Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Montreal an important step in the road – but just one step

I wanted to step back and take some time after my three days in Montreal for the Canada at 150 conference to try to put it all in perspective, and I think at the moment the impact of the conference can be summed-up thusly: Montreal was an important step in the road, but only one step. Will it be another Kingston or Aylmer? Only time, and what the Liberal Party does with what they heard this weekend, will determine that.

It was definitely an important exercise, and on a number of levels, from engaging the citizenry and the party grassroots, to putting on the table the challenges Canada is facing as it approaches 150, and to begin thinking about how the Liberal Party – really, how any party that hopes to govern – can hope to meet those challenges.

On the engagement side, this was an impressive success that I hadn’t really anticipated a few months ago. When I first heard of the Canada at 150 concept, and when I was asked for my thoughts on what the conference should be, I was concerned it could turn out to be the elitist, insular academic exercise the usual critics panned it as. To be successful it had to be more about just that room in Montreal, it had to be a much broader exercise.

It turned out to be a much broader exercise than I imagined it could be. The entire conference was streamed live over the Web, allowing anyone to tune-in across the country, and around the world, and take part in the web chat. At the grassroots level, Liberal ridings organized satellite events across the country where party members gathered to watch the proceedings live, and many organized their own conferences where panels debated the issues facing their own communities. Within the conference, the questions to the panel alternated from the floor to the Web chat, and even Skype. I saw Gerard Kennedy during a break, standing in the corner with a laptop doing a Skype chat back to a satellite meeting in his riding. And Michael Ignatieff did a web video Q&A live with the web audience. It was far from an isolated group of Montreal elites, but a real fusion of online and offline interactivity on a scale I certainly haven’t seen at a political conference before.

As great as it is that more people were engaged though, the question remains, what did they see when they tuned into Canada at 150?

From my perch at the back of the room on media row (I was accredited as a blogger), I certainly heard much more about problems than I heard about solutions. There are certainly big challenges, and tough choices, coming for our country, and those chosen to govern it.

If I had one personal take-away from the weekend, it was that I really need to get focused on retirement planning and savings because, right now, I’m nowhere on that.

We heard of massive demographic shifts, and a skills shortage that will lead to a future of jobs without people, and people without jobs. Of the massive shortfall on retirement savings, the need for pension reform, and the inability of the current generation to care for ageing boomers. We heard that pricing carbon is the only effective way of dealing with climate change. We heard that poor, unemployed men are the major unaddressed global security concern in the 21st century. We heard that our health care system is in crisis and we need to make tough choices, none of which are politically popular. And we heard of the need for a re-centring of our foreign policy, and a plea to not abandon Africa.

We heard a lot on problems. On solutions, we heard substantially less (never mind how to pay for them) but there were a number that I liked. We heard that we need a national strategy on life-long learning if we hope to address the coming demographic shifts and resulting labour shortages. And we heard that it’s too important to our economic competitiveness to be left to the provinces alone – there must be federal leadership but as a coordinator and facilitator, not a dictator. We heard a call for more funding for home care to help people care for their elderly loved ones while reducing strain on the medical system, and for a shift from treating illness to preventative medicine as another way of constraining health care costs. All good ideas. So is a carbon tax but trust me, no way in hell we’re running on that one again.

Frankly, the problems, by and large, weren’t new to those that have been paying attention. Neither, frankly, were many of the proposed ideas and solutions. What is significant, I believe, was that for the first time a political party gathered the experts on a high profile stage to put it all on the table, and broadcast it to the world. An open and adult conversation, writ large. These are issues that any party that hopes to govern Canada in 2017, or next week, are going to have to deal with. And, by and large, all parties have been ignoring these elephants in the room.

No one claims to have all the answers, of course. But you need to start by having the conversation – by putting it on the table with Canadians. I think that began this weekend, and it will need to be a continuing process.

The question though, of course, is do Canadians want to have that conversation? Are they ready to be confronted with the harsh realities of these challenges, and the difficult choices they entail? And are we as a party ready to run on those choices? Particularly when faced with political opponents that will refuse to acknowledge the obvious challenges, and present an unrealistic but appealing don’t worry, be happy promise of much gain without pain? Do we want the mythical adult conversation, or do we want to remain with eyes closed?

I was thinking of this when I bumped-into former Liberal leader Stephane Dion, and I asked him if Canadians still want or expect big things from government, or if they just want competent, stay out of the way management. He said, basically, you’ve got to do what needs to be done. I agree; the trick though is getting elected first.

This weekend wasn’t about finding all the answers. It was about putting the challenges on the table, and beginning a conversation, as a country, about how we want to tackle them. The conversation will continue – I’m told to expect regional conferences soon – and the Liberal Party will gather its policies in a platform that is to be ready in the summer, although of course held for release, like every party, until the election.

We did get some nuggets in Ignatieff’s closing speech. The main one was a promise to freeze corporate tax rates, an eminently sensible proposal largely supported by the business community that increasingly recognizes, in the current budgetary climate, that restraint is in order. The Conservatives are already attacking but, really, how would it play with the mythical Tim Horton’s crowd to tell them “we’re freezing your taxes and cutting your services, but we’re giving the owners of Tim Horton’s a tax break?” We also got a promise that any new spending will be budget-neutral, meaning revenue or offsets will be found to support it without increasing the deficit, an important context-setting for what’s to come.

Otherwise, much of what we heard in Ignatieff’s speech I’ve heard before, particularly around a lifelong learning strategy. I think he used some of the same lines in his Vancouver convention speech. I support the idea, but I’m getting hungry for more details. He did pick-up on the shift to preventative care, which I support, but clearly there’s more thinking to be done on health care.

This weekend wasn’t a cure-all for the Liberal Party, and it was never intended to be. We have much work to do, both on policy development and on party organization. But it was an important step in the process, and will hopefully lead to a policy platform worthy of the challenge, and worthy of the Canadian people.

These challenges need to be addressed, so it may as well be us that addresses them. It won’t be easy – ignoring them, while fatal, is too tempting politically. But you need to fight the fights that are worth fighting. So I’m hopeful that, just maybe, as we move down the road from Montreal—the Liberal Party may just be willing to stand and fight for something once again.

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