Dangerous Liberals

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In Canadian politics, there is nothing more dangerous than a Liberal who thinks that he or she can't lose.

For example, in 1975, Quebec premier Robert Bourassa leads a Liberal government through a set of arrogant and highly unpopular policies. Many describe his leadership as smug, and why shouldn't he be smug? The Union Nationale is dead as a party and his strongest opposition lies in the fledgling Parti Quebecois. Quebeckers would never, ever, vote a separatist party into power, even if that party campaigned less on separatism and more on good government, would they? In 1976, PQ leader Rene Levesque was premier of Quebec, and you know what happened next.

In 1990, Ontario premier David Petersen leads his moderately popular government into an election, just three-and-a-half years after winning a substantial mandate. Ontario voters, sensing that the Liberals have something to hide, give Petersen a very sharp kick in his complacency. Ontario elects its first and only NDP government. Although I honestly think that Bob Rae was the best premier we've had in the past eighteen years, it just shows that Liberal arrogance causes big, surprising things to happen.

And today, the federal Liberal party finds itself high in the polls by default. The Canadian Alliance has doomed itself to a life as a regional party. The Conservatives are going nowhere fast and the NDP is practically irrelevant (although showing signs of a small revival). Even in Quebec, citizens are shrugging their shoulders and moving away from the Bloc Quebecois. The Liberals think they can't lose and, frankly, under current conditions, they can't.

In Canada, Liberals don't have the firmly defined principles of the NDP or the Conservatives. Where you have Red Tories and Blue Tories, with Liberals you have pragmatists to opportunists. Liberal governments in the past fifty years have adopted policies stolen from the NDP, the PCs and the Alliance, both because those policies were good for Canada, and because those policies were popular with Canadian voters. I've known several wonderful and principled Liberal politicians; from former Kitchener MP John English to former Kitchener city councillor Mike Wagner, who governed with the principle of an open mind. My current MP, Andrew Telegdi, has stood up against his own government on principle over a number of issues. Canada's best prime minister of the past fifty years, Pierre Trudeau, was obviously a man of great intelligence and vision, even if you didn't agree with him.

However, those Liberal politicians who have tended to rise to the top are those who advance policies not because they work, but because they're more likely to keep them in power. It is the governments that these politicians lead that tend to exude an atmosphere of arrogance and sometimes corruption.

Sensing their invulnerability, you can smell the rot that's seeping into the Liberal benches in Ottawa. There are grave questions over the assignment of contracts in Quebec; Defence Minister Art Eggleton is scapegoated for granting a small defence contract to a former girlfriend (tip of the iceberg, folks); there is still no independent ethics commissioner (something the Liberals promised back in 1993). A smug attitude wafts across the floor of the house as the Alliance rails helplessly against the government, knowing full well that they'll never see the other side of the house, and a good thing too.

For this reason, the open warfare that's opened up between Prime Minister Chretien and finance minister Paul Martin might be a good thing for Canadian democracy and the Liberals. Although Martin is a centre-right politician, he holds more vision than Chretien and is currently untainted by the scandals nipping at the Liberals' heels. For Canadians, Martin represents a change in this government's attitude, away from the staid managerial style, into something more forward looking. Yes, we elected that staid managerial style back in 1993, in order to give ourselves time to rest after the divisive policies of the Mulroney government, but now we're bored with it. We're waking up, and Chretien represents an era that we want to move away from. Put Martin in place, and Canadians will be happier.

More importantly, the Liberals may get their kick in their complacency, without resorting to something disastrous, like falling to the Canadian Alliance.

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