Tag Archives: liberals

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.

 

And now, the international laughing stock phase of our debate…

And now it has just become depressing.

The international media has picked up on the census debate and they’re just mocking it.

There is this priceless quote in a New York Times article:

“I wouldn’t call this political interference,” Professor Prewitt said. “I would call this government stupidity.”

Yes, the beauty for all of America to read from Kenneth Prewitt the former director of the United States Census Bureau and now Columbia University professor.

So, in the space of 1 short year our government has gone from model regulator of the banking industry to world laughing stock on policy. If only it ended there.

The Wall Street Journal – that left wing rag owned by that hippy Rupert Murdoch – has a piece as well. It opens up its article on the subject with a sly:

The government of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is under fire from a range of opponents for an unusual privacy initiative—making participation in his country’s census largely voluntary.

Even the Christian Science Monitor pokes fun at the decision.

Interestingly, even as people outside the country are starting to take notice, apparently the rank and file Conservative MPs continue to believe this story will blow over:

“It’s just another dead news-cycle story,” said one Conservative MP. “Most people will look at it, and say, what’s the difference?”

Ah, there is nothing like relying on the ignorance of Canadians to inspire confidence in leadership. This from a party who roots are allegedly in believing that the Canadian public has a way of learning about things and then forming judgments that are none too pleasant. Especially, when they think politicians are trying to pull a fast one.

Given that a diverse coalition of forces never before seen in this country has assembled in opposition to this idea, such a view smacks of arrogance. Possibly even hubris. Indeed, it is the same time of arrogance that the Conservatives have, for so long, claimed distinguished them from the Liberals. The kind of hubris that leads to decisions that wind up putting plans for a fall election on hold…

And yes! I do look forward to a day when I won’t write about this. Sorry about this folks… just sad to see billions upon billions of dollars of Canadian of taxpayers money spent over the last 100 years, and a multibillion dollar asset, destroyed by a government that doesn’t want reality to interfere with the decision making process. I promise this will be the only post on the census this week (barring some dramatic news).

The Census weak link: What the Liberals, Bloc & NDP should do

Public and the media condemnation of the government’s decision to end the long form census has been universal (see more fun quotes below). Now the political opposition has started to mobilize. The focus of the opposition has been on the secretive nature of the decision and the failure to consult any stakeholders. While this is problematic I’m not sure it is the most ironic and sensitive point. There is actually a much more juicy Achilles heel in this decision, one that might garner press attention.

In explaining the decision (such as in the quote to the Canadian Press below), Minister Clement has repeatedly claimed that MP offices has received numerous complaints about the long form census form:

“Every MP has had complaints like that so this year we decided to at least try another method that could be a sound method that would beat the issue of concern of degradation of data, and deal with the issue of coercion and too much intrusiveness”

The statement suggests broad base support but, ironically, anecdotal and, in theory, untestable.

The fun thing is, it doesn’t have to be that way. The opposition could bring more (and hard) information to this process and expose how the Conservatives are using a lack of information to at best mislead and at worse, lie, to ordinary Canadians. Better still, if the opposition parties have been organized, they should possess that data.

How is this? Well, I’d like to see the Liberals, Bloc and NDP ask each of their MPs to search and count every email and letter from constituents over the past 4 (or some sensible number) years that involved a complaint about the census.

My suspicion is that there are no more than 100 such letters (and, maybe even a lot less, like 10). You could then pick a couple of issues of your choice on which you have received 1000s of letters and which the conservatives have taken no action and put a simple chart up showing how they react to made up issues, but ignore real priorities of ordinary Canadians.

Of course, maybe there has been some massive, secret letter campaign targeted at Conservative only MPs but I think most Canadians will want to know how many letters the Minister and conservative MPs have actually received (sadly I don’t think you can FOI this) and most will suspect it is about as many as other MPs have.

Let’s show that better data leads to better decisions and that a little transparency can go a long way to exposing those who seek to mislead us. The minister says MPs get lots of letters – lets find out how many. And in comparison to what. Moreover, let’s show that those who seek to restrict the gathering of good information are generally those most inclined to use a lack of data to mislead the public and drive agendas that are not in the public interest. Canadians are sensible people, they want a smart government that makes good decisions. This, much more than secrecy, will rub them the wrong way.

