Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Liberal Purity Test

Now that Deb Gillis has become our Liberal candidate here in Halton, many of those in the riding with long-held reservations about Garth Turner now apparently feel free to voice those opinions - rather loudly in some cases.

Fair enough. I know not everyone liked Garth, and there were legitimate criticisms to be made about how he conducted himself during the last campaign, although I remain convinced that his assets outweighed his flaws and that Lisa Raitt would have won regardless of who we had running against her.

There is, however, one rather disturbing criticism I've heard against Garth that is most often expressed in the form of praise for Deb:
"At least she's a Real Liberal!"

They are referring, of course, to the fact that Garth Turner had spent most of his political career as a Progressive Conservative and later a Conservative. But in some cases it also expresses a lingering resentment towards Gary Carr, another apostate who ran here federally as a Liberal after having served on the provincial level as a Progressive Conservative.

I find this upsetting for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it makes me wonder what these people would think of me if they took a look at my voting record over the years. But in more general terms, it makes me wonder what it is exactly that these people think a "Real Liberal" is.

Garth Turner has never made any secret about what he believes. Even as a Conservative he described himself as socially liberal, and has always embraced environmentalism as a cause. In fact, the first mailing I ever got from him as my MP - my Conservative MP - was a booklet on energy conservation and reducing waste and chemical use in the home.

His ideas on economics have always been far too conservative for my taste, but then again so were many of Paul Martin's. So are many of Michael Ignatieff's. So I can only conclude that the people dismissing Garth Turner as "not a Real Liberal" are talking about something other than his policy positions.

I think they're talking about tribalism.

It sounds funny, but when I hear someone boast about being a "life-long Liberal" and how they were a youth delegate for Trudeau and how their daddy was a party bigwig back in the day, I start to hear echoes of the people who describe themselves as "Real Canadians" - implying, of course, that certain others are not.

This sort of exclusivity is nothing new to partisan politics, and certainly not to the Liberal Party of Canada. I always loved that old joke about the heckler at the political rally boasting that "My grandfather was a Democrat, my father was a Democrat, and I'm a Democrat!", to which the candidate responds, "Well sir, if your grandfather was a jackass and your father was a jackass, what would that make you?"

"Why, a Republican of course!"

Reverse the parties or substitute your own, it's the same old joke. But it's such an old joke that one would have hoped that sort of attitude had died out a generation ago. And while political heredity isn't nearly as important as it once was to the electorate (although it's always a nice added bonus), there are some people who still believe that unswerving loyalty to a single political party over an entire lifetime or even multiple generations is actually a good thing.

Are these people really so immutable, so resolute in their convictions that they have never once changed their minds about anything? And what about the political parties themselves? Surely they have all so completely transformed themselves so many times over the past fifty, or twenty, or ten years, that they no longer even remotely resemble the party these people once campaigned for in their youth.

Personally, I admire people who have changed their minds about significant issues, or have abandoned a once-loved party because they no longer believe in what it stands for. To me, that sort of transformation requires far more humility, courage and strength of character than simply sticking with something because you always have.

In fact, many of the Liberals I admire the most came to it from another party. Bob Rae, Scott Brison, Ujjal Dosanjh, Belinda Stronach, David Orchard - and those are just the ones who made the switch after entering public life. Who knows how often Gerard Kennedy might have voted NDP in his youth, or what Frank Valeriote might have thought of the PCs before they were assimilated? And of course Trudeau famously supported the CCF before joining the Liberals.*

To our opponents (and apparently some of our supporters), that sort of intellectual and political flexibility is a sign of weakness and perhaps traitorous inclination. To me, it implies a willingness to truly respect other points of view, and to change one's mind if a better idea is presented or a convincing argument is made. I have always found that people with those qualities also tend to be better at cooperation, negotiation and collaborative problem solving, and are more accepting of diverse attitudes and opinions.

What could be more essentially Liberal than that?

*(NOTE: Before you say it - yes, I know Stephen Harper was a Liberal before he was a Conservative and a Reformer. Unlike him, however, the people I've mentioned incorporated many of their old political views into their new allegiance, whereas Harper quite consciously rejected everything associated with his former party over what was essentially a single issue.)

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