Photo: flickr/Justin Trudeau

The Liberal Party of Canada has been out of power for nine years now, since January 2006. 

That’s when a slew of Liberal scandals (“sponsorship” and the leaking of planned income trust tax provisions, to name just two) handed Stephen Harper and his new-look, hard right (no longer Progressive) Conservatives an unearned victory.

The Liberals have been through four leaders since then, counting interim leaders Bob Rae and Bill Graham, and are now on their fifth.

The party of today has, quite literally, a new generation of leadership. 

The current leader was a young scion making his way in the world, far from politics, when the scandals that brought down the Paul Martin/Jean Chrétien Liberals happened.

The current Liberal Party is running hard on that new generation image. It seems to be a compelling image to many, especially many among the young.

But the Liberals do have a record in government.

They were in power for 13 years before their defeat in 2006, and before that had been in power for the major part of the 20th century.  

It is a record one must consider.

The party may have a new-generation leader, but a lot of its key backroom folks, and some of its frontbenchers, have deep roots in the Liberal party of yore. 

The era of Liberal progressivism

In the 1960s and 1970s the Liberals led by Prime Ministers Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau were the party of the expanding welfare state. 

Universal health care, the Canada pension plan, and federal cost sharing with the provinces for social welfare and higher education are all part of the Liberal legacy of those years. 

And there was much more, including the very beginnings of formal environmental regulation. Trudeau père created the Ministry of the Environment, as he did the Canadian agency responsible for what was then called foreign aid, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).  

The Liberals implemented much of this progressive agenda with NDP support — and more often than not at the urging of the NDP.

For six out of the 11 years from 1963 to 1974 there were Liberal minority governments. And those governments, for the most part, depended on NDP support.

That was the period of Liberal progressivism. It culminated in what many now consider to be Pierre Trudeau’s most enduring accomplishment, repatriation of the Canadian constitution with a made-in-Canada amending formula and, more important, a Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The two-sided Liberals of the 1990s and 2000s

The more recent Liberals, the party of Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin, bequeathed a different sort of legacy, one that could be fairly described as two-sided.

On the one hand, there were: Chrétien’s refusal to follow the U.S. to war in Iraq; Martin’s Kelowna Accord, a deal that had First Nations, the provinces and the federal government agreeing on big reforms in First Nations governance and major investments in services to First Nations people; and Social Development Minister Ken Dryden’s successful negotiations with the provinces on the shape of a national childcare plan.

On the other, there was what many still think of as that era’s Liberals’ crowning achievement: the fierce, deficit slashing 1995 budget.

Having promised an infrastructure program to get Canada out of recession — which, in fairness, they implemented — the Chrétien-Martin Liberals, once in power, proceeded to implement a radical plan of major cuts to achieve a balanced budget in record time, and damn the torpedoes. 

The only groups who were spared sacrifice in this über-austerity exercise were upper income Canadians and corporations. There were no tax increases of any sort for them. In fact, as soon as it was feasible, those groups would see their taxes go down.

It was the poor, the sick, the young, the marginal and public servants who made virtually all the sacrifices to bring Chrétien’s and Martin’s federal budget into balance.

What is most notable about this forced dose of tough fiscal medicine is that during the run up to the 1993 election the Liberals had not promised anything of the sort. They had made a big show of releasing a highly detailed policy book in mid campaign, their famous Red Book, but the kind of stuff they did in the 1995 budget was nowhere to be found.

When challenged on that point, senior Liberals would point to a single, terse, obscure sentence in the Red Book: a commitment to keep the federal deficit to within three per cent of GDP.

The message, here, was clear. When you vote Liberal be careful to read the fine print. 

On the economy, the middle class rules

Today’s Justin Trudeau-led Liberals do not emphasize policy. They rarely mention it, in fact (except, perhaps, for the pledge to decriminalize marijuana), although there is still time. In Chrétien’s first campaign, in 1993, the party only unveiled its big policy book once the campaign was underway.

But the Trudeau Liberals have at least sketched out some general outlines of their policy orientations, and made them publicly available.

From what we can glean so far, on the economic front, the current Liberal party is concerned about rising household debt and weak income growth for middle-income families. The party’s web site makes those points graphically and effectively.

As yet, however, the party has not put out much in the way of policies to confront those evils.

Liberals promise to work with the provinces to enhance the Canada pension plan, to work to guarantee affordable childcare to all Canadians and to invest in infrastructure.

Their one very specific and concrete economic proposal is for $1,300 in Employment Insurance credits for businesses that hire new workers. They claim such a measure would create 175,000 new jobs, but do not provide evidence for that claim. 

