Ontario Liberals need to be pragmatic

Ontario Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne reads a story to kindergarten students during a campaign stop at a school in Cambridge, Ont., on Monday, June 9, 2014. (Colin Perkel/CP)


As the Ontario Liberal Party recovers from the devastating defeat last June, a debate has begun to emerge about whether the party should stick with the aggressively progressive agenda of former premier Kathleen Wynne, or rather adopt a more “centrist” position.

I have a particular problem with this debate, for a very simple reason.  The debate fails to define its terms.

Quite simply, “the centre” is not some fixed spot on a political spectrum.  “The centre” is not some mathematical formulae.  Just throwing the term out there as if it exists in the abstract makes for a false debate.

Take tuition, as an example.  Last week, in a shockingly shortsighted move, the Ford government ended the free tuition program the Wynne government had implemented for low- and middle-income students, a program that was working to expand access to education.

But, even in so doing, the Conservatives unveiled a 10% cut in the actual sticker price of tuition.

This is an implicit admission that even Conservatives felt tuition should be less, and in order to increase access, tuition would need to be reduced (now, it’s a dubious policy, as it is essentially a 10% cut in university funding, meaning that coupled with ending free tuition, students are being asked to pay more for less, but I digress).

So, whereas the Tories believe tuition should come down by 10% and the NDP, presumably, believe tuition should be free, the Liberal position is not simply to split the difference and find the “centrist” position to be a 60% reduction.  That would be a political absurdity, for the simple reason that campaigners have moved the Overton window so far that free tuition is an overwhelmingly popular policy.

What would have been a far-left view a decade ago is now a mainstream idea.

Indeed, it’s the task of political leadership to persuade the people of the merits of your idea.  For a progressive party, that task means trying to find the right policies to advance the cause of justice and opportunity for the most people possible.

Wynne may have lost but, in some respects, she won the argument on behalf of progressives: the Conservative position on the minimum wage, for instance, is now that it should remain at $14 — an unthinkable position for the Tory Party before activists on the left succeeded in getting the former Liberal government to embrace “$15 and fairness”.

Moreover, the left and right are not going to stop trying to move the population to their side of the argument.  In the 1980s, the right succeeded in finally advancing their side of the debate, and went about dismantling aspects of the New Deal, which had defined Western politics for decades.

The deregulation and cuts agenda became so cemented, that progressive parties across the Western world — from Tony Blair’s New Labour to Jean Chrétien’s “slay the deficit” mentality — moved their policy agenda to the right, with the neoliberal approach acting as an attempt to win power within a fundamentally conservative paradigm.  In the 1990s, heretofore progressive parties had to try to find the “centre” by essentially moving to the right.  They were eventually replaced by Conservatives who did away with their progressive policies, and kept their right-wing policies, the net result of which was essentially three decades of centre/centre-right government.

In many ways, we are still seeing the backlash to that neoliberal agenda.  But, today — from Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez to Jeremy Corbyn, and even through the successes of Barack Obama — the “centre” is shifting to the left.  And it has done so because progressives have won the argument.

Free tuition, massive investment in public transit, action on climate change, fair wages and universal health care are suddenly mainstream, “centrist” notions, even in America.  What was once a left-wing idea is now the centre — but the pendulum could easily shift back and this does not happen by accident!

It happens by leaders standing on principle and moving the centre towards either the left or the right.  Politics is a two-part task: to persuade people of your point of view, and then implement the fine art of the possible.  But it is both priorities at once.  If the Liberals become a party of “the centre”, we let the other parties define us based on a reaction to their stances.  And then we become a party not of leaders but of technocratic managers of a split-the-difference status quo.

Horace said, “it is worth it to make some degree of progress”, and I agree.  That is why I am a Liberal, not an NDPer.  I have strong, progressive principles, and I will fight to win the argument.  But I will also take what I can get, even if it is half a loaf for now.  Being pragmatic is not the same thing as being a “centrist”: the former means fighting for what’s right and knowing when to compromise in the name of a larger goal; the latter means letting others define you for what you believe, and accepting it passively.

Being a Liberal does not mean being a fence-sitter or a principle-free “centrist”.  It means being pragmatic, and advancing the agenda for a more just society, rather than holding out self-righteous hope for a pure version of your ideal worldview.  But it still means having that utopia in mind and working to repair our world one step at a time.

So, no, I do not think Liberals should aim to be a party of “the centre”; I think we should be a party focused on doing what is principled, and making our principles popular so we can put them into practice.

More from Jonathan Scott.   @J_Scott_

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