Category Archives: liberal party of canada

TorStar Op-ed: Liberals have to create a next political centre

This past Saturday the Toronto Star published the following piece by Taylor Owen and myself on its op-ed page. Thought I’d put it here for those who might have missed it.

Liberals have to create a new political centre

Canadians may have once valued the Liberal party, but they reject what it has become. The reason is simple. The centre is dead. Worse still, Liberals let it die. What once was the pragmatic core of Canadian politics, today is a wasteland devoid of an imaginative, progressive vision, occupied by a largely obsolete electoral strategy.

Don’t believe us? Consider the issues the Liberal party managed over the 20th century. The creation of universal health care and the social safety net. The management of the Canada-U.S. relationship by balancing opportunities for Canadian businesses with our desire to preserve our identity. Engaging Quebec and seeking to affirm its place within the country. Cultivating multiculturalism while simultaneously securing individual rights in a charter. Fostering peacekeeping to ensure local conflicts did not escalate into nuclear confrontation.

These were significant accomplishments that defined three generations of Canadians. They are also no longer relevant.

Today Canadians, especially young Canadians, are confident about themselves and their identity — no longer is there a “lament for a nation.” The sovereignty movement, while not dead, struggles. Individual rights continue to erode discrimination and the hierarchical relationships that impeded free expression and liberty. While some progressives continue to bang these drums, no one should be surprised that they no longer resonate.

In other cases, the solutions offered in the 20th century are no longer relevant. Canadians know — as health care threatens to eat up 50 per cent of provincial budgets and service levels remain mixed — that their health-care system is broken. Young Canadians don’t even pretend to believe a pension system will exist for them. Anyone can see that peacekeeping cannot solve today’s international conflicts.

On all of these issues, the traditional offerings of progressive rings hollow. But there is an opportunity for progressives. An opportunity to build a new centre. A centre that moves beyond the debate between conservatives of the right and conservatives of the left.

On the right is a Conservative party that, at its core, doesn’t believe in the federal government. It’s a vision for Canada grounded in the 1860s, of a minimalist government that is responsible for little beyond law and order and defence. Its appeal is the offer to dismantle the parts of the system that are broken, but in so doing it will leave behind many of those who are protected and enabled by the government.

On the left is a party whose vision is to return Canada to the 1960s. It’s a world of a strong national government, of an even bigger health-care system, social safety net and welfare state. Its appeal is a defence of the status quo at all costs, which in the long run will be many. The conservatism of the left means protecting what is unsustainable. It is the unreformed arc of old ideas.

If there is going to be a new centre between these conservative poles, Liberals will need to stop lying to themselves — and to Canadians. They need to acknowledge — loudly and publicly — that they failed to reform the institutions of the 20th century and, as a consequence, health care is broken and the welfare state as presently constructed is financially insatiable. A progressive future lies in taking these challenges head on rather that passively avoiding them.

Moreover, a modern progressive view of government needs to meet the consumer expectations created by Google, Apple and WestJet. Fast, effective, personalized, friendly. In short, progressives need a vision that not only safeguards citizens against the extremes of a globalizing market, but also meets the rising expectations Canadians have of services in the 21st century — all this in a manner that will be sustainable given 21st century budgets and demographics.

No party has figured out how to accomplish this, on the left or the right. And trolling through 20th or 19th century ideologies probably isn’t going to get us there.

The future for progressives rests in figuring out the political axes of the 21st century around which new solutions can be mined and new coalitions built.

We suspect these will include open vs. closed systems; evidence-based policy vs. ideology; meritocratic governance vs. patronage; open and fair markets vs. isolationism; sustainability vs. disposability, and emergent networks vs. hierarchies. It is these political distinctions, not the old left versus right, that increasingly resonate among those we speak to.

The challenge is enormous but progressives have done it before. In the 19th century, the rise of industrial capitalism led to a series of tense societal changes, including the emergence of an urban working class, increasing inequality and the terrifying possibility of total war.