The narrative isn’t as neat – but I suspect it could be turned into something more fun and more impactful.

Other fun articles…

Also, the universal condemnation of the Conservatives decision to end the mandatory long term census continues. My newest favourite is an article in the Globe where Derek Cook, Calgary’s the research and social planner at the City of Calgary and in the riding of the Prime Minister Harpers states that “If we don’t have that data at the neighbourhood level, we’re crippled.” Now, in addition to business groups, ngos, think tanks, cities, university researchers we are also seeing even more local and focused organizations such as those representing French Canadian communities, Inuit people and others starting to call for a reversal as well.

Concerns from Beyond the West: The dangers one-member, one-vote

800px-Liberal_Party_of_Canada.svgThere is a panel at the Globe and Mail website on Rebuilding the Liberal Party, with small essays on the subject from Navdeep Bains, Martha Hall Findlay and Bob Rae.

All three mention conducting Leadership races with one-member, one-vote as part of the rebuilding process. Below I’ve republished a cleaned up and slightly fleshed out version of the comment I hurriedly wrote in response. The net net is that while I’m not opposed to reform, a pure one-member, one-vote would be a bad for the party, especially in all the places it needs to grow, namely everywhere outside of Ontario.

One aside – I owe Navdeep an apology. His proposal of one-member, one-vote that “provides equal weight for the ridings” is entirely sensible and I inexcusably lumped him in with those who are proposing a straight up one-member, one-vote system.

One-Member, One Vote?

There is a common thread in Liberal Party members – like the two of the three list above – who call for such a reform to how Liberals elect their leader. Rae, Findlay, (and in other fora, Stronarch) are people whose commitment to public service I deeply respect, but it is worth noting that they all hail from the GTA. One-member one vote, would certainly be a boon for leadership candidates, who like them, are based in the GTA. Indeed, is there a major Liberal from outside of the GTA calling for this reform? I have yet to hear of one.

This debate is precisely what is damaging Liberal prosprects, particularly in the regions. Already restricted to large urban centres – and specifically: Toronto. This proposal would further isolate the party.

The simple fact is any leader and prospective PM needs to enjoy support from across the country and in every riding. A one-member one-vote would create conditions where a single region, or even city, could ultimately decide who leads the party. A prospective candidate could dedicate 80% of their campaign to the GTA and might do quite well – even win. What message would this send to Liberals and Canadians elsewhere?

To win a Canadian election you must win across the country. Our democracy doesn’t function as a one-member, one vote on a national basis, but at the riding level. This was done to ensure that regions and communities would always have a voice at the table. The Liberal leadership process should reflect these values as well.

Should we reform how we select leaders? Absolutely. But one-member one vote is not the only alternative. Preferential voting methods, conducted at the riding level, would be one way to do away with delegates and enable people to vote directly for leaders and yet preserve regional balance and representation.

This is an important discussion – but in the rush to solve one problem it would be a mistake to create a system that would hinder the growth of the party in the very places it is most at risk.

What next for Liberals? – Proceed with Caution

I’ve yet to talk to a Liberal who is excited by this coalition. I’m sure they are out there – I just have yet to meet one. From what I have heard, most feel the coalition proposal is a necessary evil – one required to reign in a Prime Minister who -during a period of economic crises – became partisan, out of touch and just plain nasty in his approach. I see that Bob Rae wants to champion the coalition idea – I think he’ll find it a hard sell in many corners.

The smart move for a leadership candidate now is to not get more partisan, but instead to try to be a statesman-like. Canadians are tired of this political mess, they want someone to end it – and there are probably political points to be earned. Herein lies the opportunity.

I’m looking for the leadership candidate who says:

First, I don’t agree with the Governor General’s decision. I think it is wrong for a Government to escape a confidence vote with a procedural move – I think it sets a bad precedent and weakens our parliamentary democracy. That said, I respect the decision and this is the situation we must work with.

The Conservatives now have a month with which to rethink their approach to the economy and how they wish to manage parliament. They should use this time carefully. Canadians, the Liberal Party, and I’m sure the NDP and the Bloc are all eager to have a parliament that is focused on the critical issues of the day, not partisan infighting. That said, Canadians, and this parliament, have lost faith in the Prime Minister – in his priorities, in his approach and in his leadership.

