It has only taken them seven years but it looks like the Liberals have just clued in to why they keep losing. Mr. Trudeau, in particular, has made a statement of intent about what a party under his leadership will look like.
Opinion polls may suggest a majority of Canadians are opposed to deals like CNOOC’s purchase of Nexen but if that vote is split four ways, the Conservatives win. The gamble appears to be that by the election in 2015, enough centre-right voters will have been turned off by nine years of Mr. Harper to give the Liberals a chance to present themselves as the acceptable, progressive face of fiscal conservatism – or, more accurately, the conservative face of progressivism.
So how's that incrementalism working out?
Having spent a decade inching steadily to the Center the Tories, thanks to their reckless fiscal policies, are slipping to the Left of the Liberal Party. Think 2015 Grit Ad Campaign. Split screen. On one side Paul Martin and a graphic showing how he tamed the deficit. On the other side of the screen show Jim Flaherty and how he increased the deficit. Who's conservative now? Sure Paul Martin was aided and abetted by the GST, downloading and falling interest rates, but that's details stuff. It doesn't sound bite well.
To some this gives hope that actual conservatism might be alive and well in Canadian politics. Even if it is in the Liberal Party. Don't be too hopeful. I know things are tough right now, but there is an iron law of Canadian politics that must always be remembered: Never Trust the Liberal Party.
This isn't partisanship, I'm not that fond of the Harper Tories, it's history. The relative fiscal prudence of the Chretien- Martin was driven by necessity not principle. Global capital markets were looking wearily at Canada's balance sheets and beginning to take a pass. The Reform Party was threatening Chretien's Right flank in Ontario. The 1990s also saw Roy Romanow's NDP in Saskatchewan balance that province's budget. Roy and Paul did what they did because they had to, not because they wanted to.
Fiscal necessity can compel even the most bleeding of bleeding heart leftists to become Scrooge like. The most prosperous of times can turn even right-wing ideologies into spendthrifts. Politics is the art of the possible, it is also the art of the necessary. People like free stuff. People also don't living in a country that's going broke. When you get into the latter position then the default urge for free stuff is reduced. The electorate understands that cuts are needed. But when the boom times return, they want more free stuff again.
Faced with penury the 1990s-era Liberals leaned Right on fiscal policy, though otherwise carried on with maintaining the essentials of the Trudeaupian project. Faced with years of steady surpluses the Harper Tories decided to spend. Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow you may be defeated. Every Conservative politician knows that much of the electorate regards them as tight-fisted misers. The historical record is actually quite different. Federally the Tories have traditionally been horrible managers of the public fisc. But politics is about impressions, so to counteract the miser image they spend and spend.
I doubt this does much to make the Conservatives seem more lovable, but Tory politicians insist on leaning Left in fiscal matters to assuage public perceptions and public greed. The perception of the Liberal Party, born during the Trudeau years, is of a party spendthrifts with their hearts mostly in the right place. It is a truism oft repeated in the 1990s that will be repeated again in the years ahead: When Paul Martin cut he was praised as a statesman. When Mike Harris cut he was denounced as a monster.
Having sat in Mike the Knife's cabinet I'm sure Jim Flaherty has fond memories of those years. There was a time you couldn't swing a golf club on the front lawn of Queen's Park without hitting a protester. Such things wear away at even the toughest of political souls. Besides, Jimmy can be pretty darn reckless between here and 2015 and still look like Margaret Thatcher compared to the mess going on to the South. In a weird though important way, Barack Obama is Jim Flaherty's best friend.
Martha is promising to dismantle supply management. Justin is talking about legalizing marijuana. Over the next six months the Liberal leadership candidates will promise and say many things to many different people. Not much of it will actually end up in the party platform. In the unlikely event that the Grits regain power in 2015 or 2019, don't expect too many of these ideas to be implemented. Many of these ideas were also mused in Papa Jean's last days. They did not come to pass.
Beware the Liberal Party of Canada. They are pragmatists down to their bone. For decades they campaigned to the Left and governed from the Center. Now in third place they're campaigning from the Right and might, if we're lucky, govern from the Center. Given all those NDP voters in Quebec there will always be the temptation to engaged in some old fashioned Quebecois vote buying. The party has no based and no principles. It is power for the sake of power.
Believe nothing they say. A good rule for most politicians, it applies doubly so to the Grits.
If you're looking for conservatives in Canadian politics, look in the Conservative Party. Deep, deep in the Conservative Party. They're in a locked room, bound and gagged. Our goal should be to unlock the door, not to chase Liberal mirages.