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Why I'm A Liberal -- And Why Liberalism Lives

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What follows is the first installment in a three-part series by Liberal leader Bob Rae on the resilience of liberalism. Read part two here.

I am a Liberal because I believe in the dignity and equality of every human being and I believe in a democracy where we care about what happens to each other.

I believe that the pursuit of prosperity, social justice and sustainability can best be achieved together, and that bringing them together is the job of an accountable and democratic government.

I want the policies to achieve these goals to be based on evidence, on what works, and not on ideology.

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I am a Liberal because I believe that love is better than hate, because I believe in celebrating success and never resenting it, and because I do not mock failure.

I believe in enough government to help us all achieve success, but not too much government to stifle initiative and creativity. I understand that markets are the best way to create prosperity, that a progressive tax system is necessary to pay for programmes, and that all of us -- individuals, families, businesses and governments -- have to live within our means.

I want every child to have the love, support and education they need, and everyone to have a job that reinforces dignity and security. I want those who are less able, to receive the support they need, and to allow those who are older to continue to live in dignity.

I believe that access to good health care, education and housing are fundamental attributes of a good society, and well within our means as a successful society. I believe in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the independence of judges. I believe that punishment should fit the crime, that public security needs to be protected, and that a good and strong society will encourage rehabilitation and change. I would rather build a school than a prison, and believe that it is important to be as tough on the conditions that give rise to crime as we are on crime itself.

I am a Liberal in Canada because I want us to build a better world based on the rule of law, where we celebrate and share our values.

I believe that while charity and justice begin at home, their pursuit does not end there. The reduction of violence, the protection of rights, the closing of the gap between rich and poor, the greening of the planet are all best achieved with an approach that starts at home but embraces the world.

I am a Liberal and a proud Canadian. I am proud to be a member of a party that has consistently supported an ever expanding sense of citizenship based on our inherent rights as free women and men, of our two official languages, French and English, a distinct Canadian flag. This is a federalism that celebrates the unique identities and rights of Canadian provinces and territories, and understands the need for a deeper reconciliation between aboriginal Canadians and all those who have, through the centuries chosen to make Canada home. I am proud of a country that celebrates free expression, diversity and pluralism, and the right of everyone to be themselves without fear of discrimination.

We came here in many boats. We're in the same boat now.

The resilience of the liberal idea gives us hope and strength. Our task is to keep building a country and a party worthy of the idea itself.


Liberalism: A resilient idea, a resilient movement

It all starts with an idea and a feeling -- about individual conscience, freedom, and dignity. All else flows from that.

The idea of liberalism in history is connected with powerful changes -- from economies and societies based on hierarchy and conformity to those based on people demanding to be heard, insisting that authority be made accountable and transparent.

It is an idea whose power is felt today -- in societies around the world that fail to respect the rule of law, that disregard diversity, that insist that the power of the party or class or privilege is more important than the primacy of freedom.

Liberalism's journey has been about understanding the key role of economic freedom, and government's role in ensuring a strong capacity for regulation and the rule of law, to make sure that someone's freedom does not become a licence to abuse power.

Liberalism understands that for each person to achieve their freedom, society needs to help break down the barriers to human potential. Liberalism understands the dilemma that it is not enough to say that the rich and poor are equally able to sleep under bridges.

In the great movement for democracy that has marked the last 200 years, liberals have been at the forefront of expanding the franchise and expanding rights -- to go beyond a world determined by wealth and colour to a world determined by equal rights and a sense that a good country is one where people care about what happens to one another.

In the last half century we've become more aware that the great British liberal Edmund Burke was right when he talked about society being a contract with those yet unborn, or to borrow a phrase from our aboriginal tradition, that we borrow the Earth from our children and our responsibilities have to last as long as the wind blows and the rivers run.

Samuel de Champlain came to Canada in the early 17th century formed by the experiences of a Europe literally torn apart by religious and ethnic conflict. The "great and good place" he saw in Canada was to be marked by a spirit of reconciliation and a recognition of the rights and traditions of all -- Catholics, Protestants, non-believers, and the aboriginal people he encountered as he travelled eastern and central Canada.

The people and institutions he left behind did not always live up to his hopes and expectations. Violent conflict, death by disease and neglect, conflict between English and French -- our early history was not often marked by civility.

