When the worst of times become the best of times: a future for liberalism in Canada

Par Alfred Apps le 11 juin 2011

 

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand”.

-William Butler Yeats

 

On May 2, 2011, the Liberal Party of Canada suffered the most devastating election defeat of its long and storied history. There can be no doubt about that.

In terms of both elected members and voter support, Liberals swapped places with the NDP. And it all seemed to happen in one fell swoop over the last half of a very short campaign. No sooner had voters pronounced their judgment than the pundits were pontificating.

Defeat was inevitable. It was a long time coming. Liberals had ignored their grassroots for too long, lost touch with their base.Their party had been hi-jacked by an  aging establishment elite. Middle age white guys clinging to power and brought down by their own hubris. An out-of-date structure, badly in need of modernizing.A party completely out of sync with the facebook generation. Crippled by an approach to campaigning from a bygone era. Poisoned by old leadership squabbles that had sapped internal trust and eroded public confidence for years. In short and with all the benefits of 20/20 hindsight, an entirely predictable Liberal apocalypse.That, at least, is the current media narrative. The Liberal party as broken institution. A party in a state of crisis.

In fact, all of these arm-chair observations probably contain an element of truth – including, I concede, some of the nastier barbs that have been aimed at yours truly.In the coming weeks and months, Liberals will almost certainly consider each and every diagnosis of the disaster. Because most of them point to a ‘fixable’ problem and fixing the problems is the first priority of most Liberals. Still, whoever and whatever is ultimately found to be responsible for our rout at the polls, it was President Kennedy who said - "Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan". And, since it happened on my watch, I accept my share of the blame.

But I am not here today to conduct a post-mortem. Nor am I into public self-flagellation. I am here to address a larger issue. Something I am going to call ‘the threshold question’. Because the 'broken party' theory of liberal defeat is not the only one out there. Some have described our predicament much more dramatically, predicting the permanent demise of the party. Their theory is not just about a broken party – its about a political ‘paradigm shift'. They see a world with no oxygen for Canadian Liberals. Centrist parties, they say, are being squeezed from the right and the left the world over. Why should Canada be different?

After all, what relevance do liberal values have in the 21st century. And what do the doomsayers think has changed so profoundly? Well, its simple. They believe the moderate Canadian political consensus has evaporated. Some think it has been swamped by ideological extremism and single-issue activism from both sides of the spectrum. For them, polarization is inevitable.

On this view, the only hope for liberals is to merge with the NDP. Unite the left to fight a united right! Others believe the traditional liberal middle ground has been completely co-opted, with both left and right moving to the centre all at once. So convergence is inevitable. If you are a liberal in that world, you have no choice but to migrate to the other major party whose extreme faction offends you least. Hold your nose, cover your eyes if you must, but surrender to one or the other and do so quickly. 

So this is the pivotal question. Has the paradigm shifted? Do Liberal political ideas remain relevant to Canada in the 21st century? Is it still possible for a political party committed to those ideas to earn the confidence of Canadians again? Is there a distinctive vision of Canada rooted in Liberal ideas that is worth fighting for? If the answer to all of those questions is ‘no’, than Liberals need to pause and understand why. Because all their post-mortems won’t matter. And all the well-intentioned reforming, rebuilding, renewing and re-imagining of the party that we are about to undertake will come to naught. A pointless exercise doomed to failure.

But if the answer to all of these questions can be ‘yes’, than Liberals really need to understand those answers too. Because the commitment, the energy and the passion required to succeed in all the historic work Canadian Liberals are about to undertake for the third time in a half-century demands, first and foremost, a profound rediscovery of the relevance of their fundamental raison d’être today.

Before we consider how we should rebuild, don’t we need to understand why we must rebuild? Is there a reason why the Liberal Party should and can continue to exist?That’s what I want to talk about today. Let me first qualify my perspective for all its weaknesses. I became a Liberal on election night in 1972, when Pierre Elliott Trudeau came within a hair's breadth of losing his second general election. Since then, I have worked in 11 provincial and 12 federal elections, a total of 23 campaigns. We have lost 12 and won 11 of them. And I have been before where we are today.

I ran twice myself for Parliament. It was 1984. I was a sacrificial lamb in a safe Tory seat against a four term incumbent. We came out of the election with just 40 seats nationally. I got my clock cleaned, losing by over 12,000 votes. For my second bid in 1988, we had rebuilt the party locally and, with the Tories still winning a majority nationally, reduced that same invincible incumbent's margin in my riding to about 1,000 votes. The pain that night was even worse.

