Jackson Doughart
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Expect the Liberals to campaign on the right
Providing an ideological alternative to the Conservatives failed in the last two elections and would likely fail a third time

The Charlottetown Guardian, 17 December 2012

The Liberal Party of Canada used to run its election campaigns from the left, presenting itself as the party of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, universal health care, immigration and official bilingualism, while governing ‘pragmatically’ once secured in office. This latter strategy involved the adoption of conservative policies, such as austere fiscal restraint during Paul Martin’s tenure as national treasurer and the introduction of the Clarity Act (lifted directly from the Reform Party) while maintaining the guise of bleeding-heart liberalism for electoral purposes.

The Liberals would doubtless like to maintain this attractive image, but it will not be enough to rescue the party from its dismal status as third party with just 34 seats in Parliament, brought about by a dismal showing in 2011. And now that Thomas Mulcair’s New Democrats have established themselves as a believable alternative to the Harper government, there is little ideological room in which the Liberals can maoeuvre. It is for this reason that the Liberals may, in the hope of neutralizing support for the Conservative Party, attempt to steal the right’s clothes in the next election.

If the Liberals are going to revive, they will need to reclaim a majority of the seats in Southern Ontario, which were a Liberal stronghold a decade ago but have since shifted blue, greatly contributing to Harper’s current majority. This shift can be largely attributed to a rejection of the Liberal platform in the last two elections, which were premised on providing an ideological alternative to the Conservatives on such issues as carbon emissions, criminal justice, and gun control. That strategy failed twice and would likely fail a third time, leaving appeals to regional allegiance and anti-Western sentiment as the only available strategy.

The Liberals’ biggest advantage is that they have, for all intents and purposes, adopted a spokesman and soon-to-be leader with an almost completely blank slate. His Etch-A-Sketch may be even more versatile than Mitt Romney’s, as we know very little about his core political beliefs. And on the rare occasion that Justin Trudeau has spoken candidly about his own views, it hasn’t been pretty. Earlier this year, for example, Trudeau told a Quebec radio station that he would prefer to live in a seceded Quebec than in Stephen Harper’s Canada. And during last month’s byelections, he apologized for saying that ‘Canada isn’t doing well right now because it’s Albertans who control our community and sociodemocratic agenda.’

Adding to the horror show, Mr. Trudeau recently committed a flagrant flip-flop on the issue of the federal gun registry, which he previously supported and voted to maintain. During the 2011 commemoration of the École Polytechnique massacre in Montreal, Trudeau equated the abolition of the registry with a callous disregard for women’s safety, saying that, ‘The Conservatives have tried to separate the gun registry from the issue of violence against women in a way that is not just unethical, but also completely counter to factual evidence . . . The gun registry saves lives. They are eliminating it.’ Now, Trudeau has described the project as a failure and believes it should not be revived.

This behaviour cannot merely be attributed to an unqualified and inexperienced candidate, but to a deliberate attempt to usurp Conservative positions by triangulation, of which this is only the beginning. Don’t be surprised if Trudeau turns out to fervently support Israel, tough on crime measures, and the voluntary long-form census in the not-too-distant future. And it is not only partisan Conservatives who should worry, as principled members of the political left will doubtless be encouraged to vote for the Liberals — a party who, in leftist terms, would be a dubious alternative to the present government.

It disturbs me a great deal that politics can be conducted in this way, but such are the rules of the game. And there is every reason to think that a great number of Canadians would be willing to ditch Harper, whom they don’t like, but keep many of his policies, with which they are more comfortable. This opens an opportunity for a party desperate to reclaim its status as the natural government and willing to do whatever it takes to achieve that objective. The Conservatives should not rest easily, as it may well be a winning strategy.

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com