Friday, June 15, 2012

Canada isn’t a polarized country (yet), but the Liberals need to earn relevance

I wrote a few weeks ago how an increasing and deliberate polarization of the political debate in Canada by the Conservatives and the NDP was having the effect of both simplifying and dumbing-down the quality of policy discussion and decision-making, as well as squeezing out the Liberal Party of Canada in a left vs. right battle.

Canadians, I argued, don’t all fit neatly into those black and white, left vs. right camps, nor are they well served by simple answers to complex topics, such as oil sands development. And earlier this week, I argued that Liberals need to decide if we should either just fade away, or if we want to fight for our place in a polarizing Canada.

I was pleased this week to see two prominent Liberals recognize the challenges, and the pitfalls, of this polarization of the political process. The first was Justin Trudeau, earlier this week on CTV’s Power Play.

“I think we actually have a great opportunity for the Liberal Party to not play the politics of polarization, that both this party of the left and party of the right that are in government and official opposition are playing. Canadians are tired of voting against things. They’re tired of the cynicism people encourage in politics. They want to try to vote for something, and Canadians aren’t polarized. We’re people who accommodate, who get along, who look for compromises to try to figure out the best path forward. And the Liberal Party is the only party that consistently – when it’s doing what it needs to be doing – stands up for the whole country and says the same things in one end of the country as the other and doesn’t chose to divide between East and West the way Mr. Mulcair is doing and the way Mr. Harper has always done.”

“Even if you look at the assessments of public opinion, and you penetrate that a little bit and talk to people about what they want to see—do they want to be forced to make a choice between the Tea Party and the Occupy Movement?” he said. “I don’t think so. I think this phony, divisive polarization, which both Mr. Harper and Mr. Mulcair are specializing in, is bad for the country, bad for the world. They don’t represent Canada at its best. I think the Liberal party needs to get its act together.”

I’m was heartened to see their comments and their recognition of the problem. And they both also tacitly acknowledged that the Liberal Party hasn’t been doing a very good job of earning its relevance and providing an alternative for Canadians to the polarized left and the polarized right. As Rae said, we need to get our act together. Trudeau’s qualifier “when it’s doing what it needs to be doing” was also apt, because we haven’t been.

It’s not enough just to recognize the problem, or the opportunity. You have to seize it. Canadians do want a pragmatic and responsible option, but if it’s not there for them, if it’s not credible, than they will fall into that polarization trend. As we crawl into the upcoming leadership race I’m going to want to see more than a recognition of the problem; I want to see concretely how we can give Canadians that pragmatic option they want.

I think it starts with policies like the one on marijuana legalization passed at the convention in January. Some will call it gimmicky, but I disagree. It may not be popular in some circles, but it’s an evidence-based response to a failed war on drugs that would allow police to focus their resources on real crime. Getting smarter on crime is another area, re-emphasizing prevention and root-causes, which has been ignored by the Conservatives as well as opposition parties scared of being labelled soft on crime. Revisiting supply management is also probably called for.

Whatever the policy, the point is to look past the surface politics and vested interests and make sensible decisions based not on polling or politics, but on what we believe and what’s right, and then go out there and defend them. Don’t be worried about left or right, just what makes sense. Offer an alternative that speaks to the everyday concerns of Canadians, and earn their confidence that you’ll credibly implement it.

People will say no to polarization, but it’s up to us to give them the choice.

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Dan F said...

Agree completely.
1) Evidence-based policy (not ideology) should be the focus. Shout it from the rooftops. We're about evidence, not ideology.
2) Civil Liberties and privacy. The Conservatives talk a good game about CL when it comes to the census and gun registry, but then they eliminate oversight for CSIS and allow corporations to invade your privacy. Libs can be out in from on this issue too.

Lorne said...

The problem is, when you have many in the Liberal Party urging the unseasoned Justin Trudeau to run for the leadership, not because of his vision or policies but because they thing he might be the next 'big thing' that will lead them out of the political wilderness, all talk of party principle and integrity lacks credibility.

Jeff said...


Lots of people will talk about lots of things, and some will have the wrong motivations. It will be up to the party to either prove them wrong, or not. And were Justin to run, and win, it will be up to him to prove the substance is their and earn that credibility, or not.



Brandon E. Beasley said...

I agree completely, and I should note, I think Martha Hall Findlay has provided something like what you call for in her paper in Policy Options:

(This is not an endorsement of her, I should note. Though I do like her and would seriously consider her if she ran for leader.)