Is Liberalism Dead in Canada?

May 17, 2011 10:11 am

On election night in my area of North Toronto, the cold days that dominated most of April were finally being driven out by the warm gusts of spring. Perhaps that is why few people noticed the gusts of change that were about to sweep across the Canadian political landscape. Everyone knew the conservatives would win, but the expectation was that Canada would likely enter another minority parliament. The Bloc might suffer at the expense of the NDP, but would still retain its dominant status within Quebec. And at the end of the night the liberals, for all their misfortunes, would still seem like the only likely alternative to Harper’s conservatives. The early tallies did little to alter this overall impression. The conservatives were leading from the word ‘go,’ but the liberals and NDP remained close in terms of projected seat counts. Among the first early signs that something was amiss for the liberals was the early lead assumed by conservative Bernard Trottier over Michael Iganatieff. The race was very close but as more votes were counted the gap widened just enough that it was clear Ignatieff would lose his seat after holding it for only one parliament. Other developments were equally ominous for the party. Long time Liberal MPs who once easily held their respective ridings – Ken Dryden, Joe Volpe, among many others – were suddenly on the losing end of races. Their long term presence in the House of Commons was once a source of stability; on this night, it had become a liability. Many younger liberals – Gerard Kennedy among the most prominent – fared no better. Liberal urban heartlands were, by the end of the evening, liberal urban wastelands.

Indeed, what was most striking was the sense by the evening’s end of a party that suddenly seemed antiquated, as though the rest of the country had passed them by. Not surprisingly, party members were stunned. Michael Ignatieff spoke that night with subdued passion and conviction. But for all its strengths, his speech also conveyed bewilderment, as though he couldn’t begin to explain what had just happened, why Canadians didn’t warm to him or why the party that dominated Canadian politics for so long could only win 34 seats in a 308 seat parliament. This impression was fuelled by visuals. The jet black backdrop in a room that was half empty made it seem as though he was speaking at a funeral and not at a political event. The few people there could scarcely contain their mix of disbelief and despair.  They too were no doubt wondering how a liberal campaign could have gone so spectacularly wrong.

The post election hand wringing has seemingly only confirmed that the liberal party is adrift with no sense of direction. Although there is constant talk of the need for ‘renewal,’ party members seem deeply uncertain as to what this process might mean. What’s worse, there remains internal disarray and in fighting. Some party members would like a leadership convention sooner rather than later. Others, such as Jean Chretien, insist that Harper’s majority gives the party the luxury of time. Meanwhile both Bob Rae and Carolyn Bennett publicly expressed their displeasure with the party executive’s silly determination that any interim party leader will not be able to run in the actual leadership race. Their leadership problems run deeper. Historically one of the party’s strengths was the number of quality people who many could imagine as leader and prime minister. Now, by contrast, there is an utter dearth of obvious choices. Some even question if the party has a future.

Not all of the post election analysis has been doom and gloom. Some party members and pundits correctly note the role of vote-splitting in securing the conservative majority. Minimize the splitting, the thinking goes, and Harper will have a harder time next election winning so many seats, particularly in Ontario. The vital role of leadership has also been emphasized. The right leader, possibly young and charismatic, will lift the entire party’s fortunes. Yet it was widely believed that Ignatieff would prove more effective than his immediate predecessor, Stephane Dion, and couldn’t possibly do any worse. Of course, he did much worse! Could it be then that the liberal’s woes reflect a more fundamental shift in the country’s politics? Could it be that the party’s miserable election outcome, its internal disarray and the questions surrounding its future are symptomatic of a deeper crisis for liberalism as a political philosophy?

One of the defining features of Canada’s political landscape in the 20th century was the dominant role of both Quebec and Ontario in federal politics. Liberal majorities more often than not were won in Quebec and Ontario. The vital importance and role of the two provinces is typically attributed to the high number of seats found in both. Quebec has 75 seats, Ontario 106.  More fundamentally, however, the dominant role of the two provinces was a function of the economy. Both were manufacturing heartlands, the basis of Canada’s economic development and strong rates of economic growth throughout much of the last century. Liberalism thrived largely because the economy made it possible for it to do so.

