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Why Stephen Harper Can't Destroy the Liberal Party

The Liberals have been defeated badly before and have been able to come back. Defeats are serious, but we should never make the mistake of thinking them permanent. We owe each other; we owe generations to come, a re-commitment to the enduring strength of the liberal idea. We are fighting for prosperity for all Canadians -- social justice for all -- and a sustainable society and economy for all Canadians. The values and approach of the Liberal party matter to too many Canadians for us to ever think of abdicating the important role we all will share in shaping the Canada of tomorrow.

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

Jean Chrétien and his government faced more than just an economic and financial crisis: They also faced a renewed challenge to national unity. A second Quebec referendum led to a very narrow win for the federalist forces, and Mr. Chrétien then made the decision to recruit new leadership from Quebec, including Stéphane Dion, who took charge of the intergovernmental file.

Mr. Chrétien also presided over another key period of global leadership -- signing on to the Kyoto Accord in 1998, the creation of the international criminal court, the establishment of the land-mines treaty, and the historic decision not to join the invasion of Iraq because, in the Liberal view, it did not have sufficiently strong justification in international law.

Mr. Chrétien's three back-to-back Liberal majorities -- aided, it must be said, by deep division in the opposition -- were a tribute to his personal political skills, the strength of the Liberal team, and the success of his policies. On his retirement he was succeeded by Paul Martin, who had served with considerable success as Mr. Chrétien's Minister of Finance.

Mr. Martin's time in office was short -- only two years -- but marked by several strong achievements. The first was a continued commitment to strong financial management, together with important new budget commitments to implementing the Kyoto agreement. Mr. Martin's deep personal engagement on aboriginal issues led to a year-long negotiating process with the provinces and aboriginal leadership which led to the Kelowna Accord. Ken Dryden's leadership on the child-care file led to federal-provincial agreements. And Mr. Martin himself pushed hard to make the G-20 the logical and necessary successor to the smaller G-8.

The short-sighted decision of the NDP to join with the Conservatives in the defeat of the Martin government led to a minority Harper victory in 2006, and the end to Kyoto, Kelowna, child care, and a retreat from global leadership.

Although back in Opposition once again, the leadership of the Liberal party continued to be characterized by that proud tradition of bold, forward-looking vision and unimpeachable personal integrity. Stéphane Dion continued his lifelong defence of Canadian federalism while at the same time demonstrating a commitment to sustainable prosperity which, Canadians increasingly understand today, in some form or another is the only path forward for our nation. Michael Ignatieff shared a road map for unleashing the transformative power of education and skills training -- perhaps not surprisingly from an accomplished man whose proudest title was always "teacher." And his stirring and principled defence of democracy and accountability were all the more striking in contrast to a Conservative government that increasingly made a mockery of both concepts.

What this brief review of our history shows is that we have been defeated badly before and have been able to come back. Defeats are serious, but we should never make the mistake of thinking them permanent. Nor should we forget the successful formulas for re-building:

• Establishing unity, not rivalry, as the operating principle, with the requisite mutual confidence, trust, and good humour as hallmarks for going forward;

• Focusing on organizational renewal and policy renewal as equally important;

• Recruiting both talent and ideas, being unafraid to seek both widely, in an open and progressive spirit, and understanding that renewal only comes with a deep openness to change.

The renewal of the party is made possible by the simple and undeniable fact that there is great resilience in the strength of the liberal idea, the vitality of the liberal movement around the world, and the ability of our own Liberal Party to embrace change.

The enduring strength of the Liberal idea

An election defeat is a sobering moment, particularly one as decisive and unprecedented as the one experienced by the Liberal Party of Canada on May 2, 2011.

Let's not flinch from describing the statistical truth about what happened. It is the worst result for the Liberal Party since Confederation, and if we go back to pre-confederation and the days of Lafontaine and Baldwin, the worst since responsible government in 1848.

We received 18.9% of the vote, and elected 34 MPs. Liberal candidates finished second in 76 ridings, received less than 15% of the vote in 149 ridings, and less than 10% in 91 ridings, and less than 5% in 20 ridings.

Only in Atlantic Canada were we seriously competitive in most ridings. In Quebec, once a bastion of Liberal support, we came in fourth place, with less than 10% of the francophone vote. In Ontario, we lost 27 seats. In the three prairie provinces we finished with two seats and 11% of the vote. In British Columbia, two seats and 13%.

A century ago the British journalist George Dangerfield wrote an influential book called The Strange Death of Liberal England. It described how the once mighty party of Gladstone, re-elected with a massive majority in 1906, was reduced to third party status, a condition from which it has never recovered to this day. Irish nationalism, the First World War, a fight to the death between powerful personalities and the rise of the Labour Party were its death knell. Liberals joined U.K. coalition governments in the early 1930s and in the Second World War, and again today, but have not re-emerged as a majority party.

