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Liberalism of Conviction and of Convenience
10 November 2011, 21h15 EST (GMT-5)

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Until recently, the Liberal Party of Canada was arguably the most successful political party in the democratic world. Needless to say, the world has changed for the Party. My most recent broadcast essay for TVOntario's The Agenda with Steve Paikin examines how the Party that once bestrode the nation like a colossus came to this pass, and what the future might hold. The broadcast is available via streaming video through my YouTube Channel and via podcast through iTunes, as well as directly above. My original text is below.

* * *

Until its defeat in 2006, the Liberal Party of Canada had been in government for 71 of the previous 100 years: longer than the PRI of Mexico, longer than the Maoists of China, longer indeed than virtually any party, of any country, on any continent, under any system of government.

How the mighty have fallen.

Perversely yet predictably, the Liberal Party became a victim of its own success. Its long association with government made the party a magnet for individuals drawn to power rather than to public service, a tool of Liberals of convenience rather than Liberals of conviction. After its catastrophe in the General Election, the question confronting the party is not whether it can rebuild its fabled political machine into one capable of waging an effective campaign; it is whether it can rediscover its ideals and return a party deserving of our country's trust.

If it is to have any hope of doing so, it will need to find the courage to resist the lure of comforting self-deceptions and easy answers.

Its decline at the polls has not been due to some lapse in judgment by a rueful electorate that yearns to repent at the next election. It has not been a want of resources that can be remedied by bagmen or ward heelers. It has not been the absence of an imagined messianic leader whose charisma could substitute for policy or grassroots renewal. The Liberal Party instead received a calculated rebuke from Canadians against the hubris they saw gnawing at it.

The irony is that the tenets of liberalism remain as resonant with Canadians today as during the Liberal Party’s salad days. It is why in an effort to capitalise on its electoral successes, the NDP is debating stripping the word “Socialist” from its constitution; it is why the Conservative Party leader describes himself as a “Classical Liberal”.

The ideals of liberalism are founded upon a single article of faith: that liberty is the highest political good, and that as a result, the first duty of government is to seek the greatest liberty for the one that is compatible with liberty for all.

It holds that every right is balanced by a corresponding responsibility.

It believes in the equal dignity of all citizens and in equality of opportunity, but it rejects equality of outcome, insisting instead that people of unequal talent and industry should reap as they sow.

It celebrates individual initiative and looks towards a vision of society as a meritocracy, and expects those who benefit the most from society to bear the greatest responsibility to society.

Ultimately, liberalism holds that a nation is bound together by a social contract, because the interests of each individual are inextricably linked to the well being of every other member of society, making prosperity and social justice inseparable.

The 20th century began as the age of the dictator. It ended with liberalism having come of age as the ascendant political philosophy across the world. Yet liberal parties everywhere are in crisis. Can they grow with the success of liberalism, or have they been outgrown by the success of their own political philosophy?

The Liberal Party of Canada has four years to decide.


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