The Liberal Party national convention in Ottawa next week could be a milestone on its road back to power in Canada — but only if Liberals forget about power for the moment and instead put policy first.
How do you separate the two?
Look for what delegates spend the most time on — figuring out process that they hope will help them win an election, or fathoming what kind of policies will warrant their eventual return to office.
Process involves such things as leadership selection and voting rules. All important stuff, but which should be disposed of pretty quickly.
One quick step that could be taken would be to abolish the strictures that have been set on Bob Rae as interim leader. The rules say he can’t stand for permanent leader, and that he’s not allowed to enter into any dialogue with the NDP that might culminate in a merger.
Both are unreasonable restrictions, and should be dropped.
As to opening up leadership selection to a primary style vote, letting anyone cast a vote who is prepared to say they support the Liberal party, I think that’s a good idea. People who take advantage of that will be more likely to join the party and support it financially in the future.
But it’s policy, not process, that will carry the Liberal party back to power, if that’s ever going to happen. Liberals will have to address important issues that are generally considered too hot to handle. It’s the failure of the parties to address these kinds of issues that has led, I believe, to both the poor voter turn-out of recent elections, and the increasingly negative view we hold of our politicians.
A few examples:
1. The militarization of Canada. At a time when the U.S. is preparing to strip a trillion dollars out of its defense budget, the Harper government seems determined to pick up the pieces. Ordering F-35 “first strike” planes for which we should have no use is a colossal waste of taxpayer money, at a time when the country is struggling to get out of deficit.The Harper government seems to have become the prisoner of what U.S. President Eisenhower warned against when he left office in 1961 — the “military-industrial complex.”
When you have the Prime Minister and his Minister of Defence, Peter McKay, going before the annual convention of Canadian arms makers — the Conference of Defence Associations — as they will do again in February to explain their military intentions — it’s difficult to come to any other conclusion that they are indeed prisoners of said military-industrial complex.
The Liberal party should set out — as the NDP has done — a vigorous set of alternative policies in defence and foreign policy.
2. The war on drugs. This is another great issue that’s damaging the country — in terms of ruined lives, sky-high policing costs, and ever-growing investments in bigger prisons. Witness the Harper government’s new “tough on crime” approach. Better to call it “stupid on crime.” Liberals should demand a medical focus on the problem of improper drug use, a strategy that would have a far greater prospect of success in bringing the drug problem to resolution than the present approach. Treat the drug addict medically — just as we need to act on the medical problems that bring large numbers of mentally-ill prisoners to our jails.
It’s fine for Liberals to be addressing the future of the monarchy, and calling for a an all-party committee to consider replacing the Crown with a Canadian head of state. But not a whole lot of people really care too much about that, one way or the other. We’re not suffering as a nation because we pay allegiance to the Queen.
3. Justice for Canada’s “First Nations.” We can no longer, in conscience, tolerate the conditions under which native Canadians live. I was involved in a study a decade ago, for the Canadian Council on Native Business, that showed aboriginals in this country are actually WORSE OFF than when the first Europeans arrived four hundred years ago. We need to begin by investing people on the reserves with some responsibility for their own lives, rather than being forced to accept Ottawa’s dictates. The Liberal party should develop a clear, practical policy with this native self-responsibility as its goal.
How about it, Liberals? Let’s start focusing on some REAL issues for a change.
The scientists searching for the God Particle — the phenomenon that turned energy into mass at the time of the Big Bang to create the universe as we know it — say they’re closing in on their quarry.
Of course, there’s nothing God-like about what they’re hunting, but the fact they’ve chosen to give it this name aptly illustrates our preoccupation throughout human history with deities of one kind or another.
Human beings created Gods (in our likeness?) around the time that we moved from hunter-gatherer status to tillers of the soil — or maybe earlier. The Sumerians, ancient Greeks and then the Romans codified their Gods but it took the rise of Judaism and Christianity — and later Islam — to create the monotheistic, all-fearing, vengeful God handed down to us in the Common Era.
A new book, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt (W.W. Norton) explores how some of the early philosophers, notably Epicurus in 3rd century BCE Greece, and Lucretius in 1st century BCE Rome, challenged this belief in gods. Greenblatt has constructed a fascinating narrative around a 15th century ex-Papal secretary, Poggio Bracciolini, who found the forgotten manuscript of Lucretius, On The Nature of Things, in a monastery in southern Germany. He had it copied (in beautiful calligraphy as readable as modern printing), and soon it was influencing the work of Renaissance thinkers, insidiously undermining the conventional wisdoms of the Church. With the discovery, Greenblatt writes, “the world swerved in a new direction.”
Epicurus had taught that the gods, if they exist, did not care at all about human beings. If the gods did not care, why should we? The purpose of life, Epicurus said, should be the attainment of pleasure, and one should believe only that which can be tested through direct observation. The universe is made up of atoms, moving randomly about.
Lucretius used these arguments to bolster further disbelief in gods. As Greenblatt sums up Lucretius’ conclusions: “There is no master plan, no divine architect, no intelligent design … no reason to think that the earth or its inhabitants occupy a central place” in the universe.
The notion of atoms, and of evolution, was joined in The Nature of Things with the conviction that “there is a hidden natural explanation for everything that alarms or eludes you.”