But my point is not the defeats. Because in the next three elections, with the incumbent retiring and the vote on the right split between conservatives and reform, the Liberal candidate who succeeded me - my high school principal in fact - went on to win three successive elections as part of the Chrétien majorities. So its not all ‘sham, drudgery and broken dreams’. There have been some victories as stunning as our losses along the way too.

Like 1993, when Liberals swept every seat but one in Ontario, and the Tories were reduced to just two ridings in the whole country. Or 1985, when the Ontario Liberal Party moved from third position in the Ontario Legislature in 1975 – behind the NDP I hasten to add - into government, after 42 long years in the political wilderness.At that point in time, we too easily forget, there was not one other Liberal government anywhere in Canada.

Liberals who think things are tough today should check out some of our not-so-distant history.Because we have found ourselves in places worse than nowhere before.Lonely places where you have to ask yourself why you are a Liberal. And just as importantly, does it matter that you are? Let’s be honest. Canadian Liberalism today, once again, is in existential crisis. And we need to take the risk of asking the threshold question.

It was President Kennedy who observed that “the Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis’. One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity.” Danger and opportunity. That is why the worst of times can become the best of times. Make no mistake, there is a very real danger for liberals in asking the threshold question. Because we have to look hard in the mirror. We have to reach deep inside ourselves, scour our history and rediscover our principles.And we have to ask the tough questions.

What if the only reason for our party’s existence really has always and only ever been to win and hold power?

What if we never really were a party of the people?

What if we have never really carried the banner of popular purpose?

What if we have always been less a political movement than a cult of leadership?

What if the secret of our success in the 20th century was really just the good luck of producing the right prime minister for the time - leaders able to capture the zeitgeist, to respond to the one big challenge of their day - the depression of the 30’s, the war and rebuilding that followed, the unbridled optimism of the 50’s, the liberation movements of the 60’s, the threats both to Canada’s unity and to its fiscal solvency beginning in the 70’s and culminating in the 90’s.

What if we discover that, in fact, the Liberal Party has always been a rather closed and hierarchical institution – a club for Canada’s elites – a brokerage party that pays lip-service to grassroots democracy but, in truth, functions like a presumptive palace from which the good and the great in Canadian business, law, academe and public service deign to govern the ordinary people?

Well – if that is the sum total of what it means to be a Liberal in Canada, then we are in serious trouble. Because we now live in an era of dime-a-dozen celebrity, when elites have lost all their luster, where digital democratization has bestowed the power of information everywhere on everyone. Insiders beware.

Most of the traditional barriers to success have come crashing down, giving way to a rampant, albeit rambunctious, meritocracy, where the ease of public expression and the possibilities for influencing people, ideas and events has given everyone the right and many the motivation to play. On their own terms and by their own rules.

The new politics is based on revolutionary conceptions of human connectedness and political community - a world of “friends” in the hundreds or thousands and from anywhere, where associations can be formed virtually and almost instantly around any topic or cause, and where thoughtful analysis and dialogue can occur in real time - or be completely supplanted, not just by the 30-second clip, but by the instant blog and the nano-second tweet.

It is now the early spring of unprecedented human individuation. A time of creative chaos. A period of intellectual mayhem. A new and still very rough and free-wheeling frontier for self-expression and actualization. Where no single big challenge dominates the public agenda and no one big idea drives the public conscience, at least not for long. Some wonder whether the new world order has been universally afflicted by attention deficit disorder.

Others see that Canadians of this generation are yearning for a more radical democracy - one that can embrace the increasingly varied aspirations of a relentlessly and enthusiastically more diverse society. And more and more, tomorrow’s voters see traditional processes for effecting change – especially political parties - as irrelevant to their goals.

After all, what good can come from institutions seen as fossilized arbiters of elite opinion only, run largely by out-of-touch, middle-age white guys, whose interest must be to preserve and serve the status quo. That’s just not ‘down’ in a culture of individuation and self-actualization, militating for change in just about everything.

Middle age white guys are really a proxy for political parties seen as out of touch with the varied and pressing concerns that have so engaged the next generation of progressive Canadians. The environment and climate change. Urban poverty and homelessness. Continuing neglect and abuse of our aboriginal population. International human rights. To name just a few.

