What has been missing from the Liberal leadership race is any dialogue of ideas. It is, after all, not just a struggle for power: the man who wins will become, however temporarily, Canada’s 17th Prime Minister, and hold for a time both political authority and ideological sway. His political priorities will affect us all.
The casual assumption of most of the delegates has been that the choice should come down to the sedate populism represented (in marginally/different manifestations) by John Turner and Jean Chrétien. The convention comes at a time in which liberalism has become unfashionable in most of the world’s democracies. Many countries, such as the United States and Great Britain, are turning to the Right. Others, such as France, Greece and Spain, are rushing to the Left. (The head of the French Socialist Party recently compared the political centre, represented by the classic liberal position, to the Bermuda Triangle: “Everyone who goes there disappears forever.”)
Into this philosophical void this week arrived a slim volume, awkwardly titled A Canada That Works for Everyone: Changing the Way We Look at Our Future. It is written by none other than James Allan Coutts, the former Liberal candidate from Nanton, Alta., and currently running in Spadina, who spent most of two decades advising Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau on how to retain power. His tiny tome is a tossed gauntlet to the next Liberal leader —forcing him out of backroom boudoirs into the inner-city streets, factory floors, farms and forests where Canadian elections are still won. It is a moderate but optimistic credo, designed to give a troubled people some reason for hope. Coutts doesn’t attack the Liberal party’s aspiring leaders by name, but he leaves the impression that he classes them with the daffy definition of dermatologists: they don’t solve anyone’s problems but they always travel first class.
In his specific prescriptions for an electoral platform Coutts follows the tried-and-true Liberal chorus, which holds that the only way for a politician to remain consistent amid changing circumstances is to change with them. The trick is to move to both the political Left and Right at the same time—just far enough to keep the PCs and the NDP out
of power. Coutts’s ideas are a valid and imaginative extension of the social contract that has been Krazy-Glued into place by Liberal administrations during the past 20 years. “I do not believe these,, are issues of the Left or Right,” Coutts writes in the book’s introduction. “They are issues of Canadian growth and survival. They have more to do with nation-
building, enterprise, sharing and caring than they do with political ideology.” His economics thesis springs from a basic belief that there must be better alternatives than following the U.S. lead—trying to cure inflation using interest rate hikes. Coutts’s solution, which he hopes will create a million new jobs over the next three years, is government underwriting of interest payments (so that they will remain under 10 per
cent) for the expanding sectors of the resource industries, small business, house construction and productivityconscious manufacturing industries. He comes out strongly for a fairer balance between wealth creation and job creation. He wants us to measure our successes and our failures not only in terms of the gross national product but in terms of a gross social product that reflects otherwise ignored cultural and social dimensions.
One of Coutts’s strongest demands is for further Canadianization of industrial assets, with a 50-per-cent ownership target by 1990. “We must have an agenda that insists on creating new wealth in Canada through greater emphasis on productivity and new technologies,” he writes. “But [it must be] an agenda that also recognizes that private markets alone have never served the needs of all Canadians, and that better use must be made of our mixed economy to create a Canada that works for everyone. Canadianization will help us reach these goals.”
Instead of advocating costly new social policies, Coutts recommends extension of the Guaranteed Income Supplement, an increase in Canada Pension Plan payments and the establishment of pensions for homemakers. “In several Western countries today,” he notes, “the political strategy is to coalesce the haves in order to control the have-nots. That has not been the Canadian way. We have helped build a society where access and opportunity have become more available, not less. Whatever the size of the economic pie, it must be divided fairly—not equally, but fairly.”
The book’s most radical proposal is that 100,000 unemployed 18-year-olds be paid $1,000 a month during their apprenticeships. Coutts also wants to move senior Ottawa bureaucrats into storefront offices on downtown streets, where they presumably can learn to deal with real problems instead of solving paper puzzles in Ottawa’s cement towers.
The Coutts manifesto is an important political document because it moves the Liberal party away from its current posture of trying to hold power by refining bureaucratic initiatives. This has created what Charles Abrams, the U.S. political critic, once described as “socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor”—an approach that is precisely the reverse of what Jim Coutts is prescribing for Canada.
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