Liberal government, probably; liberal policy, possibly.

Author:Kent, Tom

Liberal MPs, eager for power and emboldened by the polls, cannot be expected to let 2009 end without rising from their seats to vote no confidence in the government. They can do it safely because they are unlikely to be quickly joined by the NDP and the Bloc Quebecois, whose present interests are to give the Liberals scope and time to blunder in their new aggressiveness. That waiting game cannot, however, be much prolonged. If, as is all too probable, the economy remains in deep trouble, the public mood should drive even reluctant politicians to an election some time next year. Whether the outcome would be a majority or a minority government is at this stage a rash guess. That in either case it would be Liberal seems considerably more likely than the survival of the present administration.

The quality of such a government would depend on what the Liberal party does in the meantime. It has two problems. One is to reform itself now, while in opposition. The other is to develop what it has long lacked: firmly constructive ideas for a reforming national government. The two are interrelated. Neither task can be done unless the other is.


The agenda of a reforming government would include major tax changes, both to save the market economy from destruction by speculation and to combat family poverty. It would strengthen the Canadian economy and defend Canadian sovereignty through an industrial strategy to stop foreign takeovers and promote Canadian enterprise with equity investment instead of subsidies. It would direct health policy to the prevention of sickness. It would enable all parents to secure early care and education for their children.

Such programs are claimants for priority in a rejuvenated national policy. To act on them we have first to find the way to a new politics.

Rebuilding the Liberal party--and democracy

In numbers and in morale, in talents and in public regard, the present Liberal party is too diminished for easy confidence. It will become an effective agent for a new national policy only when it has attracted to its membership many of the public-spirited, activist Canadians who are now without a political home. While there have of late been some progressive stirrings, much scepticism and inertia remain to be overcome. The Liberal party has long been a centralized machine, both in its organization and in the spin-doctoring from above that served for policy-making. To rebuild it, the leader and his associates will have to demonstrate their eager capacity to learn from below. Only then can their cheerleaders be moved aside by people with constructive ideas.


While better organization and fundraising will help, any victory in 2010 will be thanks mainly to the submergence of Mr. Harper in adverse times. It is for the sake of Canada after the election that the Liberal party needs thorough rejuvenation. It will govern well if its agenda has been shaped for that purpose, not for the votes in this or that marginal seat that occupy the minds of political organizers.

Pierre Trudeau expressed the need for political reform, typically and succinctly, when he said that MPs were nobodies away from Parliament Hill. At the time it was an overstatement. He was describing a work in progress. His style of government was making MPs increasingly nobodies, both in and away from Ottawa. His successors continued his work. It is the root reason for our political disarray.

Parliamentary democracy requires cabinet government, not prime-ministerial autocracy. It therefore depends on political parties with active local associations where the membership's discussions of public policies breed opinion leaders, candidates, MPs, ministers. For a hundred years Canadian politics worked that way, and worked pretty well. There were indeed masterful heads of government, but they were strong thanks to their ability to preside over committees of people with their own distinct and deep political roots in their party, in their region, in the national community. Mackenzie King was the outstanding example. From 1935 to 1948 he could not conceivably have had a cabinet excluding C.D. Howe and James Gardiner and, in their days, Ernest Lapointe and J.L. Ilsley and others. The success of his puzzling personality rested on the colleagues that the vitality of the party produced.

Pearson's was the last cabinet government. Trudeau inherited from him ministers of experience and talent. One by one they faded away: Jean Marchand, John Turner, Donald Macdonald and others. Of the strong originals, by the end only Allan MacEachen remained. His parliamentary skills made him indispensable to the aggressive Trudeau. The new title of deputy prime minister that thereby became appropriate further underlined the demise of cabinet as the focal point of government.

The sharpest of all the blows to democracy within the Liberal party was Paul Martin's $12 million of funding, mostly corporate, for his leadership campaign. No competition was possible. Strong contenders such as John Manley, Lloyd Axworthy, Brian Tobin and Frank McKenna abandoned federal politics. The field became so empty that, when Martin stumbled, the only two candidates available for the favour of the party establishment were both newcomers. The convention delegates who rebelled had effectively just one inside candidate to turn to, with the further consequence that the party...

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