by Joyce Murray
In the last issue, several writers discussed the future of the Liberal Party of Canada. Some argued that the Liberals’ time had passed; others proposed some sort of merger or alliance between the Liberals and the NDP. Inroads invited Liberal MP Joyce Murray to respond by evoking what she considers valuable and distinctive about the Liberal Party.
— The editors
On an airport layover returning from Haiti I phoned my son Baba, a playwright and hip-hop artist who uses music and theatre to teach science to the general public. As a science communicator, Baba often gives me books to read, especially books that might be relevant to the challenges of government. One of those books, Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, was fresh in my mind during my visit to earthquake-challenged Haiti. Pinker’s book is about historical declines in violence, which coincide with increases in education, literacy and economic opportunity, as well as women’s rights and access to health care. Although some countries are clearly in better shape than others, the global trend is a positive one. Canada’s crime rates continue to drop, consistent with Pinker’s findings on the centuries-long dramatic decline of violence in human society.
Apparently Canada’s Conservative government didn’t get the memo. Their policies are based on a single overarching message: The world is an increasingly dangerous place, and only we can protect you from it. Their omnibus crime legislation, which received royal assent in March and applies expensive and excessive punishment for crime, is designed to appeal to tough-on-crime voters. Many researchers and professionals, like the Canadian Bar Association, say the evidence shows this will be negative in the long term, with overcrowded jails and less money available for prevention and rehabilitation, resulting instead in less justice and more crime. Ironically, the Conservative government’s strategy has the potential to reverse the long-term trend by making crime worse, in exchange for some more “tough-on-crime” votes. This selfish strategy is good for the Conservatives, but bad for Canada.
Another book Baba gave me is Evolution for Everyone by evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson, who studies cooperation strategies in nature. Wilson’s thesis is simple: cooperative strategies can out-compete selfish strategies, but only with the right incentives. Crime is a selfish strategy, benefiting the criminal while hurting society as a whole. Crime rates go down when society provides opportunities for mutual benefit, including access to education, economic growth and protection from exploitation, all factors that nourish Pinker’s Better Angels. These are policies that have traditionally been the priorities of the Liberal Party of Canada.
At the airport I asked my son, “How would you describe the role of the Liberal Party in Canada?”, and he suggested, “Use the analogy of the bee versus the Selfish Bee.” Bees and flowers have coevolved a mutually beneficial strategy. The flowers provide nectar to nourish the bees, while the bees help to pollinate the flowers. However, not all bees pay their dues as pollinators. Several species of “Selfish Bee,” especially carpenter bees, have evolved a strategy known as “nectar robbing,” which involves chewing a hole in the side of the flower to suck out the nectar, depleting the flower’s resources while failing to pay the “tax” of pollination. This may be good for the Selfish Bee in the short term (more nectar), but it is bad for the damaged flower and bad for all the other pollinators, the birds and insects who rely on that nectar for their livelihoods.
Liberal policy strategies have, bee-like, historically pursued mutual benefits for Canadians as individuals and as a society, seeking to have everyone’s interests aligned. Good policies balance the interests of the collective resource base with those of the individual’s freedom to thrive. Bad policies are like Selfish Bee strategies, draining long-term resources for short-term individual gain. In this Selfish Bee comparison, the Conservative government’s track record is a scorched-earth trail of floral wreckage. You can see it in the way they are pulling out of health care, undermining charities, eliminating mechanisms that protect the environment and abandoning the sustainable regulation of our valuable resources, from fisheries to oil sands. You can see it in their dogged focus on subsidies to a highly profitable oil industry, while shrinking government and thinning the social safety net.
Conservatives behave like Selfish Bees in their approach to governing, and are even worse in their approach to the greatest public good of all: democracy. Proroguing Parliament, poisonous attack ads and dirty tricks like misdirecting voters on election day and fraudulent campaign spending helped the Conservatives win one election after another, but undermine trust in the political process. Unsurprisingly, voter turnout in recent elections is the lowest in Canada’s history. Democracy is the nectar that feeds all other political rights and freedoms, and the Conservative Party of Canada’s guzzling nectar from that stem prevents our democracy from flourishing and starves everyone else who relies on it.
“How would the NDP fit into this analogy?” I asked Baba, and without missing a beat he answered, “Strong economies are nectar as well, so a policy that’s staunchly antiprofit is equally unsustainable. It’s true – the NDP’s socialist and antiprofit dogma is still embedded in their party constitution! Ideologically against free trade, they distrust corporate success and consider competition a dirty word.”
What they seem to be for is the principle that government should provide more services, regardless of affordability or the long-term cost to Canada’s financial stability. This might seem like a “for the good of the group” strategy, but it’s a short-term perspective. Without free enterprise competition, innovation and productivity inevitably get choked off and our economy will fall behind. Responsible business success rewards shareholders, contributes taxes and creates jobs – an important “resource base” for families and society. Without prosperity there is nothing to share.
This discussion brought to mind the many bold changes Liberal governments have made – laws to protect species at risk, the right to marry the partner of one’s choice, programs to alleviate seniors and child poverty and eliminating a long-term structural deficit. Liberals presented strong programs for pricing carbon at both the provincial and national levels in order to reduce greenhouse gasses – a critical collective benefit for today and the future. Both the NDP and the Conservatives campaigned against carbon taxes for selfish political gain.
I thought of radical Liberal initiatives, like implementing Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, now central to Canada’s identity, based on a careful balancing of the good of the individual with the good of the group, defining how the freedom to compete and thrive fits with the need to protect everyone, including the next generation.
The NDP was born of union movement ideology and church social tradition, but today they remain defenders of yesterday’s status quo, despite recent claims about “moving to the centre.” The Reform Conservatives are driven by “dangerous world” fearmongering and regressive “everyone for themselves” market deregulation. Both NDP and Conservative dogmas result in Selfish Bee policies, and fail the reality test of tangible benefits for all Canadians.
Classical Liberalism, on the other hand, emerged as a worldview in which blind faith, tradition, dogma, unaccountable authority and subjective certainty are all recipes for error and unreliable as sources of knowledge. Instead societies should act on the basis of reason and observation. The Liberal Party of Canada is the pro-science party, both in the sense of promoting evidence-based policies and in the sense of absorbing the strategic lessons of evolutionary thinking, balancing cooperation and competition.
The challenges shaping Canada’s future are complex: from improving Aboriginal achievement to addressing stagnating economic productivity, mental and physical health challenges and the threat of catastrophic climate change. They call for new policy solutions on both the “left” and the “right.” Such difficult problems deserve open discussion, reasoned analysis using sound data and pragmatism. They require strong leadership from a party of the centre, not bound by ideology and experienced in balancing a competitive economy and a cooperative society built for the long run – the Liberal Party of Canada.
“Baba, my flight’s leaving, love you, I’ve gotta go,” I said regretfully, tugging my carry-on toward the Air Canada gate. “See you soon, mom, love you too,” he responded, “and don’t forget, Liberals have been fighting against Selfish Bee strategies for decades. Canadians know this, and as the buzz of the Selfish Bees grows, they’ll be looking to the Liberals to help the country change and adapt, and create a sustainable future. Oh yeah, and I have this new book you should read …”