I have long believed, and perhaps naively, that the best way to grow a political party is to constantly go out and engage the electorate. I know the value in voter identification and pulling the vote, but at some point that strategy will only yield a smaller and smaller group to call upon. When voters are treated as mere numbers, they often remove themselves from the equation altogether. As political parties increasingly target and micro-target their vote, they will capture a greater number of their supporters and get them to the polls, but there will be less of those same supporters to draw from. As the margin of victory decreases, so too does the chance of a repeat.
There was a time in Canada when conservatives were the Party of big business and wall street and the Liberals captured the rural vote. There was also a time when Liberals could count on the support of those less financially well off. Yet business, the ‘rural vote’ and low-income Canadians have increasingly moved on to other political parties and Liberals have slumped to a record low level of support. Why? The Liberal Party of Canada, over the course of the last decade, abandoned the principle of equality of opportunity it spent decades securing to our national fabric, and did so in favour of insulating the few based on solely on feel-good reasoning.
The Family Pack aka Treating Voters Like Purchasers
I do not believe for one second that one policy, one person, or one decision led to the results of the 2011 election for the Liberal Party of Canada. I do believe that straight out of the gate the Liberal Party treated policy like a commodity and the electorate like purchasers. It could be argued that all election platforms come across this way but I believe that in order to inspire you need to provide inspiration. The 2011 Liberal platform was remarkably indistinguishable from the Conservative platform, right down to lacking any grand vision for this beautiful country we call Canada.
What it lacked in particular was any dedication to equality of opportunity, the heart of the Liberal tradition in Canada, and the legacy of Pearson in particular. Equality of opportunity means resetting the starting point but putting no limit, no ceiling on one’s potential once started. It is not equality of result but an equal shot at that result in a world otherwise determined by uncontrolled circumstance. It is the belief that the only barriers to the success of an individual is themselves.
It does not always work out that way and equality of opportunity is better viewed as a philosophy to strive for than a reality easily achieved. Still, the point remains that it must be strived for.
Rather than take up this challenge, the Liberal Party merely listed off the sins of their opposition and replied with the Family Pack.
The details of this plan can still be found here but the ultimate take away was truly beneficial programs for any family that wanted them (more or less). My issue was never with what was being offered, which were all worthwhile programs. My problem was the same as it always is with governance policies that treat everyone the same regardless of their circumstances: not everyone has the same needs, at the same level, or even in the same way. Just because you’re a family doesn’t mean you have the same needs as other families. Families are as unique as individuals. And spreading funding and/or programming equally across families or individuals regardless of their circumstances or needs is poor policy making. It results in an inefficient governance system that ultimately under serves those in the most need to satisfy specific groups of targeted voters.
The clear target of the Liberal Party was middle-income Canadians, specifically those in the sandwich generation, some of which who could really use support from their government. But simply falling into a policy demographic, caring for elderly parents and having children still in school, does not in itself mean someone requires support from the government. The individual circumstances of Canadians in this group and all others varies greatly from person to person. Policy that does not recognize that fact over serves some at the expense of others. Equal treatment of unequal people is not equality.
The Learning Passport was a great example of a decent idea that missed the point. Yes, education costs are rising and yes, bursaries rather than increased loan ceilings are definitely the way to go. Freezing tuition only means larger increases later as the cost of education, like everything else, will continue to rise. The Learning Passport checked all of these boxes. But what at first seems like a fair deal for all students (and their families), would have taken funding that could have been allocated to those students who needed greater financial support to attend post-secondary, and instead allocated it to other students regardless of their ability to pay. Michael Ignatieff repeatedly stated during the campaign that if ‘you get the grades, you get to go’ to a post-secondary institution. But this is a promise easier kept if funding is secured for those in actual need of the support, rather than anyone with an interest in attending. The opportunity of some would-be students should never come second to the privilege of others. Equality of opportunity demands that a truly Liberal post-secondary education policy close the gap in the opportunity of our nation’s students, not continue a disadvantage beyond their control.
Widening Our Scope
The so-called middle class does not have it easy and is increasingly less comfortable in Canada today. The sandwich generation, a subset of this group and a group which most political policy decisions appear to revolve around, have great challenges facing them in today’s society. But they are not the only people in Canada. In order to widen the scope of the Party again, I believe there are three broad voting blocks (if they can be generalized so grossly as to be called that) the Liberal Party needs to reach out and engage with in order to earn governance once more. I believe we have a natural affinity with each of these groups and should engage rather than continue to overlook this fact in favour of a narrow focus on a specific group of Canadians.