Quebec and Ontario’s shared dominance produced its own echoes throughout western Canada. Throughout much of the last century Alberta’s resentment towards Central Canada festered. Alberta’s political establishment in particular took exception to their limited role in national politics and to intrusions into their own provincial affairs. Equally important was the gradual emergence of a different set of ideological priorities. Most Albertans thought the Canadian state was too expansionist and committed to programs that were too costly. Taxes were too high. Liberalism, from the perspective of many in the west, was the problem with how the country was governed. This was the impetus fuelling the formation of the Reform Party, the Conservative-Alliance Party and finally the revived conservative party under Stephen Harper. They have spent years maneuvering their way towards power in Ottawa. Their efforts have been aided by Canada’s altered economic landscape. Ontario and Quebec’s manufacturing base has withered. Alberta in particular is, of course, rich in oil, a limited resource that more and more of the world needs.

This gradual shift westward in economic power has had various long term consequences, some of which account for the waning appeal of liberalism and for the liberal party’s malaise. Governments, we are told, can no longer assume an active role in meeting important social challenges. For doing so might require taking on a deficit or worse, increasing taxes. Any policy initiative that might require increasing taxes is immediately characterized as irresponsible and unaffordable. Stephane Dion’s proposal in 2008 to use a taxation scheme to combat climate change was ruthlessly – and successfully – pilloried by the conservatives. This election, Michael Ignatieff’s promise to rescind the conservative’s last round of corporate tax cuts was similarly dismissed. Liberalism hasn’t been able to withstand the strain to which it has been subject. And the liberal party hasn’t figured out how to successfully challenge the prevailing economic wisdom the conservatives keep preaching to Canadians. Until they do, the party’s fortunes are not bound to improve.


Our Shifting Political Landscape

May 3, 2011 10:11 pm
Michael Ignatieff

“Politics,” as Michael Ignatieff graciously acknowledged last night, “offers hard lessons we all must learn.” This is not only a hard truth for defeated politicians and for those who still invest hopes in the political process. It is also the case for prognosticators of the political scene. It’s not so much the conservative majority that was unexpected last night, but the evening’s accompanying storylines. For who would have predicted even a few days ago that the Bloc would be so thoroughly defeated in Quebec? At the campaign’s start, who would have thought such a historic breakthrough for the NDP was possible, particularly inside Quebec? And who would have believed a party with as many high profile candidates as the Liberals would suffer such a devastating setback? Indeed, Canada’s political landscape has shifted. The wave of change inspires its own set of questions. With the Bloc effectively eliminated, what is the future of Quebec’s sovereignty movement? How should we understand the Liberal Party’s dreadful showing? How might the conservatives govern now that they’ve finally won their long sought majority?


The rout of the Bloc Party is, to be sure, a blow to Quebec’s sovereignty movement. Gilles Duceppe lost his seat and immediately resigned as party leader.  The Bloc now have only 4 seats. To suggest, however, that the election results presage the demise of the sovereignty movement is premature at best, pure folly at worst. As the political analyst Allen Gregg remarked last night,

Gilles Duceppe

the Bloc’s presence in Ottawa represented a “safety valve” for Quebec voters, particularly those ambivalent about sovereignty. That safety valve has now been eliminated. Their near sweep of the province notwithstanding, it is easy to imagine the NDP’s surge in the province as tentative and potentially short lived. After all, some of the NDP candidates to win last night don’t even speak French; others didn’t even campaign in their own riding. Astoundingly, one winning candidate was in Las Vegas for much of the campaign. The learning curve for the party as a whole in Quebec and their representatives in the House of Commons will be steep. It is easy to imagine the mood that gave rise to the NDP’s strong showing ultimately shifting. That sort of scenario could manifest itself in a renewed push for sovereignty.


The Liberals suffered from the conservative’s relentless attack ads. The attacks on Michael Ignatieff were especially appalling, but ultimately effective. The liberal leader lost his own seat and has also just resigned as party leader. One of the election’s ironies is that Harper’s ambition for a majority was fuelled by his unrelenting attacks of Ignatieff’s personal ambition. To pursue a career outside of Canada, to teach at Harvard, to engage in worldly affairs as Michael Ignatieff has spent his working life doing and then dare to return to Canada and aspire to govern is a form of elitism that Canadians can do without. This was the essence of Harper’s attacks on the liberal leader. Considering much of the country’s love for Pierre Trudeau, it is perhaps strange and more than a little sad that such a strategy worked so splendidly. As one liberal candidate lamented, “the hatchet job on Michael Ignatieff is complete.”