And Canadians of today’s generation are cynical - suspicious that old-line politicians and political parties are not listening because they are in the pockets of vested and powerful interests.

Bluntly, we live a culture that no longer wants to defer to the authority of our political establishment. A culture that, because it has unprecedented access to information, not only forms its own opinions, but expects them to be heard and is not only demanding political processes that will make that possible; they are already inventing new ones outside all of the conventional channels.

So, popular consensus has become elusive because most of the old ways of ‘shaping’ it are gone. In my view, this is a genuine political paradigm shift that Liberals must confront. And what should we do? As I said, Liberals need to rediscover their basic principles. We have to figure out how truly Liberal ideas can be successfully applied in the new political paradigm. And like any other organization that has been left bleeding in the dust by its opponents, we have to re-think, re-tool and re-build from the ground up in a way that responds to the new paradigm.

It is not enough to copy the competition. Liberals have to leapfrog the competition. Or as Wayne Gretzky would put it, Liberals have to skate to where the puck is going to be rather than where it was. But the re-imagining of a Canadian Liberalism must start from first principles.

When you strip it all down, what does a Canadian Liberal really stand for? I say ‘Canadian Liberal’, because the word ‘liberal’ is now attached to political parties of widely varying orientations the world over. And Canadians have a built their own special variant of Liberalism in the context of the unique political experiment that is Canada.

Our party traces its philosophy to a line of English Liberal thinkers going back to the enlightenment including Hooker, Locke, Mill, Green, Acton, Popper and Berlin. We have also drawn heavily on ideas born in the French revolution and from Rousseau, de Toqueville and de Montesque. Americans like Jefferson and Madison and, much more recently, Rawls. And, we have produced some powerful Liberal minds of our own – like Pierre Trudeau, Will Kymlicka and, to my mind, the greatest of them all, Toronto’s own C.B. MacPherson.

It should be no surprise that our party’s intellectual foundations are diverse. But Canadian Liberalism reflects a lot more than the glib and easy phrases we have adopted of late – like that “fiscally responsible, socially compassionate” formulation, or the “progressive centrist” label. Nor is it enough to say that we are not an ideological party of the left or the right, but a pragmatic party of the middle. That may all be true, but in fact, Canadian Liberalism is built on some very clear ideas.

First, we believe not only in the dignity and worth of the individual, but in the absolute primacy and autonomy of individuals. We are not a party of the entitled classes. Nor are we a party of class entitlement. In an age of unprecedented and assertive individualism, that makes us relevant.

We stand first and foremost for freedom. We believe that wealth is created and social progress is achieved when we unleash the full capacity of individuals to think and act. We see the protection and extension of freedom for individuals as the key to personal happiness, the chief responsibility of the state and the paramount purpose of statecraft.

At a point of unprecedented human creativity driving us to new levels of intellectual and technological advancement, that love of freedom makes us relevant.

We believe in the human spirit and its unlimited potential - that every citizen is entitled to live in conditions of personal security and opportunity and to optimize his or her potential to the fullest, regardless of age, sex, creed, race, sexual orientation or any other accident or incident of birth, culture or country of origin.

At a time of unprecedented aspiration, self-actualization and choice, our commitment to human possibility makes us relevant.

We believe that our diversity is a strength, that immigration should be open, that social and cultural differences should be embraced and that tolerance and accommodation are the essential virtues of liberal society.

During a period within which Canada has produced a single society consisting of two distinct diversities – one Anglophone and then other francophone - where multiculturalism has blossomed into full flower in both official languages, the accommodation of minority cultures still has its opponents. That is why the generosity of our worldview makes us relevant.

We endorse pluralism over secularism because we believe both in freedom of religion and freedom from religion, that while church should be separate from state, the public square must be open to Canadians of every faith background including those of no faith at all.

At a time when some seek to have matters of faith drive our political discussion and others seek to shut them out, Liberal respect for the overlap between the spiritual and the temporal makes us relevant.

We are capitalists, not socialists. We believe in the profit motive. For Liberals, profit is not a dirty word. We are ready to fight for workers’ rights at every turn but we also defend the right of individuals to accumulate and profit from their own capital, including especially their intellectual capital – capital whose development and commercialization has become so important and has been so dramatically democratized in our lifetime. Labour and capital need not necessarily be opposed in interest. The fact that sheer brainpower enables labourer and capitalist to become one is an idea that simply blows a lot of the old ideological assumptions right out of the water.

