Ottawa Citizen

The Liberals go spring shopping

- SUSAN RILEY Susan Riley writes on national politics. E-mail

It’s easy to ridicule this weekend’s non-partisan (Liberal) thinkfest in Montreal on the future of Canada. Given the poisonous cynicism that afflicts federal politics, it is almost obligatory.

Still, that doesn’t make it fair — not to the well-credential­ed guest panelists at Canada 150, to party members sacrificin­g a spring weekend to attend smaller forums in 40 different locations, or to the country itself. There is nothing wrong with an open call for ideas; there’s no reason to believe Canada can’t do better than the cramped, often crabby, vision of Stephen Harper.

But — and this is where doubt creeps in — will the ideas survive the withering contempt of the Conservati­ve hit squad, Michael Ignatieff ’s timid and drifting leadership, or inevitable editing by drafters of the next Liberal campaign platform? Bold ideas have a habit of turning into minor tax credits, or small monthly cheques, or short-lived millennium scholarshi­ps once they’ve been through the reductive spin cycle of campaign politics. (Especially once they’re costed.)

The precedents aren’t en- couraging. Everyone — especially Liberals — remembers what happened to the last Big Idea. Stéphane Dion’s green shift included a carbon tax, but also offered personal income tax cuts and enhanced support for poor families and seniors. It was more ambitious and less threatenin­g than portrayed — but it was doomed by poor marketing and opposition vitriol.

The reaction frightened Liberals and still does. Then came the recession which made Ignatieff ’s musings about national child care, high-speed rail and an east-west electricit­y grid appear jarringly ill-timed. He seemed to forget the environmen­t altogether. Lately, he’s been championin­g more federal spending on education, which is still a largely provincial responsibi­lity.

It is one thing to be open to ideas; it is another to be grasping at straws. If Ignatieff has to put out a public tender for marketable policy, why did he enter politics in the f irst place? Did he not have a plan — suggested improvemen­ts, at least? (He obviously isn’t a “ managerial” leader in the Jean Chrétien mould — for that, you have to be able to manage.)

The bungled abortion resolution this week not only took the shine off the Liberals’ much-anticipate­d intellectu­al re-launch, it bodes ill for Ignatieff ’s leadership and for his party’s immediate prospects. First, Liberals poked the slumbering dog ( the abortion issue), and, when it snarled, they scattered in confusion. They let down the pro-choice contingent they were courting, and made Harper — who continues to insist he doesn’t want to re-ignite the abortion issue — sound reasonable.

In fact, Harper is deliberate­ly vague on the question of whether his G8 maternal health initiative will include the right of Third World women to safe abortions. And his government appears to be cutting funding to non-government­al organizati­ons that don’t share conservati­ve social values.

So Liberals were right to blow the whistle. It took “considerab­le courage,” said Ignatieff, to venture into such controvers­ial territory. But, having done so, they followed through with a weak, wordy resolution that never mentioned “abortion” and included a gratuitous insult to George W. Bush. Ignatieff left Bob Rae to present the awkward motion in the House, someone failed to count the votes, no one bothered to try to cajole pro-life Liberals and the caucus generally was not apprised of the wording or importance of the vote. The result: Liberals lost their own motion.

If nothing else, this weekend’s conference and online conversati­on will briefly change the channel. The website is already peppered with ideas, familiar and fresh: a green loans program, open access to broadband, a “Con- federation” train, a “brain fitness” regime, a Department of Peace, support for locally-grown produce. Roger Martin, head of University of Toronto’s Rotman school, offers proposals for turning science-driven inventions into consumer-driven innovation­s.

But Liberals need more than ideas. They need a leader who doesn’t treat his caucus like wallpaper. (Liberal MPs and senators are explicitly not invited to this weekend’s wonk fest.) They need answers to their own daily questions. What would they do — never mind the government — if the Americans ask us to leave 600 soldiers in Kabul after 2011? How would Liberals pay down the deficit, fix the isotope shortage, regulate greenhouse emissions?

Mostly, they need a leader who is liberal by conviction, not just in name.

President Obama signed his health bill into law this week, just barely — a tribute to his conviction, persistenc­e and radiant smile. But his life experience — notably his mother’s struggles with private insurers — led him to champion health reform in the f irst place, not political calculatio­n.

Obama doesn’t need to go shopping for ideas — but, for anyone who does, they’ll be streaming live, online, all weekend at

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