Why liberalism matters

By Beryl Wajsman on May 4, 2011

 

The biggest story about the supposed resurgent left in this election is that there is no story. Nor is there  a resurgent left. 

What most current discussion misses in covering the NDP is that the party's success was an overwhelmingly  Quebec phenomenon wrapped in a Quebec enigma. It had nothing to do with a nation divided against itself hopelessly polarized between a recalcitrant right and a statocratic left. It had everything to do with Quebecers fatigue with separation and Liberals failure to connect with Canadians through an authentic message.

That message - the party's patrimony - has been forgotten through timidity for the better part of the past decade. It is time to declare it clearly and candidly once again.  Liberalism matters! At all times and in all places. Whenever and wherever  people yearn to be free, liberalism matters. In our striving for the fullest flowering of our individual possibility, liberalism matters. Staring into the dark abyss of life's most difficult challenges, liberalism matters. It matters because the authentic liberal gospel offers us the one thing a people cannot live without. Hope. We need it as much as the water we drink and the air we breathe. With it we can accomplish everything. Without it, a nation becomes a mirror of Ezekiel's vision of a valley of dry bones.

For too long the Liberal party has attempted to define liberalism as a set of macro accounting policies or centrist political positioning. Liberalism cannot succeed when reduced to a game plan for running between the raindrops. Nor can it succeed as a Potemkin facade for representing "what the grassroots want." Liberalism is not a facile populist process. Liberalism is hard. It is hard because it stands above all for the ideal at the  root of its name. Liberty. Therein lies the hope. But as Bernard Shaw wrote, "Liberty demands responsibility. That's why so many dread it!" Liberalism and Liberals succeed when led by leaders of passion and resolve in whose character people find the courage to overcome their dread.

In this last election Quebecers were looking for hope. They were reaching for liberty. Finding no vigorous and bold champion of either, they simply opted for change. Even if that meant voting for college students and bartenders on vacation.

The alpha and omega of this campaign happened the weekend of the PQ convention.  There were Marois and Duceppe repeating the same venom, but this time with more poison. Not only were they promising another referendum, but Marois' screed threatened the use of the notwithstanding clause against anyone having the temerity to invoke the protection of our country's Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Furthermore, she declared that access to English CEGEPs would be closed to Francophones and Allophones and that a PQ government would introduce legislation to instruct judges to interpret laws through "the primacy of the of the protection of the French language and of Quebec values." Francophones had enough.

Francophone parents want their children to have every opportunity at success. They know that in North America that means having a proper working facility in English. And they are now quite confident that they can protect their own culture by themselves, thank you Mme. Marois. They were also tired of the prospect of another referendum and many were shocked at the possible compromise of judicial independence and the constriction of the very freedoms the Charter assures. 

Seeing no champion to voice protection for either their opportunities nor their freedoms from the Conservatives or Liberals, they simply voted for the NDP as a change and a protest. The NDP's soft federalism made it very palatable for Quebec's own broad voting base of soft nationalists. The CROP and EKOS polls that first showed the NDP surge in Quebec were taken in the forty-eight hours following the PQ convention. In this same forty-hours many of Quebec's leading commentators roundly condemned the PQ's extremism.

Canada's national media scrambled to catch up and try to explain the "phenomenon." And rarely has there been such an exhibition of the two solitudes. So caught up was the national media in the election campaign, so little attention did it pay to the PQ convention, that with the lone exception of Chantal Hebert who did connect the dots, Layton was given a Lazarus-like resurrection. 

Almost every single commentator ascribed the NDP's rising Quebec numbers to the fact that Layton did well in the French leaders debate. Yet this was nonsense. He did no better or worse than the others. But an explanation had to be offered, even if it was wrong. This national "endorsement" of Layton legitimized the NDP across the country without any critical eye focused on it's unworkable platform and on it's contemptible position that a separate Quebec would be welcome in a new Canadian federation and would still be eligible for Canadian benefits. 

But Canadians were smarter than the talking heads. The protest vote against the Bloc in Quebec did give the NDP 56 new seats. But outside Quebec, the party gained only 8. Hardly a ringing endorsement of a resurgent left. And hardly a compelling reason to fold  hopeful liberal promise into the dustbin of socialist anachronism.

Those who are now murmuring about "uniting the left" miss the point and are preparing a prescription for fleeting political expediency that will fail at the ballot box but succeed in polarizing Canada and Canadians for generations. These sunshine patriots will be harshly condemned by history.

The Harper majority was not achieved because of NDP success in Quebec but by Liberal failure in Ontario. And that failure occurred because Liberals abandoned the expression of the foundational organizing principles of Canadian liberalism.

Foremost among them, the belief in an executive federalism that rejects any moral superiority or special status for either of the two founding European cultures, both of whom came here as agents of European imperial powers. Secondly,  fidelity to the sovereignty of individual imperative over any imposition of collective statist engineering. Thirdly, the pledge of equity of just consideration for every citizen before our courts with laws that are the shields of the innocent and the staffs of the just and not two-edged swords of craft and oppression. Fourth, rejection of interventionist  rule and regulation that not only threaten to put the state back into the bedroom but allow it to follow the citizen into the street with coercive and prohibitionary controls on private prerogatives. Fifth, devotion to the ideal of the industrial welfare state where compassion dictates that a helping hand is not a handout. Sixth, understanding the primacy of not only a free market economy but a fair one as well. Seventh, balancing the right of reward of individual initiative and enterprise but not with untrammeled privilege and preference that prevent Canadians from benefitting from the bounty of the nation they have forged. Eighth, dedication to the faith that our dream of a just society does not stop at our borders but compels us to engagement abroad in mankind's transcendent yearnings for redemptive change.

Only when we once again hear echoes of these sentiments that truly appeal to our "nobler angels", will Canadians understand why liberalism matters. Many of us came to political maturity with those ideals as articles of faith. And this faith - this liberalism - has succeeded so often because the men and women who work and serve and  sacrifice in this great land understand that -despite many just grievances - industrial liberalism is the only surety against unbridled economic domination by vested interests of the right and the suffocating, impoverishing dictatorial fiats of the left. Liberalism is the political manifestation of that holy creed that is as old as scripture and as true as the ages that the liberty of each citizen will be constrained only by the demands of equal liberty for another.

Only this creed can ignite the thousands of centres of creative energy and daring that we still need to sweep down the last vestiges of injustice and inequity and perfect the oasis of liberty and hope that we all strive for. I do not think that those who have willed this legacy to us - from Spinoza to Descartes, from Locke to Rousseau, from Paine and Jefferson, and yes from Laurier and Trudeau - would trade it for a doomed political partnership with university undergraduates. We can do better. We owe it to those upon whose shoulders we stand. 

 

 

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Beryl P. Wajsman

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