In the knowledge economy of today, the ability of liberals to balance the interests of labour and capital makes us relevant.

We believe in equality. Equality before the law and equality of opportunity. Beyond property, civil and legal rights, we believe that the enhancement of the economic, social and cultural rights of all Canadians is critical to ensuring a fair and equal chance for every citizen. Just as we believe that equality of outcomes is neither possible nor desirable, we also believe that the fundamental advantages in life should not flow from the circumstances of one’s birth.

In a society where basic fairness has become the measure of freedom, that makes us relevant.

Liberals believe in democracy and that its privilege imposes some duties on the citizen. We think Canadians have a responsibility to participate in their governments, to pay their taxes, to respect the rule of law, to fill out their census forms and, most importantly, to vote. We believe that Canadians should be given ever wider rights to participate in the political process, including through political parties, and that democratic input and institutions need to be continually modernized strengthened.

At a point in history where technology has finally made a more radical and engaging democracy possible, our posture toward broadening participation makes us relevant.

We believe in the ‘servant state’, not the ‘nanny state’ of the left or the ‘watchman state’ of the right. We believe that the sovereignty of the state – its permissible scope of action - is dependent entirely upon the will of the people and circumscribed always by the rights of individuals, that while the state is precluded from interfering with the basic freedoms of its citizens without their consent, its proper role extends well beyond merely protecting its people from internal and external threats.

In modern circumstances, where the genuine will of the people is more continuously and profoundly ascertainable than at any time in history, our concept of the servant state makes us relevant. And the liberal way is the balanced middle road.

We believe in the power of government to do good but that citizens must be vigilant to constrain and define the power of government by expanding the rights of individuals and promoting the strength of markets. As distinct from classical liberals, we do not believe that the government that governs best governs least. In fact, we have seen that politicians who think government is bad generally deliver bad government while those who think that government is the solution for all our problems invariably govern in a way that creates even worse problems.

But we are the party of nation builders. The party of a strong national government. The party of the Canada Pension Plan, of Medicare, of bilingualism, of multiculturalism, of the flag, of the charter of rights and freedoms, to name just a few. And we are the only party in the House of Commons today that would assert a nation-building federal jurisdiction, that is not either pandering to provincialists and separatists or abandoning the field. The only party that believes we need a strong and active national government to build a stronger and more united Canada in an ever more complex and shrinking world. That makes us relevant.

And we believe in free and fair markets. In fact, the liberal party is the only Canadian political party whose core philosophy is genuinely pro-market.

We believe that free and fair markets - open competition - are the biggest drivers of innovation and creativity, engine of economic growth and creator of wealth and jobs. Those on the left sometimes have trouble understanding that, unless there is the possibility of profit, there can be no market. To move forward, you not only have to put the horse before the cart; you also have to feed the horse.

On the other hand, those on the right seem to have trouble understanding that free markets only remain free and fair in the face of their inability to self-regulate and their natural tendency to monopoly if they are not regulated appropriately – that regulation, in fact, preserves the marketplace and is a good thing, that properly regulated markets are stronger markets because regulation protects and empowers the participation of individuals in those markets. Unlike socialists, conservatives know to put the economic horse before the cart and they certainly know how to feed it. What they don’t seem to appreciate is that the beast has to be reined in if you want to prevent it from bolting and avoid driving your cart right into the ditch.

As Liberals, we know that the market sometimes also needs support, that it sometimes fails to deliver the goods in ways that optimize its performance. We need to ensure its own that the market is firing on all cylinders as productively and efficiently as possible – so we support public works, for example in energy and transportation, and public or publicly funded services in key areas like health care and education. That is what a mixed market economy is all about.

In a world where the connectivity has created entirely new markets for goods and services never before conceived or, as Adam Smith might say, a whole new universe of virtual ‘shopkeepers’, and where progress in transportation and communication technologies have vastly expanded Canadian and global trade, the Liberal balanced pro-market approach makes us very relevant.

