Friday, January 13, 2012

Guest Post: Why I'll Be Voting Against Nearly Every Policy At the Convention

A few years ago, I was at an Liberal Party of Canada in Alberta AGM voting on policies to go forward to the Vancouver Biennial in 2009. We were debating a policy that called for a 25% reduction in greenhouse gases. A funny thing happened; someone stood up and declared that this was too high, it would hurt the economy too much and that it should be a 20% reduction instead. Cue a half hour debate over the proposal. Tempers flared, people took sides. A frustrated friend of mine stood up and asked a very simple question; did anyone know what 5% of GHG entailed? Sure enough, nobody did. The environmental-focused Liberals just lined up behind the 25% while the more fiscal-focused Liberals went for 20%; nobody had any context and the whole debate was effectively meaningless.

There’s no doubt that our policy process has significant flaws and is in need of serious reform. However, even if we had an efficient and engaging process, we would still have the serious problem of "garbage in, garbage out". If we don't take this process seriously, why do we expect others to?

I've read the resolutions for this coming Convention and I've come to three conclusions. First, we seem to be actively avoiding substantive policy. I don't want to pick on anybody, but I am going to use an example; one policy calls for a national housing strategy to address homelessness. Alright, noble enough goal, but that's all it does. No mention of what might actually be in said strategy, other than it'll address homelessness. Well, what does that mean? Clearly we've entered some metaphysical realm where we have a policy in favour of having a policy (and we'll get back to you on what it is exactly). We may as well have a policy condemning nuclear war, just in case people weren't clear on where we sat on that issue (naturally there'd be an exemption for the leader to support nuclear war in "special circumstances”).

Second, we need to put a lot more actual research into our polices. For instance, the call for a National Food Strategy. Well, I Googled "Canada National Food Strategy". The first hit was the Canadian Federation of Agriculture's National Food Strategy. The policy we're looking at calls for us to work with them to develop a policy. Well, they seem to have done the work for us. What our policy should actually have expressed is what we want a national food strategy to say, and we can then say "Hey, the CFA supports this approach". Or, "Hey, we disagree with this aspect of the CFA's policy".

Third, party members are obsessed with making sure they have a policy that passes (even if it then disappears into the ether). We're so focused on making sure our policy passes that we water them down into striking committees and seeing what other people think rather than statements expressing the will of the membership. Here, I'll use the example of a proposal that's been getting a lot of ink - the Young Liberal proposal to abolish the monarchy...except that's not what it does. No, it wants to strike a committee to examine rules to establish a Canadian Head of State.

If we want to have a debate, let have it. Debates are good, they focus us, challenge us, make us better. But even if we can’t reach that level of discourse, lets please stop having water cooler conversations designed to not offend anyone and calling these debates and policies. So what if your policy doesn’t pass? A failed proposal that started an important debate can alter the course of our thinking and a few conventions later, the membership may express a different opinion.

So aside from the few good ones that I’ll be supporting, I'll be voting against most of the polices at Convention. Policies that try to be all things to all people (a real problem we've had lately, n'est pas?), that don't actually do anything, and that haven’t been adequately researched do not deserve our support. Canadians aren't stupid; if we vote down a toothless call for a National Housing Strategy, they aren't going to suddenly think we're in favour of homelessness. They're going to get the message and know that we're taking this process seriously and going back to the drawing board to create policies for the next Biennial in 2014 that are important to us and mean something to them.

Glen Krueger is a Past President of the Dalhousie Liberals, past Board Member in Calgary and Halifax constituencies, and is currently articling at a law firm in Toronto.

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7 Comments:

  • I appreciate the sentiment of your post, but recent events seem to suggest that people don't actually care about real policy - rather they just want to hear platitudes, like the CPC tends to bather in the public realm. The CPC hasn't had a meaningful policy in nearly a generation but Harper got a majority anyway.

    It seems to me that LPC leadership is just looking at what worked for the CPC and not worrying about real policies. Unfortunately for them, they don't actually practice the effective negative, poison politics of the CPC so the Liberals are going to end up with the worst of both worlds as they have to years now. If the LPC has any hope of coming back from the wilderness it either needs to find a positive hook that resonates with people or they need to practice the negative politics of the CPC (or maybe do both). But now they are only continuing to come off as a kind of wishy-washy party that has little or no direction and doesn't have the backbone to actually go to the mat against this government. I personally think it is a result of lossing direction in the 90s and moving toward a neo-liberal economic agenda, but that is a leftist's opinion.

    I would be glad to see the once great Liberal Party back - the one that brought us (with the NDP) the healthcare system, and all that. But right now, even with all this talk of renewal, their leaders sound more like air slowly escaping from a ever flattening tire.

    By Blogger kirbycairo, at 9:33 AM  

  • Dunno: "address homelessness" seems clear enough. Homeless are oft defined as those who have no address, so we simply need to give them an address. (To "address" the homeless, to use the verb form). Lat/long grid references are precise but complex. Maybe just assign a street number to bridges, grates, and viaducts and the Party can check this one off as an accomplishment for ages to come.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:06 PM  

  • Housing was one of the issues in the Saskatchewan election. The NDP plan involved rent controls. The Sask Party plan involved "not rent controls", but no substantive ideas at all for housing.

    The media, of course, lets them get away with this sort of thing, since they get a simple "for" side and "against" side they can parrot without having to do research or real journalism, which hurts their poor little brains.

    Election day comes, the Sask Party wins, and now housing is too hard and they're passing the buck to the municipalities. Like kirbycairo said, nobody seems to care about real positive policies. As soon as the party gets in power, they dump the idea anyways. A specific, concrete policy means more surface area for partisan hacks to attack with the help of the media.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:56 PM  

  • Bob Rae is your next leader. The fix is in. Canadians can see through the whole process. You are run by your elites.

    By Blogger Rotterdam, at 5:39 PM  

  • As a non-Liberal (non-anything for that matter), I'd say the problem is more substantive than convention policies (that regular folks likely pay little attention to in any event).

    It's a problem of a *government* that either does not follow through on policies/campaign promises or misleads on policies that it does implement.

    Cases in point:
    - campaign against wage and price controls
    - promise to renegotiate the FTA
    - promise to get rid of the GST (would-be president Sheila Copps springs to mind).
    - promise to implement a national day care program
    - signing of Kyoto and then doing nothing about it
    - implementing a long gun registry whose only real use is as an *investigative* tool

    If this sort of thing happens enough a credibility gap results. And at that point it really doesn't matter what convention policy is approved as the public has long since tuned out what you're saying.

    By Anonymous Jim R, at 2:20 PM  

  • Jim R, you're absolutely right.

    The credibility gap is made worse by way the Conservatives have been handling themselves - it makes previous Liberal fearmongering look absurd.

    The recent same-sex divorce issue is a good example. Prominent Liberals cried wolf about how the Conservatives were launching a culture war against gay marriage - even though those Liberals must have known full well that it was nothing of the sort. The Conservative response that they'll change the law - to fix an gap in the legislation that the Liberals themselves failed to close when they introduced it - now makes those Liberal accusations look ridiculous and dishonest.

    By Blogger Vancouverois, at 2:34 PM  

  • Jim R. is right and the problem is that the credibility gap runs across party lines; the credibility gap fostered by any party or individual politician is applied to all of them.

    The public has tuned out completely - rightly so, even if it may be unfair for those who are not directly responsible for the gap in the first place.

    By Anonymous Marc from soccer, at 2:59 PM  

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