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Reports of the Liberal Party's Death Had Been Greatly Exaggerated

04/04/2013 05:22 EDT | Updated 06/04/2013 05:12 EDT
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What follows is the second installment in a three-part series by Liberal leader Bob Rae on the resilience of liberalism. Read part one here.

William Lyon Mackenzie King understood a few key things: power mattered, the strength of the Liberal Party depended on its capacity to hold the country together (he steered the country through a second conscription crisis in 1944), and the rise of a socialist party to his left required the Liberal Party to become the champions of a welfare state.

He had his fierce critics -- to his right and his left -- and his personal eccentricities are now the matter of legend, but King had a keen sense of the need for a strong economy, a well-managed public purse, and for the government to do more to help people cope with the vagaries of industrial capitalism. His successor Louis St Laurent built firmly on this foundation as Canada emerged from the Second World War at once more prosperous, more determined to take its place on the world stage, and ready to recognize the need for more universal social insurance.

Canada's rise as a middle power and influential diplomatic player is best symbolised by a historic vote at the United Nations General Assembly on November 7, 1956. On that day the UN decided to create an emergency force to supervise the withdrawal of Israeli, British and French troops from Egyptian territory and to ensure the maintenance of a ceasefire agreement that would last for eleven years. UNEF, as it was called, soon became known as "the blue berets" -- soldiers working under the flag not of their own country, but of the United Nations itself.

The Canadian diplomat and politician front and centre on this day in New York was Lester Pearson, a man whose intelligence, charm and personal skills put together a resolution of this Suez conflict that was threatening the peace of the region and the world. As Pearson told the General Assembly, "we need action not only to end the fighting but to make the peace." His personal contribution would receive its due recognition when Pearson won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957, the first and only Canadian to be personally recognized in this way.

One man whose role in the response to the Suez invasion has been underrated is Louis St-Laurent, the Canadian prime minister. He was outraged at what he saw as an act of deep folly and illegality, and encouraged Pearson to do everything possible to avert a deeper crisis. Canada's foreign minister was uniquely placed to do just that. Widely respected in Washington and London, Pearson was equally well known in the corridors of the United Nations. He had been elected President of the General Assembly in 1952, and his breezy and avuncular style made him well-liked among delegations from many countries. His own personal experiences in the First World War had forged a deep opposition to armed conflict, and this was re-enforced by his diplomatic work in the second great conflict. He was ably assisted by a group of young Canadians who themselves were "present at the creation" of the new world order after 1945 and saw the Department of External Affairs as the best place to express their commitment to a world governed by rules.

In his famous speech at Fulton, Missouri, in 1946, Winston Churchill emphasized that in order to police the conflicts that would inevitably emerge in the years ahead, the UN itself needed a fighting force, stating that "courts and magistrates may be set up but they cannot function without sheriffs and constables." The Korean conflict had seen the UN directly involved in defence of the sovereignty of South Korea. Pearson shrewdly saw the idea of a peacekeeping force as accomplishing two objectives -- building the credibility of the UN and getting the Suez invaders off the hook.

And so the baby was born, the subject of many compromises and re-drafts, imperfect but still a proud moment for Mike Pearson and for Canada. When the General Assembly passed the resolution that established the UN Emergency Force on November 7, 1956, the delegates surrounded the Canadian desk in the forum, offering congratulations to Pearson and his team. Canada has been at the centre of the action: constructive, engaged, and effective.

Pearson's receiving of the Nobel Prize was followed by St-Laurent's decision to seek re-election in 1957, and what had seemed like a foregone conclusion (the budget was in surplus, the economy seemed strong) in fact led to a minority government led by John Diefenbaker. Pearson succeeded St-Laurent, and Diefenbaker swept to power in the biggest landslide in Canadian history in 1958.

As in 1917, and again 1930, it seemed that a defeat of this magnitude would be followed by the demise of the Liberal Party. The decision on the left to form a "new party" that would formalize the relationship between labour unions and the old CCF under the leadership of Saskatchewan's legendary Premier Tommy Douglas, combined with the sheer extent of Diefenbaker's victory, led to many pundits declaring the Liberal Party officially dead.