But as the refugees flowed north from the United States after the revolutionary war, and immigration continued from Europe, liberal ideas began to take hold in the provinces of British North America. While the supporters of the Family Compact wanted a government that would insist more on order than on liberty, the irresistible arguments for freedom and for responsible government began to win out. Joseph Howe in Nova Scotia, followed by Baldwin and Lafontaine in "United Canada" -- we can trace the organized origins of the liberal movement in Canada (and indeed the modern Liberal Party) to elections where those fighting for responsibility, accountability, the separation of church and state and a universal right to public education won out over those who simply preferred the status quo, or worse, who rioted against policies of social progress and change. The Reform government of 1848 took office at a time of great democratic turbulence in the world.

Liberals should take great pride in these governments, and in the remarkable fact that Lafontaine sought election in York and Baldwin in Rimouski -- a symbol of partnership that would carry on through strong Liberal Cabinets that through three centuries have emphasized how liberalism transcends the ties of religion and race.

Liberals -- prominent names like Brown, Mowat and Taché -- became proud partners in the governments that led to Confederation, but except for the Alexander Mackenzie administration in the 1870s, with its important contributions including the secret ballot, did not take national office until Laurier's great win in 1896.

Laurier had won pre-eminence as a Liberal in the 1880s, when as a young parliamentarian he stirred the deepest emotions in his speeches on the crisis created at the heart of the federation by John A.Macdonald's decision to hang Louis Riel for his role in the Red River rebellion and the death of Thomas Scott, "executed" by the Riel government. Laurier eloquently eviscerated the Macdonald government for its mishandling of affairs in the Northwest and the national ramifications it had wrought saying of his fellow French Canadians, "We do not want any more privileges, we are strong enough, but what we want is justice for all."

It became clear that Laurier would in fact be the man to replace Macdonald when as Opposition Leader he eulogized Sir John A. in the House of Commons with greater eloquence than any of his fellow Conservatives, saying that the old chieftain was "endowed with those inner, subtle indefinable graces of the soul which win and keep the hearts of men."

Laurier would become one of Canada's greatest Prime Ministers. Possessed of great charm, wit, and eloquence, his "sunny ways" endeared him to Canadians. The first French speaking Quebecker to take office as Prime Minister, he will long be remembered for building strong bridges between French and English, his determination to give Canada its place on the world stage, and opening up the country to widespread immigration to Western Canada from many parts of Europe. He resisted calls for imperial union, and was a determined proponent of a "new nationality" that would allow Canada to stand stronger on its own.

Laurier's belief in more open markets, and a strong desire among Western farmers to be able to get cheaper manufactured goods from the United States led to the free trade election of 1911, which Laurier lost to Borden, the Conservative.

Sir Wilfrid stayed on as Opposition leader until his death in 1919. The First World War produced a crisis for Canada and for the Liberal Party, as, following the British example, Borden offered Laurier and his fellow Liberals seats in a coalition government. Laurier resisted the appeal, arguing that Quebeckers needed to be understood and listened to in their resistance to conscription. But many other Liberals felt it was their patriotic duty to join the government in a moment of non-partisanship.

Laurier's decision, born of deep conviction, left him alone and isolated, and the Party was devastated in the election of 1917. Many then predicted the demise of Liberalism, as a new mood of radicalism took hold in the West and a nascent labour movement seemed ready to join with farmers to take the country in a different direction. Even Laurier himself in an uncharacteristic moment of despair, bemoaned the growing political polarization saying, "I have lived too long. I have outlived Liberalism."

Laurier's death in 1919 could have marked the end of the Liberal party, but the party's choice of Mackenzie King as its leader proved wiser than many pundits realised at the time. Certainly there was none of the charisma, the charm, or the deep good humour of Laurier. But King was astute, savvy, and a masterful politician. He formed a minority government in 1921 with the support of the Progressives, and outmanoeuvred Arthur Meighen in the "King-Byng" crisis of 1925-26. He brought in Old Age Pensions with the support of the Ginger Group led by J.S. Woodsworth in 1927, and after being defeated by R.B. Bennett in 1930 came back to lead the Liberals with a majority in 1935, a position the Liberals held until 1957.

PART TWO: From Mackenzie King to Chrétien