While the daily infighting of the Commons grabs the headlines, behind the scenes Canada’s political parties are desperately seeking winning formulas for the next election campaign. Unlike the backroom strategists of the Tories and the NDP, who keep that fractious process away from public scrutiny, Liberal delegates last week openly argued with experts on the details of the party’s 1988 electoral platform during their third and final “Canada Conference.” The Vancouver meeting demonstrated both a rebirth of reform thought within Canada’s “government party” and the widening differences of internal opinion that threaten to keep the Grits away from the Treasury Benches for another generation. Most of all, the meeting dramatically documented the fact that John Turner has abandoned what has traditionally been his party’s winning posture: championing a loose ideology best described as “sedate populism,” which has allowed the Liberals to strike the most marketable balance between elitism and egalitarianism.
The Liberal party under Turner has instead moved far to the left and, in some policy areas, far past the NDP. In the process, its membership has been divided into warring factions that can agree on very little—except that they want to be back in power. One problem is that Turner is regarded as having compromised his position on the Meech Lake accord by making a deal with his Quebec lieutenant, Raymond Garneau, not to oppose it, even at the risk of losing such MPs as Don Johnston. At the same time, the Liberal leader is rumored to have negotiated a private compromise on free trade with his western lieutenant, Lloyd Axworthy, to fight it all the way—in return for the MP’s support on Meech Lake.
Senator Jack Austin, who was in charge of organizing the three Canada conferences, told me: “The Liberals lost their internal capacity to develop their own policies because long periods in power substituted the public service in the policymaking function. The party sees itself as a reform movement and, in fact, the Liberals at the 1960 Kingston conference were equally radical. If you are now reaching for policies that will be viable in the mid-1990s, you have to be a bit unconventional. But we’re certainly not trying to outleft the NDP.”
Austin pointed out that the NDP has moved toward the political centre quite dramatically: “Its appetite for power has made it very pragmatic and silent about the issues that divide it, such as Canada’s membership in NORAD and NATO. While they’re anti-free trade, they’re trying to build themselves up in Quebec, which clearly supports the move—so they keep trying to move to the centre of the political spectrum without abandoning their roots.”
Despite Austin’s insistence that his party supports free trade—but only in its gradual, sectoral mode, because that way the sovereignty risks are reduced—the issue is splitting the party almost as deeply as Meech Lake. Paul Martin Jr., the most talented of the party’s prospective candidates, has clearly split with his leader on the issue, as has Joel Bell, former president of the Canada Development Investment Corp. who is emerging as one of the party’s more articulate gurus. The
business community’s opposition to Turner’s intention of tearing up the free trade deal is expressing itself most clearly in its reluctance to finance a Liberal comeback. Not only is the party $4.7 million in debt, but its campaign is budgeted at $10 million, and at the moment there seems to be no way to pay for John Turner’s airplane, even if he saves up his mileage points.
Similarly, the Liberals have backed off taking any sensible position on national defence. Except for its inconsistent policy of withdrawing from NATO, the NDP’S policy on defence is a wellthought-out alternative to the Tory white paper. The Liberals oppose the purchase of nuclear-powered submarines and want to enforce Arctic sovereignty strictly by legal, instead of military, means.
Probably the most useful election plank that has emerged from the three Liberal conferences is a paper on full employment by Tim Reid, a former Ottawa mandarin who heads the School of Business at Toronto’s Ryerson Polytechnical Institute. He advocates a radical new approach that would depend on selective, interventionist measures to break the supply shortages that are limiting economic growth and shift the labor force into “knowledge workers,” creating, as a result, preferential opportunities for the talented children of the poor. That would be achieved by creating a new-style economic climate in which job-creating growth can be stimulated, so that the underemployed aren’t merely the passive recipients of possible job vacancies.
Those good ideas need a lot of thought and refining before they can become effective election planks. But the Liberal party’s most urgent obligation is to define its governing ideology so that it can present itself as an alternative government. Maybe that’s too much to ask. Jack Pickersgill, the ancient Liberal war-horse who knows all the tricks of the political trade, once explained the party differences to me by pointing out that “the real Tory believes he has a hereditary right to govern; the real socialist thinks the virtuous should govern; while the real Liberal believes everybody who isn’t in jail has an equal right in governing the country.”
In terms of what’s happening in Ottawa these days, that may turn out to be enough of a qualification.
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