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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?

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.”

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