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New Brunswick Liberal Party Needs Renewal

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In the aftermath of the New Brunswick Liberals' 2010 defeat, the party has been undergoing two processes -- renewal and selection of a new leader -- to reposition it for the 2014 provincial election.

I want to focus here on the theme of public policy. The New Brunswick Liberal Party needs a clear vision of what it stands for and this vision should be of a progressive party that stands up for the weak and vulnerable and an environmentally sustainable economy and recognizes the need to promote social justice along with economic prosperity. It needs to offer a clear progressive choice to voters.

This was not true of the last Liberal government in New Brunswick which, while offering progressive initiatives on anti-poverty for example, also pursued right-wing policies such as flattening the tax rate. This made it difficult for the Liberals to present themselves as a progressive alternative to the Tories.

The New Brunswick Progressive Conservatives, while not ideological neoconservatives like the federal Conservatives, have displayed right-wing tendencies such as delaying a planned increase in the minimum wage to the Atlantic Canadian average, and social conservatism, by closing the Status of Women Office and limiting access for youth to sexual health clinics. On sustainability, the Alward Tories are allowing the practice of natural gas fracking without accounting for the consequences.

Meanwhile, the Liberals face a potential challenge on the left from the NDP under their leader, Dominic Cardy, who wants to place his party squarely in the mainstream of New Brunswick politics, and possibly supplant the Liberals.

Thus, the Liberals need to offer a clear progressive alternative to the Tories while staving off a possible progressive challenge from the NDP. Having a clear set of principles on combating poverty and environmental conservation gives people a reason to join, volunteer, and vote for the party.

Where the current Tory government can be cautious to a fault, the previous government moved too quickly, in too many directions at once. Going forward, Liberals must not be afraid of bold initiatives, but should be clear about picking priorities and establishing initiatives aimed at solving pressing problems including poverty, jobs, and sustainability.

The Liberal government of Louis Robichaud in the 1960s, for example, focused primarily on local government reform in its second term -- an ambitious project known as Equal Opportunity. This was the main project for that term of office -- to deal with the problem of county governments unable to provide services in health, education, and social welfare, and to incorporate Acadian communities as participants in New Brunswick's political life.

Building an ecologically sustainable economy, in harmony with New Brunswick's natural heritage, can potentially be a bold Equal Opportunity-style project for the 21st century. The previous Liberal government was still in the 1950s-1960s thrall of industrialization which, in the case of the second oil refinery in Saint John, proved unsuccessful. In fairness, the Liberal government did take positive initiatives in promoting wind power under Energy Minister Jack Keir.

Going forward, New Brunswick needs a sustainable 21st century economy, emphasizing creative sectors such as information technology as well as green jobs. Eco-tourism can potentially help small communities and rural areas. Promoting green energy such as wind and tidal power will be important.

Places such as Vermont and Oregon have promoted themselves as great places to live and alternatives to the big city lifestyle. These jurisdictions have focused on preserving their natural heritage (for example, by curbing suburban sprawl, which eats into forests and farm land). New Brunswick can do the same.

Also, it is important to stand up for the weak and vulnerable. The last Liberal government had some good initiatives in this regard, with a comprehensive anti-poverty agenda, and a focus on helping aboriginal communities. Going forward, the Liberals should also include a greater focus on helping the disabled, including adults with autism who do not have a proper care facility in New Brunswick.

By delaying the minimum wage increase, the Tory government is taking a trickle-down approach, holding down wages in the hope that business will create more jobs. Minimum wage is an issue where Liberals can clearly show they are a progressive party, standing up for those who need a voice in the halls of power.

For Liberals, renewal and leadership will involve serious examination of policy and philosophy. If Liberals are to be a viable force in 2014, they need to offer a clear and progressive agenda to differentiate themselves from the Tories and stave off a potential NDP challenge. As well, they need to clearly address the pressing issues facing New Brunswickers and offer a vision for this province in the 21st century.

An earlier version of this column appeared in the Telegraph Journal.

Hassan Arif is a columnist with the Telegraph Journal in New Brunswick. He is a PhD candidate in urban sociology at the University of New Brunswick and has a background in law and political science. He can be reached at arif.telegraphjournal@gmail.com.

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