A centrist party turned out to be the place where three generations of pragmatically driven progressives were able to lead nearly a century of Canadian politics. Doing this again will require starting from scratch, but that is the task at hand.

David Eaves is a specialist on public policy, collaboration and open source methodologies.

Taylor Owen is a Banting Fellow at the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia

How not to woo Liberals

There is no doubt that many Liberals are engaged in some (much needed) deep introspection.

But on the issue of a merger with the NDP Douglas Bell’s piece in the Globe may have been one of the worst thing proponents (on either the NDP or Liberal side) could have asked for.

Bell’s piece, which links to a West Wing clip that ends with the line “there needs to be TWO parties” is beset by all the things NDPers claim to hate about Liberals: smugness, hypocrisy, and callous insensitivity. If this is the opening move in a potential merger, it may have been on of the shortest windows of opportunity in the history of politics.

It begins with the fact that Bell – by choosing this video – suggests that Liberals have rolled over on every major policy issue and lack backbone. For a party whose members likely feel they have innumerable social justice victories under their belt this is not an effort to woo those with ideas and a desire to advance the progressive cause, it is cheap effort to insult them. While I work as a negotiation consultant, you don’t need to be an expert to know that if you are looking to create a partnership, mocking the people you seek to engage isn’t an effective a strategy.

What makes the piece more galling is that Bell himself rejected a proposition in the past. Indeed, only last year Bell noted that a merger might not work and worse, might compromise the NDP. Better, he said, for the NDP to wait until conditions were more in its favour. Of course, now that the tables have turned, Bell expects Liberals to do the very thing he himself was unwilling to do: compromise. If the terms of a merger are do as I say, not as I do, they probably aren’t that appealing. The NDP was patient and successful. Bell’s tone will – I suspect – leave Liberals thinking they’d be better off follow his advice from last year and not his dictate from this week. Plan, build and wait until conditions are more favorably. (Note to Liberals: if it should come to pass, be sure that you write a significantly kinder offer to the NDP.)

But more importantly, the longer term implications of the election are still unknown. Most federalists would agree that if you have several referendums for independence and win only the most recent one, your claim to secede is not completely firm. The same probably applies to elections. The NDP has run in elections for decades. A single “win” which sees it sitting in opposition (not government) does not a viable or sustainable alternative governing party one make. Today the NDP is much, much closer to that goal and its members have a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate that they can be a national political party that sustains a strong base. Many hope it can. But to simply demand Liberals fold up camp because of a single NDP success (not victory) takes the arrogance of well, the worst type of liberal.

Moreover, speaking of secession votes, there are real risks ahead. It’s worth noting that the NDP’s gains were largely made by opening up the pandora’s box of national unity. As bad as the Liberal’s “snakebite” may be in Quebec, the NDP may have just received its own, far more potent one, the type that bit Muroney. I pray, for the country, they have not. But consider this quote from the NDP’s youngest MP: “What I’ve said throughout the campaign is that sovereignty, we know, won’t happen in Ottawa. As long as Quebec hasn’t decided, why not have a [federal] government in Quebec’s image?… That’s how I campaigned: As long as we’re in Canada, why not have a government in Quebec’s image.” In short, the NDP is a pit stop on the way to sovereignty. If the choice is between defining a progressive agenda at the cost, or defining a progressive agenda within Canada – I suspect that most Liberals (and many Canadians) will choose the latter. Can Layton and the NDP make this coalition stick? And is it a coalition federalists want to be part of? These are tough questions and tradeoffs that will have to be debated. They are also debates that, historically, have ended in tears for all involved.

Does the country need two parties? Unclear. What is clear is that such an end game won’t emerge on the left if the terms of debate are defined by insults. The attitude in Bell’s article suggests that any kind of reconciliation and merger will be much, much more difficult then some people assume. Ultimately, politics is driven by those who believe in a vision they want others to share, to win them over that vision needs to feel inclusive for people, not degrading. I’m sure the post felt fun to write but it is hard to see how it advanced the cause of the NDP.

