Jean Chretien

Liberal Party

Pierre Trudeau

Canadian Alliance

Liberal 'Ideas conference' curiously devoid of major initiatives

Date: MAR18-00
Source: National Post
Keywords: election, vision
Comment: The Liberals are desperate for new vision
Posted: JUL14-00
Jean Chretien Index

Roy MacGregor

They came to talk about new ideas.

They came, on a bright March day at the dawn of a new century, to the basement of the Ottawa Congress Centre to discuss and debate and vote on resolutions so sweeping they encompassed culture, society and the state. Here, some 300 delegates to the Liberal national convention would choose one of five compelling initiatives to send forward on "priority" basis.

It was serious work, taken seriously. Not a coffee cup clattered, not a delegate chattered. They sat, and listened, as the chair worked through the chosen ideas:

- A few elected senators to appease the West.

- A strong central government, to appease the worried.

- A new vision for Canada that would come out of a think-session to be held three years from now.

- A national Web site, modelled on the original CBC, to bring the regions and people into closer contact.

- A cabinet minister for senior citizens.

- Protection for consumers when it comes to big banks and insurance companies.

And, finally, the lifting of a 1906 order-in-council.

They began the debate, though perhaps "mild discussion" might be a better description. A non-elected senator, to the great astonishment of the gathering, thought elected senators a poor idea. A delegate in favour of more senate representation for British Columbia, which currently has six senators, compared Prince Edward Island, which has four, to "a suburb of Vancouver," which caused a mild reaction but no discernible passion. They turned down the idea flat.

Someone spoke in favour of strong central government. Since no one could think of anything to say against strong central government, the vote in favour was a landslide.

They introduced Resolution 32, New Vision for Canada: "Be it resolved that the Liberal Party of Canada urge the federal government to organize, prior to the year 2003, a policy conference similar to the Kingston Policy Conference." They decided not to bother with debate and passed it in an instant.

They agreed a Web site was a good idea; they agreed seniors needed representation; they agreed that consumers need all the help they can get.

And then they came to the 1906 census -- and suddenly, magnificently, the great renowned passion of the Liberal Party of Canada burst through a room that had, up until this moment, been funereal by comparison.

"Be it resolved," Resolution 36 began, that the government act promptly to fix a 94-year-old order-in-council that guaranteed secrecy to the 1906 western census and could, theoretically, prevent the data gathered then and in all subsequent censuses from ever falling into the hands of social researchers, historians, even hobby genealogists.

"An outrage," declared one man.

"This is not a glamour issue," announced another, "but it cuts to the core of who we are as a people and as a nation. "It should be the priority resolution."

Only one in the room had the nerve to argue that Resolution 36 should be defeated -- privacy guaranteed should be respected eternally, he suggested -- and, admittedly, there is little to be said against a change that would merely open up significant information 92 years after it had been given. "They're all dead, anyway," said one man.

The point here is not to argue the validity of Resolution 36, but to ask how on earth it could be seen as a "priority" by delegates of the governing party gathering to discuss "culture, society and the state."

If this cuts "to the core" of who Liberals are as a people, then perhaps it is time for the Liberal Party of Canada to consider again what it is that constitutes a political idea. Resolution 36, the Great Issue of the 1906 Census, did not win "priority" support.

That went, perhaps even more embarrassingly, to strong central government, which to Liberals is about as close to a motherhood statement as 300 delegates in a warm basement room could come.

Where priority should have gone, obviously, is to Resolution 32, the call for a "New Vision for Canada." As the resolution stated, "as we enter the 21st century, it is time for a bold initiative to set a new direction for Canada." The call was for a gathering similar to the Liberals' famous 1960 Kingston Policy Conference that, essentially, created the country these people now live in and which the United Nations likes to call the finest place on Earth in which to live.

Author-historian Peter C. Newman, who was at that 1960 gathering and is also at this 2000 gathering, remembers the excitement that came out of Kingston 40 years ago. It was not only the new ideas -- the heart of the safety net philosophy -- but the new people who came to the Kingston convention, not all as Liberals, and who went on to form the next generation of politicians and bureaucrats. It gave the Liberals, under Lester Pearson, new energy and new purpose, and was fundamental in returning the party to power a couple of years later.

"It was incredible," says Newman. "It was the biggest thing Pearson did. He was basically saying the Liberal party had run out of ideas and was inviting people to come to Kingston with new ones.

"It was the rebirth of a movement for the party."

The difference between today and then is, obviously, the difference between being out of power and in power.

The similarity, however, is far more striking.

The Liberal Party of Canada is in desperate need of new ideas.

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