If I were a young person — say 25 or 30 — with political ambitions and ideas about how the country should be run, I’d jump into the Liberal Party with all the energy I could muster. Why? Because a party that’s down — or new — is wide open at the top and the bottom. And all it takes to move up the ranks is determination and patience.
This is not a new idea with me. I had these thoughts fifty years ago. I thought there were two things you’d have to do. First, build your own personal constituency through some kind of citizen activism. It could be any kind of a cause. Second, mobilize that constituency to help you get elected and on the ladder to the top rank in your party.
Too many things got in my way of following through on those ideas. (Although I did join the Liberal party, back in 1972.) Now, there’s a great opportunity for someone with the commitment and motivation to create a new leadership role in tomorrow’s Liberal Party.
It’s been done before, in other parties.
Tommy Douglas joined the CCF as a young church minister in its early days in Saskatchewan, rose to be Premier, and later leader of what would become the Official Opposition, the New Democratic party.
Ernest Manning, a youthful Bible student, became enraptured with the idea of Social Credit, joined the new movement in Alberta, and served for years as Premier of that province.
W.A.C. Bennett, a disgruntled B.C. Tory, took hold of Social Credit aspirations in the west coast province and established a political dynasty that ran out only after his son, Bill, has succeeded him in power for several years.
Rene Levesque, unhappy with the reluctance of the Quebec Liberal Party to move from “maitre chez nous” to all-out separatism, built the Parti Quebecois from the ground up, establishing a legacy that endures to this day.
Joey Smallwood, convinced that Newfoundland would be better off in Canada, campaigned for Confederation and became the odds-on choice to head up the Liberal Party when that island became a province. He reigned for years.
Gilles Duceppe, a one-time Maoist and union organizer, became the first elected MP for the Bloc Quebecois in 1990, setting him on a twenty-year trajectory in Parliament.
All of which goes to prove, in my view, that booking into a political party at its nadir, or catching the rising star of a new movement, offers unusual opportunities.
And of course, you need to engage with the community, as Duceppe did as a community organizer (also Barack Obama) and as Gerard Kennedy, the onetime Ontario Education Minister and federal liberal leadership contender, did with the foodbank movement.
In saying this, I’m not advocating self-serving opportunism. You’ve got to have ideas to go with your ambition. And if your ideas are really important, they probably won’t be very popular at first. Witness Tommy Douglas on healthcare, Smallwood on union with Canada, Bennett on B.C. economic self-sufficiency, or even Duceppe on separatism.
What ideas might a future leader of the Liberal party embrace as Canada goes forward from 2011? They shouldn’t be ideas based on what the public says it wants, or what might win a few seats at the next election.
Really important ideas need to be fought for, and take a long time to fulfill.
Here’s one: family planning, as an element of Canada’s foreign policy. The government of the day refuses to fund international aid involving the teaching of family planning or practice of abortion. Canada’s policy should be just the opposite. Give foreign aid only to countries that agree to embrace family planning.
Drug addiction. Treat it as a health issue, not a crime. End the insanity of a system that, like the prohibition of alcohol, creates vast cesspools of crime. Do just the opposite of what we’re doing.
Immigration. Combined with a global family planning program, Canada could in a clear conscience severely restrict immigration to only those who bring significant new knowledge and cultural compatibility to this country.
Foreign policy: An end to international adventurism, putting a stop to making war on countries like Libya.
This handful of ideas, all in diametric opposition to current policy, would not be an easy sell. But for too long, politics has been based on parties trying to find out what the pubic wants, and then giving it to them. We need a different approach. Come up with good ideas and then sell them to the public.
Michael Ignatieff closed his resignation speech by saying he hoped that someone out there, perhaps a young woman, was listening to his remarks and he hoped they would come into the arena, and perhaps one day lead the Liberal party.
I hope so too, and with ideas that will engage Canadians into thinking about real solutions to real problems in the 21st century.