They haven’t “met their humility”

May 17th, 2011
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Alf Apps was Student Union president at the University of Western Ontario at the turn of the 1980′s. It was well known that he was a big big-L Liberal, but this would not have hurt him – it was a good time to be a Liberal. Pierre Trudeau was just beginning his disastrous last term. At the time, when I wasn’t at the grindstone of an honours science degree at Western, I was a disgruntled Progressive Conservative, wondering when the Liberals could ever be toppled.

Apps’ career path into the button-down world of Bay Street law could perhaps have been predicted. His political road, that seemed so promising in 1980, may not have turned out quite as he hoped. It’s interesting to note that NDP spokesman Brad Lavigne was also active in student politics, heading the Canadian Federation of Students in the 1990′s. Readers may be aware of the CFS’ hard-Left tilt, having harboured many fellow-travellers during the Cold War. A group of us fought successfully to have CFS de-certified at Western in the early 1980′s.

But back to Mr. Apps. If reports are correct, he has been hovering around the chimera of “blue-Liberal” politics his entire adult life. This resulted in allegiances to John Turner, Paul Martin, John Manley and Michael Ignatieff – what could be described as a “mixed” bag.

Given the apparent promise of his early political career, Mr. Apps would no doubt dispute the assertion that he peaked in 1979. That said, as current president of the Liberal Party of Canada, he was in the news again last week. Attending the much-reported last caucus meeting of the outgoing Liberal MPs, Apps essentially stated that the party was “bruised but not broke” having raised $4 million during the writ period. This followed a lengthy letter that he released in the wake of the party’s defeat two weeks ago.

Besides calling for sober, respectful reflection, wide open debate and the “broadest possible participation from Liberals”, the letter simultaneously sets the limits for the discussion. To Apps, the Liberal Party must remain “resolutely centrist”, that “blends and balances fiscal responsibility with social compassion”. It’s philosophy would “understand” the “potential of a mixed market economy” but believe in “the power of government to achieve good, not only for individuals but also for the nation as a whole”. He adds that the party has “always been … proudly pragmatic”, representing a “broad and moderate consensus and a vision of Canada as more than the sum of its parts”.

Steve Janke takes down this formulation very well, describing it as the definition of the  “mushy middle”. This is certainly true, and indicative of how frustrating it’s been to pin the Liberals down in any policy area – like nailing the proverbial red jello to the wall.

But I would go further. What has Liberal government been in practice? Well, “understanding”  the “potential of a mixed economy” would be using that economy as the source of taxes; and the “power of government to achieve good”, and “social compassion”, that would be spending the aforementioned taxes. The “balance” part of it is to tax enough to buy sufficient votes to win elections. “Canada as more than the sum of its parts” is a tip of the hat to (if he were a conservative we’d say “code” for) centralizing power in Ottawa.

Apps’ topper is his indirect jab at the competition: “We must not now surrender to tired ideologies, whether of the right or the left, in search of what can work in the real world to make the lives of Canadians better.” Hmmm, what would those “tired” ideologies be? This is where some of us used to go apoplectic and, frankly, often still do. The fact is, when you nail down the red jello as best you can, by gosh there is an ideology there. Call it soft-Left, secular humanist, whatever; but it’s certainly distinct from what most would call “conservative”, and somewhat different from what you’d call “socialist”. The aggravating thing is that Liberals like Apps have “resolutely” refused to admit they have any ideology, as if having beliefs or principles beyond “pragmatism” constitutes something like a disease.

The fact is, they HAVE an ideology, they just won’t admit it. Will they tax more? Yes.  Will they more readily favour the power of the state? Yes. Will they favour centralized power in Ottawa?  Yes.

Ironically, by “resolutely” refusing to define what they believe and who they are they have almost un-defined themselves out of existence.  They drew allegiance by staying in power or having the chance to be in power again. Which brings us to what is perhaps Apps’ boldest assertion:  “When Canadians are ready again for that kind of leadership – and they will be – we have to be ready to lead.” What kind of leadership would that be exactly? He also says the party’s success hinges on the “continuing relevance of our values”. What “values” are those? Whatever they are, they clearly mustn’t be allowed to constitute an “ideology”.

More insightful, I think, was the analysis of one Liberal – “We need to rebuild … to reconnect with our base, and we need to redefine ourselves and who we are”. Given the results of May 2nd, that seems refreshingly clear-headed. Amidst all the tearful Liberal farewell articles of the last week, there was a hint of wanting renewal and fundamental change.

By contrast, Mr. Apps’ letter shows little, if any, insight of this kind.  As Jean Lapierre said of his former party, they haven’t “met their humility”. From my own narrow, partisan, ideological  perspective, I hope they never do.

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By John Weissenberger