What Happened to Canada’s Liberals?

What Happened to Canada’s Liberals?

What Happened to Canada’s Liberals?

WHEN MICHAEL Ignatieff spoke at the Liberal Party convention in 2005, he was the country’s most buzzed-about politician since Pierre Trudeau. He was introduced as “the voice of our conscience” and seemed capable of uniting and broadening the ruling Liberal Party as well as expanding Canadian liberalism into a coherent philosophy instead of a laundry list of decades-old social programs.

But much has changed over the past five years. The Liberals now stand double-digits below the governing Conservative Party and in the November by-elections, the Conservatives unexpectedly won two seats, one long-held by a Quebec separatist party. And while many are wondering what went wrong with Michael Ignatieff and the Liberal Party, the more important question is what has worked for Stephen Harper, Canada’s first conservative prime minister in 13 years.

Harper has proven to be a formidable politician, at times displaying a tactical ruthlessness foreign to most Canadian politicians. He has siphoned off support from Canadian centrists and liberals by co-opting programs created by the Liberals and the socialist New Democratic Party, and combining them with just enough elements of traditional conservatism to forge a distinct vision for his party.

Before he became the leader of the far-right Canadian Alliance Party and merged it with the center-right Progressive Conservative Party, Harper was among the most economically conservative politicians in Canadian history. “Canada is a Northern European welfare state in the worst sense of the term, and very proud of it,” he infamously observed. Harper’s worldview was formed in Alberta, by far Canada’s most conservative province, where he worked for Imperial Oil.

But even before he shrewdly merged the far right with the center right, Harper was a pragmatist. Although personally opposed to same-sex marriage, he knew that social conservatism would always be unpopular in Canada, and he warned the Reform Party (later renamed the Alliance Party) that they risked relegating themselves “more towards being a party of the religious right” if abortion and same-sex marriage became issues that they were not willing to compromise on.

As prime minister, Harper has extended this pragmatic conservatism. He has made no efforts to repeal same-sex marriage or abortion laws, and he has left universal health care intact. He passed a $40-billion stimulus plan earlier this year, leading Canada to post its first deficit in a decade, and he extended employment insurance benefits, a move that was part of a budget one pundit called “the end of conservatism in Canada.” He has apologized to Chinese Canadians for a head tax imposed on them at the turn of the twentieth century and sped up the immigration process for skilled workers.

OVER THE years, Harper has come to recognize the limits of his mandate: he is a Thatcherite free marketer in a country that has never embraced the unfettered market, and he knows it. But he has also made small gestures to the conservatives. He has cut taxes, lowering the government sales tax and raising the amount before which an individual would be required to pay income taxes, and he has shrewdly capitalized on a highly publicized crime wave in Toronto by toughening crime laws, imposing mandatory minimum sentences and new drug plans.

It is true that Harper has been blessed with poor opponents. Stéphane Dion preceded Ignatieff as a Liberal leader and was a compromise candidate who had trouble with the English language. While having problems with French has been a problem with Anglophone Canadians in the past, Francophone Liberals like Jean Chrétien and Pierre Trudeau have been fluent, even elegant English speakers. Dion, however, struggled in English and alienated much of the country as a result. He was also an academic by training and had trouble resonating with most Canadians who warmed to the populist Harper (the “Tim Horton’s everyman” as Liberal strategist Warren Kinsella called him).

But as bad as Dion was, he was still an improvement over Paul Martin, the last Liberal prime minister. After having served as the Finance Minister for the 1990s, Martin took over for Chrétien with huge expectations. But as prime minister, he found himself embroiled in the Sponsorship Scandal—an elaborate scheme in which the federal government gave money to Liberal-friendly advertising firms who, in turn, donated part of the money back to the Liberal Party or had Liberal fundraisers and organizers on their payrolls.

Leadership aside, the Liberals also faced deep structural difficulties. In 2002, Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien introduced stringent public financing laws, capping corporate contributions at $1000 and individual donations at $5,000. As the longtime dominant party, the Liberal Party was heavily supported by corporations eager to curry influence with the government, and Chrétien’s laws, while admirably curtailing the role of big money in politics, drastically cut into the Liberal coffers.

Harper’s Conservative Party, on the other hand, has always been much more effective at developing grassroots financial donors. As a result, it has a much larger pool of cash on which to draw. In 2008, the Conservatives brought in more than $21 million (CAN) from over 112,000 contributors. The Liberals, meanwhile, took in less than $6 million from only about 30,000 contributors. The socialist New Democratic Party, a permanent third-place national party, took in nearly as much as the Liberals, underscoring the latter’s comparative disadvantage.

Under Canadian law, limits are placed on spending during election periods, which are called “writ periods”. It is meant to establish a rough equivalency in campaign spending by the parties. However, outside of the writ periods, no such limits are placed, and those parties fortunate to have a financial surplus can spend money as they wish. The Conservatives under Harper have taken great advantage of this loophole by spending huge amounts on advertisements that attack Liberal leaders before the elections. They have, as Kinsella put it, “been able to define the opposition before it has the chance to define itself.”

OVER THE long term, the Conservatives will face the same problems as the Republicans in the United States: demographics. Women and young people generally favor the Liberals, and the increasing number of immigrants and non-whites feel the same way. The Conservatives currently rely on the largest segment of Canadians–the baby boomers–who will be extinct in a generation or two.

But the Liberals are also having trouble identifying a niche for themselves. In response to Conservative ads calling him a carpetbagger, Ignatieff has attempted to re-brand himself, writing a book on his love of Canada and filming Obama-like commercials in which the Liberal leader speaks directly to the camera. The Liberals have also tried to win back power by acting as the responsible opposition party, supporting the government in extending Canada’s mandate in Afghanistan past 2009 to December 2011.

But if the Liberals are going to regain power in Canada, they will have to find a way to resolve the popular concerns over the balance between environmental interests and economic ones. The Conservatives are vulnerable on their stewardship of the environment, flouting an indifference to global warming eerily similar to that of the Bush administration. Liberals have talked much about their passion for protecting the environment and believe the jobs of the future are going to be green, as Ignatieff reports in a much-mocked ad filmed in a forest. But while Ignatieff called for a carbon tax, he also has conceded that the plan was a vote-loser.

In February of 2009, Michael Ignatieff observed that “you’ve got to work with the grain of Canadians and not against them. I think we learned a lesson in the last election.” The elections are costly teaching guides, and it might take a few more before the Liberals have learned enough to return to power. That might not be quick enough for Ignatieff, however, who looks doomed to follow Dion into the pit of obsolescence without having ever occupied the prime minister’s office.

Jordan Michael Smith is a Canadian writer living in Washington, D.C. He has contributed articles and blog posts to Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the American Prospect, and many Canadian publications. Photo: Michael Ignatieff (creative commons / Brian Rice).

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