According to Lucretius, Greenblatt writes, “there is no single moment of origin, no mythic scene of creation … There is no afterlife … When you are dead, there will be neither pleasure or pain, longing nor fear. You will not care, because you will not exist … There are no angels, demons or ghosts.”
Greenblatt points to the rejection by Lucretius of the cruelty of religion, as manifested in the sacrifice of a child by its parent in order to please a god.
“Writing around 50 BCE he (Lucretius) could not, of course, have anticipated the great sacrifice myth that would come to dominate the Western world, but he would not have been surprised by it or the endlessly reiterated, prominently displayed images of the bloody, murdered son.”
When the ancient manuscript found by Bracciolini began to circulate in Western Europe, the Church of course took action. An early strategy was to impugn the teachings of Epicurus as nothing more than a craving for gluttony and a sinful exercise in excess. More damaging was the persecution by the Holy Office (the Inquisition) of those who dared advance scientific thought.
The author of The Swerve draws an interesting comparison between the attack of the early Christians on scientific thought, and the enlightened pursuit of knowledge that had taken place in Egypt under the Ptolemaic kings before the birth of Christ. With their Greek heritage, they encouraged intellectual inquiry which led to the development of higher mathematics (geometry and calculus), posited that the earth was round, that the year was 365 1/4 days thus requiring a leap day every four years, and speculated that India could be reached by sailing west from Spain.
All of this knowledge, and more, was accumulated in half a million papyrus scrolls in the Alexandria Library. Early in the Christian era, Jews, pagans and Christians lived side by side in tolerance. After the Roman emperor Constantine decreed Christianity as Rome’s official religion, the attack on Alexandrian pluralism began. There must be no free-thinking inquiry, everything must give way to religious dogma. Soon, Christian mobs were vandalizing the great library, slaughtering pagans and expelling Jews. Rome’s own libraries fell into disrepair, with the historian Marcellinus bemoaning that “Romans had virtually abandoned serious reading.”
The collapse of the Roman Empire quickly followed. The Western world fell into a thousand years of stagnation and decay. Stephen Greenblatt’s Swerve leaves me wondering how much of a factor was Christianity in those lamentable occurrences. Did the Christian suppression of scientific inquiry cost us ten centuries of progress? Where might we be today if the seeds planted in Alexandria had been allowed to flourish in Rome, Florence, Venice and London ?
Ultimately they did of course bear fruit, in many ways and in many different places. Concludes Greenblatt: Thomas Jefferson would give “a momentous political document, at the founding of a new republic, a distinctly Lucretian turn. The turn was toward a government whose end was not only to secure the lives and the liberties of its citizens but also to serve ‘the pursuit of Happiness.’ The atoms of Lucretius had left their traces on the Declaration of Independence.”
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.
Is democracy a pocketbook issue? Probably not, which explains why Michael Ignatieff fell short of his goal in last night’s English federal leaders’ debate. He may have gotten to the five-yard line, but he didn’t score.
Ignatieff was hard-hitting and on the money in properly calling Stephen Harper to account for his dictatorial tactics in refusing Parliament a proper accounting of the costs of government legislation.
“This is about the economy, about telling the truth,” Ignatieff said. He reminded Harper that parliamentary debate isn’t “bickering,” it’s the stuff of democracy. “You cannot be trusted with the institutions of our country.”
But it’s hard to work up much enthusiasm for the Liberal leader’s performance. The Toronto Star has a good wrap-up here.
The morning after assessment from the media and the blogosphere seems to be that the leaders conducted themselves true to form.
- Harper, the smarmy, schoolmasterish lecturer telling Canadians they’d better give him a majority or face “a fifth or sixth election” in the next few years.
- Jack Layton, the happy warrior, smiling despite the pain he must have felt on his feet for two hours with a fractured hip.
- Ignatieff, a novice in leaders’ debates but a seasoned TV presenter, dealing all the right sound bites in his criticisms of Harper.
- Gilles Duceppe , the irrelevant fourth man, there merely to demand more for Quebec. Nonetheless a telling and effective debater; if he’d been a Liberal, he’d probably be Prime Minister right now.
The script fit nicely into Harper’s strategy. Leave me alone and let me have my way or the economy will nosedive and you’ll have to suffer the ordeal of another election. Don’t bug me with bickering. It was more of the politics of fear that Harper has traded on over crime and Coalition. It’s just possible Canadians will be so fed up with not just Harper but the others as well, that they’ll let him have his majority as the price of getting him off their backs.
More than anything, the debate demonstrated the sorry futility of hoping for a rational discussion of a vision for the country. There’s the glimmer of one in the Liberal platform, but Ignatieff was not especially revealing in how he portrayed it.
There are two weeks plus left in the campaign for Ignatieff to sell the Liberal program to voters. There’s much in it that’s appealing, and the country can well afford the key planks of education support, assistance for home care givers, and help to seniors.
A change of pace
One of the best pieces of reporting in the current campaign is in the Globe and Mail today with an informative, highly readable account of the situation in the two key Kitchener ridings in southwestern Ontario. Traditionally Liberal, they both went Conservative by razor-thin margins in 2008. Anthony Reinhart writes knowingly of what these districts, heir to a long history of manufacturing success and Mennonite frugality, are doing to meet the challenges of a hi tech, global economy. It’s here.