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Progressive Liberals alarmed as federal leadership contenders tilt right

OTTAWA - Federal Liberals long ago abandoned the cardinal rule of success handed down by late Grit rainmaker Keith Davey: "Revere the leader."

As they prepare to choose their fourth leader (sixth, counting interim leaders) in nine years, Liberals seem poised to renounce the third of Davey's Ten Commandments of Canadian Liberalism: "Stay on the road to reform; keep left of centre."

With one lonely exception, the top tier of contenders for the Liberal helm has veered sharply to the right, much to the private consternation of some of the stalwarts of the party's once-influential left wing.

"All I'm hearing is we're going down the Reagan/Thatcher slipstream," despairs one prominent veteran Liberal.

"I don't believe that the way you're going to offer an alternative (to the Harper Conservatives) is to be a pseudo-Tory."

Many Liberals and pundits had assumed Justin Trudeau, the prohibitive favourite, would represent the progressive wing of the party — assumptions based not so much on his relatively thin policy pronouncements as on his youth, mop of curly hair, penchant for wearing jeans and the legacy of his late father, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau.

But the Montreal MP has so far gone out of his way to foil expectations.

He's called the now-defunct, Liberal-created long gun registry a failure and asserted that guns are an important part of Canada's identity.

He's come out strongly in favour of the takeover of Nexen Inc. by the Chinese state-owned oil company, even chiding Prime Minister Stephen Harper for not being open enough to investment by state-owned enterprises in the oilsands.

Two of Trudeau's most serious challengers have similarly positioned themselves as so-called blue or business-friendly Liberals.

Montreal MP Marc Garneau, Canada's first astronaut, has called for wide open competition in the telecommunications sector. And he's lamented government interference in free markets when it comes to encouraging innovation.

"Instead of more government handouts, let's eliminate all capital gains tax on investment in Canadian start-ups," he told a Toronto business audience in a recent speech larded with conservative catchphrases.

"A government official should not be making the decision where to invest. It's the experts — you — the innovators themselves that know best."

Former Toronto MP Martha Hall Findlay touts her experience as a businesswoman and has called for an end to supply management of dairy products. With her campaign based in Calgary, she's strongly supported Alberta's oilsands and two proposed pipelines to carry oilsands bitumen to ports on British Columbia's coast.

Among the top tier contenders, so far only Vancouver MP Joyce Murray has staked out turf on the left. She's an ardent environmentalist, favours a carbon tax, opposes pipelines through B.C. and supports full legalization of marijuana. She also advocates co-operation with the NDP and Greens in the next election in ridings where a united progressive front could defeat the Conservatives.

Not surprisingly, all four balk at being pegged on the right or left of the political spectrum, a categorization they dismiss as outdated and meaningless to voters.

Hall Findlay, for instance, says her policies are based on evidence, "not on some outdated view of what is 'right' or 'left' or even some undefined 'centre.'"

For his part, Garneau places himself dead centre between the Conservatives and the NDP.

"I am a Liberal," he says.

"Rather than the stark choices we face today — a choice between a party that believes in less government and a party that believes in more government — I believe in innovative, responsive, smart government."

Nevertheless, the pronounced rightward tilt of the race so far has prompted former veteran minister Lloyd Axworthy, the leading spear carrier for the party's progressive wing for decades, to line up behind Murray.

Now president of the University of Winnipeg, Axworthy has to be discreet about politics these days. But he allowed in an interview that he is "impressed" with Murray and the values she espouses.

Murray may yet have company on the left. One-time minister Martin Cauchon is seriously pondering a late entry into the race, evidently sensing an opening for another progressive voice.

Cauchon has blasted Trudeau for calling the gun registry a failed policy, saying leadership candidates "should have the backbone to respect and stand for the principles that we have always stood for.”

And in a recent speech, delivered in Berlin but circulated at home, he extolled the "moderate" policies pursued by past Liberal prime ministers, including an emphasis on peacekeeping, Canada's role as a "soft power," and his own role in spearheading the move to legalize same-sex marriage.

There has always been creative tension between the left and right flanks of the party, which has been most successful when the two are in balance. As long-shot contender George Takach puts it, a bird "needs both wings to fly."

Jean Chretien led the party to three consecutive majorities by flapping both wings. He eliminated the deficit and slashed taxes, while legalizing gay marriage, introducing legislation to decriminalize marijuana, signing on to the Kyoto climate change treaty and creating the gun registry.

So why would leadership contenders abandon that winning formula?

Trudeau's perceived rightward tilt is not ideological, one of his strategists says. Rather, it's the result of aiming himself squarely at middle-class Canadians, who tend to be conservative on economic matters.

At the same time, defying expectations by disowning the gun registry or his father's hated National Energy Program reflects Trudeau's belief that the party can not rebuild by holding fast to sacred cows from decades gone by.

"What we want to do is clear the decks so we can build a new platform from scratch," the strategist says.

Stephen Carter, Hall Findlay's campaign manager and the architect of the come-from-behind victories of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi and Alberta Premier Alison Redford, argues that the locus of Canadian politics has shifted — not left to right, but east to west as formerly Quebec-centric politicians come to grips with the economic power of the West.

Indeed,right-left labels no longer really apply, Carter maintains. Canadians, he argues, have become very fluid in their political beliefs, with little loyalty to any party. They traverse the political spectrum on an issue-by-issue basis and are not the least bothered if a leader does the same.

What they're looking for, Carter believes, is an authentic leader who speaks his or her mind.

"The party brand is the leader. That's it," he says bluntly.

Still, the dwindling band of Liberal progressives worry about the perceived rightward drift. They fear the party risks losing its few remaining urban outposts in a misguided bid to appeal to disaffected Tory supporters.

"It doesn't make sense to siphon off the 40 per cent that Stephen Harper has," says a Murray organizer. "It makes more sense to go for the 60 per cent who don't vote for Stephen Harper."

-Joan Bryden reports for Canadian Press.

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