A way forward for Canada's progressives

The end of March marked an important moment for Canada’s progressive movement.

Between March 28 and 30, more than 600 Canadians from across the country converged in Ottawa to take part in the Broadbent Institute’s inaugural policy conference, the Progress Summit.

I’ve never seen assembled in one place such a diverse group of progressives, young and old – francophones, anglophones and allophones; Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals; environmentalists, trade unionists, social justice and LGBTQ rights activists; academics, policy makers and private sector economists.

We were there to talk about how to build a fairer and more sustainable 21st-century economy, and how to organize and realize this vision.

This is a particularly important moment in Canada’s history to have such a conversation. The Conservative party – and the well-organized right-wing groups that underpin it – are doing all they can to undermine Canadians’ faith in government and its role in furthering the common good.

They have attacked unions and silenced charities, gutted environmental and social programs. They scorn all expert advice. They even stop government scientists from fully discussing the results of their work.

They now promise to deliver more tax giveaways to the rich that will deepen inequality, such as the regressive income-splitting policy.

What makes all this even more disturbing is that much of the political debate in Canada is being shaped by this conservative approach, narrowing the confines of accepted political discourse and persuading Canadians that the policy options are limited. Even while the evidence is strong in polls that the majority of Canadians remain committed to progressive values, Conservatives, right-wing think tanks and much of the media keep telling us that Canada has “moved to the right.” There is an alarming disconnect between this narrow debate and what Canadians actually want and believe.

That’s why it’s time to change the conversation. As keynote speaker Mariana Mazzucatoreminded the audience at the summit, the battle for progressives today is not only a matter of practical policy. Progressives must also learn how to talk differently about issues. Only by recasting the framework of public conversation can we bring about meaningful change.

I was impressed by the vigorous debate on core issues. The summit showcased a left with fresh ideas and perspectives on the most pressing challenges: how to build an innovation-led green economy, how to solve precarious work, how to reverse growing inequality – just to name a few.

The Progress Summit was a jolt in the arm, a reminder to progressives that another way of talking, thinking and doing is possible.

It certainly crystallized for me at least three important attributes of a modern Canadian social democratic vision.

First, prosperity needs to be broadly shared. One of the key policy challenges of our time is persistent income inequality. We must build the kind of economy that supports good jobs across generations, jobs that will be secure, highly productive, highly skilled and well-paid. And it’s also about using public policy and programs to redistribute wealth more equitably.

Second, prosperity needs to be greener than it ever has been before. One of the fundamental divides between the Conservative government and progressives is the approach to a green economy. Progressives, indeed most Canadians, understand that environmental and economic priorities need to be reconciled and made mutually reinforcing

And while industries must conform with rigorous modern standards of environmental performance, that is not enough. We need mission-oriented investment from the private sector and government, with a vision to make Canada a leader in innovative green industries,

Third, this growing, broadly shared and greener prosperity needs to occur within the context of a renewed democracy. We need governments that tackle the important challenges of the day armed with the best evidence and harvesting the best ideas from all stakeholders in public debate. Certainly from public servants, but also from civil society-from NGOs, academics and charities.

Instead, what we have is a government increasingly bunkered down. Seeing enemies around every corner. The mis-named Fair Elections Act is nothing more than U.S. Republican-style voter suppression. I spent more than two decades in the House of Commons, and I can think of no other Prime Minister who was focused on undermining electoral participation and public debate. Always in the past changes in the electoral process were made on the basis of all-party agreement.

Whereas 10 years ago progressives had little or no need to defend our basic democratic values and institutions, today it is essential. We must defend a strengthened and robust Elections Canada. We must demonstrate to Canadians that, unlike the present government, we want evidence-based policy; we welcome debate and understand the best decisions are made after vigorous discussion-the kind that animated the Progress Summit.

Years from now, I hope I can look back and see that the summit served as a marker, an energizing turning point for progressives in the battle to push back against those right-wing forces that have betrayed Canada’s progressive tradition.

This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star.