First, I’ve been suggesting for some time that the liberal vision of Canada has run its course. It still has power and still appeals to large number of Canadians. Multiculturalism, bilingualism, Charter Rights, etc., aren’t going anywhere. Whether or not the Liberal Party is a force for the further development of Canada, however, is now very much in question. This is what I mean by run its course: it is not that it is a bad vision, but that it can no longer animate progressive reform. In the face of that reality -- that the Liberal Party had become a party without a vision -- Canadians abandoned it for other alternatives.
Several people have asked me since the election whether or not the Liberal Party is done for. The answer is that we cannot know. This will depend on Liberals. Is there a reason for Liberalism to exist as a political force in Canada? Only Liberals can supply this answer. In some ways, the Liberal Party is a victim of its own success. Many of its key beliefs have become naturalized in Canada. The vast majority of Canadians (check any poll) support equality of opportunity, pluralism, freedom of religion, multiculturalism, Charter Rights, etc. The NDP does, the Green Party does; heck even the Conservatives more or less claim to support these things. So … why is a Liberal Party needed to carry this ball when there are a bunch of other people who can. Liberalism will need to find a new vision; it will need to be more than an opposition party trying to regain power for Canadians to trust it with government. It will need to present a vision of the country.
I say this because I am fully convinced that the Liberal front bench talent was deeper then that of any other party. In other words, if we were picking a government on straight abilities -- as if we had some neutral way to test this -- the Liberal Party had more talent then anyone else. Ignafieff’s crew did not do a lot to increase the talent pool of Liberals to be sure. But, Marc Garneau, Justin Trudeau, Bob Rae, Ralph Goodale, Martha Hall Findlay, Stefan Dion, etc., are a talented and generally experienced bunch. They outclass both the Tories and the NDP in terms of ability. Ability then alone is not a selling point. One needs something else and, right now, the Liberals don’t have that something else.
Speaking of visions … are the Conservatives really sold on Liberal values and institutions mixed with a more aggressive form of capitalism. The short answer, I think, is yes, no, and not really. Some are. Former PC types for sure. Harper and his crew … less so but they are also political realists. This is why they change the names of things. They know that they cannot oppose, for instance, gun control and win elections; so they talk about eliminating long-gun registries. Harper says that no government of his will touch women’s control over their bodies … and I don’t expect him to. I do, however, expect Harper and his crew to continue to snipe at the edges of Liberal Canada. They may not be able to eliminate women’s ability to control their own bodies but they can try to lure women out of the labour force through tax incentives and a failure to address day care needs. I doubt they can roll back same sex marriage and so will likely look to avoid it.
Some Conservatives are not at all sold, however, on the Liberal vision of Canada and do want to roll it back. I’ll leave silly Americanesque comments about scared “eastern elites” and stuff like that to the side because that has no basis in fact and is simply the product of political commentators who watch too much American TV. There are, however, conservatives in Canada who really are conservatives and who would like to roll back equal rights for gay people, women’s ability to control their bodies, Charter rights, diversity, etc. If past experience is any guide -- and it might not be -- these people will not say very much while Harper is in power. I think of what happened to the PC coalition as it went down in the early 1990s. It supporters tended to stay “on side” even when they clearly disagreed with Mulroney until it was evident that his party was headed to defeat. The same thing happened with Richard Hatfield’s long-running PC provincial government in NB and, to a lesser extent, the Buchanan Tories in NS. In all these cases, there was appreciable discord that was submerged by power. I expect that the same thing will happen with Harper’s crew. There might be the odd test here and there -- a back bench bill against abortion, say, or against gay marriage, but these will be handled with procedure, blamed on the opposition, and everyone will be more or less happy. In other words, if anyone is waiting for the Harper PCs to implode … they will have to wait a while.
What about the NDP and the BQ? Let’s leave those for another time and take stock of some conclusions we might draw so far. First, that the Liberal Party has a choice about it. This choice is different, in my view, then the choice faced by the PC or CA or NDP in the past. These were parties for which there was a core of believers who could carry them forward, keeping the faith, as it were, in really tough times. Second, the Liberals cannot be saved by the implosion of conservatism. This NDP has absorbed -- and will continue to absorb -- the space of opposition to the current government. In 1993, 1997, 2000, the Liberals were able to unite federalist non-conservative Canadians more or less behind them. This same act is much more difficult with a vibrant NDP, but even if it were true, it is not at all clear that Harper’s conservatives will implode the way Mulroney’s did. Harper has learnt the lessons of Mulroney and so as along as they have a reasonable chance of staying in power, don’t expect a similar type of collapse.