Michael Ignatieff

Yet we should caution against attributing the liberal demise to simply conservative attacks. Another source of the Liberal party’s misfortune last night is perhaps less obvious. The Liberal strategy was to position themselves in the center of the political spectrum, in the expectation that enough Canadians would have an aversion to any party too far to the right or too far to the left. But in a very crucial sense, the Liberals were the victims of the move to the center of the political spectrum among all the major parties. In addition to their unrelenting attacks on the Liberals in particular, the conservatives were determined to allay any lingering fears of a conservative majority. They did so largely by presenting themselves as competent managers of the country’s finances and targeting particular ridings where liberal or NDP incumbents were vulnerable.  But they also promised annual 6% funding increases to medicare, thereby effectively eliminating health care as a point of vulnerability for the party.


Similarly the NDP has long recognized the need to challenge the notion that the party is comprised of “socialists” who would radically reshape the country if it was ever in a position to govern. Jack Layton deserves a lot of credit for recasting the party’s

Jack Layton

image. By the mid way point of the campaign he no longer scared people; on the contrary, his energy in the face of illness and his relentless optimism finally resonated beyond the party’s core constituency. But that was made possible by a platform best characterized as progressive but hardly sweeping.  To be sure, there are some crucial differences between themselves and the conservatives, but those differences are not as wide as many may think. Among the major planks in their platform was a promise to quickly address the doctor shortage in the country’s rural areas and reversing the conservative’s last round of corporate tax breaks. This is hardly the stuff of a revolutionary platform! Indeed this was campaign marked by the utter absence of competing visions for the country. Differences between the parties were ones of degrees. The combined effect of these subtle shifts in strategy and mood was to deliver a conservative majority despite a relatively minor increase in popular support for the party and for Harper in particular.


How then can we expect a Harper majority to govern? It used to be that conservatives won on the basis of a rural/urban split. They won many rural ridings but were often shut out of the

country’s biggest urban centers, Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. Not so anymore. Outside of Montreal, the conservatives now have seats in urban areas as well. This sort of realignment

could precipitate important changes in the way the country is governed. The more dramatic changes will likely be with respect to areas of social policy dear to Harper’s heart. Thus there will be nothing stopping him now from proceeding with changes to the criminal justice system. Bigger prisons will be built, sentences for various types of offenders will be harsher and

Stephen Harper

rehabilitation will become a less vital element in the treatment of prisoners. The long gun registry will be ripped up and thrown away. The party’s expectation may very well be that these types of measures will not damage their standing in urban centers. Economically, the conservatives will likely be more cautious. However, their promise to increase annual investments in medicare, eliminate the deficit in a few years and implement further tax cuts will eventually dictate hard choices be made.  When that happens, Canada may begin to feel like a much different place.


Why Isn’t Health Care A Major Campaign Issue?

9:18 am

Canadians’ commitment to a publicly funded universally based health care system remains as strong as ever. Yet the debate over the future of health care continues to rage on. The competing narratives should be by now familiar. On the one hand, commentators incessantly remind us that our health care system is unsustainable and that difficult choices must be made. A failure to rein in costs will result in enormous pressures on governments to curtail spending in other areas of crucial importance such as infrastructure and education. On the other hand, defenders of medicare insist that cuts in health care spending will lead to the gradual erosion of government commitment to upholding the principles of the Canada Health Act. The pressures are exacerbated by the country’s shifting demographics. The population is aging. As people get older they are likely to require health care. How should costs be contained enough that the principles underpinning the Canada Health Act are preserved?  Should we allow the private sector assume a greater role in the delivery of health care? These are the sorts of questions ceaseless reports have attempted to answer and Canadians have pondered for the last two decades at least.