The Liberal party is prepared to work with all parties both to make this parliament work and ensure Canadians are well represented in this time of economic turmoil. To this end, we think talk of a coalition should be suspended, if, and only if, the Prime Minister resigns and/or a new budget with a sufficiently credible stimulus package is put forward. We say this because the Prime Minister’s capacity to lead a cooperative, effective parliament has been fatally compromised, and because, given the severity of the economic crises confronting us a real stimulus package is essential to the financial well being of the country.

Such an approach has several benefits. It offers a clear route out of the crisis. It allows the proposer to be appear above the fray – trying to reconcile a partisan battle. It also gives Conservatives a clear choice while simultaneously fostering tension within their party. It temporarily ends the discussion of a coalition by enabling opposition parties to score a significant victory. Finally, it allows the crises to be pulled back from the brink, but sustains the threat of a coalition to compel the Conservatives to act responsibly on policy matters in the future.

Finally, as an after thought I suspect that. as it becomes more and more obvious that the public is uncomfortable with the idea of this coalition, Dion and Layton are going to wear the coalition proposal like an anchor around their neck (Gilles will get away scot free because, well, it doesn’t really matter for him – the Bloc win no matter what happens at the moment). Consequently, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that all of the authors of this disaster – Harper (for instigating the crises) and Layton and Dion (for overplaying their hand and perpetuating it) – could lose their jobs over the comping months.

Liberal Renewal: Indentify good questions, not answers

The following was a memo I wrote for some friends back in May, 2006 as the Liberal Renewal Commission was just getting going. I was sensing that we needed a process that was emergent – one that leveraged its reputation (and meager resources) not to do something top down, but facilitate something bottom-up.

Recently a friend asked me to dig it up. After a little touch up, I thought I’d post it, as I believe much of it is as true to today as it was two years ago.

Memo: How Can the Liberal Party Renewal Committee maximize its impact?

Most Liberals agree the party needs to re-examine its policies, priorities and ideology to ascertain what, if anything, must change to enable the it to regain office.

The process and output of the Renewal Committee will determine its reception both among party members and the leadership candidates. This one pager assessment will argue that, to maximize its impact the committee should help define the debate liberals – through their leadership candidates – must have, not resolve it.

A robust output that outlines a new liberal party platform will likely have little impact. First, leadership candidates will be disinclined to use it. Adopting the committee’s recommendations could either damage the candidates credibility as an innovative thinker (they are ‘borrowing’ someone else’s work) or, more likely, candidates will ignore the recommendations as they won’t allow them to distinguish themselves from their opponents. Second, for a liberal party platform to be credible it must, in some capacity, emerge and/or receive buy-in from the grassroots of the party. This isn’t a plea for wide spread consultations. However, the opposite, hand picking a group of ‘best and brightest’ risks alienating members not included in the process and undermines the democratic ideals that should be core to the party’s DNA. Sitting on the civic engagement committee, I am forced to wonder how does this process measure up against the standards of engagement our policy recommendations will suggest for government programs?

How then can the Renewal Committee have impact, in the midst of a leadership race and without conducting broad, time consuming and questionably helpful consultations?

The liberal party does not need answers. The key to solving any problem, including the renewal of the Liberal Party and the creation of a platform, it is in ascertaining the right questions. The Renewal Committee should thus do two things: 1) Determine what, for each sub-committee topic, are the three emerging questions ANY political party must possess answers for to be the dominant Canadian political force in the 21st century. 2) Provide some criteria for an effective answers and some initial insights. Committee members could then publicly sign a letter committing themselves to pressing the leadership candidates for answers to each of the questions – a test to their capacity for leadership of the party and country for not just the next election, but for the 21st century.

This approach will maximize the impact of the committee by enabling it to provoke a real debate within the leadership race and, ultimately, among party members. If the commission simply provides answers it will  alienate the leadership candidates and the party at large. By asking questions it can attempt to position itself as a force for thinking about and opening up, the debate over liberalism and ideas. Moreover, by asking questions it enables all members to participate in this process – by proposing answers – and can ensure that the issues the committee believes to be essential to renewal are placed front and centre.