The final week of the 41st general election found me in Toronto, volunteering on the re-election campaign of my former employer, the Honourable Ken Dryden, in his York Centre constituency. Like so many intelligent, honest, and hardworking Liberal MPs, Ken was unseated by a combination of a surging NDP vote and a smart, aggressive Conservative campaign – two factors that contributed to the historic humbling of the once-mighty Liberal Party of Canada. A third factor in this unprecedented result, I believe, was a fundamental inability by the Liberals to offer a compelling, attractive, and realistic vision of Canada to Canadians.
The Liberals were not alone in this deficiency. The NDP’s immense growth was helped by largely untenable promises made in Quebec and across the country, while the Conservatives eschewed a truly national campaign and instead employed tightly targeted, highly specific messages for key communities and demographics. As in many previous elections, the parties’ national policies are formulated on the fly, in response to the political needs of the moment – as determined through polling. In this all the parties were alike – the Liberals simply had the less effective campaign and the least popular leader.
The internal mechanisms of our major federal parties are built to necessitate this kind of opportunistic, paper-napkin policy making – built, in other words, to fail the public interest. Every political observer is aware that the grassroots policy process in each party is deeply flawed, and indeed a sham. NDP policy conventions are anticipated with dread by the party leadership and moderate members, as radicals from across the country propose resolutions that put the party’s worst tendencies on public display. For similar reasons, the Conservatives find themselves compelled to bar the media from their own policy deliberations. The Liberals’ tortuous, multi-layered policy mechanism is widely known to bear no relation to the eventual content of the party platform. Michael Ignatieff’s vaunted Montreal “thinkers’ conference” of 2010 was rightly seen as more of a media stunt than a serious effort at addressing national challenges in new and creative ways.
Meanwhile, high-quality, in-depth public policy work is continuously being done by groups like the C.D. Howe Institute, the Fraser Institute, and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives – to name a few – and by academics at Canada’s universities. Sadly, there is little sign of interaction and cooperation between these institutions and experts, and the national political parties. In the United States, by contrast, groups like the Centre for American Progress, the Brookings Institution, and the Heritage Foundation enjoy significant input into the policy thinking of the two major parties.
I suggest it is time for each of the Canadian parties – but particularly the decimated Liberals – to invest in serious and sustained policy formulation by creative, pragmatic, and passably objective experts. Our national discussions would benefit immeasurably from the establishment of new institutions – and the advancement of existing ones – where good ideas and real policies can incubate, then find their way into the proposals of politicians to the electorate. Such institutions would not only help to make policy less opportunistic; they would also provide new avenues for the political establishment to engage interest groups, unions, corporations, and citizens in meaningful and beneficial debates about the country’s direction. Perhaps we might even see an environment where politicians must demonstrate that their ideas are objectively superior to those of their opponents – a marked improvement over the current context, where market-tested slogans and cheap sound bites too often win the day.
As the Conservative government retools itself for several years of majority rule, and the NDP seeks to build itself into a mature and disciplined Opposition, the diminished Liberal Party of Canada may be in the best position to lead the way on a new kind of policy development. I am confident that many academics, researchers, and other experts would leap at the chance to debate and formulate prescriptions for the wide range of challenges our country faces, confident that their labours will be introduced into the mainstream political discourse. All Canadians would be well served by such a development – and the Liberal Party might also find its best chance of revival.
Image courtesy of No Barriers Photography.