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Searching for the New Liberalism

Edited by Howard Aster

and Thomas S. Axworthy

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Mosaic Press, 412 pages, $25

Liberalism as a guiding ideology, not to be confused with big "L" Liberal, has fallen on tough times since the early 1980s. And it's not surprising, given the onset of globalization and the "Fast World," along with stiff competition from all the other "isms," including Britain's Third Way.

But as the title suggests, this collection of papers from a conference held in Toronto last year, is in search of a "new liberalism" for the 21st century.

Accordingly, editors Howard Aster and Tom Axworthy, both with extensive backgrounds as academics, policy advisers and consultants to governments, have brought together a group of young and not-so-young Canadians to examine the continuing validity of liberalism in a postmodern world. Many are convinced, however, that it must be a liberalism that not only enables individual citizens to attain full potential, but also makes them feel "embedded" in the political process.

Most of the essays, then, begin from the premise that the neo-conservatism of the Reagan and Thatcher eras -- with its obsession with the invisible hand, the dismantling of the state and social Darwinism -- does not contain the right prescription for society's ills. Indeed, a vibrant, compassionate and confident Canada can only be found within the framework of a revamped set of liberal principles.

In three broad sections on Perspectives, Policies and Prospects, in conjunction with a series of succinct commentaries at the end, each of the 30 panelists is striving to confront the problems and challenges facing Canada with some new and revitalized liberal thinking. As Aster notes in his brief introduction, he still can't shake the fundamental question put to him by erstwhile Liberal party rainmaker Keith Davey: "What kind of liberal society do you want your son to live in?"

As Liberal fellow-traveller and former cabinet minister John Roberts reminds us from the outset, liberalism has been a major galvanizing force -- having its roots in the 17th century -- and it begins and ends with a set of key assumptions. Most important, of course, is the focus on the sanctity of the individual and the individual's unfettered right of choice -- a theme many contributors highlight.

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Secondly, the state is accorded a primary role in terms of taming market capitalism and putting into place measures to assist the disadvantaged (i.e. the welfare state) -- and thus stave off possible revolutionary behaviour. Contemporary liberalism also revolves around the rule of law, free markets, the protection of minority rights and the holding of legitimate elections.

Throughout the work, essay writers are keen to posit a new liberal perspective on a host of important public policy issues. By way of illustration, Tom Kent, a social policy guru during the Pearson years, calls for changes to alleviate the dependency that political parties have on corporate financing. W. T. Stanbury, a business professor at the University of British Columbia, recommends an elected Senate, more "free votes" and private members' bills and a strengthening of the role of parliamentary committees. Consultants Grant Kippen and Gordon Jenkins advocate, primarily through the embrace of e-democracy, "a more dynamic and citizen centric political engagement process."

Others such as Lloyd Axworthy, Dunniela Kaufman and Tom Axworthy comment on the connection between liberal values and Canada's role in an inter-connected world. For them, Canada needs to be pro-active on "homeland security," to continue along the path of "human security" and avoid "institutional integration" with the United States by stealth.

A handful of other contributors are also worth singling out. For example, lawyer Peter L. Biro makes a strong case for inserting a sunset clause in Ottawa's recent Anti-Terrorism Act and for repealing the "notwithstanding clause" in Canada's beloved Charter of Rights and Freedoms. McGill University's Antonia Maioni argues persuasively that health care in Canada needs to be seen -- in the fine liberal tradition -- as a "public good," which helps to secure freedom and opportunity for individual citizens.

While this is certainly a timely and thought-provoking book, especially in light of an anticipated change of the federal Liberal guard, it is not without its shortcomings. As is often the case with edited collections, it suffers from unevenness and structural awkwardness. Clearly, a concluding chapter by the editors would have been useful, if only to summarize the major findings of the work and to tie together the many loose stands of liberal thought.

Arguably, this is a book best suited for politicians (take heed, Paul Martin), policy wonks and academic specialists. But it does, interestingly enough, have the added bonus of reflecting the overall grievances and concerns of the wider Canadian public.

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This is perhaps best captured by new media expert Nathan Gunn's engaging submission on reconnecting the individual to the public-policy choices made by governments. As he states plainly: "If the overriding sentiment is that the individual does not have any consequential impact on the decisions of their government, then there is no real perception of choice."

Peter McKenna is a political science professor at the University of PEI.

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