This is not your grandparents’ Liberal Party. The policy resolutions that Liberal activists are backing at this weekend’s convention are a set of left-leaning ideas that wouldn’t be out of place in the NDP.
Universal basic income. National pharmacare. Economic equality. A green new deal. Increasing Old Age Security. Forgiving student debt. Taxing the wealthy.
In 2021, this is the stuff that Liberals’ dreams are made of.
And if you can’t say that every policy notion put forward by the party’s policy keeners is the precise will of the Liberal grassroots, you can still see this party has shifted.
It’s as much true in what isn’t being debated as what is. Don’t look for proposals about deficits or fiscal anchors or the national debt. There’s little on trade. Or industry. There isn’t all that much about job creation or economic growth, except the ones about greening the economy or making it more inclusive.
The blue Liberals, or business Liberals, once symbolically represented by Paul Martin and before that by John Turner, aren’t taking up a lot of space in the convention’s formal policy debates. Where are they now?
As it turns out, Mr. Martin himself had to withdraw at the last minute from a convention-stage conversation with Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland – though admittedly the purpose of his planned appearance was really to reassure people that the big-spending plans to come are not reckless.
And even though former central banker Mark Carney tops the speakers’ list on Friday, it’s still hard to look at this convention and have any doubt that the Liberal mood has moved to the left.
Compare the policy resolutions Liberal members have proposed to those put forward at the Conservative policy convention three weeks earlier, and you will now see a wider gap than in the recent past.
For the most part, the Liberal resolutions would fit in at the New Democrat convention also being held this weekend – although NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh heads a party that has stepped a little to the left, too, and he has to beat back fringe resolutions such as proposals to disband the Canadian Armed Forces.
Certainly, the current Liberal disposition reflects the party’s leader, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who casts himself as a progressive more than a centrist. Some of the bluer Liberal voices in Mr. Trudeau’s 2015 cabinet, such as Bill Morneau and Scott Brison, are gone.
But the pandemic has also created a different political environment for Liberals. The national debt has ballooned, but nobody wants to talk about that, or cutting deficits, or reducing spending. There are folks who worry debt will come back to haunt us one day, but they’d rather not worry about it now. Even the Conservatives are loath to talk about deficits.
The Liberals clearly are in a mood to see governments do a lot of things. Not just about the obvious problems underlined by the pandemic, such as creating national standards for long-term care, but about inequality, environment, child care and more.
Luckily for the Liberals, that lines up with pure electoral tactics in what is probably an election year. The party competes for power with the Conservatives, but it wins by taking votes from the NDP.
The Liberals want the ballot question to be about building the Canada of the future – and its party members seem to be dreaming about an expansive-government progressive future that would appeal to NDP supporters.
That’s where Mr. Martin’s now-cancelled conversation with Ms. Freeland was supposed to fit in. He had been expected to talk about his game-changing 1995 budget, which reworked federal spending and helped slay the deficit. The point wasn’t to argue that there should be a new round of deficit-cutting, but to reassure people that Liberals, and their big-spending plans of the future, are realistic.
Now that’s Ms. Freeland’s job. She is planning a $100-billion, three-year economic-recovery plan, and her April 19 budget will be the backbone of the Liberals’ next election campaign.
It is her task to sell the Liberal plan as “investments” to build the future, rather than spending: green incentives to transition the economy; funding for rural broadband as technological infrastructure; child-care funding as supports for the labour force.
The Finance Minister also has to convince people that the spending will end up paying for itself, or that it’s short term, just for a few years. The thing is, the mood of this convention suggests that Liberal dreams don’t stop there.
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