But at the core of everything, liberals are children of the enlightenment. We believe in the power of reason. We value education and learning. We see intellectual curiosity and skepticism as good things. We are open-minded, pragmatic reformers who think that public policy should be based on evidence and logic about what really works, rather than something that’s more superficially seductive just because it resonates in the ‘gut’ and is more ‘sellable’ as policy. Because Liberals know that knowledge is constantly advancing and that the logic of scientific discovery sometimes does involve shifting paradigms - the constant replacement of old assumptions with new ones - we learned long ago that ‘conventional wisdom’ is often out of date or just plain wrong, that so-called ‘common sense’ – you all remember the ‘common sense revolution’ - often has little to do with good sense.

In a society that has achieved the highest level of general education ever, the Liberal focus on the reasoned application of learning and knowledge to public policy makes us relevant.

And Liberals are resolutely internationalist, committed to the continued progress of global civilization and to the enhancement of the human condition generally. We are the Canadian party that has led on questions of peace and human rights, but we also understand that sometimes soldiers-in- arms are required to preserve that peace and protect those human rights. More than that, we understand that the national interest on questions of sovereignty, security and defence cannot be compromised. At the same time, we see our role to militate for a new world order that is ever more democratic, inter-dependent and sustainable. For that reason, we support the development and enforcement of a more robust regime of international law and regulation.

In the context of a growing and much more mobile population on a shrinking planet, that makes us relevant.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, liberals believe that inter-generational stewardship matters as a fundamental question of public morality. We must do whatever we can to ensure our aging and infirm are cared for. We should not mortgage our childrens’ future by burdening them with an unfair inheritance of public debt. We must do better in trying to leave our environment better than we found it.

Given the sophistication and complexity of all the issues modern governments have to manage in the 21st century, all of these themes make Canadian Liberalism relevant. And our commitment to balanced and evidence-driven government has taught us that the old ideologically-driven public policy silos just don’t make sense anymore.

Liberals learned long ago that sound social policy – ensuring we have a healthy and well-educated work force for example – actually strengthens markets and, as such, is equally sound economic policy.

We are learning even now that the same conclusion applies to the supposed trade-off between environmental policy and economic policy - the myth that for so long has been used to pit clean air and water against profits and jobs.

And more and more, we are discovering that the forces of globalization mean that domestic policy cannot be conducted in a separate compartment from international policy or vice versa. That we cannot play a constructive role abroad if we pervert our international policy to partisan purposes at home, that we cannot claim any moral authority in the counsels of the world when, on questions like the environment and aboriginal dignity, we are covering our eyes and refusing to act in our own backyard.

So I believe it is easy to show how Liberal values are more relevant than ever to Canada and Canadians today and how Liberalism fits with the amazing paradigm shift in our political life that is underway. In fact, I believe that the new political paradigm is a very Liberal paradigm.

Some of you may be thinking that most of what I have said about Liberalism is now embedded in our political economy and generally supported by all sides in the House of Commons; that the Liberal principles I have laid out are now only opposed by the extreme factions in the conservative and socialist movements; that liberal democracy has triumphed and, for that very reason, fighting from the centre is no longer required. And I concede that much of what Liberals have accomplished in Canada cannot be undone easily or quickly.

But the difference between conservatives and socialists, on the one hand, and Liberals, on the other, is that Liberals believe in the continuous application of these principles, whereas the ideological right and the ideological left are determined to continuously and insidiously undermine them - slowly, quietly, incrementally – until, suddenly, Canada is something that Liberals no longer recognize.

If self-satisfied or complacent Liberals walk away and allow liberal principles to become the victim of their own success, it is the continuing success of Canada and Canadians that will become the real and permanent victim.

Have we become self-satisfied and complacent? Has our Party run out of gas?

Is it ready to re-engage in response to the challenges of tomorrow?

Does it see the new frontiers for reform that will inspire it back into action?

Are we ready to embrace the new political paradigm?

The challenge is to apply Liberal values in specific ways – ways that will shape and define the future of Canadian political life – not for today or tomorrow – but for 5, 10 and 20 years down the road. Slowly and methodically tending and nurturing the little green shoots that will emerge in the wake of the forest fire that occurred on May 2.Because we have the time. The time to re-imagine who we are and what we become as Liberals.

My personal response to that challenge is to leave you today with two big liberal ideas for the future. I think they are ‘leapfrog ideas’. And I hope you agree.

The first idea requires us to look forward just a year or two. The second could become the cause of Liberals for an entire generation. The first is something I hope to put in motion as President of this party. The second will become the cause of my life as an ordinary rank-and-file Liberal once I leave office in January.

