Are federal liberals more progressive than conservatives?

A recent debate on strategic voting between Erin Weir and Matthew Bergbusch prompts me to wonder the extent to which liberals are more progressive than conservatives in the federal political arena.

I think we can mostly agree that on social issues, such as gay or women’s rights, the liberals do stand on the left of the conservatives. And this is not new to Harper’s era – one will recall Mulroney’s (in)famous attempt to curtail abortion rights towards the end of his second mandate.

But the line seems much fuzzier on economic issues. I would really like to hear what others think about this, but I’ll outline a few preliminary directions in which the analysis could go. In this way, I don’t want to sway the debate one way or the other, but simply raise a few of the points that are often mentioned when such an assessment is made.

(1) Income inequality

While inequality in market outcomes have been increasing since the beginning of the eighties, the tax system seems to have compensated this rise until the early nineties, at which point after-tax income also started growing more unequal. A likely culprit is the various policy changes introduced by the liberal government in the package they introduce during their fight of the deficit.

(2) Unemployment Insurance

Under the liberals, coverage went from over 80% to less than 35%, and the surplus generated was instead used in the general fund. Of course, the conservatives are not trying very hard to raise coverage again.

(3) Monetary Policy

The obsession with inflation began in the late 1970s / early 1980s and has continued unabated to this day.

(4) Reinvestment in social programs

My memory fails me, here, but I seem to recall that the liberals had negociated a deal with the NDP for reinvestment, but somehow most of it failed to be implemented (can’t recall why either). Otherwise, there has been various piecemeal reinvestments by the federal government in recent years – it might be useful to make a somewhat detailed balance sheet here.

Anyway, I hope some of you will respond and I look forward to reading the results.


  • Isn’t it interesting that you can name all these «progressive» politicies but the fact remains that the Liberal Party itslef remains an Ol’ Boys Club, with few token women and it is a real joke when it comes to ethnic diversity and multiculturalism.

    The policy talk was enough to keep hope (and votes) for several decades, but the irreversible bleeding has begun.

    None of this hot air policy talk is convincint “the little people” anymore.

  • See Todd Scarth (ed) Hell and High Water: An Assessment of Paul Martin’s Record and Implications for the Future (CCPA, 2004) for some pretty scathing progressive commentary on the Chretin/Martin record. Any progressive elements in the Liberal record reflect pressure during the short period of Liberal minority government.

  • The Liberals are as totally devoted to regressive economic policies as the Conservatives. They know which side their bread is buttered on. That being said, they seem to have the knack most of the time of not being quite as brutal or antagonistic at enforcing capital’s diktats as the Conservatives.

    (The NDP would be even slower and more “gentle” than the Liberals in the slow erosion of progressive policies, but they’ll do it, weeping bitterly all the way.)

    But this argument is a bit academic, isn’t it? There is no sufficiently strong party out there in Canada’s political landscape that can give lefties (as opposed to left liberals) all of what they want. And don’t forget about foreign policy, environment, etc.

  • On the subject of foreign policy, the Libs look nearly as much like imperialist bootlickers as the Cons, considering their enthusiastic participation in the coup and subsequent bloodbath in Haiti, their jumping into Afghanistan and other efforts to please the Americans.

    Even in the case of the Iraq, if the demonstrations in 2003 – especially in Montreal – hadn’t been so big, I have no doubt we would have boots on the ground there too.

    While the Cons prefer the macho-militarist bluster, the soft and fuzzy peacekeeping-and-development line of the Libs, used to such great effect in the case of Haiti, may make them more convincing when trying to sell interventions to the Canadian public. Meanwhile, the CF are on the ground brutally “pacifying” the population with the help of the tactics in their brand new counterinsurgency manual.

    The NDP, for their part, leave developing a foreign policy to Rights and Democracy, a not-so-NGO and something like Canada’s equivalent to the NED. No hope there either.

    A pox on all their houses! as far as foreign policy is concerned.

  • Hum… I am not sure I completely understand this comment by Canadian. Do you mean to say that the Liberals have irreversibly alieanated “the little people” (by which I assume you mean lower income and marginalised groups)?

    In this case, would you say that they are better represented by an other party in Ottawa (or one that has no elected representative yet), or that such a party remains to be created?

  • I think that the question is merely which VERSION of the Liberal Party you are talking about.

