Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Is the right wing strong enough to save Canada’s Liberal Party?

Does Canada’s Liberal Party have a poison pill to block a merger with the New Democrats? Objective observers see only twisted argumentsbut no compelling logicfor maintaining their separate political enterprises.

Thomas Walkom, the Toronto Star’s most experienced and demanding follower of left economics and politics in Canada, put it nicely:

“There may be some points of distinction between pro-business, socially compassionate Liberals and pro-business, socially compassionate New Democrats. But for many voters, these differences are increasingly difficult to see.”

Liberals win more Catholic votes and New Democrats enjoy more support from unionized workers. Nevertheless, neither party provides formal privileges for any distinct block of votes. Both parties do better than Conservatives in slower growth regions and multicultural ridings and both appeal to people who look to Ottawa for economic and social redress. Both disdain the religiosity and heedless capitalism of the new right—they would like Canada to be freer of the US and they align themselves with good science and civilizing forces globally.

Neither one would have to purge their rhetoric or shed close friends in order to live together. A joint team of wordsmiths could smooth out their platforms over beer and martinis at Toronto’s iconic Royal York Hotel. The NDP’s angry socialist caucus and the Liberal’s angry anti-abortionists could remain as they are—harmlessly reviewing their options.

However, John Turner, the former Liberal prime minister whose liberalism was inspired by Canada’s earliest liberals, has offered a simple reason why the Liberal Party can carry on calling itself Canada’s political center:     

“We’re a centre-left, centre-right party. They’ve got a historic, legitimate relationship with the trade-union movement and so on. It’s a different focus.”

The logic is decisive: being on both sides does put you in the middle. However, is there anything alive on the right in the Liberal Party today? Do right wing liberals ever meet except at funerals?

(Right wing thinking in liberal circles can be more than merely progressive foot-dragging. Neo-liberalism represents a coherent and positive set of ideas about the efficiency of private markets and the importance of checking the bureaucratizing and centralizing tendencies of modern government.)

Neo-liberals kept the Liberal Party in the center in Canada, as they have in the United States. Liberal reformers actually supported privatizing unnecessary public assets and reduced income and corporate taxes. In the US, in the Obama and in other Democrat administrations, liberal reformers have championed electricity and airline deregulation, performance pay for teachers, and extensive private involvement in health care. The former Liberal premier of British Columbia Gordon Campbell vigorously championed carbon taxes and other market incentives explicitly to avoid excessive regulation.

Today, Liberal Party politicians will talk about new markets and partnerships with the private sector, and transparency and evidence-based government. These inclusive pieties, however, don’t set them apart or justify their persistence as an organized political entity.

Of course, the Liberal Party could end all this morbid speculation if it demonstrated a serious division opinion on contemporary liberal challenges.

When was the last time a prominent Liberal upheld the primary responsibility of the provinces in health and education, or the merit of fewer monopolies in public as well as in private services, or the idea that economic growth and robust markets are more important than business-government bureaucracies in driving innovation and generating wealth?

When prominent Liberals start attacking the Harper government for doing too little and being too timid, they’ll have the center back to guard.

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