Now think, Liberals

This was my opening monologue guest-hosting The Arena on Jan. 16:

The Federal Liberals just wrapped up their Biennial Convention in Ottawa with visions of renewal dancing in their heads. Renewal being a word here meaning “winning elections, you know, the way we used to”. Their web site declares “The Liberal Party is Canada’s Bold New Party!” But without underestimating the importance of organization (or wanting to see the Liberals triumph) I must remind them that ideas matter more and so does honesty. And they won’t be serious contenders again until they apply some of the latter to the former.

Outgoing party president Alfred Apps just wrote “The Liberal Party sees itself as the party of progress and reform, the voice of the people…. it’s now estranged from its base.” But, he added, “Canadians have sent Liberals to the political woodshed on three previous occasions – 1930, 1958 and 1984…. Liberals bounced back from defeat by … reaching out to new people with new ideas, and modernizing their organization.”

Fine. So where are these new ideas?

Liberals returned from the woodshed in the 1960s by promising to protect people from the alleged ravages of the market and the supposedly pervasive intolerance of their fellows and in the 1990s by promising to balance the budget without fundamentally reforming the welfare state. I do not say either was a good idea. But each was an idea and a big one. And they won’t get anywhere this time by cranking out these decades-old hits like some aging rock band on a reunion tour.

Today, unless you’re committed to protecting the unborn or find international affairs acutely terrifying, the top public agenda item must be reining in spending in the face of demographic crisis, especially given the drumbeat of bad financial news out of Europe. And you need a real idea: Not just a wish that the problem go away or a slogan (like Stephane Dion’s “Green Shift”) but an explanation of why it’s happening and a comprehensive plan to set things right. Chretien-Martin trimming and squeezing won’t work this time.

That doesn’t mean a boutique policy like legalizing marijuana is necessarily bad. The problem is, it doesn’t seem to be connected to any coherent political philosophy.

I say “doesn’t seem to be” because modern Liberals stand for permissive social policy generally and perhaps want to legalize pot for the same reason they favour gay marriage, abortion on demand and so on. But what is that reason?

It’s certainly not libertarianism. Where someone like Ron Paul would legalize drugs because he opposes government meddling in your life for your own good even with majority support, the Liberals seem to stand for your right to do anything you want while the swollen state stands by to protect you from any consequences financial, medical or even social. They proudly support human rights tribunals and hate speech laws that punish us severely not only for exercising our freedom of association but simply for criticizing someone or something.

Even if this nagging nanny state were a good idea, which it’s not, it isn’t a new one. Bold and exciting in 1968, it’s stale and mouldy now. Worse, while a state that made sure your life worked out regardless of your choices was a dream for 1960s radicals, it’s a nightmare for 2012 finance ministers. And if the Liberals haven’t got some idea how to make it affordable, or rein it in, they are not going to win power except briefly and accidentally, the way Tories did when they didn’t seem to know who they were or why they hated Liberals so much.

Whatever the Harper Tories have done well, or badly, they have not been fiscally responsible. From fy 2006 through 2010, they hiked program spending 40%. It’s not a partisan problem; the McGuinty liberals have been no better. But it’s a partisan vulnerability, to anyone willing to talk frankly about it and their own position.

Here federal Liberal weakness for smug self-satisfaction is a major danger. Sure, there are blatherskites everywhere. But in Britain, the shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, Rachel Reeves, just admitted her own Labour party is not ready to govern. “If there was a general election tomorrow, of course we haven’t got enough flesh on the bones,” she told the Daily Telegraph, and their leader “does need more time”. Furthermore, “I don’t think that every pound of money spent under the last government was spent as wisely as it could have been. Look at what happened to the pay of those people at the top of the civil service, in local government, or in quangos. Look at the contract for GPs.”

Until federal Liberals can admit what they did wrong during their long political dominance, where they spent too much, which ideas they would now repudiate, they better hope the political woodshed is cozy. Because the only way out of it is to think your way out.

UncategorizedJohn Robson