 

What the Liberals needed to Learn in Montreal

There’s been a lot of ink shed about the Liberals and Montreal. Some seizes on the corporate tax freeze, others on Robert Fowler’s blistering critique of the party, still others on the age of the participants in the room. My sense is that, in the short term, the issues discussed at Montreal – on the surface – won’t matter. It is the deeper changes, to thinking, to culture and to processes that take time to manifest, that will determine if Montreal was a success.

Are these deeper shifts happening? Hard to say, but here are three lessons the party will need to take away from Montreal if it is to succeed in the long term:

Lighten up. The scariest thing about the images from Montreal is the uniformity. The participants were older. And white. And male. That is a problem easily (and repeatedly) identified. It also needs to be fixed. But there was another interesting challenge – one more subtle and less commented on.

Ignore the uniform demographics and count how many people are in suits. And a tie. On a Saturday.

Most Canadians I know don’t wear suits. Ever. Even when working with in Fortune 500 companies, or at the banks, people look professional, but suits? Increasingly less and less. So does the Liberal Party need a new dress code? No. But it speaks to the culture of the party elite. When people look at a party they want to see themselves – people they trust and believe in. Even if Canada were populated only by white, older men, most people would probably still look at the conference and not see themselves there. Moreover, many would imagine the event as unapproachable, or unwelcoming – teeming with operatives. If the Liberals are going to win again, they’ll need to be approachable, a group many people feel like they can belong to. Keep the suits if you must, but think about the culture.

Learn the right lesson about the internet. Many participants were amazed by how many people were participating and asking questions online through skype or twitter. This belies a lack of understanding of how the internet is reshaping the way people live, work and organize. Over the past few decades, before campaign finance reform, the party had become accustomed to relying on big donations and it so its capacity to reach out to party members diminished. The Reform/Conservatives were the opposite. Early on they were too scary for traditional big companies and cultivated a vast network of small donors. For them, the internet was a blessing – it enhanced their strategy – and campaign finance was a godsend – it meant their strategy was the only effective one. Today, the Conservative donor network keeps them well financed and effective.

The danger from all this is that the Liberals will walk away understanding the power of the network, but believing they can can control it, rather than simply harness it. You can’t. All those people online, they aren’t there to do the bidding of some communications director. They are there to share their story and engage with peers. Working with such a network requires a radically different skill set then dealing with the media or cultivating a big donor. It also means getting comfortable with the fact that you aren’t in control of the message (your just seeding it) or the medium (your just a platform for others to play on). If Montreal did anything it let the younger leaders show the old timers what social networks and a connective network can do. Will be interesting if the right lessons get drawn. But the Party had better figure it out soon – the Conservatives have a serious head start.

Be honest and clear. The weekends highlight moments occurred when speakers bluntly and firmly pushed back on basic ideas or assumptions. Janice Stein responding to a questions about women’s issues in Foreign Policy by saying she was much more concerned about the destabilizing effect of large groups of unemployed young men. Roger Martin talking about how Canada’s healthcare system is one of the most expensive and inefficient in the G7. Pierre Fortin (who gave a model speech) spoke bluntly about how little money there will be, for anything. Parties need to give people hope, but they also have to be honest.

Most Canadians still struggle to understand what the Liberal Party stands for.  The public knows what both the NDP stands and Conservatives stand for. Both parties have been happy to eschew certain voters in order to stay focused on what makes them who they are. It is sometimes hard to know who the Liberals will eschew. Injecting a little dose of honesty and clarity a la Janice Stein into the party’s communications might help. Sometimes you have to tell the public that their priority isn’t the number one and that there are bigger fish to fry. It isn’t easy. Especially for politicians. But being honest and clear about where the party stands and where it doesn’t may produce better results than the status quo. The Conservatives may have had a scandal rife year, but they aren’t going anywhere so long as people know who they are and don’t have a clue about their rivals.

