Is the Liberal Party still liberal?

justin trudeau liberal

As the 2015 federal campaign is gearing up, one question may be on many a progressive Canadian’s mind: who is the best option in the federal arena to turn things around? Who will be able to – after nine horrid years of “wild wild west” conservatism – give progressive Canadians a voice in the government?

Many see Justin Trudeau as young and charismatic, someone that would be a break with the past. He is seen as a figure who would be able to rally like-minded Canadians from coast to coast to coast and finally defeat the Conservatives after three successive failures. But if he were to win, the status quo would win as well.

Trudeaumania, as coined by political pundits, is back again after the election that put Trudeau at the helm of the Liberal Party of Canada. Trudeaumania, as any mania, is based purely on a sensation – the sensation of a nostalgic past when Trudeau Senior was the Prime Minister.

In many ways Canadians can identify with the bygone era when Pierre Elliott Trudeau was in power. Some may be thinking that those were the days when Canada was really great and that this nation held an important position in an international political setting. But, in many ways, the Trudeau era was far from perfect.

Trudeaumania the first time around (image: Duncan Cameron/Library and Archives Canada)
Trudeaumania in 1968 (image: Duncan Cameron/Library and Archives Canada)

We must not forget that Quebeckers from all walks of life were striped of their rights and thrown into prison, that the civil rights of the people of Quebec were sacrificed on the altar in the name of “national unity.” During the Trudeau era, this nation saw the implementation of the War Measures Act, and a massive violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, that was implemented by Trudeau himself.

Not unlike the reverence many Americans have for the Kennedy era, Trudeaumania is a misplaced Canadian longing for a bygone era in which Canada had as its head of state an inspirational and progressive leader on the world stage. Once you scrape away the surface of the myth, the mania around continuing a Trudeau lineage in office comes off disingenuous, based on false pretences.

In the 1972 federal election, P.E. Trudeau was handed a slim minority and had to work with a new political landscape in Ottawa, thus implementing many of the New Democratic Party (NDP) measures such as the creation of Petro-Canada. The progressive era of P.E.Trudeau was more so a product of intelligent political maneuvering than a true affection for the ideals of social democracy.

One thing to be said about P.E.Trudeau is that he possessed political courage on many issues, the main one being the National Energy Program. The National Energy Program would be his Waterloo and the Waterloo of the Liberal Party in the Canadian West. No matter how unpopular it may have been, P.E.Trudeau fought tooth and nail for the project, and unfortunately for him, the main benefactor would end up being a future Prime Minister of the Progressive Conservative Party Brian Mulroney.

Since 2004, the Liberal Party of Canada has been heading down a slippery slope. Canadians in recent polls (Ipsos-Reid poll conducted from the 16th-20th of October) have said that they know very well what issues are the backbone of the NDP and the Conservative Party, but have trouble figuring out what the Liberal Party stands for. I believe there is a quite evident correlation between the adoption of the Chicago School of Economics 101 (Neoliberalism as described by Milton Friedman professor at the University of Chicago) by the Liberal Party of Canada and their loss of relevance within the arena of Canadian politics.

trudeau washington keystone
Justin Trudeau in Washington, DC to help Harper promote the Keystone XL pipeline (image Susan Moss, AP)

More recently Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and his caucus might be firing shots left, right and centre during question period but when the time comes to vote, the Liberal caucus, on numerous occasions, have sided with the Conservatives. On the issue of the exploitation of tar sands and the building of pipelines, he offered to team up with Harper and head to Washington D.C. to help lobby for the Keystone XL Pipeline. When the National Energy Program – one of the pillars of his father’s legacy – was brought up at a press conference in Alberta, he shutdown the conversation by saying that he was flat out against it, end of story.

Justin Trudeau speaks widely of the need to reform and rejuvenate Canadian democracy and yet has voted time after time for the status quo in the Senate. And when it comes to free trade deals that serve the interest of multinationals rather than Canadian citizens, he has sided with the donors with the deepest pockets.

Would P.E.Trudeau be a member of the Liberal Party of Canada if he were alive today? I think not.

Maybe, after all, the Liberal Party of Canada, is…liberal. As Domenico Lusurdo explains in Liberalism: A counter-history, the “ideology” of liberalism born in the 18th century, was from it’s conception a flawed idea. It defended the equal rights of men and yet under the premises of civilization enabled the enslavement of millions of others throughout the globe. The rhetoric of liberalism and the practice of liberalism don’t match, they are antithetical. In this sense, the gulf between Trudeaumania and the aspirations and the hopes of many Canadians have put in Justin Trudeau and the real content of his message is a gap that cannot be bridged.

As Losurdo explains, liberalism has always been a fluid ideology capable of being everything while keeping the reins of power in the hands of the elite. Thus, the Liberal Party of Canada has become a machine built to keep and gain power and, without knowing, many wishful thinking liberals are maintaining the status-quo.

The political landscape in Canada has shifted under Harper, shifting Canadian political discourse toward the right. In this new politically polarized landscape, the Liberals offer no new alternative to the neoliberal Harperite vision of society. Unlike the Conservative Party and New Democratic Party, the Liberal Party of Canada offers no vision for the future of Canadian society, this is why the Liberal Party has lost its dominant place within the Canadian political spectrum and now should be relegated to the wishful shores of nostalgia.

* Top image: Justin Trudeau via Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

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