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Andrew Coyne speaks to the Liberal Party, but will they listen?

April 7, 2010

I’m just growing more and more fond of Andrew Coyne as time goes on.  Maybe I’m getting older and more conservative, or maybe he’s getting less so.  Or just maybe, the old templates of “conservative” and “liberal” aren’t nearly as useful as they once seemed to be.  That is essentially the point of Coyne fantastic article which could be titled “The Rise and Fall of the Liberal Empire…And how they can reinvent themselves.”

You simply have to read it. Its long but its worth it, mostly because of his concluding list (on page 5) of things the Liberals could do to reinvent itself and distinguish itself to the electorate by being relevant again (SPOILER ALERT). Essentially, they can become:

  1. The party of democratic reform. How we nominate candidates, how we choose leaders, how we elect members, how Parliament functions—there’s clearly lots of work to do here. This used to be a Conservative issue. Today, not so much.
  2. The party of individual rights. In 2006, Paul Martin proposed removing the notwithstanding clause from the Constitution. Less ambitiously, Liberals could propose shoring up our national commitment to freedom of expression, by abolishing the ban on hate speech (the “incitement to violence” provision is surely enough) and clipping the human rights commissions’ wings.
  3. The party of consumers. Every economist will tell you: protectionism is a conspiracy against consumers, notably our egregious tariffs on agricultural imports. More competition, domestic or foreign, is the best way to bring prices down, and productivity up.
  4. The party of taxpayers. Former Liberal MP Dennis Mills used to campaign vigorously for the flat tax, complete with postcard-sized tax form. A corollary would be reform of EI and social assistance, along the lines recommended by the impeccably Liberal Macdonald commission: a simplified, streamlined universal income guarantee.
  5. The party of pensioners. The Quebec Caisse de dépôt’s ill-fated plunge into asset-backed commercial paper shows the perils of trusting everyone’s pension savings to one big investment fund. Why wait for some similar misfortune to overtake the CPP? Liberals are talking now of adding a supplementary individual savings plan on top of the CPP, as a way of addressing pension shortfalls. Why not reverse-engineer the CPP on the same lines, breaking it up into individually owned plans?
  6. The party of the environment. Yes, that means a carbon tax. It’s a good idea, the only way Canada is ever going to come close to meeting its carbon emissions targets, and everyone knows it. Was it the carbon tax, as myth holds, that doomed the Liberals in the last election? Or was it because it was poorly designed and poorly presented? A better plan, better presented—a real “tax shift,” as implemented by Gordon Campbell’s Liberal government in B.C.—might be a winner.

If you are a regular reader of PopTheStack you can probably guess which two approach I think the Liberals should follow, yep, 1 and 6.  I like that he lists becoming the party of democratic reform as number one. As I’ve said before (nya and nya), I think it is truly the most bold option open to them and one that could ignite the electorate if done right.  The advantage of this is that its something people in the West and Ontario could get excited about.  I’m glad Andrew agrees. But from discussions I’ve had with Liberal Party members they have a very skewed and flat view of what reform means, they think Senate reform is all about Tripe-E and they think any electoral reform other than Alternative Voting is fatally flawed.  They aren’t at the point where they can propose such a re-imaging of their party and if Ignatieff did, I think many party insiders would rebel against such an idea as treason against Liberal values (which they can’t define).

But you know, I could be wrong, often am. Maybe they’ll all read Coyne’s article and go, oh yeah, THAT’s what we should do! I’m thinking not. Prove me wrong Liberal Party…please.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 7, 2010 2:19 pm

    Good summary, I’ve lived in Canada two years now and am continually surprised by the sheer ineptness of the Liberal party. They could take a stand on any number of issues and win. Yet they continue to believe that they can win without taking a stand.

    But it appears that in the guise of concern trolling for the Liberals, Andrew Coyne presents items on his agenda that don’t really have any real policy benefits, but suit conservative frames. Note that none of these prescriptions involve the Liberals going left to slough off some NDP votes. Canada’s politics are shifting rightward every day, thanks to relentless and regressive tax cuts, the predominance of conservative thought in the media (I don’t mean party speak, but strong defence of the status quo, kow towing to business friendly frames of reference, a reluctance to take risks, or take a stand) and other influences.

    I am with you on 1 and 6, but the rest are mostly nonsense.

    Item 2) Hate Speech – Any evidence that the current laws impede dialogue, or are even on the top 10 of voter’s concerns? No! Railing against “hate speech” laws is an easy way to for the majority White establishment to continue the status quo. Even the US has hate speech provisions, which the right are constantly trying to abolish, who is this going to persuade?

    3) I am all for increased competition, please, someone knock our oligopolistic cellphone companies off their perch! But only with strenuous fair trade and environmental safeguards in place.

    4) Flat Tax: The complexity of your tax form has nothing to do with the marginal tax rates, after all, that is easily taken care of by a computer. The real complexity comes from the various deductions, tax exemptions, tax shelters, etc, which well connected people can use more easily than poor/middle class people. The flat tax argument is a red herring, designed to draw attention away from the increasing regressiveness of the tax system.

    5) Adding supplementals to the CPP is a good idea, breaking it up into individual plans is a terrible idea, you lose economies of scale, you end up with people having to worry about one more investment decision, and as we all know, most people (me included) make poor investment decisions. Cite one example of institution failure and I will cite 100s of examples of individual failure bankrupting them. What happens, then. I would vote for a defined minimum, along with a supplemental plan.

    The carbon tax is good policy, and has to be implemented, either as a tax/dividend, or a cap and trade (I summarized an excellent article on climate economics today on my blog), but only if implemented in a way that reduces the regressivity of the tax system. Any consumption tax will affect poor people regressively compared to better off. So safeguards need to be in place to help the not so well off. There is so much room for the Liberals to go left on this, leaving the NDP with no room to criticize, and to gain the mantle of the environmental party.

    All in all, personalities matter as well, and Ignatieff lost a great opportunity to define himself as someone who can lead. I don’t see the liberals getting anything other than a weak minority government (which they’d take) with him around. It will depend mostly on the economy, especially if our red hot housing market gets hit at some point in time.

  2. April 7, 2010 2:59 pm

    I completely agree with you oliver, I just repasted his six points as is, but clearly 1 and 6 are the most urgent and centrist. I led off saying I’m warming up to Coyne for exactly the reason you are describing. You see, in the days before Stephen Harper’s Unified version of Preston Manning’s Reform Party, we had another conservative party which was actually called the Progressive Conservative party. Andrew Coyne is firmly a PC kind of guy which leaves him these days with no choice except to rail against the decidely Non-Progressive Conservative party of today and moan about how the Liberals wouldn’t really be all that bad if they just shifted a bit to the right.

    I’m firmly centre left myself, as far as that means anything, but I’d rather a Liberal party along the old PC lines as minority or even majority any day over a majority of the bubbling cauldron of emotion and irrationality that is the current Conservative Party of Canada.

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