Jane Taber noted that at the last “thinkers conference” in Aylmer the Liberal Party shed its protectionist past in favour of globalization. But that took some time to become clear. The impact – if any – of this conference will likewise take a few years to be fully realized. But maybe a similar transition will take place, with the famously centralist party favouring a more networked, open and engaging approach to both the party, and governing. It will be interesting to see what unfolds.

An oldy but a goody…

Considering the non-partisan events going on in Montreal this weekend this post seems particularly poignant. It is still unclear if this conference will be about new ideas or safe and well trodden ideas. It will be interesting to read what the media thinks.

My sense is that fear of ideas has gripped Canadian politics. Ideas are seen as communication liabilities in an election. But I continue to believe it remains the only way out of the current morass, for Liberals, Conservatives, NDP or Bloc. Sadly, there isn’t much going in that department on any of those fronts. Maybe this weekend will help change that. Or maybe it will not.

Getting Political Parties to think about Open Government/Data

Next week the Liberals will be hosting a “Thinkers Conference” in Montreal. In preparation for the event the party has been hosting articles outlining ideas for Canada’s 150th anniversary. Because of my work around open government and open data they asked if I would pen a piece on the subject for them.

I agreed.

The odds of getting open data increase dramatically if politicians get behind the initiative (it certainly helped a great deal here in Vancouver with both the Mayor and Councilor Reimer being vocal advocates). So, since they asked, I wrote.

You can read the piece here (et, en francais, ici). More importantly, if you have a moment, please consider leaving a comment under the piece. Political parties react to what voters and citizens say matters – so having a number of people react to the piece would send a message that citizens want better, more open government, as well as a strategy for building a 21st century economy.

Also, my piece from yesterday ended up in the Globe in case you missed it.

Facebook Activists: Engaged, Voting and Older

Today I have the following article on the Globe and Mail website. Interestingly, it seems some of the opposition leaders are beginning to take an interest in the Facebook group – Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff announced yesterday that he will be doing an online townhall on proroguing parliament on his facebook page. Will be interesting to see how this goes and if political parties can get comfortable with a two-way medium where they can’t control the message.

Facebook Activists: Engaged, Voting and Older

Over the last few weeks a number of pundits have been unsure how to react to sudden rise of the Facebook group Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament. Conservative politicians attempted to label the over 200,000-person strong group as part of “the chattering classes” and political pundits have questioned whether online protests even have meaning or weight.

What is more likely is that few politicians or pundits have actually spent time on the Facebook group and fewer still have tried to understand who its members are and what they believe. Recently Pierre Killeen, an Ottawa-based online public engagement strategist, conducted a survey of the group’s membership in partnership with the Rideau Institute.

Over 340 members of the anti-prorogation Facebook group shared their views and while not a scientific survey, it does provide a window into the group’s makeup and the motivations of its members. Some of the results will surprise both pundits and politicians:

Older than exepcted

To begin, contrary to the view that Facebook is entirely youth driven, just under half of those who completed the survey were 45 years of age or older. Thirty-four per cent were aged 31 to 44 and 16 per cent answered that they were aged 18 to 30. Not a single person who opted to take the survey was aged 12 to 18.

They vote

Perhaps the most interesting part of the survey was the fact that 96 per cent of the participants said they voted in the last federal election. Survey recipients frequently overstate their voting history (people wish to sound more responsible than they are) and this result should be regarded with some skepticism. However, it nonetheless suggests group members are more likely to vote than the general population. (Sixty per cent of Canadians voted in the last federal election).

New to, but believers in, online activism

Over half of the members surveyed (55 per cent) said this was the first time they had joined a politically oriented Facebook group. Another 33 per cent indicated they had previously joined only two to four Facebook groups with political themes. Interestingly, 75 per cent of respondents believe the group “will make a difference” while 22 per cent were unsure.

Democracy and accountability are the key issues

Lastly, when asked why they joined, just over half (53 per cent) of respondents indicated it was because “proroguing parliament is undemocratic” and another 33 per cent said it was because “Parliament needs to investigate the Afghan detainee matter.”

