Maclean's: which way forward for progressives?

Aaron Wherry / Maclean's

At one point last Saturday afternoon in the main ballroom of the Delta hotel in downtown Ottawa, epicentre for the Broadbent Institute’s first annual Progress Summit, Alex Himelfarb, a former clerk of the privy council and now co-editor of a book entitled Tax Is Not a Four-Letter Word, recalled being at a dinner party and wondering aloud about “how nice” it would be to have universal daycare in this country.

The crowd in the ballroom applauded. Apparently this is what progressives like to hear people are discussing at dinner parties.

“People say, ‘oh yeah, but how could we ever pay?’” Himelfarb continued.

He paused a beat before delivering the punchline.

“Taxes,” he said, using a tone generally reserved for the pronunciation of the word “duh.”

The crowd laughed and then applauded. A few attendees were moved to “whoo.”

Those applauding might be keen to see tax rates generally increased. Or they might have simply appreciated hearing someone say something like this, out loud, on a public stage.

The Broadbent Institute exists, at least in part, for the purpose of saying certain things out loud—as a convener and promoter of progressive ideas and arguments and as a contributor to the public and political conversations. Like the Manning Centre at the other end of the spectrum, its success will be measured by the success of the ideas and the politicians it influences. And in its namesake and now its annual conference, the Broadbent Institute would seem to be matching the Manning Centre, though the former is perhaps a bit friskier than the latter. Consider Press Progress, an apparent attempt to be involved in the daily exchange of insight and mockery.

Of this particular moment in politics, progressives might sense an opportunity to be seized—or at least a tired, wobbly government to look forward to defeating. And, either luckily or problematically, they have options.

That the Broadbent Institute would be reflexively associated with one of those options—the NDP—is obviously understandable. Opposite various New Democrats—a few MPs, various officials—I counted only one Liberal in attendance last weekend (Senator Art Eggleton). And how the institute contributes to what is a unique moment in the NDP’s history (and whatever comes next) will be an important part of its story. But then the left side of the Canadian political spectrum—those who might consider themselves progressives or have some interest in progressive ideas and values—has never been tidy. And if it looked, just two years ago, like the NDP might enjoy a clear shot at the Conservatives, the field might now be more competitive than it has ever been.

Opening last weekend’s festivities, Ed Broadbent identified three beliefs shared amongst the gathered: shared prosperity, the environment and democratic renewal. If you want to irritate a New Democrat, tell him that the Liberal party is a “progressive” party (here is Justin Trudeau describing it as such). And the precise parameters and etymology of “progressivism” as an ideology and label are worthy of debate (Mr. Trudeau conflates the p-word with the word “liberal”). And grouping voters into tidy blocks plotted along a left-to-right axis is always complicated. But on each of Mr. Broadbent’s three counts, though the details will differ, there will likely be a contest in 2015 between the Liberals and NDP and, to a lesser extent, the Greens to be seen to be wanting to do something. Voters who are interested in those basic ideas will have to decide which party is best positioned to meet those goals. And even if that has long been the case in Canadian politics, the situation ahead of 2015 seems particularly abundant. The NDP, even if still in third a year from now, will likely be as healthy and well-resourced as it has ever been to start a campaign. The Liberals, seemingly gravely wounded less than two years ago, have held a polling lead for a year now on the basis of their leader’s existence. And the Greens, like the Liberals and New Democrats, just completed their best fundraising year since 2005. You can concoct plausible scenarios in which either of Thomas Mulcair or Justin Trudeau is prime minister by the end of 2015. You can concoct various scenarios in which one helps the other become prime minister as part of a parliamentary arrangement. (And I suppose you can’t entirely discount the possibility that Elizabeth May finds a way to get herself involved here somehow.)

So if you want, say, to see expanded public childcare, you have not only to ask how it will be paid for, but which party you trust to implement such a policy. (Or, put another way, who you think can defeat Stephen Harper.)

What none of those choices will offer in 2015 is anything like obviously higher taxes, whatever the cheers the t-word might receive in places such as the Delta ballroom. The NDP are committed to raising the corporate tax rate and, pending the announcement of a specific policy from the Liberals, all three will likely plan to put some kind of price on carbon emissions. But even after successive decades of steady tax cuts, there will be no unabashed champion of a much richer treasury.

