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.

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