Again, it is worth noting that this survey is not scientific, but is our best window to date into who has joined Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament.

And what should people take away from all this? The Facebook group matters for reasons beyond those I initially outlined for The Globe. The fact that this is the first time a majority of those surveyed have joined a politically oriented online campaign suggests such groups may serve as an on-ramp to greater activism and awareness.

More importantly, however, if the survey results are even remotely representative, then the members of the Facebook group vote. Any time 200,000 citizens say an issue will affect their vote, politicians should not discount them so hastily.

Finally, given that Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament has signed up twice the number of Facebook members than all the political leaders combined (Conservatives 29,616; Liberals 28,898; NDP 27,713; Bloc 4,020; for a collective total of 90,247 fans) this is a constituency whose impact may be better monitored in the voting booth than on the street.

David Eaves is a public-policy entrepreneur, open government activist and negotiation expert based in Vancouver

Why Policy Matters in Politics

There are a shocking number of people involved in the political process who firmly believe that policy doesn’t matter. That, at best, it distracts from, and at worst it impedes, successful political campaigns. Obviously, readers of my blog (not to mention those who know me) know that I am a big believer in the power and importance of public policy specifically and ideas in general. So I’ve been feeling nicely bombarded with confirming evidence that substantive policy – as opposed to simply style or spin – really is at the heart of political success.

The first is short and simply: Frank Rich’s excellent, and brutally entitled, column “A President Forgotten but Not Gone” in the Saturday New Times, where he uses Bush as example of the limits both of propaganda, and of power without purpose.

The second is much more in depth. It comes from reading of Tom Kent’s “A Public Purpose.” In it, while talking about the remaking of the Liberal Party after the defeat of the St. Laurent Government in 1957, he notes:

The main lines of policy of the rebuilt Liberal party – conspicuously, the emphasis on employment, medicare, a national pension plan, but many others too – were adopted at the party convention of January 1958, and by as democratic a procedure within the convention as the processes of political parties ever produce…

The policies did not, in other words, originate from the remaking of the party. In essence, they were already written when the organizational rebuilding took place. To a large extent, indeed, the new people who did the organizing came forward because they were coming to a body of ideas, for the better government of Canada, that they felt to be at once progressive and practical.

This is the central fact about the remaking of the Liberal party from 1957-1963. The process was not to regroup, reorganize, and, some time later, determine policies. The main lines of policy came first. They were the presence behind all the detailed work of opposing, reorganizing, finding candidates, building support. all that came second, not first. (Emphasis mine)

Kent’s comments reaffirmed for me three reasons why policy matters in politics:

a) First, while we can debate the degree to which the public reacts to a policy platform, a sound policy platform is an important step to gaining the public confidence. Thus, I can agree with Kinsella that governments are generally turfed out, not elected, while maintaining that an electorates willingness to turn to an alternative is dramatically improved if said alternative has a coherent set of (well thought out) policies.

b) Second, a sound policy platform is necessary to making a party electable because it has always been ideas, not the remote promise of power, that has attracted the new blood and energy to the party. As Kent points out, in 1957 the new policy platform of the Liberal party preceded its reorganizations and rejuvenation because new innovative and progressive policies attracted a new generation of leaders, activists and organizers into the party. Without this new energy a party will wither and die, no matter how inept or incompetent is competitors.

c) Finally, and possibly most importantly, policy is critical to governing successfully. Kissinger, for all his faults, articulated this challenge succinctly:

High office teaches decision making, not substance. It consumes intellectual capital; it does not create it. Most high officials leave office with the perceptions and insights with which they entered; they learn how to make decisions but not what decisions to make.

In short, once elected you are too busy to build your intellectual capital and to formulate a plan. You must have a vision and platform in place beforehand, otherwise you’ll end up looking like Diefenbaker or Martin, operating without an obvious direction or purpose. Policy matters because without it, time in government will be unproductive, painful and short.