So let’s dive in.

My first idea is about our democracy generally, because I not only believe Canadian democracy is in much worse shape than the Liberal Party but that in improving and extending our democracy, the Liberal Party will benefit hugely.

I think Liberals should commit to the idea of creating a registered voters’ list as part of a broader package of wholesale democratic reform that will enhance democratic participation among Canadians profoundly.

A voter’s list that would ultimately be administered by elections Canada requiring all eligible voters to register either as (1) an ‘independent’ voter or (2) a conservative, liberal, new democrat, bloc Quebecois or green voter or (3) an exempted voter on medical or other grounds including conscience.

And, just as we permit Canadians to file and pay their taxes online, we should enable Canadians to vote online in federal general elections and byelections. It should be as easy to vote as it is to order theatre tickets.

Further, just as occurs already in almost 40 other countries including Australia, where the voter turnout is about 96%, we should make voting in federal general elections and byelections mandatory - as an essential duty of citizens, with failure to vote being subject to a fine.

We should also permit expatriate Canadians who have been ordinarily resident in Canada within, say, the preceding 10 years to vote in federal general elections and byelections.

The apparatus of Elections Canada should be made available to any Canadian political party that wishes to open the franchise for nominating its riding candidates or electing its leaders by universal franchise extended to every registered party voter, rather than just to its members.

The most important aspect of these proposals, given that Liberals are nowhere near being in a position to make them law these days, is that our party should begin functioning as if this were the law now.

Just as the precursors of the current conservatives presciently organized their fundraising on a basis that assumed the need to access thousands of small individual donors well before election financing reform was enacted. They had a huge head start. We unilaterally disarmed and paid the price.

So, if we can pass any necessary enabling reforms at our January convention, then, instead of a membership drive, we can launch a nationwide Liberal voter registration drive for 2012. Liberals in every riding across the country going out to visit with their neighbours at their doorsteps, over the phone and , yes, through the now ubiquitous and powerful tools of social media, encouraging them to sign up as a registered liberal. No charge.

100,000 liberals engaging with 150 households each over the course of the year.Talking to about 22 million eligible voters. With a few survey questions. About whether they voted last time and how they voted or why they didn’t vote. About whether they ever voted Liberal and, if they stopped voting Liberal or switched, when they did and why they did. About the issues that matter most to them. Now that’s a democratic engagement exercise unlike any that Canada has ever seen.And a post-mortem process unlike any ever conducted in Canadian politics. 

A Liberal outreach strategy focused squarely on re-connecting with and rebuilding our base. Its also the way to recapture the playing field from our opponents – for building the database Liberals need to have about our supporters and for finding the thousands of small donors we need to build a war-chest capable of defending our next leader when the inevitable onslaught comes and for fighting the next campaign.

Most importantly, it’s a 21st century organizational recipe for a party that needs to get up off its keister and shuck off its complacency in order to rejuvenate itself and win again. And there’s more.

Because when that registered list of Liberal voters is built, we can transform the selection of our next liberal leader in about 18 months’ time from a one-member, one-vote process as its currently designed into a one-liberal, one-vote process that truly engages Canadians.

Either way, whether every member votes or every Liberal votes, I believe we should run our next leadership selection process as a series of primaries over the last two months of our constitutionally-mandated five month campaign.

With voting on one weekend in British Columbia, New Brunswick and parts of Ontario, for example. And two weeks later in Alberta, Newfoundland and parts of Quebec. And so on until one big final super-Saturday by which every part of Canada will have voted. And leading up to each primary vote, rather than having party delegates converge on the big cities to meet their candidates, we send the candidates to debate the future of our country and our party everywhere in the regions where the next primary vote is going to occur, in small towns and large.

This is a process that would truly engage grassroots liberals. This is a process that would truly engage the media across the country and re-connect Liberalism with millions of Canadians.

And it would give a new generation of aspiring Liberal leaders a wide-open chance to test the waters for a bid without needing assurance up front that they can have the kind of support and can raise the money to go the full distance.

And six months after the leadership is over, fully two years before the next election is scheduled to occur, we could start the process of nominating our candidates in ridings across the country, again in a way that engages every registered liberal voter in that riding in selecting the liberal candidate. With no protection for incumbents and no holds barred. Imagine. A national liberal voter registration drive.