Thin gruel on health and the environment

On health care, they’re even more vague, criticizing the Harper government’s record of (not-so-benign) neglect, but only vaguely engaging to “work with the provinces” on issues such as reducing wait times, and strengthening homecare, seniors care, mental health prevention and treatment and pharmacare. 

They are similarly thin on policy on the environment, which, tellingly, they yoke with energy.

Trudeau’s party is strangely silent, in public, on the Conservatives’ trashing of a good part of the federal government’s environmental role — much of which was a product of previous Liberal governments.

On the environment, they focus almost exclusively on pipelines, namely the Keystone XL and the Northern Gateway. In a word, they are in favour of the first (it is, they say, environmentally responsible) and against the second (it lacks social license, and would harm delicate eco-systems).

The party also tells us that Canada lags behind other G-7 countries in its investment in renewable energy, but simply leaves that fact there, offering no proposals as to what they would do. 

More detail on the ‘democracy’ agenda

It is noteworthy that the Liberal party’s most fully articulated and detailed policy proposals, to date, fall under the heading of democratic reform.

Here they are almost bold and resolute.

They propose strengthening access to information and making the process less costly, giving the federal Information Commissioner the power to compel recalcitrant government officials to release information, and opening the secretive House of Commons Board of Internal Economy.

As well, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has already pledged that unelected Senators will not sit in the Liberal party caucus. If he were to become Prime Minister, Trudeau has promised to institute a non-partisan process to select eminent and qualified Canadians to serve in the Senate, without regard for party affiliation.

The Liberal party does not make much of it these days, but its current leader has long been committed to replacing Canada’s current first-past-the-post electoral system.

When running for the leadership, Trudeau pledged to institute what is called an alternative vote (or preferential ballot) system, which would have voters rank candidates in order of preference. In this system, if no candidate gets a majority of first choices, second choices are then counted, and then, if necessary, third and fourth choices, until there is a winner.

One virtue of such a system is that it would make it impossible for a party that had a strong core of committed first choice supporters, but limited second choice support, to win a majority of seats with less than 40 per cent of the popular vote.

If that brings to mind one such party, led by a certain S.H., you’re right.

It should be encouraging to voters who consider themselves to be progressive that Trudeau appears to have invested so much energy in democratic reform matters.

If the next election produced a result that logically led to some form of coöperative government of Liberals and New Democrats, democratic reform measures might provide a starting point for the two parties’ collaboration.

The parties do not necessarily agree fully on such measures.

The New Democrats, for instance, favour a mixed member proportional electoral system, such as they have in such countries as Germany, over Trudeau’s option.

Officially, regardless of Trudeau’s leadership pledge, the Liberal Party is committed to exploring electoral reform, but not, as yet, to any particular system. It is not closed to the idea of a mixed member proportional system. 

In any case, there is enough overlap here to give the two parties a good start at working together constructively.

Trudeau is more than a celebrity, famous for being famous

As for the question of leadership style, in which the Liberals seem to put so much stock: in marketing their leader as an amiable, handsome “celebrity” with a famous name, they may, in fact, be selling him short.

This writer got to see Justin Trudeau’s serious side when he served, under Michael Ignatieff’s leadership, as the party’s Immigration Critic.

He took that role very seriously and was well acquainted with the complex details of both immigration and refugee policy.

Many MPs, and even more journalists, have a weak grasp of those issues. A great many are not even clear on the legal difference between immigrants and refugees.

Trudeau also spent a good deal of his time before entering politics working with environmental groups.

That background does not show much in current Liberal policy. One suspects the party is spooked by the thrashing the Conservatives (and many of their acolytes in the media) gave former leader Stéphane Dion over his “tax on everything” (as the Harper folks called it). Dion was, in fact, proposing a revenue neutral shift in taxation that could be characterized as a “carbon tax”.

But if Trudeau were in government one has the right to hope that a commitment to sound environmental policy and sustainable development would in some way inform Liberal policies.

It is a bit puzzling that Liberal strategists seem to want to typecast their leader as not much more than a “famous-for-being-famous” lightweight.

Some Liberal supporters this writer has spoken with are beginning to find that light-as-a-feather image to be worrisome.

Now that the election is almost imminent, can we expect to see more of Trudeau the dedicated policy wonk, and less of the celebrity poseur?

He has more policy expertise than most recognize — despite a few notorious, embarrassing misstatements — and maybe it is time to let it shine.


Karl Nerenberg will continue this multi-part series on the choices for the 2015 federal election, discussing the Greens and the New Democrats. 

For part one of this series discussing Stephen Harper and the Conservatives, click here.

For part three of this series discussing Thomas Mulcair and the NDP, click here.

For part four of this series discussing Elizabeth May and the Greens, click here.

Photo: flickr/Justin Trudeau

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...