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“Will the Liberal Party of Canada Have a Future Worthy of its Past?”

Posted on November 9, 2011

A Keynote Address by the Honourable Stéphane Dion to the Halifax Chebucto Liberal Riding Association’s Annual Dinner

Halifax, Nova Scotia - November 3, 2011

The Honourable Stéphane Dion, P.C., M.P.
(Privy Council of Canada and Member of Parliament for St-Laurent / Cartierville)
House of Commons, Ottawa
Email: dions0@parl.gc.ca

Let’s face reality.  In the 2004 federal election, the Liberal Party of Canada saw a marked decline compared to its position in the 2000 election.  Since 2006, we have suffered three consecutive defeats, each one worse than the previous one.  In 2011, our Party suffered its worst defeat ever.  We had never finished lower than second in a general election.  And now, in the aftermath of the May 2nd, 2011 election, we find ourselves in third place, with only 34 seats, far behind the second place party, the New Democratic Party which, for the first time ever, is the Official Opposition, with 103 seats.  In the last election, the Liberal Party could not even garner one fifth of the expressed votes.

Will we be able to stop this decline, and convince Canadians to give themselves a Liberal government in the not too distant future?

I am convinced the answer is yes.  We can do it… and we have to do it.  One way to convince ourselves of this is to look forward in time – let us remember our Party’s history so we can better project ourselves into the future.

Nietzche wrote: “The man of the future will be the one with the longest memory”.  Our history gives us ample reason to hope, ample reason to fight.

1.  We can renew with success

In a democracy, one always gets an opportunity to try again.  In defeat or victory, there is no certainty.  The winners of the day should not feel invulnerable nor should the losers be discouraged.

This is particularly true in Canada because our voting system artificially increases the magnitude of victory or defeat.  With 40% of the votes, a national party can win a majority of seats; but with only 20%, it can only muster a handful of Members of Parliament.  A twenty point difference is all it takes to separate resounding victory from dismal failure.

Twenty percentage points: this is more or less what we Liberals lost since our last victories.  One vote in five.  That’s what we have to win back.

Are we less valiant than our political opponents?

Do we have less courage and conviction than those Canadians whose belief in the Progressive Conservative Party kept it alive after the 1993 election – the debacle that left it with two lone Members in Parliament?  If these Conservatives had given up, it is highly unlikely that the Reform Party alone could have mustered enough credibility in the eyes of Canadians to form a government.

And there has always been a contingent of Canadians with social-democrat or socialist leanings whose admirable determination kept the NDP in the race despite the Party’s decades-long third, fourth or fifth place rankings.

As for us Liberals, the impact of our fall was made all the more severe by the fact that when we fell, it was from a position of dominance unequalled in duration not only in Canada but in all modern democracies.

What I am referring to is the number of years during which a party has managed to form, alone, the national government.  Canada has had a majority or minority Liberal government for 84 years since Confederation, 75 years since 1900.  This is, by far, an absolute record: the next longest serving party is the Liberal-Democrat Party of Japan, which formed the government for 51 years (admittedly, it has only been around since 1955).

So no national political party has ever done better than us in forming a government and staying in power.  However, that gold medal should not be taken at face value; it should not blind us to reality.  Contrary to the myth according to which we are the Natural Governing Party of Canada, none of our victories occurred “naturally”.  Every one of our victories happened because our position, our program, our leadership managed to convince a great number of Canadians.  Every victory was the result of hard work – the work of countless Liberal volunteers who got their candidates elected, riding by riding, street by street, one vote at a time, election after election.

I mentioned our opponents’ tenacity.  But what about the staying power that has been our party’s hallmark throughout its long history?  That’s what kept us going through hail, sleet and snow!  Our political life was never a bed of roses.  But every time we were in danger of sinking, we weathered the storm.

Wilfrid Laurier’s figure evokes a period of fifteen years of inspired governance which launched Canada into the 20th century.  But read any one of his biographies and you will understand how difficult but formative, for him and the Liberals of the time, were those long years in opposition and those repeated defeats at the hands of John A. Macdonald’s Conservatives.

Let us not forget that in the 1917 election, when conscription was tearing our country apart, our Party was literally wiped out throughout English Canada.  In that election, almost all of our 82 seats were won in Quebec or in ridings with a strong francophone population.  But four years later, the Liberals regained the trust of anglophone and francophone Canadians and got back in government.

We can’t forget the 1958 defeat that left us with only 49 seats in four provinces, when Diefenbaker’s Conservatives swept up the country with 208 seats.  But then, let us also remember that the Liberals pulled themselves up by the bootstraps and once again, six years later, won the trust of Canadians.

After the election of September 1984, which gave 211 seats to the Conservatives, 40 to the liberals and 30 to the NDP, some pundits predicted, as some do today, that the Liberal Party of Canada had reached the end of the road.  That prediction gained some credence in the 1988 election when halfway in the campaign, the Liberals appeared to trail the Conservatives and the NDP.  But we recovered and managed to stay on as the Official Opposition.  And in 1993, we were back in government.