Despite some calls for his resignation, Pearson determined to stay on. He built a team, allowing his most effective parliamentarians to attack Diefenbaker in the House of Commons, and refused to let the New Democratic Party monopolize the world of public policy. With the help of people outside parliament like Mitchell Sharp, Maurice Lamontagne, Allan MacEachen, and Tom Kent, he created strong policies. He listened to the voices of the Quiet Revolution in Quebec. The charm and diplomatic skill that had led to his triumphs at the United Nations were put to good use. He was not a master of the House of the Commons or a champion orator, but he was decent, good humoured, and knew how to build a team. His love of sports was also put to good use.

A combination of a bad economy and Mr. Diefenbaker's erratic and bombastic management forced the Conservatives out of office in 1963. Mike Pearson led two truly remarkable administrations over the next five years. They were years marked by controversy and deep confrontation in the House of Commons, but also by dramatic success in creating a new foundation for Canadian prosperity, social justice, and national identity.The Canada Pension Plan, Medicare, a new approach to immigration and manpower training, an unprecedented expansion of higher education in co-operation with the provinces, a new flag, royal commissions on bilingualism and on the status of women -- achievements from these years are all the more remarkable because they were produced by minority governments and despite the most visceral opposition from Diefenbaker's Progressive Conservatives.

One of Pearson's great achievements was his ability to recruit new talents around him, especially from Quebec. The arrival of the "three wise men" -- Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Jean Marchand, and Gérard Pelletier -- on the political scene in 1965 gave a great boost to the Liberal Party in that election year. Even more important, it marked a time of renewal and excitement in the Liberal Party about Canada's future. Trudeau in particular made his mark both as parliamentary secretary to Pearson and Minister of Justice, where he ushered in a number of reforms -- decriminalizing abortion and sexual acts between consenting adults -- which were summed up by his famous phrase "there's no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation." In a widely contested 1968 leadership race that went to several ballots, Mr. Trudeau emerged as the winner, and quickly called the election that led to the first majority Liberal government in 15 years.

Trudeau served as prime minister for nearly sixteen years, the longest since Mackenzie King. Like his great predecessors, his administration was marked by strong ministers -- John Turner, Allan MacEachen, Donald Macdonald, Jean Chrétien, Marc Lalonde, Monique Begin, to name a few -- and an equally strong commitment to shared prosperity, global leadership, and social justice. Trudeau will best be remembered for successfully repatriating the Canadian constitution with a Charter of Rights and Freedoms that in turn has created a stronger protection of individual rights than ever seen before in Canadian history.

He will also be remembered as one of the most formidable thinkers, debaters and orators in the history of the country. His early history as one of the pioneers of the Quiet Revolution made him a fierce opponent of Maurice Duplessis and what he saw as a reactionary abuse of power. His championing of individual rights was behind his commitment to the Charter, which he advocated as early as the 1950s. He saw in federalism itself the best expression of diversity, and he saw the growing support for separatism in Quebec as something that could only be fought by a thorough reform of federal institutions to better protect language rights in a united Canada.

Trudeau's commitment to global leadership led to his decision to recognize the communist government in Beijing, to championing expanded international development, and to warning the world of the dangers of super-power nuclear confrontation.

In 1984 the political pendulum swung back with a vengeance, and Brian Mulroney won a massive majority, with the Liberals reduced to just over 40 seats and the pundits once again asserting that the Liberal Party was dead.

It fell to John Turner to begin once more the re-building of the party. Mr. Turner's particular contribution was to focus on riding associations as the key institutions that had to be given new life and strength. He also encouraged a new generation of talent to come to the fore. When Prime Minister Mulroney put the issue of free trade to an election in 1988, it was John Turner who pointed out that as important as was the objective of ensuring true commercial reciprocity between Canada and the United States, the Mulroney agreement did no such thing. The challenge of confronting American protectionism would not be resolved by the deal, and too much sovereignty was given away in the process. It was Mr. Turner's finest hour, and he successfully doubled the number of seats for the Liberals.

Despite the increase in seats, Mr. Turner decided to retire, and was succeeded in 1990 by Jean Chrétien, who had served under both Pearson and Trudeau in a wide range of portfolios. The sharp recession in central Canada that marked the early 1990s now left the country with a central challenge. Not only was unemployment unacceptably high, the nation's finances were in terrible shape. Not for the first time a Liberal administration would be asked to set right the economic ship.

Aided by a stronger world economy, the Liberals added the necessary additional ingredient of strong financial management. In a remarkable turnaround, federal finances were in balance by 1998, and with Paul Martin as Finance Minister, healthy surpluses continued right through the first years of the 20th century.

TOMORROW: The enduring strength of the Liberal ideal

Six Questions With Liberal Hopefuls