Tommy Douglas, Father of Medicare

Strangely, however, health care hasn’t assumed any meaningful role in this campaign. This is due, in part, to the apparent uniformity in health care platforms among the major parties. All federal parties commit themselves to preserving medicare, for the simple reason that failing to do so will severely compromise their election prospects. Indeed a highlight of each party’s platform this campaign is the promise to increase annual health care spending well beyond the anticipated rate of economic growth. The conservatives especially hope to benefit by the apparent sameness in party promises: if all parties are committed to a funding increase, then the election need not be a referendum on the future of health care in Canada. More importantly, Canadians need not fear what a Harper majority would mean for the future of health care in this country. But is it really true that there is nothing to distinguish the party platforms where health care is concerned?  Is it true that Canadians have nothing to fear in a Harper majority?
The Canadian Medical Association (CMA) recently attempted to answer the first question; in doing so they perhaps unwittingly shed light on the second as well. The CMA conducted an election survey designed to encourage the main political parties (the conservatives, liberals, NDP and the Bloc; the Green Party was not part of the survey; no reason is given for their exclusion) to address the specific issues that will most shape the health care system in the coming decades. Research, home and palliative care, pharmacare and human resources recruitment strategies are the four issues singled out by the CMA. The respective party responses to their survey questions are revealing.

What is perhaps most noteworthy about the survey was the conservative party’s refusal to participate in it. Their repeated response to the CMA was to point to their election platform where, it was promised, all answers to all pertinent health care questions could be found. The response is in keeping with the arrogance demonstrated by the conservatives this election. Is it too much to ask of the party how they would address specific health care related problems and priorities? Or do they feel, as their former leader Kim Campbell once remarked, that elections are not a good time to answer difficult questions? For although the conservatives insist otherwise, their platform states little more than a promise to work “collaboratively” with provinces and territories, to reduce wait times and to address the doctors and nurses shortages in rural areas of the country.

Those promises, however, do not begin to address the precise issues raised by the CMA. For example, the survey asks if the parties in question would consider “introducing a comprehensive national pharmacrare program or a national catastrophic drug costs program?” They also ask what parties would do to ameliorate the growing crisis in home care. Both questions stem from a worrisome trend: health care costs are increasingly being transferred from medicare to individuals and families. By refusing to participate in the survey, the conservatives give no hint as to how they would address these twin challenges.

Dr. Jeffrey Turnbull

Dr. Jeffrey Turnbull

By contrast, the Liberals and NDP at least acknowledge the challenges associated with both pharmaceutical drugs and home care. In both areas provincial standards vary and costs are escalating at an alarming rate for many Canadians.  The liberal response thus includes a promise to harmonize standards among provinces and territories. The NDP, among other things, promises to ‘bargain’ with pharmaceutical companies to reduce the costs of drugs. Both parties propose various tax breaks designed to ease the financial burden of home care and drug costs on families. The problem, according to those who study the issue, is that tax breaks are but one strand of the sort of comprehensive response that is necessary. More needs to be done. None of the parties, for example, address the need for better access among home care patients to nurses and doctors. Their reluctance is no doubt attributable to the costs of doing so. Indeed, the challenge for governments is to at once assume and contain costs associated with home care and drugs. How is this conundrum to be resolved? Parties don’t have the answers.

They should be paying closer to attention to ideas emerging from the CMA. Under Dr. Jeffrey Turnbull’s presidency, the association has more emphatically committed itself to not only defending medicare, but transforming it into a more sustainable system. Medicare, according to Dr. Turnbull, isn’t characterized by wasteful spending; but it is characterized by inefficiencies. Many chronically ill patients, for example, can be treated at home at a fraction of the cost required to treat them in the hospital. Money saved in this way could then be used to improve home care. Hospital acquired infections could be dramatically reduced through the widespread adoption of checklists reminding health care providers to wash their hands before seeing a new patient. Housing and treatment facilities for the homeless prevent the sort of illnesses that land them in hospitals on a regular basis. Give a homeless alcoholic a drink and a place to sleep and chances are he will not acquire liver disease, tuberculosis or HIV. His life chances will also be improved. Indeed, preventative measures save money as well as restore lives. Dr. Turnbull’s work at Ottawa’s Salvation Army and Sheppards of Good Hope is a testament to this idea. If medicare is to be saved, it will be because of these sorts of innovations in our approach to treatment and human health.

The CMA was right to attempt to make its presence felt in this campaign. The survey goes a long way towards making the health care debate at once more expansive and precise. And it sheds a revealing light on where the three major parties outside of Quebec stand on the issue of health care reform. It’s too bad not many Canadians seem to have noticed.

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