A Long History of Liberal Contradictions

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Cries of hypocrisy and stern condemnation was the overwhelming response which greeted the announced Liberal candidacy of anti-pipeline advocate Steven Guilbeault in the Quebec constituency of Laurier-Sainte-Marie. 

After all, how could Guilbeault, a previous employee of Greenpeace and passionate environmentalist, ever defend, let alone politically represent, a party that had just purchased a multi-billion dollar pipeline expansion project? 

Further criticism was levied against Justin Trudeau that Guilbeault’s recruitment was further proof the Liberals lacked genuine commitment for the oil sands.

Stephen Harper used to be the one accused of having a “hidden agenda.”  Now it’s the Liberals turn to be suspected of having a secret and sinister mission.  Guilbeault’s nomination simply reinforces the perception amongst many conservatives in particular, that the Liberals are out to shut down the entire oil and gas industry.

Partisan attacks of this nature are unfortunate; even ridiculous.  Nonetheless, they are hardly unexpected.  What goes around, comes around.  The Liberals should expect such charges after lobbing their own unsubstantiated criticism against Harper for over a decade.

What is a surprise however, is the shock which greeted Guilbeault’s candidacy for the Liberals.

It was as if observers had all but forgotten that the Liberal Party of Canada has always been the party of contradictions.

Consider the case of Liberal elder statesman, Jean Chretien.

The ‘little guy from Shawinigan’ as he was nicknamed, began his political career as a parliamentary secretary under Lester Pearson, and later, served in cabinet under Pierre Trudeau.  These Liberal governments can list off countless social policy achievements, including the likes of the Medical Care Act, the Canada Student Loans Program, the Canada Pension Plan and the Canada Health Act.  All were programs that Chretien can take some credit for helping to establish during his time as a Liberal MP.

And yet, by 1993, when Chretien was first elected Prime Minister, he embarked upon a single-minded crusade of slashing federal government spending, all to slay the dreaded deficit dragon. 

Amongst many observers, he was praised for his fiscal responsibility.  And electorally he only prospered by winning the next two general elections with significant majorities. 

But it came at a price.

Chretien’s spending cuts represented the most draconian of any federal government; even more so than his conservative predecessor, Brian Mulroney, the dear friend of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.  Under Chretien’s leadership, the Liberals significantly weakened many of the very social programs he had earlier helped to establish.

He wasn’t the only contradictory Liberal.

Justin’s father, Pierre Trudeau, provides an even more telling example of Liberal paradox.

As author Nino Ricci notes, “He was an arrogant man but shy; a peace lover quick into battle; a worldly man who loved the simplicity of the woods; a lady’s man who remained a virgin till the age of 28…”

For many who loved him, including his old flame Barbara Streisand, Pierre proved to be a “graceful blend of contradictions.”

Politically, these contradictions manifested themselves frequently throughout Pierre’s time in office.

For instance, Pierre was a well-known promoter of individual rights.  One who fought with impressive vigor to entrench a Charter of Rights and Freedoms within Canada’s repatriated constitution. 

Yet Pierre was also the prime minister who invoked the War Measures Act and suspended civil liberties during the 1970 FLQ crisis.

Similar contradictions exist within Pierre Trudeau’s relationship with Alberta.

Throughout much of the province, Pierre’s name is infamously linked with the National Energy Program.  It’s a policy for which author Robert Mason Lee has referred to as “economic assassination.”

But Pierre Trudeau is also responsible, in part, for helping ensure the development of the province’s oil sands, through his government’s role in the so-called Winnipeg Agreement. 

In 1975, the Atlantic Richfield Company withdrew its 30 per cent stake from the Syncrude consortium, which was set to develop the Athabaskan oil-sands.

Its decision to do so put the entire project at risk.

That is, until the provincial government of Peter Lougheed saved the agreement by recruiting Ottawa and Ontario to each invest in the project.  The federal government of Pierre Trudeau agreed to a 15 percent stake, while the provincial governments of Alberta and Ontario alike made up the remaining 10 and 5 percent stakes, respectively.

As biographer John English notes, “Without that deal, the oil-sands would have remained yet another grand Canadian project that went unfulfilled.”  Peter Lougheed, erstwhile rival of Pierre that he was, has also referred to that agreement as one of his proudest and most significant achievements.

While commonly considered a villain throughout much of Alberta, this accomplishment, which ensured so much future prosperity for the province and country alike, certainly muddies that perception. 

But that’s Liberals for you.  Chalk full of contradictions.

It’s why Justin Trudeau champions himself a man of the environment.

Well, at least when he’s not promoting pipelines, or flying down to Texas to receive standing ovations from an audience full of oil and gas barons during CERAWeek.

Justin’s really just following the long line of paradoxical Liberals before him.

Photo Credit: National Observer

More from Wyatt James Schierman.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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