The agreement-in-principle to unite the right signed by Stephen Harper and Peter Mackay of the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservative Parties is, as many commentators have observed, great news for the health of Canadian democracy. It’s even better news for the Liberal Party of Canada. Surprised? Allow me to explain.
First, however, I need to provide some context. I am a Trudeau Liberal and I believe that our party is at its finest when it acts as “the radical centre” of Canadian politics. But power invariably encourages the party to abdicate this important responsibility. It happened to the Trudeau-era Liberal Party, and it has happened to the current Liberal regime. The fiery debate around same-sex marriage exposes this drift away from left-wing liberalism and towards attitudes and convictions more appropriate to a conservative party.
The fact of the matter is that there are many members of the Liberal Party of Canada today, and quite a few Liberal members of parliament as well, who are neither small nor large L liberals in the traditional sense. They do not understand the party’s history and have no desire to do so, and part of what makes a political party successful is its ability to retain institutional memory. They do not appreciate the importance of multiculturalism, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and a publicly funded and universally accessible health care system, all Liberal accomplishments. Instead, the reduction of the deficit and the reduction of government influence are the Liberal Party’s finest accomplishments.
This is why the creation of a single conservative party in Canada is such good news for left-Liberals like myself and, in the long term, the party as a whole. The Liberal Party needs to lose an election and return to the opposition benches – Liberal blasphemy, I know. But it would be just the tonic that the party needs to truly renew itself, a necessary process for all political parties. With all due respect to our next leader and Prime Minister, Paul Martin, the current leadership “race” has done virtually nothing to renew the party. Losing an election would remove all of the dead wood that today clings to the hull of the Liberal ship because of its proximity to power. Without access to the power, those without a real dedication to progressive Liberal values and the party will fade into the background – or, more likely, push them towards the governing party. Spending some time in opposition would remind Liberal MPs and members of the party what the party actually stands for. When you ask prominent members of the party what it stands for today, they trot out the “big tent” analogy that is essentially a rhetorical justification for the fact that it stands for absolutely nothing.
If Mr. Mackay and Mr. Harper succeed in creating the Conservative Party of Canada, the first step in that direction will come in Ontario, where the Liberals have had a stranglehold for the past ten years. Even if the Conservative Party of Canada is only able to earn the support of a percentage of the combined Tory-Alliance votes in the last election, they will still win fifteen to thirty seats in the rural ridings. This will mean the defeat of the many of the most conservative Liberal MPs, those who currently oppose progressive measures like same-sex marriage and the decriminalization of marijuana. Liberalism will continue to flourish in Canada’s major urban centres, pushed to the left by a revitalized New Democratic Party, and in Quebec, where the Bloc Quebecois can no longer win elections even in the most strongly separatist areas of the province. The Liberal Party of Canada, whether in government or in opposition, will look a lot more like it used to – a progressive and urban party that represents the interests of Canada’s young, Canada’s minority populations, and other segments of the population that support a progressive message that focuses on the rights and responsibilities of the individual in Canadian society.
As I see it, the successful creation of a united conservative party – far from a foregone conclusion, particularly with the requirement of a two-thirds vote of support from the Progressive Conservative Party and the impressive army of supporters that David Orchard commands within it – could do two things. It could force Mr. Martin and his team to modify their blue-Liberalism and move the party to the left. It seems far more likely to me that at some point in the near future the Liberal Party of Canada will lose an election and relinquish its grip on power. Only then can it rediscover what it stands for and undergo the comprehensive renewal process that it so desperately needs. I still firmly believe that a Liberal government is the best thing for Canadians, but we’ve been in government too long. The leadership race hasn’t renewed the party in any significant way. Perhaps the creation of a united conservative party will.
Ottawa, October 17 – 818 w.