It’s the economy, stupid: the case for Martha Hall Findlay’s Liberal candidacy
National Post columnist Andrew Coyne recently stated that political moderation is often a discussion of tone rather than substantive policy.
Coyne was referring to the NDP, which has been rewarded for striking a moderate tone, despite their largely stagnant policy positions. However, with more and more Canadians abandoning the Liberal party, it is clear this concept also works, albeit in reverse, for Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.
A large percentage of Canadians agree with the government’s package of legislative reforms meant to bolster “growth and long-term prosperity,” including the wealth of bilateral trade agreements and aggressive attempts to slay the federal deficit. They’ll even accept changes to vital programs like employment insurance and old age security in the name of forward economic momentum.
While not expressed as coarsely, “drill, baby, drill,” the 2008 American GOP mantra, could likely summarize the energy position of millions of Canadians.
As a result, what most people find wrong with the Conservatives is their approach to implementing and articulating these policies. Canadians recoil when faced with corruption, massive omnibus legislation, procedural wrangling and intolerance for dissent.
It may be counter-intuitive to think of opposition to the Harper government as simply an argument over tone and approach, but try asking a Canadian outside the academic bubble of a university which specific Conservative policies they so fervently oppose, and why. The answer generally has to do with secrecy and strong-arm tactics, particularly on entitlement reform.
In short, while Canadians are fixated on economic performance, they also broadly sense that something isn’t quite right on Parliament Hill.
For now, they’ve settled this discomfort by embracing the NDP.
Yet procedural issues and accountability matters do not resonate with the electorate (ask Michael Ignatieff) and Canadians will eventually question the practical nature of long-term NDP policies, as they always have in the past.
The recent Conservative attack ad against the NDP, which accuses the party of engaging in “dangerous economic experiments,” is effective largely because it gets to the heart of Canadians’ trepidation toward the New Democrats.
This deficit of proper tone on the one hand, and proper policy on the other gives the Liberal Party of Canada a substantial opportunity.
Of all the realistic potential leadership candidates to replace interim chief Bob Rae, Martha Hall Findlay is the best person to take advantage of it.
Martha Hall Findlay, 52, is an executive fellow at the University of Calgary’s School of Public Polcy. She is a former Liberal member of Parliament for the Toronto riding of Willowdale (she lost her seat to Conservative Chungsen Leung in the 2011 election), an accomplished Ontario businesswoman, lawyer and mother of three.
In 2006, before becoming a member of Parliament, she shook up the leadership process by becoming the only female candidate in the race and seemingly the only one willing to re-connect with the party’s grassroots after a significant election defeat. Her “Big Red Bus” populist tour was widely hailed as an innovative and important out-reach exercise and one which got average Canadians talking about Liberal policy.
Within the typical fratricidal speak of the Liberal Party of Canada, Hall Findlay would undoubtedly be characterized as a Paul Martin Liberal rather than a Pierre Trudeau/Jean Chretien stalwart.
For her, the Liberal Party hinges on the importance of free enterprise; of economic competence coupled with principles of equality of opportunity and social justice. While Chretien and Trudeau embraced many of these principles in practice, the two men also employed anti-trade rhetoric in order to solidify favourable electoral support from the left and engaged in troubled redistributive policies, like the National Energy Program.
Hall Findlay firmly rejects the anti-globalization thread that ran through her party in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and which persists today in the persona of PEI MP Wayne Easter and others. Her liberalism mirrors that of Michael Ignatieff who, despite some half-truths uttered in an attempt to win last year’s election, conceives Liberal orthodoxy as inextricably linked with free market principles.
“The NDP are not liberals in a hurry, and we are not a party of the left,” he wrote in a recent Globe and Mail editorial.“We are a free enterprise party, and they are big-government social democrats.”
Within the framework of the Liberals’ leadership personality cult, Hall Findlay falls on the wrong side of history. Yet her activism within the party, and her populist appeal outside it, place her on the moral high ground.
It is precisely because Hall Findlay’s potential victory next year would break the party away from its misguided “tradition” of swapping between male francophone and male anglophone leaders that her candidacy should be seriously considered. It is precisely because she does not attach the surname of a long retired or defeated prime minister to her Liberal moniker that the membership (and the media) should begin paying attention.
And even outside the historical selection of the Liberals’ first female leader, having a woman at the proverbial table with the likes of coarse partisans Stephen Harper and Thomas Mulcair, would certainly help the Liberals strike the right, contrasting tone.
However, as I’ve already argued, it is not enough to take the temporary advantages of a moderate tone away from the New Democrats. The Liberals must take policy back from the Conservatives, and do so boldy.
In the March issue of Policy Options magazine, Hall Findlay presented her policy vision for the Liberal Party of Canada. The essay, titled “Not right, not left, but forward,” could easily have been re-branded with American Democratic strategist James Carville’s famous utterance: “It’s the economy, stupid.”
This overarching emphasis is peppered throughout Hall Findlay’s discussion of everything from health care, immigration, Aboriginal peoples and the environment.
For example, she argues Paul Martin’s Kelowna Accord was little more than a mechanism for increasing Aboriginal reserve funding and Liberals need to pursue bold alternatives (like private property ownership) in order to ensure the 400,000 Aboriginal youth eligible to enter the labour market in the next 10 years can do so.
On health care, she argues the demographic challenges of an ageing population require the pursuit of feasible options for private delivery within the larger Medicare system.
On the environment, Hall Findlay argues Canada’s future prosperity lies both in natural resource development and the knowledge economy, creating policies to mitigate environmental damage. She supports the Keystone XL pipeline, the Northern Gateway pipeline and the Lower Churchill Falls project.
However, it is her principled defence of free trade and more corporate investment in Canada that is most significant. In discussing the benefits of the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) free trade negotiations, she states “just because Harper is saying the same thing doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea.”
In a recent editorial for the Globe and Mail, Hall Findlay published the findings of her rigorous study on supply management, the government policy of creating supply quotas for dairy products, which results in artificially high prices on many household staples.
Supply quotas largely benefit a wealthy few powerful dairy farmers on the backs of Canadian consumers. There are a meagre 13,000 dairy farms across Canada yet there are over 30 million Canadians, she argues, most of whom regularly buy dairy products at three times the market price.
Supply management has long been considered a racket by economic experts and is now potentially on the table as a Canadian concession in the TPP free trade negotiations. The Harper Conservatives, fearing a backlash from the dairy lobby, have been reluctant to confirm or deny whether they are willing to relinquish supply management as part of the trade deal.
Hall Findlay believes they should. And she couched it in terms of the economy, social justice and the best interests of average Canadian consumers.
“It is simply untenable that Canadian families pay upwards of $300 more a year than they need to, for milk alone, let alone higher prices for other products,” she wrote. “Worse, it’s regressive, which means that the ones who suffer most are the low-income families – the very ones who most need affordable access to nutrition.”
In a country that has developed a blind consensus around supply management at every level of government, Martha Hall Findlay is challenging the status quo. And she is doing so respectfully and intelligently with an ear to the concerns of average Canadians.
Do not confuse Hall Findlay’s principles as occupying only the traditional right of the political spectrum. She clearly believes firmly in social justice, in the Charter and the pan-Canadian identity that once made up the backbone of the Liberal Party.
In opposition to two federal opponents, one with a deficit of accountability (the Conservatives) and the other with a dearth of realistic policies (the NDP), the Liberal Party of Canada led by Martha Hall Findlay could make deep in-roads all over the country.
But will it be enough to stop a Conservative victory or lift the party out its current status doldrums? That remains to be seen.