Business Canada – Our Competitive Advantage
It was not that long ago that Liberals dominated the economic debate in this country yet we have completely ceded ground to a governing party whose record on this file fails to inspire any kind of confidence unless compared to economies crashing around the world. And even then, it is the sound foundation that the Liberal Party built that has largely seen us through the same dark financial times. Strong economic policy and a healthy business environment can once again be the hallmark of the Liberal Party.
This may seem like an odd choice for spreading the philosophy of equality of opportunity across Canada but there is an argument to be made here. Business has long been attracted to Canada because of competitive tax rates and generous social services that put less onus on business to provide those things for their employees since the government already provides them to its citizens. But since the Conservative government took office we have seen corporate tax rates plummet to levels that aren’t required to keep Canada competitive to new business. Our corporate taxes are low simply for the sake of being low rather than having proven connection to increased business.
We have also seen a lack of vision in the future of our healthcare system which provides greater risk to businesses. They have previously been able to rely on doing business in a country with a strong social safety net. Corporate tax reductions added billions to Canada’s deficit and inhibits our ability to secure the fiscal future of our healthcare system. Deficits, unecessarily low taxes, and a declining social safety net are all negatives for business expansion in Canada.
There is probably no business out there that doesn’t want a competitive advantage but in Canada that advantage has always been our people and how we support them as a country. I can’t imagine a business wishing to be put at a disadvantage and the disastrous economic policies of Flaherty and Harper are increasingly doing just that.
I recently attended a pub night featuring a discussion on democratic reform led by Stephane Dion. After the discussion, I spoke with Gerard Kennedy about the importance of rural ridings and how Liberal values are not diametrically opposed to those of Canadians living in rural communities across this country. I came away believing more and more that this was true, that rural Canadians (and all Canadians for that matter), just want a fair shot at a good life that they can be proud to live. A life where the disadvantages they might begin with have no bearing on where they might end up in life. I have come to increasingly believe that the same values of community togetherness and individual freedom so alive in the Liberal Party are on full display everyday in rural communities across Canada. Close-knit communities that understand the importance of looking out for one another while still having the freedom and responsibility to make of life what one can. I cannot think of values that are more Liberal and it is time the Party recognized this in rural Canadians rather than writing them off before the writ has even dropped.
While much political discussion is focused on the increasingly squeezed middle class, low-income Canadians have been more or less forgotten by the current Conservative government. In 2008 the Liberal Party made a bold campaign promise about substantially reducing child poverty in Canada. This fell off the radar in 2011 when a simple affordable child care promise was recycled from Liberal platforms from the 1990s. I may be mistaken but I can’t recall much else in the platform geared to those struggling the most to make ends meet or for who programs like affordable child care would help most. At the same time, I don’t recall this promise being geared to those most in need but merely those in need of spaces in general.
The town I grew up in has gone back and forth between Liberals and Conservatives over the last few decades but has been blue for the last two elections. The NDP, even with a slight surge in 2011, has never been in a factor in the riding and it has always been a two-horse race. However, there is one interesting poll in the entire riding that echoes a strange split that occurs across the country. That poll splits into thirds with more or less equal support between all three major parties. However, this is the only poll where Liberals come in third. This is also a poll in one of the lowest-income areas of the town and from my time at the door I have come to notice that voters in that poll support the Conservatives and the NDP for (confusingly) similar reasons. They support Conservatives because they believe that party will allow them to keep more of their hard earned money and not tax it away from them. Others support the NDP because they believe that through taxes that party will ensure a safety net and fill the holes their income just can’t.
It is in this divide that I believe the Liberal Party can step into and clearly be the best choice for those struggling the most in our society. Conservatives tend to believe in circumstance as fairness and the NDP believes in equality of result regardless of personal actions. The Liberal Party instead believes in the kind of equality of opportunity that offers a hand up when necessary and keeps hands off where involvement would create barriers to the greater well-being of Canadians.
I believe the Liberal Party can do more for low-income Canadians by removing circumstantial barriers to their financial success and providing them with the tools to succeed in ways they might have never imagined.
The Liberal Way: Equality of Opportunity
Canadians are already living the values we have traditionally shared as a Party: caring for one another while simultaneously endeavouring to live up to our own individual potential. We live in a country where we believe the circumstances of one’s birth should have no bearing on what that person will achieve in life. It is what Canadians – Indigenous peoples, landed-immigrants, and descendent of immigrants – have been doing on our soil for hundreds of years. Ours is the story of a collective belief in progress and working together to be the best version of ourselves as individuals and as a country. The Liberal Party did not bring this philosophy to Canada, Canadians brought it to the Liberal Party. And those same Canadians still espouse it today. If we as a Party return to those values, Canadians will return to us.