Party in 2003, and New Democrats have charted a similar course away from what were once their core commitments as they’ve inched and surged from protest to the cusp of power.
Still, when former Reformers and New Democrats stray, they do so knowingly. Their parties were each formed to advance an agenda, not to win government. Before power was within their grasp, their appeal to potential members and supporters was grounded in ideology, not ambition. Now that they’re in (or close to) government, former Reformers and New Democrats have had to reckon deliberately with the challenge of moderation; they’ve had to understand exactly which of their principles they’ve compromised, and why.
But, for Liberals, compromise has long been a principle in itself. Since 1990, the party has spent 13 years in office, and most of the other 10 in five different leadership contests. Power and personality, not ideology, have been the main sources of its appeal. Small-l liberal ideology hasn’t been a large-l Liberal selling point for decades. In its place, the party has maintained a steadfast ideological commitment not to maintain steadfast ideological commitments. As a colleague of mine once quipped, Liberals love wedge issues, but only when they force 100 per cent of the population to disagree with everyone else.
This ideological blurriness has had an upside: it has allowed charismatic leaders to shine unconstrained. Justin Trudeau is popular because he represents youthful dynamism and change – not because he’s a (small-l) liberal. He could be both. If he wants to ensure that his party survives beyond his leadership, he must be. Over time, a party that might well stand for anything might as well stand for nothing.
And so, this year, the best thing that liberals can do for the Liberal Party is stake out an ideological position that answers a question that Liberal partisans nearly always avoid:
What is liberalism, in Canada, in 2014?
Here’s a start. Liberalism is a commitment to equal freedom for every Canadian, in every province and territory. A liberal is sceptical of government intervention in free markets and individual choices, except to correct market failures – including environmental degradation and extreme inequality – and to provide public goods: pensions and healthcare, education and infrastructure, foreign policy and national defence. A liberal believes in the progressive taxation of income, not to equalize wealth, but to share opportunity more fairly. A liberal understands that, in a big country, freedom and fairness won’t be shared without a strong federal government – and so liberalism entails an unshakable commitment to fiscal discipline, so that freedom and fairness are sustainable over time.
Freedom and fairness. Equality and sustainability. If these are the touchstones of Canadian liberalism, then they should be the ideological benchmarks by which (small-l) liberals judge the (large-l) Liberal Party, its leader, and its policies. They should be an intellectual starting point for the kind of movement-party relationship that conservatives and Conservatives now enjoy – and that Jason Kenney may soon symbolize – with an ideological movement that sustains and attracts support for a political party, not the other way around.
So, please, let’s make 2014 the year that Liberals – large L and small – stop answering the question “what do you stand for?” with a laundry list of legislative achievements from decades past. Forget medicare, forget the Charter, forget the flag and the anthem and Kyoto, Kelowna and childcare. This year, replace history with ideology – and let Liberals be liberals again.
Adam Goldenberg is a former Liberal speechwriter and a Kirby Simon Human Rights Fellow at Yale Law School.