    Martin, Pablo Rodriguez, Ignatieff, Coderre, John Manley and the business liberals as a whole are indistinguishable from the centre of the Conservative Party, and clearly to the right of the old red-Tories in the former Progressive Conservative Party. In fact, most of the business Liberals in QC who are attacking Dion are closely tied to the Quebec Liberal Party, which is far to the right of the Liberal Party of Canada, and which (viz Charest) habitually prefers to align itself with federal Conservatives rather than with federal Liberals. The business liberals, of course, are a bunch of complete incompetents who invariably lose elections to real Conservatives (St-Laurent, Turner, Martin, etc.). They are also a macho, power-hungry lot, as Linda Diebel remarked on TVO a few nights ago, and they correctly interpreted Dion’s move to include more women candidates in his party as a direct attack on their status within the party. This was a smart move by Dion, since they cannot be seen to object openly to more female participation in the party, but he may still be ousted.

    2) The grass-roots of the Liberal Party, albeit historically to the right of the NDP, are centre-left in views and aspirations. It was the grass-roots of the party which elected Dion at the last convention, over the best efforts of the party elite (undemocratically put in place by the Martin camp). There is a real question, in view of Layton’s economic policies, whether the NDP is not now to the right of this portion of the Liberal party. In any case, this voice within the Liberal Party has hitherto gained ascendancy mainly in minority situations with NDP support or when a national crisis empowered it. For example, see what good work Herb Gray did fighting John Crow during the recession of the early 1990s, in opposition, and then contrast that to Martin’s support for Thiessen’s equally tight monetary policies in the 1990s.

    3) Stephen Harper and his crew are far to the right of any politicians to hold power in Canadian history.

    4) Dion’s instincts are to the left, I believe, and that is demonstrated by whom he hangs around with by preference, as opposed to out of political necessity. So he ends up making left-leaning social policy announcements in the Maritimes, green-car manufacturing announcements in Ontario, but is restrained by the right-wingers in his party from supporting left-leaning (and therefore necessarily centralist) policies in Quebec. The Quebec left would vote for him if he were to move clearly to the left — even if he were to stand up for Ottawa strongly — but he is unable to do so because of the virulence of the business liberal opposition to him in that province.

    5) The question is whether we will end up with:
    Scenario a)
    1) Harper as PM; 2) Ignatieff as opposition leader (as a business Liberal and economically illiterate rational expectations documentarist who would have had us in Iraq hurting the locals); and 3) Layton, the most centralist NDP leader in history, as the head of a historically strong third party; or,

    Senario b)
    1) Dion as Prime Minister (almost certainly of a minority government); 2) Harper (quickly ousted as a ‘loser’); and 3) Layton and the NDP (as a weaker third party or more likely fourth party) possibly with the balance of power, and probably still with a Quebec presence in the form of the estimable Mulcair.

    I put it to you that scenario b) moves the Canadian political spectrum somewhat to the left, whereas scenario a) moves Canada further to the right than it has ever been.

  • I think that you are overlooking “scenario c”: Harper continues governing as though he had a majority due to Dion’s complete acquiescence.

  • You appear to be correct about scenario c; even a Harper minority is preferable to a Harper majority, and it is hard to believe that he could win three elections in a row.

  • “One does not try to save the stables when the house is on fire.”

    Enough of this parochial drivel! Across the world, Bush is leading a sprint for worldwide Police-State fascism, yet all the Canadians can think about is the price of their Asprins! Pathetic! With the nation clearly now under threat, as the USA tells Harper to reach an agreement on fresh water “before we come and take it’, it is URGENT that we rally the wagons into a circle and focus our attention on the real threats to the Canadian people. This petty sqaubbling over the most inane and irrelevant of trivia is playing straigth into the ertzatz Conservative “Neo-cons” plans for a North American Holocaust that is quickly coming into view over th horizon, barely a a year or two away.

  • There are a number of us wee people that have come to believe the corruption that has been revealed in the press to be within ,and active in ,the two Old Line parties , makes now the time to form a completely new Federal Party . One that is not beholden to the financiers that own the heart and soul of both the Harper Conservative / Reform party , and the present Liberal party . We believe that Real moderate Conservatives do not have a Federal voice in Ottawa . This site’s existence confirms that . If you are like minded , please go to the site – .

  • Dean Roger Ray

    Robert L Thompsett British agent complaining Canada will fall. He will pound away at forums trying to help CSIS prove their are threats. He helps cover up things similar to the barn burning incidences and Canada’s involvement in 911 tries to join we are change and try his hand at being a anarchist like Alex Jones

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