Red Redemption?

From Trudeaumania to Pepper Spray Jean, Justin’s got baggage.

ELECTION FEATURE by Paul Dechene

My grandfather hated Trudeau. Not Justin — his father, Pierre, who was Prime Minister for 15 years through the ’70s and early ’80s.

He could never forgive Trudeau the Elder’s deficit spending, his defunding of the military and his National Energy Policy. As far as my grandfather was concerned, the Liberal Party was an agent of the apocalypse.

Bumpa (as my grandfather was called thanks to one of those quirks of family history that involved a first grandchild and a speech impediment) was a fan of Diefenbaker and Clark, lukewarm on Mulroney and a Reform Party early adopter. He died during the Chretien years, convinced Canada was going to Hell in a hand basket. But if he’d lived to today, he’d be laughing in his rum and coke at the thought of the Liberals renewing themselves under the leadership of Pierre Trudeau’s oldest son.

“No way are people going to be suckered by that family again,” he’d say.

And then he’d point to the polls that currently have the Liberals fighting to get into second place and say, “See.”

Personally, I ignored my grandfather’s Trudeau tirades; but maybe I absorbed some his animus for the Liberals via osmosis because by the time the ’90s came around, I was all primed to see PM Jean Chretien and his finance minister Paul Martin as a great evil that needed overthrowing. Those transfer cuts to the provinces that led to post-secondary education being defunded? That impacted me. How dare they!

To my entire Gen X clade of slackers and political illiterates, the Liberals were synonymous with Ottawa fat cats, wallowing in corruption: smug, self-satisfied and convinced they were the nation’s natural rulers.

That’s a hell of a brand to have to shake.

I’ve mellowed since then. Realized that things can get much worse than Pepper Spray Jean. And right now I’d happily take a revival of Trudeaumania over four more years of Harper playing the national piano.

But those polls… seems the electorate may not have forgotten those deep cuts to education and healthcare, the Sponsorship Scandal and the Gomery Commission.

So I bundled up all my Grunge Era critiques and brought them to a guy who’s been with the Liberals through the highs and the lows: Ralph Goodale. He’s been a Liberal MP for 27 years: first from 1974 to 1979, and then from 1993 until now. He was Paul Martin’s finance minister from 2003 to 2006 and is the deputy leader of the party under Justin Trudeau.

And he’s running once again in Regina–Wascana.

Justin Trudeau is running on a lot of progressive ideas. Like funding for affordable housing and public transit, action on climate change, improving relations with First Nations people, welcoming more refugees into the country.

But there’s this saying about the Liberal Party, that they campaign from the left but govern from the right. Why should we believe any of Trudeau’s progressive rhetoric?

“Because he is, among all the leaders, the most authentic,” says Goodale.

“[He’s] the one who thinks for himself,” he adds. “He’s not constrained by handlers. He obviously has advisors and helpers. But you ask him a question and he will give you his own spontaneous answer.

That spontaneity on occasion can be controversial,” says Goodale. “But he is very much for real and has earned some substantial points with the voting public. He is honest and candid and expresses what he really and truly believes.

But what about the Liberal’s history?

“In terms of the campaign from the left and govern from the right thing, just think back to that period we were in when Mr Martin and Mr Chretien had to deal with a fiscal catastrophe that they inherited from Brian Mulroney,” Goodale says. “The deficit was $40 billion a year. The debt to GDP ratio was 70 per cent.

And just servicing the debt was soaking up 33 cents out of every federal tax dollar,” says Goodale.

“The country’s fiscal sovereignty was at stake. the international financial institutions like the IMF and others were quite literally knocking on the door. A very serious problem had to be dealt with. There was a restraint program that lasted basically three years and then the transfers were restored. That’s the other half of the equation that people often forget. The reductions were temporary and by the time we left office we had taken transfers to the provinces to an all-time record high level.

“So we got back the country’s fiscal sovereignty,” Goodale says. “And it’s interesting then what the party did in terms of creative and progressive social policy. There was the $42 billion invested in healthcare [and] there was a national childcare plan fully negotiated, fully financed, fully implemented until Harper threw it out. There was a plan to implement fully 80 per cent of our Kyoto obligations on climate change. There was $7 billion for better access to post-secondary education. And of course there was [The Kelowna Accord] on dealing with issues with Aboriginal people. All of that very, very progressive policy.

“The irony is, when the NDP joined with Harper to defeat the Liberal government in 2005, all of that was blown up. So a lot that was very progressive was lost in that whole controversy.”

I then asked Goodale if the party had changed, if it felt fresh to him. And he said it did, and talked at length about how he goes to party meetings now and sees all these new faces; and about how, under Justin Trudeau, the Liberals are striving to broaden their base and look outward.

So I went to one of those new faces, Lisa Abbott, the Liberal candidate in Saskatoon West.

Abbott’s a human rights lawyer and a senior advisor to the Native Women’s Association of Canada and the Assembly of First Nations — so, kind of the opposite of the Old Boy’s Club Liberal that every 20th Century political cartoonist grew adept at drawing.

I asked her about the baggage the Liberal brand had accumulated, about how a lot of people felt it had grown stale, entitled and complacent.

“In the 2011 election, the Liberal Party was humbled,” says Abbott. I think it was an opportunity for the Liberal Party to reflect back on itself. And it’s done a good job of rebuilding the party from the ground up. I think under the leadership of Justin Trudeau, he’s been able to attract a very strong team of candidates from coast to coast, a very diverse team. And I’m really happy to be a part of that.

“I would like to see the Liberal Party become the party that offers hope and optimism for the future,” Abbott says. “I was a kid who grew up in pretty dire poverty. When I was nine I wanted to be a lawyer and I think that governments have to create those opportunities for people to have hope for a brighter future.

“If the Liberal Party can achieve that, they’ll attract the support of the people,” she says.

After talking to Goodale and Abbott, it’s hard not feel optimistic about the Liberal’s renewal program. And by admitting that, my grandfather would have been disappointed in me (as usual). He’d say I was in danger of getting suckered.

But Bumpa passed on years ago.

Maybe the Liberal Party he hated did too?

2015-09-17