Liberals pull off great conference

But Ignatieff spoils the moment with his wrap-up conclusions

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The Gazette, Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Liberals' Montreal think-in was a landmark conference that set a standard for innovation and content against which public policy events will be benchmarked for years to come.

For openers, the Davos format - think of presenters sitting in those big TD Bank chairs, being interviewed by session moderators, with no texts, and no set pieces - demolished barriers between the panels and the audience.

Then the use of new technology platforms was a great leap forward in conference management. Streaming the conference online to 70 offsite venues, and using Twitter as a vehicle for questions, was a high-risk proposition that went off without a hitch. The online moderator, Randy Boissonault, did an outstanding job of editing questions from cyberspace, and presenting them at a dizzying pace.

As for content, the major surprise of the conference wasn't the policy wonks, it was the business leaders, who were the stars. Dominic Barton, a Canadian who is managing director of McKinsey's global consulting business, gave a stunning presentation on the exponential growth and prospects of the Asian economy, which he styled "the re-rise of Asia." CEOs Tom Jenkins of Open Text, Elyse Allan of GE Canada, and former West Coast Energy president Mike Phelps made compelling presentations on innovation and clean energy. Phelps noted that energy consumption will increase by 50 per cent to 2050, and the global auto fleet will double to 1 billion. How are mitigation targets of at least 50 per cent for greenhouse-gas emissions to be met? Only with a lot of innovation and new technologies.

Within Canada, the fault lines of federalism are certain to be tested in the coming years over issues such as health-care funding and equalization. The 10-year, $41- billion health accord was signed in a time of plenty in 2004. As it comes up for renewal, there will be no money in the till, at a time when health-care costs are growing two and three times faster than the economy. But someone has to sound the alarm, as did former Bank of Canada governor David Dodge.

All that being said, the Liberals had a highly successful conference in most respects, including gender balance among participants, a multicultural presence, and an easy flow back and forth between English and French.

It was only when Liberals started going on about Canadian values that one began to reach for one's wallet. The Liberals have an annoying tendency of equating Canadian values with Liberal values. And in terms of Canada's modest role in the world, there's a distinction between the moral high ground and sanctimonious hot air that's often lost on Liberals.

But all other parties will be copying the technological innovations that took the conference to a huge audience outside the room, urbi et orbi as they say in Rome, to the city and beyond.

But Michael Ignatieff, instead of summing up by declaring the conference a success and waving goodbye, put down some major policy markers of his own in a prepared text that proved to be problematic. He stepped on his own message.

First, Ignatieff promised "early learning and child care for every Canadian family that wants it." Well, how much will that cost, and what about the constitutional division of powers? Child care is a provincial jurisdiction, as Paul Martin discovered when he ended up writing cheques and looking like a headwaiter to the provinces. Again, on higher education, Ignatieff said, "if you get the grades, you get to go." Once again, this is in provincial jurisdiction. If Ignatieff wants to have a debate about the federal spending power and is comfortable with the Liberals as the party of strong central government, we can have that conversation, but he'll pay for it with money Ottawa doesn't have.

Then he said he would limit the deficit to one per cent of GDP within two years of taking office. Well, two years from now the deficit is forecast to be $17 billion or one per cent of GDP. In effect, he was endorsing Jim Flaherty's fiscal forecast.

Finally, Ignatieff said he would freeze corporate taxes at 18 per cent, rather than reducing them to 15 per cent as the Conservatives will by 2012. Except that at his news conference he said he wouldn't roll them back if they were already reduced. Whoops, there goes his daycare pot.

There's an old saying in hockey - when you win a big one on the road, take the two points and get the hell out of town.

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