Struggling to find their way out of the wilderness

Liberals are never shy about stealing ideas, so they brought in speakers from elsewhere

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The Gazette, Friay, June 16, 2006

Whither liberalism and the Liberal Party in Canada? How do progressive forces realign themselves in the face of a conservative movement that is in power in this country? How does the Liberal Party get back on its feet, and become a repository of ideas as opposed to merely a vehicle to power?

These were all questions on the margins of the 2020 Conference this week, three days at Mont Tremblant whose positioning statement, "progressive policies, practical solutions," proved to be elusive as well as lofty. In the event, there were more Liberals than liberals, with a meeting of more Liberal minds than progressive ones.

But a renewal process has to begin somewhere, and the conference had the virtue of segregating the dialogue on ideas from the dog-and-pony show of the leadership race. The 11 pretenders to the Liberal throne were pointedly absent from the daytime discussions, and only Stephane Dion, with his legitimate credentials as a former environment minister, was invited to the evening headline event with former U.S. vice-president Al Gore, on climate change.

The conference had the further virtue of being organized by the likes of John Manley, and his former staffers such as Susan Smith, who command both the tribal affections and respect of Liberals. It also helps that they were not involved in the War of the Roses between the Chretien and Martin clans. It will take the Liberals years to recover from the damage inflicted on their brand by the Chretien scandals and the corrosive divisions unleashed by the Martin forces in their very Canadian coup, which toppled a three-term sitting prime minister.

Those divisions are being dealt with by Tom Axworthy's itinerant committee, dubbed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. As for the leadership campaign, it is simply too crowded to be a coherent forum for ideas. A party still coming to terms with its defeat must also build an agenda of renewal. Bringing Liberals together in a sylvan setting was in that sense a great success.

But in terms of outcomes, Mont Tremblant was not the Kingston Conference, the 1960 gathering organized by Tom Kent which produced the impressive reform agenda of the Pearson years. Nor was it the Gatineau Conference of 1990, which led to the Red Book in the 1993 campaign.

Liberals characteristically have two problems with policy conferences. First, they are careerists, typically former staffers who have become successful consultants, lobbyists and public-affairs executives. Second, the Liberals are a party of the pragmatic centre, and finding that centre is at the heart of any Liberal debate. This is the party of the Canadian compromise.

It is Conservatives who are in politics for their convictions, and they bring those convictions to plenaries and microphones. Movement Conservatives, who would rather win an argument than win an election, are not to be confused with the Conservative movement, which understands that capturing the centre is a prerequisite of moving the country to the right.

Just as most Liberals haven't got used to losing the last election, many Conservatives haven't got used to winning it. In time, both will get over it.

As a party of government, Liberals are used to a policy process that is top-down driven, part of a culture of what Jeffrey Simpson once called "the discipline of power." The 2020 Conference featured plenaries such as "social cohesion in urban Canada" which would normally be relegated to lesser status. Nevertheless, if you can handle "Fiscal Needs and Means: Striking the Right Balance," it was actually entertaining as well as informative. Economist Tom Courchene and journalist Andrew Coyne had the room rocking with laughter in their presentations on the fiscal imbalance.

Liberals being Liberals, they are never shy about stealing ideas from European or American liberals, and so they brought in Eurocrat Jacques Attalli; Harper's Magazine editor Lew Lapham, who naturally trashed George W. Bush; the brilliant Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University, who made a special plea for Africa; and Al Gore who is on his film junket for An Inconvenient Truth, the presumed launch vehicle for his second presidential bid in 2008.

Accompanied by a couple of cheap security black suits, who looked like they were off a bad rock tour rather than a Secret Service detail, Gore arrived nearly an hour late to do a quick scrum with the reporters who were understandably annoyed at being excluded from his presentation.

What they missed was an 80-minute speech that ended only when Gore had to get out of there before they closed the local airport for the night. Not even Castro does that anymore.

Said one attendee from corporate Canada: "Typical Al Gore. Instead of three ideas, he talked about 13. I started out wanting to save the Earth, and ended up wanting to turn up the air conditioning."

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