08/17/2012 12:19 EDT | Updated 08/17/2012 12:21 EDT

While Other Parties Swerve, Libs Stay in Centre Lane

The new conventional wisdom that Stephen Harper and Thomas Mulcair are jockeying for "the centre" is laughable. The only objective is political power, nothing more. The Liberal Party of Canada is the country's one and only authentic centrist party. Liberals have never strayed far from the sensible and vital centre in economic, social, or foreign policy.


A growing number of commentators and politicians have postulated that Canada, like the United States, is becoming increasingly polarized along ideological lines. With the Harper Conservatives into their sixth year in government and the NDP as the official opposition, it is entirely reasonable to arrive at that conclusion. The current condition of the battered and disoriented Liberals reinforce that perception.

The NDP and Conservatives both have a hardcore and immovable ideological base, that combined, is at most 50 per cent of eligible voters in Canada [LINK]. That means that at least half of Canadians reside squarely in the moderate and sensible centre. This explains why both Conservatives and the NDP have been endeavoring to position themselves as moderate right and left-leaning centrists.

Yet, try as they might to convince Canadians that they are political moderates, the core base of both are far from it. The NDP base is socialist and social democratic, which is undeniably far left. Conservatives are traditionalist social conservatives and economic disciples of Adam Smith, and they are indisputably far right.

I respect the passion and sincerity with which ardent NDP and Conservative supporters promote and defend their political values and principles. For the most part, they do so intelligently and enhance public discourse. Their leaders and the political mechanics that surround them are a different kettle of fish, however. Serious and substantive debate is not their concern. Winning elections is. Stephen Harper friend and advisor, Tom Flanagan, is representative of the mindset pervasive among this culture. He once wrote that political campaigns are war and that in politics, "It doesn't have to be true. It just has to be plausible."

The new conventional wisdom that Stephen Harper and Thomas Mulcair are jockeying for "the centre" is laughable. The only objective is political power, nothing more. In the process, of course, they have discarded the very principles upon which their political ascension was based. They have betrayed the core, principled supporter of the Conservative Party and NDP.

Conservatives are a dejected and dispirited lot. Other than being thrown the occasional bone, Stephen Harper's base is profoundly dissatisfied that the promise of a "true conservative" government has been dashed. With the sad and untimely death of "Smiling Jack," the New Democrats cynically chose Angry Tom in the hope that he could somehow keep the NDP's Quebec seats. Mulcair holds to the fantasy that the NDP will "move the centre to us."

As a politician, Tom Mulcair is a calculating wedge politician. He's not a national leader; he's Stephen Harper with a beard. Mulcair's NDP is a far cry from the hopeful and principled party of Jack Layton and Ed Broadbent.

The Conservatives and NDP have cynically fuelled insecurity and fear, albeit from different perspectives. We live in an age, said author Tony Judt, of insecurity - economic insecurity, physical insecurity, political insecurity. "Insecurity breeds fear. And fear -- fear of change, fear of decline, fear of strangers and an unfamiliar world -- is corroding the trust and interdependence on which civil societies rest."

While surveys suggest that the Liberal Party of Canada remains a third choice, our history, values, temperament and track record are conclusive evidence that we are Canada's one and only authentic centrist party. When circumstances warranted, we've veered left or turned right. Our impulse to is to be hopeful, idealistic, consultative, and pragmatic reformers.

Liberals have never strayed far from the sensible and vital center in economic, social, or foreign policy. The past electoral successes of the Liberal Party were owed to its alignment with the moderate core values of a majority of Canadians. Yet, as Ken Dryden correctly said in his excellent book Becoming Canada, "Liberals have been for many years out of sync with the times."

Our future success, therefore, will be to define -- and fight for -- the vital and pragmatic centre of the political spectrum. That is where the other 50 per cent of Canadians are. Get in sync with them, and we become the alternative that they will look to.

As times change, so too does the center of political gravity. Shifts occur that are global in nature and often well beyond our control. In recent years, the unavoidable forces of technological transformation and globalization have altered the landscape. It has produced economic and social inequalities that have demonstrably eroded our basic notion of fairness and trust. Over time, we have lost trust and respect in the integrity of the institutions that are so are fundamental to the health of our democracy. Regaining that trust is one of the central challenges facing political leadership today.

The only real starting point must be telling the truth about what our problems are and how we propose to solve them. Liberals have a unique opportunity to define its place, not gravitate to where we think it is based on where the polarizing NDP and Conservatives happened to be at a given point in time.

We know that the middle and moderate way is far from the easiest path. It defies rigid ideology and bumper sticker pronouncements that are not grounded in the real world, but are the stock in trade of the political alchemists and demagogues. The very complexity of the world in which we live requires pragmatic solutions based on data, facts, reason, accommodation, and intellectual honesty. But those alone cannot be the sole drivers of public policy. At its best, public policy is the reflection not only of the reality, but the dreams and aspirations of a people. Political leadership that achieves great things draws the public into a positive and hopeful conversation that leads to action.

Leaders also are eager to tackle the hard issues that most others prefer to avoid.

Liberals can become Canada's 21st century change agents. To do that, we must first engage Canadians on the many fundamental questions that we've ignored for far too long.

Our quality of life and standard of living anchor's it all. Good jobs and a vibrant economy are fundamental to everything we do. The constitution must be modernized to strengthen the economic, social and cultural spinal chord of the nation. Health care is in desperate need of reform, Aboriginal Canadians need to be unshackled from the debilitating Indian Act, and impediments to productivity and economic growth must be removed. Major investments in primary, secondary and post-secondary education must be made. Our crumbling and stressed infrastructure must be modernized. Our environment is a precious treasure than cannot be imperiled.

We want government to be cleaned up and smartened up. Canadians are craving authenticity and honesty. Liberals must begin by trusting themselves and having confidence in the intelligence of voters. And then, we must abandon our fear of telling it like it is.

My dear late friend and business partner, George S. Petty, a great Canadian entrepreneur, used to tell me that the fear of failure should never be an obstacle to trying -- in business, in politics, or in life -- especially if we feel deep in our bones that we can make a contribution to building something great.

Having the courage of our convictions and being unafraid to try. That is my great hope for the Liberal Party of Canada and its new leader.