Author Matthew Kalkman's New Liberalism offers federal Grits some new ideas
As federal Liberals evaluate who should succeed Bob Rae as leader in four months, author Matthew Kalkman is hoping that he will have some influence on the debate. New Liberalism (Granville Island Publishing), the 2011 book by the 24-year-old articled law student from Vancouver, promotes the idea of “timeless freedom”. It has already attracted the attention of senior party members, including interim leader Rae and former foreign-affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy.
In an interview with the Georgia Straight in a Starbucks on Vancouver’s West Side, Kalkman explains that liberal democracies were created around the concept of freedom from harm. This classical liberalism promoted the notion that the state should not hurt the individual, a principle he characterizes as a “negative freedom”. After the Second World War, social liberalism brought “positive freedoms”, including the capacity to develop oneself. This became possible with the advancement of women’s rights, greater racial equality, and increased access to postsecondary education.
“Now if you look at the biggest issues that our system isn’t prepared for—climate change, growing debts and deficits, growing inequalities—those are all long-term threats,” Kalkman says. “I use the language of timeless freedom: the idea that we’re going to ensure the freedom we have today for future generations.”
The idea of developing a new form of liberalism came to him while he was attending the 2009 international climate-change conference in Copenhagen. That’s when he realized that individual freedom and future generations’ freedom were being jeopardized by global warming and other long-run dangers, which haven’t been adequately addressed by classical or social liberalism.
“How many more hurricanes, how many more natural disasters are we seeing?” he declares. “Clearly, the science is saying that…these shifts are tied directly in with the shift in our climate.”
Kalkman, an active Liberal in Vancouver Kingsway, says he wants the Liberal leadership race to address these major issues. He points out that one of the candidates, Justin Trudeau, attended a speech he made at a Liberal convention. Kalkman adds that he has had several conversations with another candidate, Vancouver Quadra MP Joyce Murray, who has made climate change a cornerstone of her campaign.
“If you look at First Nations, they often have embedded within their language that they care about the past and future generations,” Kalkman states. “I think that is actually one of their fundamental values that connects to this idea of new liberalism.”
He argues that in order to address some of the 21st century’s fundamental challenges, more power must flow to organizations at the international level, including the United Nations. But he emphasizes that the UN’s actions must be seen to be enhancing individual freedom.
“Clearly, one of the biggest failures of our current government is its international stance, seen most recently with its strong one-sided position on the Israel-Palestine issue,” Kalkman says. “Where’s our peacekeepers? Where’s our innovative policies that someone like Lloyd Axworthy would bring in—with human security…and the land-mine treaty?”
Axworthy, president of the University of Winnipeg, has praised Kalkman’s book for putting a “new liberal lens on contemporary issues”. In a 2011 speech, Rae called Kalkman’s concept of timeless freedom “a very important idea”.
“Bob Rae has been a great supporter of the book,” the author says. “He brings it up at numerous events.”
Kalkman was born in Vancouver but grew up in Abbotsford, where he was exposed to some very conservative thinking. “It actually gave me a good grounding about how to understand different ways people see the world,” he says. “And it also made me realize that you have to be strong with what you stand for and believe in.”