What does this brief historical review show us?  That nothing is decided yet and that we can bounce back as we have done in the past.  Although this is the first time we come out of an election in third place, we have suffered other defeats in the past that were just as worrisome.  Far from doing us in, they made us what we are as much as our victories did.

What we need to do now is identify the root reasons of our recent failures so that we can make the necessary adjustments that will put us back on the path to victory.  For sure, there is more than one reason: some, such as Jack Layton’s exceptional political talent, are strictly circumstantial.  Some are more structural.  I will name two of the latter.

The first lesson the 2008 and 2011 defeats taught us is that it will be very difficult to win the next election if we lose the pre-campaign.  The Conservatives have brought US-style “permanent campaigning” to Canada.  Their methods are now familiar.  The next time around, their first objective will be, again, to define the new Liberal Leader before the Liberal Party can do it.  They will spend millions of dollars on negative ads which will portray the Liberal Leader as odious, incompetent, self-centred, un-Canadian, soft on crime, tax-hungry, etc.

That is exactly what happened to Michael Ignatieff and to me.  We must not allow it to happen to our next Leader.  Before he or she is chosen, we must set up the organization, solid financial base and communications capacity required to ensure that we, not the Conservatives, will present the new Liberal Leader to Canadians, explaining why we chose him or her and why we believe he or she is the right leader for Canada.

The second lesson the 2008 and 2011 defeats taught us is that it will be very difficult for us to win the next election if we let the Conservatives occupy the terrain of economic credibility.  At the end of the day, what voters want to know is who can best help them get a job or keep the one they have, pay their bills, save up for their children’s studies, etc.  What we have to do is convince them that the best person for the job is the Liberal Leader or Liberal candidate in the riding.

In 2008, as Liberal Leader, I did talk about the economy.  I truly believed that the main focus of my campaign was the economy.  The Green Shift’s subtitle was: “Building a Canadian Economy for the 21st Century.”  But because I was promoting sustainable economy, which I strongly believe must be the economy of the 21st century, I was perceived as a one-issue candidate, exclusively preoccupied by the environment.  I failed to convince Canadians of the link that exists between economy and environment.  And we paid the price.

In 2011, I am sure Mr. Ignatieff talked about the economy in his speeches.  But the voters did not hear him, and neither did the Liberal candidates who were so busy campaigning in their ridings.  Most of our communications plan was about helping families: housing, daycare, home renovations, family caregivers, tuition fees, etc.  In the midst of global economic turmoil, we appeared to abandon the themes of employment and economic security to Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.  It seemed that we were trying too much to look like the NDP.  Unfortunately, the natural NDP voters chose the original over the copy and many Liberal supporters who were worried about the economy went over to the Conservatives.

If we are to win the next time around, we will have to make sure that the Canadian electorate sees us as we truly are: the party of the Centre, the party that believes in the market economy as much as in the role of government.

This brings me to the second part of my remarks: not only does history show that we can succeed, but also why we must.

2.  We must renew with success

In contrast with most other democracies, where the Left and Right alternate in power, Canada has been, most of the time, ruled by a party of the Centre.  I believe this has served our country well and that this is why we must prevail.

Parties of the Centre are less ideological and more pragmatic than the others.  Although they have a marked preference for moderation, they can act boldly and vigorously when required.  When looking for new, innovative solutions, they are comfortable looking left and right.  They don’t let dogmatism block their vision.

As a party of the Centre, we are convinced that the market economy, based on free enterprise, creates wealth.  At the same time, we believe that well-thought-out social and environmental policies are far from being economic burdens: they are essential conditions of a country’s competitiveness and general wellbeing.  A well-educated and healthy population, protected from social injustice and environmental threats, is much more likely to provide the qualified, innovative and motivated workforce which is the condition of economic success.

I know that some Liberals have some doubts about continuing to define our Party as one that stands in the middle of the political spectrum.  This has me worried.  One does not lose one’s identity over one electoral defeat!  Of course we are a party of the Centre.  What else can we be?

Do we stand to the right of the Conservatives? Do we stand to the left of the NDP?  How ambitious, these theories!

Of course, we won’t tell Canadians:  vote for us because we are in the Centre!  The Conservatives don’t ask them to vote Right and the NDP doesn’t urge them to vote Left.  We would rather leave this kind of categorization to political scientists and tell voters what we will do for them, concretely.  Notwithstanding this, there is no doubt that in Canada like in any other democracy, left, centre or right leanings do have a marked influence on a political party’s election platform.

Again, let us remember our history.  Liberal governments have always governed with a centralist perspective.  Laurier launched an ambitious economic development initiative that was based on the opening of continental markets, immigration, railway construction and quick expansion of Western agriculture, while promoting important social measures such as the creation of a Labour Department to deal with the problems caused by urban industrial growth.

In the years between Mackenzie King and Turner, Canada became a strong urban-industrial economy, a major exporting country, an architect of post-war economic institutions; at the same time, our country adopted some very progressive social and cultural policies and a resolutely Liberal-inspired Charter of Rights and Freedoms, admired throughout the world.  And when we needed to restore the health of our public finances and revive the Canadian economy, while preserving our social safety net, who did it?  The Chrétien and Martin governments.

