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05/31/2011 07:55 EDT | Updated 07/31/2011 05:12 EDT

Conscience or Compromise?

A strong new Liberal leader could seize ground back from a fading second-term Conservative government or an undisciplined NDP Opposition. But there is the existential question: What is the vision?

Bob Rae has the task of clearing the wreckage and rebuilding the foundation of the Liberal Party, all the while presenting a credible face to the country and in the House from a distant corner never before occupied by Canada's formerly "natural governing party."

He will do a good job of mending and healing and keeping morale and fund-raising alive over the next year or two.

Chief among his tasks will be to ensure that the generation of Liberals whose default button is always 'leadership wars' are kept under strict discipline. He will also try to teach the party once again the catechism that was the foundation of its half-century of almost uninterrupted power: Speak publicly, no ill of another Liberal.

He will also try to kick-start the policy-making machinery of the old Liberal bus. But it is to the next permanent leader of the party that the task falls of finding a new vision to carry the party forward into a new decade, a rallying cry capable of moving a new generation of Canadians.

It is an enormous challenge. The Liberal Party of Canada was the one remaining liberal party in the developed world capable of competing for power on its own. Now the party faces the same sort of painful choices as have made the Liberal Democrats plight in the UK and their cousins, the Free Democrats in Germany, so wrenching.

Do we stay out of power as a party of conscience in defence of liberal values or do we risk the compromises of power in harness with a larger, often hostile party in the lead?

Then there is the existential question: What is the vision?

It is facile to suggest that faced with surging social democrats on their left and entrenched conservatives on their right that there is no place for a third party in between. If that were true, the Liberal Party of Canada would long ago have faced this squeeze play.

No, the reality is that a series of bad choices in leadership, a decline in support in its previous bastion of Quebec, and flukes of circumstance have reduced one of Canada's great parties.

A strong new leader, with a strong contemporary vision could well seize ground back from a fading second-term Conservative government, or an undisciplined NDP Opposition. Let us assume that such a powerful man or woman can be recruited by new, wiser elders of the Liberal party than those whose idea of good political leadership hunting ground was Oxbridge and the Ivy League.

What message will such a unproven young voice have to offer to be credible and relevant? First, I do not think it is to be green, or greener. That space is too easily preempted by any opponent, and suffers the wild swings in public support too severely to provide a secure political foundation from which to rebuild.

Nor is it to challenge the Conservatives on fiscal management capability. That would simply open a left flank to the NDP, and is a hard claim for new leader to defend from a decade in opposition, in any event.

Nor can it be to attempt a "social democratic-lite" stance. Voters will always choose authenticity over cross-dressing, when offered a choice.

The Liberal party's glory years were in the creation of a subtle combination of market forces, strict regulation, and mildly redistributive social programs; the now roundly vilified, uniquely Canadian, social market state, operating within an asymmetrical federal compromise.

It worked better in practice than on paper, as generations of wags observed, for several decades. It was an improbable Rube Goldberg structure that contained many overlaps, ambiguities, and conventions. It was another example of that curious mid-Atlantic space occupied by so much that is Canadian, neither so loose as to have no constitutional foundation, like the British mothership; nor so literal as its American cousin.

It flexibility and mutability were its genius, as Liberal governments would pull harder on the fiscal lever in one decade, and ease up on the expenditure in another. Medicare, our national creed today, was promised for forty years before it was delivered, and childcare -- the last national Liberal project -- is now entering its third decade as a 'next mandate' deliverable.

Liberal platform commitments were implemented with firm flexibility, as one long-time, cheeky senior civil servant liked say.

The wheels fell off the Liberal bus, and their wheezing welfare state very slowly. We dismissed Ottawa's increased weaving and wobbling in the 90s, backfires and sputtering post-recession, as simply the end-game before the next messiah and the next refurbishment of the familiar old vehicle.

Arrogant in our assertion of our exceptionalism, many sneered as various countries' social welfare vehicles crashed spectacularly.

A succession of Liberal leaders beginning with John Turner and ending with his spiritual heir, Michael Ignatieff, refused to address the tough questions about taxation and productivity, sneered at the mounting Conservative critique, and adopted Mr. Micawber as the Liberal spiritual guide.

Or as one bitter Liberal wag put it: How does a successful governing party die, slowly at first and then very fast? The same brutal observation may be made about the Liberal welfare state.

The rot now painfully visible in rising cash injections returning weaker quality outcomes in public education and healthcare was hidden for decades. The crumbling morale in the public service and the rising contempt of the electorate for all its political class was a distant thunder until the lightning bolts of anti-incumbent upheavals in the last eighteen months.

A new Liberal leader committed to reform of the role and performance of the state is mordantly blessed by the devastation he or she will inherit. Few of the old battalions have the power or the authority to resist a serious and painful analysis and reconstruction of the vision of the Liberal state.

Public sector unions are still able to blackmail the NDP into not challenging their monopolies or their conflicts. But why should a new Liberal leader care what doctors' unions, or teachers' or power workers' threaten?

As the dying hill country woman in Cold Mountain sneered at her detractors, "What are they going to do, threaten to kill me!?"

Defenders of the status quo ante, legion in the media, the academy, and governments of all stripes, will have a hard time answering a determined reformer's taunt, "And your solution is....?"

If that leader is wise enough to frame his goal or her challenge as:

Canadians today demand their governments be more efficient, less tediously bureaucratic and invasive, genuinely committed to improved quality, outcomes and service; one where they have both guarantees of accountability and choice. They will sacrifice neither accessibility nor transparency. They have declared loudly they want action now. How can a new Liberal party deliver?

Conservatives internationally, as well as our empathy-free home-grown variety, never have credibility with centrist voters in the compassionate mission of the social welfare state. Until social democrats internationally, and our renascent local tribe, free themselves from the conflicts inherent in treating the state's employees as their political base, will always be suspect governors in the minds of those same voters.

So liberals and Canadian Liberals do have an unique political space, one that voters are increasingly focused on: Fix the 21st century nation state, or we will find someone who will. Of course, it is a massive undertaking, the work of decades not years, fraught with life-threatening risk about which it is impossible to be confident of victory.

But as Maggie Thatcher liked to say, "There is no alternative." She failed in a conservative transformation of the state. Under her, George Bush the lesser and Stephen Harper alike, the state grew faster than before, and it's performance continued to slide. Nordic social democrats tinkered with change but quailed at the political costs. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown outlined a vision of change but used too much carrot and too little stick and were rejected by an increasingly angry an impatient electorate.

David Cameron and Neil Clegg are in the first serious slump in their ambitious, if somewhat too hard-edged, reform agenda; and if they allow partisan friction and personal ambition to scuttle that effort they will have killed any enthusiasm to tackle the ossified British state for at least another decade.

A new Canadian Liberal leader cannot out-promise other opposition parties, nor can he claim better governance or fiscal chops than a conservative government. But there is a huge unsatisfied political hunger among middle-class voters for a leader with a credible message of reform in the delivery of services in health, education, public safety and innovation.

The first leader of any of the three great political tribes to seize that ground will launch the next generation's natural governing party.

Robin Sears is the Senior Partner of Toronto public affairs firm, Navigator Ltd. He is a former national director of the New Democratic Party of Canada.