This morning, whilst preparing to depart my hotel room, I listened (with one ear) to the “Your Turn” letters segment on CBC Newsworld. The topic du jour was “the next leader of the Liberal Party”; the writer who made me stop and pay attention was the one who said “the next leader needs to come from the West”. In the writer’s view, Western Canadians would rush to the Liberal Party simply because the party chose a leader from one of the Western provinces.
What utter nonsense! Only in French Québec is a tribal leader sought as a regular matter of politics. To make such a point is to misunderstand the West.
Western Canadians recognise several things.
First, their part of the country has grown substantially, both in terms of population and in terms of economic power. As with all institutions, Canada’s institutions have lagged behind this change, thereby leading to the recurrent theme of “under-representation”. (This is not only a matter of the House of Commons; the four Western provinces share 24 Senators, compared to the three Maritime provinces, Ontario and Québec each having 24. Is it any wonder the quest for Senate reform is fuelled by Western interests?)
The West will actually be hurt, for instance, by today’s Bank of Canada rate cut (25 bps). It does not need a Keynesian remedy for a problem which, in the West, does not exist: this will just fuel further price inflation and labour market distortion. Neither does the West need — or benefit from — a weak Canadian dollar. Only Central and Eastern Canada have the potential to have a short-term fix from this action. But Canadian monetary policy and much of our economic policy (transfers and fiscal policy) are geared to the needs of the centre and “devil take the periphery”. Once again the healthy (or relatively so) are sacrificed for those whose own actions have made them less so.
Second, the West is filled with deeply committed Canadians — but not necessarily Canadians who share the mind-set of the Toronto-Ottawa-Montréal axis, the urban hotbeds of Canadian Liberalism. No, here one finds both New Democrat social democrats and Conservatives in urban centres. The West has effectively reduced itself to a two party system in many places. The same duality is seen in Western provincial politics. The notion underlying the Liberals — the meme of being the “party of the centre, holding off radicalism on both flanks” — is just not a part of Western culture. We have experienced both flanks in power, and see no need to hold either of them out of the fray.
Western Canadians tend far more toward the notions of individualism. Their sense of “the limits appropriate to a free and democratic society” is to put more limits on restriction than on individuals: in other words, even Trudeau’s sacrosanct Charter is interpreted differently.
This often makes it possible for those in the T-O-M axis to accuse Westerners of being “American”. (Actually, Western Americans are similarly different from the Boston-New York-Washington axis of thought as Western Canadians are from the T-O-M. There is more than one “America” just as there is more than one “Canada”.)
Canada is far stronger when we recognise that there are different Canadas in play; that our national identity is fractal and composed of shards from various places, each of roughly equal impetus and value. The notion of there being one set of “Canadian values” — the Liberal Party’s meme that “liberal values are Canadian values” — works against this. Selecting a leader “from the West” is not going to change this fundamental divide in orientation (which is visceral), just as a policy book drawn from the needs of the centre of the country is unlikely to change the fundamental voter rejection of the Liberals in most Western ridings.
Québec, of course, does prefer a leader from the province. This is unsurprising: here it is a matter of la fierté de la nation — and the possibility of favourable action in a Cabinet which, by Canadian tradition, will have representation from each of the other provinces (thus outweighing what is seen as an “equal player”). But there is no single “tribe” in the West; there are common attitudes, but also differences, both between the provinces and within the provinces (the ecotopian rain forest coast of BC has a very different set of values from the regions of the BC Interior, for instance).
So, to this letter writer, I would say this: for the Liberals to become interesting, potentially relevant, and electorally competitive in Western Canadian ridings, it is the Liberal party and what it stands for that must change, not who leads it at any point in time. The rallying cry of fifteen years ago was Preston Manning’s “the West wants in”. It is important to remember that Manning’s vision of Reform was that it transcended the existing PC, Liberal and New Democrat parties. The Liberals and NDP resisted (although the Western NDP became electable through other changes); the PCs split in response to that call. For the Liberals to again “play” in the West, they will need to finally welcome the West not by becoming ersatz Torontonians, but by changing Liberals to make room for Westerners as they are.