Governments of the Centre are more resistant to ideological fashion.  In the nineties, deregulation was the trend, particularly in the world of financial institutions.  The Chrétien government wisely chose to resist that fashion.  So if Canada’s bank system today is one of the strongest there are, it is because a Liberal government was in charge at the time.  Mr. Harper brags today about a situation that his political movement fought in the past.

Governments of the Centre know how to harmonize economic growth and social justice objectives.  They are also particularly adept at uniting different communities, at encouraging them to see beyond each other’s differences; this is a very important quality in a country as diverse as Canada.  We Liberals built bridges between francophones and anglophones, turned Canada into a safe and welcoming haven for people from all over the world and promoted the rights of First Nations.  We were able to exercise federal powers while preserving our federation’s decentralized nature.  What we achieved was not perfect, of course; but we managed to create the gathering point that Canada so badly needed.

Combining moderation with a determination to act, we affirmed Canada’s sovereignty without abandoning our traditions. Always respectful of monarchy, Liberal prime ministers nonetheless did what had to be done to make Canada an independent country.  They worked to keep the Commonwealth together while pushing to turn this community into an assembly of free and equal nations.  Successive Liberal governments created the Supreme Court of Canada and made it into our final appeals court, replacing the Judicial Committee of the British Privy Council.  They gave Canada its flag and recognized “O Canada” as our national anthem.  A Liberal government repatriated the Constitution.  Liberal governments affirmed Canada’s sovereignty over the Arctic without unduly militarizing this issue.

When our country’s national unity faced the challenges of Quebec’s separatist movement and multiple referenda, we introduced clarity into the debate, inspired by the same spirit of moderation and determination that is the hallmark of Liberal thinking.  We dismissed those who wanted to forbid secession and those who wanted to use confusion to achieve secession.  We enacted the Clarity Act to give effect to a Supreme Court opinion that was to become an international reference.

Under Liberal governments, the United States remained our staunch ally but never became our model.  This is particularly true of one of their most notable failures: the fight against crime.  Ironically, as our neighbours to the South look up to our justice model and our crime rate keeps going down, the Harper government is determined to import their failed system into Canada, at great cost and with the utmost disregard for our already overtaxed penitentiary system.

In the field of foreign policy, we Liberals made Canada a strong NATO partner, deployed our valiant troops to defend peace and freedom and affirmed the role of Canada as a major architect and defender of the multilateral institutions on which the international community has come to rely.

I’m not saying that the Conservatives never shared those values and objectives.  What I am saying is that it is the Liberal Party above all that acted with moderation, determination and selflessness to move our country forward.  That was almost always the case with social issues, as in employment insurance, health, pensions, student aid, etc.

That was almost always the case with human rights issues, as in divorce laws, abolition of the death penalty, recognition of same-sex marriage, and of course, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  The Conservatives often ended up accepting these changes, but only after the Liberals implemented them against all odds.

I am convinced that this Liberal approach is going to be as necessary as ever for our country’s future successes.  For example, I strongly believe that one of this century’s most important challenges is the inescapable need for the world to move from self-destructive development to sustainable development.  But to achieve this indispensable reconciliation between humankind and the planet, the quasi-continent that is Canada must be part of the solution.  Our Party is the best suited one for this purpose.  We Liberals, who managed to harmonize economic growth and social justice, must now find the way to add the third pillar of success in the 21st century: sustainable development.

That’s why once again, we must become the favourite party of Canadians.  That’s why we must support, with all our might, Bob Rae, our interim Leader, and the remarkable work he is accomplishing under very difficult circumstances.

Conclusion

The task ahead is huge.  Our centralist position is often complex to explain.  Left wing and right wing positions are easy to present in a sound bite or a catch line; a centralist argument needs to be developed with more detail and subtlety.  But today, when everything can become a media event, there is little time or opportunity to develop a detailed argument during an election campaign.

Elections are expensive, permanent campaigns even more so.  It takes money to run them, a lot of money.  More and more, here and in the US, parties use negative advertising to collect this money, playing with the fears and dislikes of the most radical voters in each camp.  Left wing and right wing parties have radical factions whose fears and passions drive them to be generous toward their own parties.  The Right plays on the fear of taxes and “fat government”; the Left, the fear of the “market jungle”.  Voters in the Centre are more moderate and pragmatic, less driven by ideology.  They are more difficult to mobilize through the use of negative, polarized and factional ad campaigns.

Nevertheless, we have no choice but to take the Conservatives on, organizationally and financially.  We must give our next Leader all the support he or she will need.  We will have to learn how to strike the imagination of Canadians and connect with their emotions.  And we will need to do this while avoiding populism and demagoguery, in order to remain faithful to who we are.

So who said it’s easy to be a Canadian Liberal?  It’s not easy but it sure is exhilarating!  Throughout our history, we have known how to overcome adversity.  Time and time again, we have prevailed.  Soon, we will succeed again.  For Canada!

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