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Rocks in the Liberal road

The first time I heard Bob Rae speak was at a breakfast meeting of the Board of Trade in Toronto where he discussed a new federal budget — back about 1988. He was the leader of the Ontario NDP at the time. His critique was rational, reasonable, and surprisingly non-partisan. Later that day, I heard him on the radio blasting the Peterson Liberal government — shrill, filled with invective, harshly political. I had heard twp Bob Raes that day.

Now that he is the interim leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, I’m wondering whether a third Bob Rae is not emerging: seasoned, sensible, committed to values more than to strategy, a voice that can talk sense to the party’s inner core and motivate the grassroots to assert themselves in ways that’s never happened before.

There are bound to be a lot of rocks ahead on the Liberal road, and we can expect a few stumbles. I talk about some of these in the new e-edition of my book, Turning Points: the Campaigns That Changed Canada. This book was originally published in 2004. I’ve updated it with a fresh chapter 1 on the 2011 election. It’s available online ($9.95), here, and here. I’ll give you a preview of some of what I have to say about the Liberal party:

“If wisdom prevails – a not always certain assumption in politics – the Liberal party will focus neither on leadership nor on winning the next election, but instead will search for ways to build a new
kind of party, infuse it with the energy of the grassroots that has never been deployed, and address issues that matter to Canadians from a long-term, non-ideological perspective. This would mean
a long period of soul-searching and investigation to identify policies that are needed to strengthen Canada in the coming century, not necessarily calculated to produce victory at the next election.
The greatest challenge facing Canada will be to equip the population with the skills to lead successful lives in an increasingly technological society. This will require ideas that go far beyond giving
students a few thousand dollars to help pay their post-secondary tuition.

“The second great challenge will be to achieve transition to an economy that is less reliant on fossil fuels, a course that will be fraught with frustration when the inefficiencies of wind and solar power
become more apparent. Social and health issues will become increasingly important, with one of the most urgent needs being to develop an alternative to the failed “war on drugs,” something likely
to be found only by harnessing the resources of the healthcare system in place of reliance on police and prisons. More meaningful roles for parliamentarians have to be found, the power of the
Prime Minister’s office needs to be curbed, and consideration must be given to further democratization of political life, perhaps through such new ideas as turning the office of the Governor
General into an elective, presidential type of position. More of the elements of federal governance need to be located in Western Canada in recognition of that region’s growing importance. Why
couldn’t Parliament meet on occasion in a Western city?

” Canada’s foreign policy needs to be carefully orchestrated toward the encouragement of democracy and human rights in ways that do not
require commitment to Afghanistan and Libya-type military operations. Our relationship with the United States will test future Canadian governments if we are to retain national self-respect and
self-determination. All these issues need to be studied by experts and discussed by the Canadian people, and the Liberal party should play a leadership role in seeing tthis happen.

“In 1992, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama published The End of History and the Last Man. His book asserted that the world had passed through not just a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such; the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government. In a similar manner, the decade marked the Liberal Party of Canada’s own “end of history” – the end of a long period of nation building in which Liberal governments transformed Canada into a modern welfare state, with a modern constitution and charter of rights, a strengthened federal system with protections against secession, and the birth of a multicultural society that despite inherent problems has become a model for the world. Having reached these goals and having tested the limits of affordability of the social safety net, the Liberal party reverted to a short-term policy of brutal fiscal management – as it had to – but in the process lost its sense of national purpose and any claim to a common vision. Now Liberals must find a way to rediscover the energy to deliver new solutions to new problems, if they are to make history again.”

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