Below is an oped for the Toronto Star written with David Eaves. We wrote a longer exploration of the state of progressive politics for the LRC a couple of years ago, which sounds many of the same themes, and can be found here.
If the Liberals want to be the progressive center – they are going to have to create it.
Canadians may have once valued the Liberal Party, but they reject what it has become. The reason is simple. The centre is dead. Worse still, Liberals let it die. While once the pragmatic core of Canadian politics, today it is a wasteland devoid of an imaginative, progressive vision, occupied by a largely obsolete electoral strategy.
Don’t believe us? Consider the issues the Liberal Party managed over the 20th century. The creation of universal health care, and the social safety net. The management of the Canada-US relationship by balancing opportunities for Canadian businesses with our desire to preserve our identity. Engaging Quebec and seeking to affirm its place within the country. Cultivating multiculturalism while simultaneously securing individuals rights in a charter. Fostering peacekeeping to ensure local conflicts did not escalate into nuclear confrontation.
These are significant accomplishments which defined three generations of Canadians. They are also no longer relevant.
Today Canadians, especially young Canadians, are confident about themselves and their identity — there is no longer a “Lament for a Nation.” The sovereignty movement, while not dead, struggles. Individual rights continue to erode discrimination and the hierarchical relationships that impeded free expression and liberty. While some progressives continue to bang these drums no one should be surprised that they no longer resonate.
In other cases, the solutions offered in the 20th century are simply no longer relevant. Canadians know – as healthcare threatens to eat up 50% of provincial budgets and service levels remain mixed – that their healthcare system is broken. Young Canadians don’t pretend to believe a pension system will exist for them. Anyone can see that peacekeeping cannot solve today’s international conflicts. On all of these issues the traditional offering of progressives rings hallow.
But there is an opportunity for progressives. An opportunity to build a new centre. A centre that moves beyond the debate between conservatives of the Right, and the conservatives of the Left.
On the right is a conservative party that, at its core, doesn’t believe in the federal government. It’s a vision for Canada grounded in the 1860’s, of a minimalist government that does little beyond crime and defense. Its appeal is the offer to dismantle the parts of the system that are broken, but in so doing, it will leave the many who are protected and enabled by the government behind.
On the left is a party who’s vision is to return Canada to the 1960’s. It’s a world of a strong national government, of an even bigger healthcare system, social safety net, and welfare state. Its appeal is a defense of the status quo at all costs, which in the long run will be many. The conservatism of the left means protecting at all costs that which is unsustainable. It is the unreformed arc of old ideas.
If there is going to be a new center between these conservative poles, then liberals will need to stop lying to themselves, and to Canadians. They will need to acknowledge, loudly and publicly, that they have failed to reform the institutions of the 20th century and that as a consequence, healthcare is broken, and the welfare state as presently constructed is financially insatiable. A progressive future lies in taking these challenges head on rather that passively avoiding them.
Moreover, a modern progressive view on government needs to meet the consumer expectations being created by Google, Apple, or Westjet. Fast, effective, personalized, friendly. In short, progressives need a vision that not only safeguards citizens against the extremes of a globalizing market, but that also meets the rising expectations Canadians have of services in the 21st century, all this in a manner that will be sustainable given 21st century budgets and demographics.
No party has figured out how to accomplish this, on the Left of Right. And trolling through 20th or 19th century ideologies probably isn’t going to get us there.
Most importantly, the future for progressives rests in figuring out the political axes of the 21st century around which new solutions can be mined and new coalitions can be built.
We suspect that these will include open versus closed systems, evidence-based policy versus ideology, meritocratic governance versus patronage, open and fair markets versus isolationism, sustainability vs. disposability, and emergent networks versus hierarchies. It is these political distinctions, not the old left versus right, that increasingly resonate among those we speak to.
The challenge is enormous but progressives have done it before. In the 19th century the rise of industrial capitalism led to a series of tense societal changes included the emergence of an urban working class, increasing inequality and the terrifying possibility of total war.
A centrist party turned out to be the place where three generations of pragmatically driven progressives were able to lead nearly a century of Canadian politics. Doing this again will require starting from scratch, but that is the task at hand.