Jackson Doughart
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The fall of the Liberal Party: ASAP!

The Charlottetown Guardian, 21 September 2012

The recent defeat of Jean Charest's Liberal Party, which had formed the provincial government in Quebec's for nearly a decade, marked another milestone in the ongoing decline of Liberal parties in Canada. While visiting Quebec in the final days of the election, I was surprised to observe an emphatically counterintuitive method of strategic political marketing - the complete removal of a party's name from its election signs. In fact, the Liberal placards displayed the slogan ‘Pour le Québec', a take on ‘Parti Libéral du Québec', superimposed on a blue, not red, background. It tells you something about the toxicity of the Liberal brand.

The pending collapse of the Liberals was discussed during the Quebec election by two mainstream Canadian commentators - John Ibbitson in The Globe and Mail and Kelly McParland in the National Post - who noted the abysmal state of Liberal parties since 2011, when the federal Grits were relegated to third-party status in the House of Commons. Both journalists explained that strengthened opposition in British Columbia may force the current Liberal party from power in next year's election, and that Dalton McGuinty's minority government in Ontario is susceptible to a successful non-confidence motion at any time. This leaves Prince Edward Island as the only stable provincial government under the Liberal banner.

"Seven years ago," wrote Ibbitson, "the Liberal brand dominated federally and in the three largest provinces. A year from now, it could be associated with power nowhere outside Green Gables. With virtually no affiliation between brand and government, how does the idea of Liberal survive?"

It is far too soon to officially pronounce upon the death of the Liberals, as any number of factors may cause a timely resuscitation. But a far more interesting and important question is whether the party's decline in influence is a good thing for Canada. For several reasons, the answer to this question is a resounding ‘yes'.

Foremost, the Liberal Party represents a shallow source of political ideas, an insight that is on prominent display in federal politics, where the party is devoid of any original policy thinking. One suspects that this precarious dilemma results from the extended period of Liberal rule in Ottawa from 1993 to 2006, when the party developed public policies on a largely ad hoc basis. Such is characteristic of big-tent centrist parties, which attempt to draw support from both sides of the political spectrum in order to keep themselves in power. This arrangement produced some impressive contradictions during the Chrétien-Martin years involving economic, social, and foreign policy (such as oscillations on fiscal restraint, a suspiciously-rapid change of heart on same-sex marriage, and dubious application of the responsibility to protect doctrine*), suggesting an inherent lack of philosophical principle. While this doubtless helped the party to stay in power, it has made a recovery very difficult, if not impossible.

Since the defeat of the Martin government in 2006, and to a larger extent after the election of a Conservative majority in 2011, an extensive project has been undertaken by Liberal apologists to portray the current administration as illegitimate - a sentiment that has clearly informed the writing of many prominent commentators, such as Warren Kinsella, Heather Mallick, Lawrence Martin, and the late James Travers. All of this suggests a natural-right-to-rule mentality, exemplified by Justin Trudeau's admission in February that he would prefer to live in a seceded Quebec than in Harperland.

This mentality is not without consequence. Most obviously, indulgences such as the sponsorship scandal are directly related to the view that Liberals are the natural governors of Canada - a belief rooted not in the party's ideas but rather on its history of rule. "But look at all we've done for you since 1867!" is the claim. This is hardly fair, since the NDP and Conservatives (in their post- 2003 form) are both significantly younger, and neither formed government until 2006; furthermore, merely stating that the Liberals have presided over some good points (and a lot of bad points) in Canadian history is scarcely a defence of any appeal to power. Fortunately for Canada's political left, however, the Liberals have been succeeded by an actual socialist party, led by a man who seems to be a formidable intellectual and politician. All of this bodes well for the New Democrats.

The upshot of these developments is an increased polarization in Canadian politics, widely mourned as a decline in civility and moderation. All to the contrary, this polarization is evidence of greater grassroots influence and a return to fundamental ideals in public policy debate. The prevailing outlook during the Chrétien-Martin years was of a managerial state that would calmly and impartially arbitrate contentious issues without appeal to ideology. In other words, it presumed that the ends of governance were already solved, leaving only, as Engels wrote, for the administration of things. Yet this style of governance is antithetical to authentic political discourse, which is premised on overt clashes in principle, with advocates who fight for their adoption, not moderation.

By restructuring their lower house into a two-party system, with socialists on one side and conservatives on the other, Canadians have lifted a bureaucratic lid on the politics of ideas, and have immediately improved the climate of national debate. Most importantly, they have duly affirmed the Liberal party as a superfluous relic that is altogether fit for rejection. The completion of this process cannot come quickly enough.

Correction: This is an anachronism. I ought to have simply written "policies of humanitarian intervention," since the Responsibility to Protect was officially adopted as a norm of the United Nations in 2005 -- near the end of the period in question; however, the inconsistent record of humanitarian intervention in the cases of Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and Darfur render my point tenable nevertheless.

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com