There’s clearly an appetite in Canadian politics for reforming the system. Preston Manning tapped into it from the right, Jack Layton from the left. But Liberals were the original reformers, appointing Parliament’s first auditor-general after a patronage scandal deposed the Conservatives. That was in 1873.
The Liberal Party needs to revive that tradition in 2012.
Liberals are the third party. Doing a good job of that means being the conscience of Parliament — and the scourge of those who govern without conscience. After five years out of government, Liberals have the chance to become a grown-up party. Liberals have to change to win, starting with an attitude adjustment that confronts their party’s legacy. And that means acknowledging, and apologizing for, the things it has done that it now claims are assaults on democracy when others do them.
Take Bill C-38. The Liberal response to the Conservatives’ omnibus budget bill was rightly indignant, but it was also indefensibly self-righteous. Liberals seem to need a reminder: In government, the party practiced all the legislative dark arts the Conservatives have perfected since.
This amnesia is just one case of a rule among Liberals who, however well intentioned, have not come to terms with the party’s true legacy. Reinventing the party starts by reckoning with the anything-goes, entitled ethos — typified by omnibus bills, patronage stunts and eventually culminating in the sponsorship scandal — that got Liberals ejected from government. Liberals abused the trust of Canadians, and the only way to get it back is to earn it.
Two egregious errors eroded the party’s appeal to two whole provinces: the sponsorship scandal in Quebec and the National Energy Program in Alberta. These two actions are the Albatrosses around renewal efforts. Apologizing for these errors is a vital first step for regaining public trust. People respect those with the courage to admit their wrongs and move forward with a plan to rectify them. Having the courage to apologize has the added benefit of being a clear contrast with the roughshod, admit-no-wrong attitude of the Harper government.
Indeed, trust is the prerequisite for making a promise of good government to the Canadian people. Good government isn’t just good policy; a good government advances its policies without compromising democratic processes. Liberals need Canadians’ trust, and it starts with a mea culpa.
If Liberals want parole, more is needed than simply holding Mr. Harper to account. The party must acknowledge the precedent it set for the Conservatives, pledge to do better and start living up to that pledge now. An apology for historical faults is job one for a new leader, followed by a further set of proposals addressing accountability, transparency and respect for Parliament – starting with omnibus bills.
Not every omnibus bill is undemocratic but combining unrelated and far-reaching legislation in one bill as the Conservatives did is simply unacceptable. The Liberal Party should forswear those tactics and commit to amending the rules of the House to prohibit them. Only Elizabeth May has come close to making this pledge, and hers is the only party less likely than our own to form a government.
Liberals can be proud of much of their legacy – but not all of it. It’s long past time for the party to recognize this simple fact, admit mistakes and learn from them. It’s time to offer Canadian voters a grown-up party.
Originally published on nationalpost.com