This is hardly a groundbreaking observation, but the Federal Liberal Party is listing badly right now. Sagging in the polls and marred by an almost daily barrage of scandals and public relations blunders, the party is in danger of losing an election for the first time since 1988.
One of the most frequently repeated criticisms of the party, and one that Conservative Leader Stephen Harper is particularly fond of, is that the Federal Liberals don’t know what they stand for. This, however, is hardly new. Observing that the Liberal Party has either an incoherent set of policies or ideas that conflict with those previously espoused is like observing that rain falls from the sky or that the Toronto Maple Leafs didn’t win the Stanley Cup. It’s a part of our shared culture as Canadians, something that keeps us anchored and oriented amid an onslaught of change. To be a liberal is to be perpetually in pursuit of the Zeitgeist, and that is an inherenty mutable property.
The reason why the Liberal Party of Canada is so frequently and consistently accused of “flip-flopping” on issues is because it is almost always in power. Governing is not an ideological challenge or a game of being morally or intellectually right. It is an exhausting exercise of compromise, balance, and horse-trading. It is true that Liberals have alternately stood for and against increased international trade, closer ties with the United States, deficit spending and, most famously, conscription during the Second World War. The inescapable ambivalence of Liberal policies is best personified by Prime Minister Mackenzie King in the early 1940s, when he famously pronounced “conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription.”
That said, amid the ideological movement that can be crudely classified along a left-right spectrum, there is one foundation that the Liberal Party of Canada has always stood proudly upon: Canada. From Sir Wilfred Laurier right up to Jean Chretien, the Liberal Party of Canada has represented the interests of this middle ground called Canada. From Laurier’s creation of new provinces in the West, to Pearson’s creation of a Canadian flag in 1965, to Pierre Trudeau’s patriation of the Constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, capital-L Liberalism in Canada is inextricably linked with a sense of national pride and an understanding of the importance of national unity.
Within this context, Quebec has been the focal point of the many battles that have been fought over the years. Whether during the Quiet Revolution in mid-1960s Quebec, the referendum debates in 1980 and 1995, the Constitutional “Crisis” of 1982, the constitutional debates of Meech Lake and Charlottetown, or the passage of the Clarity Bill in 1997, the Liberal Party has always stood on the side of federalist Canadians. On this critically important point it has never waivered, never changed its basic tune, and very rarely compromised in an effort to secure short-term political spoils.
At least, not until now. In a rather remarkable turn-of-face, the Martin Liberals have sought out and recruited separatists in Quebec to run for the Liberal Party of Canada. First on this list is Jean Lapierre, a radio host, media personality, and Paul Martin’s new Quebec lietuenant. In the press conference announcing his candidacy as a Liberal, Lapierre got off to an auspicious start by describing the Clarity Bill as "useless". More importantly, he was a founding member of the Bloc Quebecois. This is the same Bloc Quebecois that, in case anybody forgets, does not believe in Canada and has worked tirelessly and almost singularly to promote separatist nationalism in Quebec. The same Bloc Quebecois that nearly achieved a “yes” vote in the 1995 referendum – although Lapierre claims to “not remember” how he voted (which is akin to not remembering where you were born for French Canadians). The same Bloc Quebecois that has been the Liberal Party of Canada’s chief opponent for the past fourteen years in la belle province. Strange, isn’t it?
Now, this isn’t a new strategy in Canadian politics. Brian Mulroney and the Progressive Conservative Party recruited separatist French-Canadian candidates in Quebec in the early 1980s and made them an integral part of their highly successful, coast-to-coast, electoral coalition. It produced eight years of a majority government, as well as eight years of constitutional debate in an effort to satisfy – those more cynical might say pay off – this portion of the Mulroney coalition.
But let’s not forget that, at the end of the day, the loyalties of the more nationalist of Mulroney’s Quebec MPs were with an independent Quebec, not Canada. When Lucien Bouchard left the Conservatives to help Lapierre form the BQ, many of Mulroney’s best Quebec lieutenants left with Bouchard. It decimated Mulroney’s coalition and helped lead, in part, to the PC’s electoral Waterloo in 1993.
Obviously, the Martin Liberals don’t foresee this happening. Instead, they have argued that bringing former separatists into the federalist fold is an effort to broaden the base of Liberal support in Quebec. It may well work, and winning means a lot within the Liberal Party. If this gambit works, I’ll tip my cap – temporarily. But hearing one of the new converts to the party, in an interview with CBC radio, say that “we’re your friends now” and “separatism is dead, so we need to move on” makes me terribly nervous.
For those of you who have, like me, read George Orwell’s 1984, it’s particularly scary. The willing manipulation of historical facts – all done with a smile and a calming pat on the head –is quintessentially Orwellian. In spite of the assurances provided by these nouveau-Liberals, and nouveau-federalists, Oceania (let’s say the Liberal Party of Canada) and Eurasia (separatists) have not always been at peace. It has been a long, bitter war, and one that promises to continue for a long time to come. Attempts like these to rewrite history in an effort to ensure political success tend not to work – witness the Progressive Conservatives – and the siren call of nationalism has brought Quebec separatism back from the ashes many times before – witness the last twenty-four years. As a Liberal and as a Canadian, I hope that it doesn’t happen again. But part of me – well, most of me – is pretty certain that it will. When it does, the Liberal Party of Canada may have irreversibly traded its federalist credentials, and its hard-earned historical right to defend Canada, for a couple of meaningless seats in a relatively meaningless election.