So What’s a Progressive Anyway?

Two excellent opinion pieces today raise interesting questions about Canada’s political landscape and all the recent talk about coalitions and mergers. Rick Salutin asks the big question about the left in Canada, “Left? What left?” And Dan Gardner asks the related question, “Progressive? What’s that?” Both are worth a read.

Salutin argues that Canada has no left political parties anymore, no socialist or even social-democratic party. In the midst of all the talk of mergers and coalitions, he concludes that there’s not much to distinguish the various non-conservative parties, so heck, they might just as well get together. He adds that he is still trying to find the left-wing media the right is working so hard to counter.

Gardner’s piece is a response to an op-ed by Matt Brown and Eugene Lang which recommends a coalition of “progressive parties” if they hope ever to win again. Gardner, who has been quite critical of the Conservative’s policies from what could be described as a “progressive perspective”,  nevertheless asks who these so-called progressives are and what they might stand for apart from opposing and being opposed by the current government. He goes on to suggest that the differences between the Conservatives and the others should not be exaggerated, especially given how much “taxpayers money” the current government has spent, which apparently illustrates that they are not “really conservative”.

So what does it all say? First, the right in Canada has gone through a pretty difficult period of self-examination and definition and now know who they are much more clearly, it seems, than do the “non-right”. Yes it’s true that this Conservative government has spent more than ideological purists would like, but they are, after all, a coalition of neo-cons who want limited government in social and economic affairs and theo-cons who want government to impose moral order – and the latter has costs, and of course, they want to win and that too has costs. This was exactly the same pattern for conservative governments in the U.S.

Second, free market liberalism has been such a powerful force that it has reduced the differences among the political parties particularly on economic matters. Everybody talks like a free market, free-trading, fiscal conservative, even if they don’t mean it. Thatcher and Reagan pretty much changed the political language in English-speaking democracies across all parties. The left has been in rapid retreat ever since and the “non-right” has been looking for definition.

Having said this, my sense nonetheless is that the notion of “progressive” does have meaning, if only a belief that government’s role is not just to stop bad things from happening or to correct them when they do, but to help make good thinks happen, to promote human dignity, solidarity in diversity, and equality of opportunity, and to help ordinary people manage change in the face of broad global forces we don’t control.  Progressives also give greater focus to government’s role in “correcting” the market, particularly with respect to the environment and poverty, and generally harnessing the market for people’s well-being, and  are internationalists in the pursuit of Canada’s interests and committed to fulfilling our responsibilities as global citizens.

In any case, what I take from both these pieces is that the non-right has a lot of work to do to explain, in its various and, who knows, perhaps incompatible versions, what progressive values mean in concrete terms for Canadians now and for the future.  What do they see for Canada?  How will they help Canada be a global player?  How will they deal with the social and economic costs of the demographic crunch, the widening productivity gap, deepening inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, and declining trust?   The answers don’t need to be some overarching vision or, as Susan Delacourt calls it, “the one big thing”,  but they ought at least to set out what the challenges are,  how  they would take them on and how that’s different from what we see now and, given the pace of change,  from what was on offer in the past as well.  And it will have to spell out how we will do and pay for this in ways that don’t unfairly burden future generations.

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