Led and inspired – riding by riding - by the hundreds of young people who believe in the resilience of this party and want to have a shot at being a Liberal candidate for Parliament in their riding in the next election. Young women. New Canadians. Our best and brightest of the next generation. And something in which every Liberal can be involved, young and old and even including the middle aged white guys.

Think about it. Think about how it would transform our party. And now to my final point – and you have been patient. The Liberal Party has always been a party of the future, a party that governs for tomorrow, that leaves a legacy for the next generation. You all know that legacy and I have already spoken about it.

It is clear after almost 6 years that the current government has left no legacy. And the only legacy it seems to be promising today is more Canadians in prison, more guns in our streets and more fighter jets in our military arsenal – the ‘watchman state’ at its best.

So I believe we should leave this strange new Parliament to polarize, or converge, as it chooses on the static left-right axis of a set of issues that belong to yesterday.And let’s not worry to much about where the centre of Canadian political life is today. Let’s make sure the Liberal Party defines the centre for tomorrow by thinking about its next big legacy for Canada and Canadians. And we come full circle to paradigm shifts.

Paradigms. Basic metaphysics. The many assumptions that create the framework within which we live and think. Ever shifting as our knowledge advances. Well, political paradigms shift too. Liberals embrace paradigm shifts because we have open minds and a natural bias for reform. 

Our core assumptions in politics are about power. Liberals believe that the inexorable progress of mankind, the constant expansion of freedom, demands the ever more democratic disbursal of power. That the primary ongoing role of the state is to transfer power from the powerful to the less powerful. And because we believe in the primacy of the individual, we think of that power being placed in the hands of individuals to the maximum extent possible. Personal empowerment.

Just as we need to bring Liberals who have been marginalized and ignored back into the life of our party with a massive outreach exercise, we need to bring Canadians whose agenda has been marginalized and ignored by the current government back into the centre of our political life around a completely new consensus building idea. Who are those powerless and marginalized Canadians?

Our aboriginal population, especially the young people Women, especially single mothers and working women with families New Canadians The urban poor who are jobless, homeless and hungry. Rural and remote Canadians. Those who are fighting for a clean environment and against climate change. People suffering from mental health issues.Volunteer caregivers. All Canadians who believe that Canada’s international mission can no longer be undermined by its reputation abroad for how its treats the poorest of citizens within its own borders.

These are the Canadians we should be empowering as Liberals. Canadians whose hope is frustrated by powerlessness. Citizens whose future lives might be enhanced if we broadened the protection of the Charter to include certain basic economic and social rights - rights which we would want to see as essential badges of citizenry for every Canadian - like the right to quality education and healthcare, to a minimum income and basic retirement security, to clean drinking water etc.

As constitutionalists, our Liberal conception of power is tightly linked to our concept of sovereignty. The authority to exercise power. And we know that the whole course of western political development has been about the evolution of sovereignty or, more precisely, the devolution of sovereignty from the powerful to the powerless.That is why we call our system a liberal democracy.

Sovereignty is always a question of power, the prerogatives and rights from which power flows. And over the centuries our paradigm of sovereign power has shifted many times.

Originally, with the emergence of monotheism, one God was conceived to be sovereign over all and all powerful. But God’s law turned out to be inadequate for the purposes of emerging states. Earthly government and earthly laws were needed.

So God’s sovereignty was assumed by earthly rulers. The monarch became his representative on earth in earthly things. And we all became subjects.

Later following Magna Carta, sovereignty devolved to monarchs acting together with the entitled class, the lords of the realm. But the lords’ power was derivative and the divine right of kings persisted.

Until sovereignty was finally transferred to the Crown in Parliament. Or, put more accurately, the king together with those elected by the male subjects who owned property in the kingdom to represent them.

Over time the franchise was extended so that the ‘Crown in Parliament’ became the king acting together with the representatives of all the people in the kingdom, or what we in Canada once called the dominion.

And at the time of Confederation, our constitution divided the ‘Crown in Parliament’ into two separate but overlapping sovereign jurisdictions, federal and provincial.

