Liberals hope policy conference will outshine bad week on Hill

This weekend's issues sessions represent the best side of the Liberals

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The Gazette, Sunday, March 28, 2010

There are two teams of Liberals under Michael Ignatieff, one that appears thoughtful and engaged with Canadians as it does this weekend at their Montreal thinkers' conference, and the other that continues to fail by every measure of competence in the House of Commons.

The Liberals' three-day Montreal conference concluding today has covered an ambitious agenda, with an impressively bi-partisan cast of presenters. And it has been pulled together in only four months since Peter Donolo became chief of staff in Iggy's reorganized office.

Among the issues covered were pension security, health-care funding, innovation, the North, energy and the environment, and the digital world. Whether Montreal provides the Liberals with the basis of renewal, and a path to power, as the Kingston and Aylmer conferences did in 1960 and 1991, remains to be seen.

But it is a worthy effort. And by streaming the conference online to 60 offsite venues, complete with people tweeting in their questions, the Liberals have made a notable attempt to engage on new communications platforms.

There have been grumblings within the Liberal caucus that only one Liberal MP and one senator were invited to the party, but the whole idea of the meeting was to brand it as a non-partisan event.

And when someone asked how many Liberal MPs attended the seminal Kingston conference, the answer that came back from Tom Kent, who organized it, was only two - Mike Pearson and Jack Pickersgill.

One of this weekend's speakers on international relations was Derek Burney, former ambassador to the U.S., a former chief of staff to Brian Mulroney, and later head of Stephen Harper's transition team. David Dodge, former governor of the Bank of Canada, spoke yesterday of the challenges of funding public and private pensions.

These are all flashing red lights both within the Canadian federation, and in terms of Canada's international engagement. And outside the precincts of Parliament, where drive-by shootings are a daily media occurrence, there is widespread disdain for the toxic nature of the debate in Ottawa, and a real yearning for new ideas.

Ignatieff has been a public intellectual most of his career, which means he's better at talking than listening. But if he has been listening this weekend, and comes to give the closing keynote today as essentially a rapporteur, then he will have lots of ideas to take with him.

The problem for the Liberals this weekend has been getting past the incredible mess they made for themselves in the House last week, when Team Iggy looked like a ship of fools.

On their own opposition day last Tuesday, the Liberals brought in a motion that called on the government, in its signature G8 initiative on the health of mothers and children in the developing world, to assure that a "full range" of reproductive services be available to women.

That obviously includes contraception, because women have healthier babies when their pregnancies are spaced. But a "full range" of reproductive services can also be read to include abortion.

And as it became clear, this was the tactical objective of the Liberals - to push the hot button issue of abortion, and to divide the Conservatives.

But the Liberals succeeded in dividing only themselves. Within their own caucus, there is an outspoken pro-life faction. Three Liberal MPs voted against their party, while another 10 stayed out of the House. And this was on a whipped vote - the party's own motion, on which all MPs are expected to be present and voting yes.

The Liberals had secured the support of the NDP and the Bloc but lost the motion by six votes, 144-138, because of the opposition and absence of their own members. Why, after such a fiasco, would Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe ever do business with Ignatieff again?

Furthermore, the Liberals gave the Conservative an escape clause in their motion, by stupidly condemning the reproductive policies of George W. Bush, an absurd bit of kneejerk anti-Americanism.

What were they thinking when they wrote the motion? Who approved it before Bob Rae presented it? Why did Ignatieff follow such a disastrous course that could prove to be a tipping point for his leadership? He apologized for the mess to his caucus the next day, and took full responsibility, but the party is in an uproar over a question of core competence.

It's very simple, if you can't manage your own members of Parliament, you can't run the country.

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