Grits chart course into uncertain future

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
Sun Media, Friday, March 26, 2010

Fifty years ago, the Kingston conference gave the opposition Liberals the reform agenda they would implement when Lester B. Pearson took office in 1963. The five years of two minority Pearson governments left an impressive legacy of achievement — from the Canada/Quebec pension to medicare. The organizing force of the Kingston conference, Tom Kent, later drove the Pearson initiatives as his senior policy adviser and, at 88, still lives in Kingston, as intellectually nimble as ever.

Nearly 20 years ago, the Aylmer conference moved the Liberals past their opposition to Canada-U.S. free trade. The party wouldn’t have to re-fight the 1988 election in the next one and it gave Jean Chretien the cover he needed to support the North American Free Trade Agreement that included Mexico in 1992.

The conference also resulted eventually in the Red Book, which allowed Chretien, supposedly yesterday’s man, to present himself as a man with a plan in the 1993 election. The co-editors of the Red Book, Chaviva Hosek and Paul Martin, went on to become, respectively, senior policy adviser to the prime minister and the finance minister who famously balanced Canada’s books in 1997.

This weekend, the Liberals are staging another thinkers’ conference, this one in Montreal, where everyone loves to go for the weekend. The party is once again in opposition and in search of new ideas. It is also in search of how to manage Liberal votes on its own opposition motions in the House of Commons, but that’s another story.

Comparisons to Kingston and Aylmer are inevitable, but invidious. It is about 20 years too soon to measure outcomes against aspirations. And some journalists, who couldn’t be bothered to attend a background briefing, have unfairly dismissed it as a gabfest or an elitist exercise where delegates actually have to pay $700 to attend a three-day conference, while Liberal MPs and senators will be mostly excluded because the organizers are trying to position the conference as a non-partisan. Usually a conference is at least allowed to be held before it is judged a failure or success.

Unstable

The Montreal conference also finds the Liberals in a different place than they were in 1960 and 1991 — as the opposition in an unstable minority House, as opposed to facing the secure majority governments of John Diefenbaker and Brian Mulroney with years to do their follow-up.

In an environment in which the government could fall any time soon, the Liberals are fast-tracking their subsequent policy process, with five regional symposiums across the country before the summer recess.

They are also trying to look thoroughly contemporary by streaming the conference online, with 60 offsite venues and people twittering their questions into the conference. And the program is both impressive and impressively bipartisan, around the theme of Canada 150, pegged to the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017.

Speakers include former Bank of Canada governor David Dodge, former ambassador to the U.S. Derek Burney, former University of British Columbia president Martha Piper and Dan Gagnier, former chief of staff to Premier Jean Charest.

How will Canada look in 2017? Different than it does today. In 1960, perhaps one Canadian home in 100 had colour TV. In 1991, the Internet had no commercial applications and the world wide web that now runs our lives was only then coming into being.

 
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