After the convention: the Liberals’ sweet thereafter


“The country does not need another opposition party; the country needs another government.” For a political party pinning its hopes on redemption, it is a worthy sentiment, one that might have fit nicely into any of Bob Rae’s many speeches at last weekend’s Liberal convention. Too bad Joe Clark got there first.

The words were Clark’s, just before he won the leadership of the once-mighty Progressive Conservatives in 1998. In the end, Clark was right. His party returned to government, albeit as the junior partner in the right-wing coalition that now governs Canada.

Theirs is a cautionary tale, one that should check the surge of self-confidence that follows any successful partisan powwow. Last weekend’s Liberal convention certainly met that standard. This was not the usual nexus of nostalgia that many of us have come to expect from our party’s get-togethers. We did not sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings. But it’s what happens from now on that counts the most.

For delegates, that means a drowsy trip home and a morning-after spent scouring the papers, delighting in good news stories and cursing any trace of cynical punditry. For journalists, it means hours of agony, trying to figure out some creative new way to rain on the party’s parade.

For Bob Rae, this week brings a “cross-Canada skills and trades tour.” Billed as an effort to highlight “the role that skills training and education has to play in the creation of a sustainable economy,” the tour is a timely return to the party’s priorities after three days of attention-grabbing debates on not-quite-bread-and-butter issues. But it is also a subtle retort to those who used last weekend’s policy resolutions to accuse the Liberals of losing focus, of sacrificing royal jelly for herbal remedies.

I am referring, of course, to the resolution in favour of legalizing marijuana. It was a moment ripe for satire, but it may yet have lasting significance; by voting to end prohibition, Liberals took an important step toward renewing the party, and the ideology—yes, ideology—that it requires.

For four elections, Liberals have tried to win the hearts and minds of voters by accusing others of being ideologues. We, by contrast, claim to be squarely in the centre of “the balanced middle road”—words chosen by the outgoing party executive in their “Roadmap to Renewal” plan last year.

The hard truth is that “the balanced middle road” leads into, not out of, the political wilderness. Relentless moderation risks turning the Liberals into a dull default, sandwiched somewhere between the centre-left and the centre-right. Sure, if the party stands for everything, it cannot possibly offend anyone. But is that a winning strategy? Probably not. Goldilocks is not a registered voter.

In government, “centrism” can be a virtue, synonymous with pragmatism. In opposition, it is the deadly sin at the heart of the Liberal dilemma. Liberals know where we stand—we stand everywhere. Try putting that on a bumper sticker.

What if, instead of trying to turn “ideology” into a curse, Liberals took pride in liberalism? What if, instead of asking the question, “what do we stand for?” we started answering it, like this:

Liberalism is a commitment to individual freedom in a prosperous society with a sustainable future. Liberalism is the conviction that freedom and prosperity are impossible without equality of opportunity. Liberalism is the belief that fiscal discipline is what pays for social progress, and that government is necessary only when our common endeavours require it—otherwise, it should stay away from the business of our daily lives.

That is why there is no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation. And that is why, this past weekend, Liberal delegates voted to support the legalization of marijuana. Sure, this particular grassroots resolution may not have been the best possible first step, but it was a step in the right direction. Legalization is liberal policy. It should be Liberal policy, too.

Liberals should be proud of the weekend that was. But our sweet thereafter requires more than a few days of good press. The party’s real do-or-die moment will come in 2013, when it chooses its next leader. If the candidates for the job can articulate a vision not just for the Liberals, but also for liberalism, there may be hope for us yet.

Because if a political party can never be all things to all people, it can at least be itself.


After the convention: the Liberals’ sweet thereafter

  1. Best post of the bunch Adam.

  2. Nice sentiments and elegantly expressed.   Substitute “Conservatism” for “Liberalism” and you will have been accurately expressing the  philosophy of the current PM. 

    • When is Steve going to legalize pot? Shortly after he passes his mandatory minimum sentence for growing a few plants in your closet?

  3. This comment was deleted.

    • When I read your comments, I can’t help but look at your first name and chuckle. Do you clench as you type, or does it flow naturally?

  4. “For journalists, it means hours of agony, trying to figure out some creative new way to rain on the party’s parade.”

    Liberals have the least to complain about when it comes to Canadian msm. Our journos are servile towards power, particularly when it involves Liberals. Msm reports minutiae about Liberal goings on, mostly ignores NDP and produces “Why are conservatives/Conservatives such idjits?” and that’s about it. 

    GlobeMail/CTV represents Turner/Martin/Iggy wing of the Liberal Party while TorStar/CBC carries water for Trudeau/Chretien/Dion/Rae kooks and we pretend this is a national debate. 

    Mencken ~  Varieties Of Envy:
    The central belief of every moron is that he is the victim of a mysterious conspiracy against his common rights and true deserts. He ascribes all his failure to get on in the world, all of his congenital incapacity and dam foolishness, to the machinations of werewolves assembled in Wall Street, or some other such den of infamy. If these villains could be put down, he holds, he would at once become rich, powerful and eminent.

    • So that’s why they almost exclusively endorsed Harper last year, right?

      • “…. almost exclusively endorsed …. ”

        Correct but hyperbolic.

        1) msm = rats/sinking ship
        2) Libs don’t have much to complain about with Harper’s reign so far. Harper continually expands the influence of State like a good Liberal. Libs would be delighted with Harper’s policies if they were their own.

        • I suspect the likelier explanation is a persecution complex on the part of Conservatives.

          On your second point, there are broad swaths of Harper’s agenda that no Liberal would be pleased with. The government’s crime agenda is just mind-bogglingly insane. I suspect you might be right on fiscal policy (that that program could easily have been proposed by a Liberal), but the rest of his program, not so much.

  5. Very well said

  6. http://www.ipolitics.ca/2012/01/13/beyond-the-horse-race-part-vii-so-who-do-we-really-like/

    Interesting find. If polls mean anything at all.

    Good article. Except my take on it is a little different. It’s not just where liberals stand, it’s will they in fact stand? During the minority years we had allowed ourselves to become boxed between fear of being tarred with labels like soft on crime, so we back pedddled, even abandoned principles in order to avoid the gun that Harper put to our head,again and again, fearing we would lose the argument and the subsequent election due to being disorganized and broke. It might even have been true that we couldn;t afford to enter an election we felt we were bound to lose – so we abstained and played dead. Well, we forgot the public were watching. Why should they vote for a party that couldn’t even defend its own principles; why should they care? Obviously, eventually they didn’t Maybe it was the perfect storm, one we couldn’t avoid – broke if you do, damned if you don’t . But If liberals show they really care and are willing to pay a price for it, the public will support us to the degree that our stand made sense anyway. We have to trust them; to do less is craven and unworthy of the name liberal.
    I agree, become idealogical and brave. Let’s never forget again that we are in Ottawa because voters sent us there to represent them and stand up for them, not just for the parties convenience.

    • Fascinating that Harper is substantially less popular than McGuinty, who I thought was bound to lose last fall.

    • Liberals talk a good talk but ALWAYS go back to doing whatever benefits the LIberal party. ALWAYS.

      • Sure put it all in caps…IT IS STILL JUST YOUR OPINION!!!

  7. Conservatives stand for Canada.
    Liberals stand for the LIberal party.
    nuff said.

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