But even those progressives who would rather not raise taxes might consider why asking voters to accept higher taxes is so difficult now. Because that might get at one of the fundamental challenges for anyone who seeks to suggest that government could do more than it presently does (or should even be trusted to continue doing what it does already).

Professor and journalist Paul Adams, moderating the panel on austerity and inequality to which Himelfarb was a contributor, seemed to put a finger on something like this in his opening remarks. “It is a very difficult environment out there,” Adams said. “An Ekos poll recently said that if you go back to 1970, nearly 60% of Canadians said that they thought that the government did the right thing most of the time, that they could count on government to do the right most of the time. That number is now at about 24%. So, in other words, even if we convince Canadians that inequality is a serious issue, even if we convince Canadians that there are policy measures that could be put in place to address it, many Canadians would be doubtful of whether governments are actually capable of delivering on that.”

In other words, it is perhaps not just that a matter of how we would pay for universal childcare, but whether anyone would trust the government to pull it off. And on that count, the real answer to Himelfarb’s dinner party conversation might thus be contained in something he wrote four years ago when he posited that there was a link between taxes and trust. “The overriding challenge for those who continue to see a positive role for government,” he wrote, was “how to rebuild sufficient trust to enable cooperation where we need this to shape the future at least as much as it shapes us.” And thus might all of this weekend’s discussions about the problems that must be solved and the progressive solutions that might be offered come back to this; progressives having to defend not merely their preferred policies, but the very idea of a government that is capable of doing much of anything.

How to do that? It might involve something like reverse engineering how the Conservatives have campaigned over the last decade: small incremental measures that build and support a larger view of government. Consider, for instance, the NDP, with its commitments to ATM fees and the like, alongside what would likely be a more activist government on the environment and health care. “Practical, do-able and affordable solutions are being embraced by Canadians because they know that that’s achievable. And they know that will make a difference in their life,” says Brad Lavigne, the former advisor to Jack Layton. “I think we need to take a look at governments that are successful, both here in Canada as well as around the world, in achieving long-term objectives through short-term measures. This certainly has been successful for the Conservatives and we should keep that in mind as we build our strategies going forward.”

Eschewing the Conservative comparison, one Liberal source points to “clearly delineated deliverables” with specific targets to aim for (for example the Ontario Liberal campaign in 2003, with its commitments to reduce health care wait times, shrink class sizes and improve test scores). Perhaps some element of open government could help here too. “If you’re willing to open the drapes, warts and all, within reason of course, you still have to run a government, but when people see that you’re willing to own up to mistakes it builds trust over time,” says the Liberal. Liberal strategist Rob Silver argues  the decline in trust for authority a long-standing issue, something Blair, Jean Chretien and Bill Clinton had to contend with and points to policies that can be implemented without creating large new bureaucracies—Chretien’s child tax benefit, for instance.

In her keynote address to the conference late Saturday afternoon, former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard offered both a celebration of old progressive values and a suggestion of new possibilities. “Like progressives around the world, in the last quarter of the 20th century, the Australia Labor Party recognized that big government was leading to big inflexibilities, a lack of choice and a lumbering inability to innovate,” she said. “We privatized some government monopolies that would thrive away from government. We have continued to work through the shape, limits, capacities and incapacities of government and the way other actors, such as not for profits and social ventures, can be empowered by well designed markets for social services.”

Of the three policies she chose to focus on, one was, in part, a website (along with a new funding model for schools and a new curriculum). “I drove this deep change by embracing transparency,” she said, “so now any one in the world can get on an Australian website called My School and for every school in the country, government and non government, see sophisticated measures of achievement in literacy and numeracy based on national testing, a measure of the level of advantage and disadvantage of the children attending the school and the amount of money available at the school to teach the children.

School reform is a fraught matter and the particulars of Ms. Gillard’s online venture could be debated, but progressives might still find something in the ideals. “The tools I used for achieving progressive change in school education are modern ones,” Gillard explained. “Transparency, choice, empowerment.”

Some long and complicated discussions at progressive dinner parties would seem due.