But long before Canada was formed, Americans revolutionaries had already taken things one step further. First, they got rid of the king altogether, brashly asserting the sovereignty and equality of the ‘people’. Then, in addition to devolving the ‘people’s sovereignty’ upon their elected representatives in two jurisdictions, federal and state, they eventually affirmed powers for an entirely new political jurisdiction: the individual citizen on and for his/her own account. This totally new sphere of sovereignty for persons was reserved and defined through a series of US constitutional amendments that have come to be known as the Bill of Rights, now a near sacred document which extends and protects basic civil and political liberties to all citizens as a counterweight to the potential tyranny of democratic majorities.

In effect, the US constitution has translated the notion of earthly sovereignty from being something that once flowed exclusively from God to something that now flows exclusively from the children of God or ‘the people’, both collectively and individually.

Talk about a paradigm shift!

The rights conferred on individuals under the US Constitution were essentially negative rights (i.e. freedom from state constraint of and/or interference with thought, expression, association, property and certain specific types of action).

Two hundred years later under Trudeau, Canada followed the American example and, in 1982, engrafted a Charter of Rights and Freedoms into the Canadian constitution which, for the first time anywhere, entrenched individual rights in priority to the supremacy of the Crown as exercised through elected legislatures. In fact, the scope of rights conferred in Canada was broader than those under the US constitution, even extending to some so-called ‘positive’ rights pursuant enabling individual citizens to require governments to do things (e.g. provide minority language schools).

The notion of granting additional sovereignty to citizens in the form of positive economic, social and economic rights is not new. In his State of the Union Address on January 11, 1944, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt proposed what he described as a ‘second Bill of Rights’ on the grounds that: “We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. Necessitous men are not free men.”

His prescription then the extension of individual rights to such areas as health, education, housing, income and retirement security. Roosevelt died a year later and his constitutional proposals died with him.

Fifty years later (1994), Canada was one of the signatories to the UN-sponsored International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. However, this charter has not been constitutionalized in Canada. It is not legally binding on Canadian governments or enforceable in Canadian courts.

One of the few jurisdictions that has adopted a ‘Bill of Rights’ approach that extends positive economic, social and cultural rights to citizens is Quebec under the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms enacted by the Bourassa provincial Liberal government in 1975. It guarantees a range of rights including the right to child care, public education, environmental security etc. However, this law only has quasi-constitutional status as, like any other Quebec statute, it is amendable solely by vote of the Quebec National Assembly and, of course, has no application whatsoever in any area of federal jurisdiction. Still, it provides a uniquely Canadian benchmark worthy of reinforcement as we push toward a new frontier of Liberalism.

Constitutional change is difficult. The current Canadian Charter (1982) was a long time coming. In force for almost 30 years now, it has never been amended. It’s history can be traced back to before the federal Bill of Rights (1960) - which was never constitutionalized - and over two decades of discussion and debate throughout Canada that followed. Even then, the Charter was adopted by the federal government and the constitutuionally required majority of the provinces only when it was made clear that the interpretation of its guarantees by the Courts were to be “subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society”.

In entrenching basic economic, social and cultural rights in Canada, my view is that their interpretation by the Courts should be “subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified by fiscal prudence and the limits of a mixed market economy in a global marketplace.”

While the broadening of Charter Rights could never realistically result in any overnight change or sudden empowerment of powerless Canadians, the process of debating and promoting the entrenchment of such rights would change Canadian politics. It would open the next frontier of Canadian values that inform our fundamental concept of Canadian citizenry. Most Canadians believe they have a right to public education and quality healthcare, but many don’t. Canadians think that every citizen has access to clean drinking water, but that’s just not true.

A constitutional reform agenda from Liberals would not only provide an important beacon for all Canadian legislatures to consider in enacting future laws; it would also provide a tremendous organizing tool around which Canadian Liberals at both the provincial and federal levels could organize.

Think about it.

It’s clearly a Liberal idea. A consensus-galvanizing Liberal idea.

And I think its something worth fighting for.

Achieving the entrenchment of basic economic, social and cultural rights for Canadians would place all marginalized Canadians, especially aboriginal Canadians, in the forefront of liberal democratic progress and provide, for Canada, a concept of citizenry that would continue to be the envy of the world. And that’s the Liberal paradigm shift. From subject to citizen.

So let me now leave you with one final thought. Canada is a fabulous country. But it is not just a country. It is an idea. An idea that knows no borders. An evolving idea. A powerful idea about what modern citizenship can be. Canada is fundamentally a Liberal idea. And that idea has a future.

If we stand up and fight for it.

 

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