For nearly 80 years Canadian democratic socialists have yearned for, and predicted, a similar and parallel scenario in Canada as to what happened in the U.K. and Europe. Mr. Harper's gloating that Canada was becoming more conservative, and that the "liberal era is over" has matched the smugness in the NDP about their recent electoral success.

Everything in my political experience tells me that this smugness, this gloating, this arrogance, this over-reading of electoral results, are wrong and misplaced.

The strength of Canadian liberalism is that at its heart it has consistently expressed core values that have helped to define the country. From the commitment to public education and responsibility of the Clear Grits of Ontario and Joseph Howe of Nova Scotia to the resolute commitment to secular democracy of the nineteenth century Rouges, to today's commitment to the Charter, the rule of law, and the need to balance unity and diversity, the Liberal Party has expressed values which speak to the heart of the country.

When Laurier spoke of "Canada first, Canada last, Canada always", he was speaking to an emergent nationalism which wanted a country to be itself, and not just an offshoot of Empire. We need that spirit to be reborn again. There are those who are happy if Canada becomes a willing follower of another empire. We are not among them. We don't want our government to become a branch plant of the American Tea Party. We do not, in Mr. Harper's words, draw "great inspiration" from the Conservative movement in the United States. We have proudly rejected saying "ready, aye, ready" to every American military adventure, and to every intellectual adventure that comes out of the right wing movements in the United States.

We chart our own course, recognizing that the liberal idea is part of a worldwide movement of ideas and politics to which Canada has been such a huge contributor.

We owe each other; we owe generations to come, a re-commitment to the enduring strength of the liberal idea.

We can choose a widely shared prosperity based on understanding the role of innovation and an open hearted entrepreneurial spirit in the global economy. We don't need big walls and barriers, or a vision that looks backwards or clings to old ways. The liberal idea embraces individual success, the creation of wealth, and a never ending effort to open up opportunity. We understand deeply that you can't divide up a cake that doesn't exist, or hasn't been made. We can never take prosperity for granted, and the pursuit of prosperity is at the centre of the liberal project, at home and everywhere.

But pursuing prosperity is also a means to an important end -- making sure that the good things in life are not confined to a wealthy few. Just as we do not hate wealth, we do not hate the necessary work of government. We understand that politics is about pursuing the common good. We can join together in building on our successes in providing common services, or we can see them eroded in a rush to imitate those societies that have allowed the ties of mutual support to become frayed to a point where they can't be recognized.

We can continue to embrace the Canada of the Charter, where human rights are taken seriously, where equality between women and men is celebrated and protected, where gays and lesbians can be themselves openly, and their marriages can be recognized, where aboriginal rights are advanced by courts and championed by legislatures and parliaments, or we can challenge the independence of the judiciary, embracing the simplistic and entirely unsuccessful notion that every misdemeanour has to be met with a prison sentence. We can join others in the world that are ready to change their approach to production and pollution, and thus keep climate change under control, or we can fuel the forces of denial, and thereby ensure a world that is hotter, more polluted, and far more precarious. We can steer Canadian foreign policy to a clear focus on mediation, conflict resolution and peacekeeping, or we can see it as an entirely military exercise.

These choices are stark, and clear. The Liberal party helped build the foundations of Canadian nationhood, and in Laurier found a leader who could express the deep desire to fashion a common citizenship north of the 49th parallel. We can choose to embrace the Charter, pursue sustainability, and lead through diplomacy on an international stage.

In King, St-Laurent, Pearson, and Trudeau we found leaders who kept the country whole, allowed the federal government to evolve as the guardian of the prosperity and well-being of the Canadian people, and expanded further the scope of Canadian sovereignty.

John Turner fought valiantly for an independent Canada. His vindication is the experience we now face with NAFTA, softwood lumber, and the prospect of continuing trade discrimination. Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin inherited the most difficult of economic situations, and succeeded in creating fiscal discipline and renewed social investment.

Throughout our history, Liberals have accepted defeat when it came, but we always knew neither defeat nor victory is permanent.

Today, I have never been more confident that the Liberal Party is committed to rebuilding itself as a voice for all Canadians.

We are fighting for prosperity for all Canadians -- social justice for all -- and a sustainable society and economy for all Canadians.

Unlike the extreme and often rigidly dogmatic political left and right, the hallmark of our policies is facts and evidence. We go where the facts and evidence takes us -- on jobs, on fighting corruption, on crime, on the environment, on every issue.

Many commentators have noted that Stephen Harper's objective is to "destroy the Liberal party." I'm sure that's true. But like many of his objectives, that won't happen.

It won't happen because our history has shown us time and time again that the Liberal party has survived setbacks before and it will again. The party has demonstrated its resilience in the face of defeat, as well as its ability to evolve and respond to the shifting challenges of the times. The values and approach of the Liberal party matter to too many Canadians for us to ever think of abdicating the important role we all will share in shaping the Canada of tomorrow.

Read part one of the series here and part two here.

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