Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Reforming the Liberal Party: Who are we, and why are we here?

In my Liberal reform posts so far I've focused on questions of leadership and questions of structure. These are important to building the party into an accountable and efficient vehicle, but unless you know where you're driving to and why you'll still be going in circles. That's why it's important that as part of this renewal process we also consider something more fundamental: who we are, what do we stand for and what do we have to offer? Because if we don't know, no one else will know either.

I think it would be a useful starting-point for each Liberal to reflect on why they joined the Liberal Party in the first place. I joined when I was 16, around 1994, although I'd followed politics for a few years already through the implosion of the Mulroney Conservatives in Ottawa and the implosion of the Vander Zalm Socreds in B.C. I liked Jean Chretien, and I found myself drawn to the Liberal Party because of its history of social justice and compassion balanced with a recognition that we need to act within certain fiscal constraints. I could have been a Red Tory, but the Mulroney legacy was pretty toxic and unappealing. So I rolled-up my sleeves and became a Liberal in a rural B.C. riding where we hadn't elected a Liberal since the early 1970sbecause it was the party that closest shared my values.

I don't think it's entirely fair to say we've completely lost touch with what we believe in. We've always borrowed from the best ideas of the left and the right, but I think our last platform did come from certain values and ideals: valuing education and the knowledge economy by investing in early childhood learning and post secondary education, helping families and seniors get ahead, for example.

I think it is fair to ask if Canadians moved on though, and is what we have stood for still relevant in today's Canada? I think Toronto Star columnist Susan Delacourt asked a useful question the other day that we should all consider: if the Liberal Party didn't exist in 2011, would we need to reinvent it?

That's an interesting question. I think most Liberals considered this question at least tangently after the election results came in: is there still a home for me in the Liberal Party and should I fight to save and fix it, or would I be more at home with the party of the left or the party of the right, or just staying at home? For me, the answer is yes, I still want a Liberal party. I wouldn't be at home with the small-c conservative values of the Conservatives, their values aren't mine. If there was still such a thing as Red Tory, maybe, but they're long extinct. And the NDP lacks the pragmatism and grounding in fiscal realities I'd need to be comfortable with their direction.

So, I still want a pragmatic party of the centre, a party that supports targeted investments to help students, families, seniors and the less fortunate and will protect and improve public health care, within the framework of a balanced budget and targeted tax relief for families. The questions are though, do Canadians still want a moderate party of the centre? Or do they want the clear choices of the left or the right? The fact is, people don't think in terms of left, right or centre. They look at what a party wants to do and what it means for them.

I think over the next four years with a clearly defined government on one side and clearly defined official opposition on the other, there will be a public appetite for a more nuanced and balanced approach. But we need to be prepared to give it to them.

Still, it's not enough to just figure out what they want and give it to them. They can tell if you're faking it. Trying to find where the parade is going and attempting to lead it isn't the way to go either. And once you decide what you stand for, there's still the matter of communicating it. That has been our challenge being in the middle: it's easier for the parties on either side to define themselves, and start to squeeze us out.

We need to start from scratch and ask ourselves the basic questions: what is the role of government in society, and what is our vision for Canada. Personally, I believe in government as a force for good. I've always liked this quote from Toby on The West Wing:
We have to say what we feel, that government, no matter what it's failures in the past and in times to come for that matter, government can be a place where people come together and where no one gets left behind. No one...gets left behind. An instrument of good.
Once we decide what our core beliefs are, we can begin to develop policies around then. And we need to reform the policy process so that the membership writes the policy platform, not the leader and his hand-picked advisers. I can see having some ability to filter out the random craziness and setting timelines with the need to present a costed and affordable plan, but the core of the policy platform should be the result of the member-driven policy process.

Today, the policy development process in the Liberal Party is a huge waste of time: a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. Countless hours of effort are expanded as members and riding associations research and draft well-intentioned policies that are submitted to a provincial biennial for debate, discussion and voting. Some are promoted to the national biennial where again there are hours of passionate debate and voting, and some are officially adopted. And then they're ignored and the leader puts whatever they want in the platform.

I've never invested too much energy in this process because while policy should be central to why people get involved in a political party, in our party the policy process is completely irrelevant. It's a make-work project to make members feel valued while the important people focus on important things. And this sort of the top knows best, focus on polling and strategy over things as basic as what we believe in as a party is a huge part of the problem.

If we're going to delay the leadership, let's take the time as a party to reform the policy process, undertake a defining "core beliefs" exercise and as members develop policy that will flow from those core beliefs that will form the basis of what we run on in 2015 . Then the next leader can either agree to get behind it before they're elected, or they can choose to not stand for leader.

Let's decide what we stand for, develop policy that flows from that, and stand behind it. And it's not about trying to find out what's popular or what will sell. It's about standing behind what we believe in and if the people come, they come. As long as we're standing together and for something we believe in, I'm fine with that, and the rest will come from there.

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A Eliz. said...

We will have to fight to find our 'roots' again and dust off the top. Easier said than done, though,

lance said...

What you've said here would be the single best thing the Liberal party could do.

I was jumped on the other day because i mentioned that I thought the Liberal party had no policy. (Not to say I don't deserve to be jumped on, I can sling mud too.)

My point being that in three elections there hasn't been a single similar platform. It's very frustrating.

Sure, you have all sorts of policy documents but they don't mean a darned thing for the reasons you outline.

At least when the Conservatives want to screw with their base they do it in their policy documents by adding words. Where stuff said, "A Conservative gov't will..." the powers that be changed it to, "A Conservative gov't will strive..."

That's when they lost my money.

Gletscher Eis said...

We need electoral reform please.

Morakon said...

The Susan Delacourt references a great post by CalgaryLiberal. A very good read.

Damien Sullivan said...

"And the NDP lacks the pragmatism and grounding in fiscal realities I'd need to be comfortable with their direction."

How does that mesh with this claim that NDP governments have had the best fiscal record?

Jeff said...

Damien, I could quibble with some of the methodology of that specific study but instead, let me just say that every platform the federal NDP has ever presented has had more holes than swiss cheese. Who knows how they'd hypothetically behave in office. Maybe they'd abandon their platform and govern responsibly. I don't know. But if they governed to their platform, we'd be in fiscal trouble.