Friday, November 26, 2010

Liberal Party "Service Canada," Part 2

We have all heard the phrase, "retail politics," about the concept of politicians and their respective parties meeting, greeting, and listening to the thoughts, feelings, beliefs and hopes and fears of the electorate, when the writ has been issued for the election.
And we have also heard that ordinary people, members of a political party, show up only when they are moved to support or reject a candidate, a policy or a cluster of proposals. So the graph of policial contributions, and policy and candidate recruitment would be rather flat for years between elections, and then spike a few weeks or months prior to the election.
While there are advantages for both citizens and political parties with that graph, the country is not served as well as it would be with a longer and more sustained "participaction"....
And, we all know that a mere 2% of this country considers itself a member of a political party...really a sad statistic. And we all know that much of political involvement is "thankless" to say the least. Nevertheless, if there ever were a time when political membership, and political activism, and political contributions needed a shot of adrenalin, it is the convergence of both the current national and geopolitical situations, right now, that such a shot is necessary.
And, while the Liberal Party of Canada has suffered ignominiously, through "paper-bag" cash scandals, and leadership changes, there is no doubt its phoenix-rise from its own ashes is both necessary and worthy of considerable individual and collective effort.
"Service Canada" for those unfamiliar, is based on a text entitled "Service America" in which the authors proposed specific measures for small and medium-sized businesses to "service" their clients. Although the proposals were made some two decades ago, the business of politics is nothing, if not the ultimate "service business."
It relies on those who generate the ideas, and the door-knockings and the letter writings and the phone calls, and now the e-mails, and the policy proposals and the fund-raising to not only "provide" those services, but to actually access "service" as well. And in order to accomplish those specific goals, one needs not only to believe in the direction of the party, and its official spokespeople, and also the potential of those people to generate enthusiasm among independent and disaffected and cynical and sceptical citizens. And in order for that to become feasible, there has to be more than a "bus tour" of barbecues to sustain the effort.
A bus tour generates some "media" stories, but little real activity that captures the imagination and the hearts of those who still consider themselves spectators to the process.
We do not need a Liberal policy conference in Montreal, for example, once every four years; we need a Liberal think tank in every province, and in some provinces more than one, with franchised outlets generating public lectures and book signings and television interviews and listening opportunities that generate new ideas, and new proposals and new ways of both doing the party and of doing the country's business.
And we need an infrastructure that supports that "franchised" think-tank operation. We all know that service clubs are having trouble, generally, recruiting new memberships, as are churches. Nevertheless, we also know that franchises like Tim Horton's with over 3000 outlets across the country, are thriving as hubs of discussion, and as hubs of little communities of various interests and they are one of this country's best business models.
Retail politics when there is a growing "regionalism" and a potential decline, if not already realized, in the esteem and in the cache and in the effective instrumentality of the federal government to actually govern, needs retail outlets, even if they spring up in living rooms of interested hosts across the country where dialogue and even mentoring for new candidates and generation of new ideas, relationships and dollars can occur.
I once submitted a proposal to a neophyte board of a non-profit, detailing some goals that needed attention. While fund-raising was near the top, the "building of relationships" was at the very top. And to my chagrin, and disappointment, the accountants in the group immediately glanced at that section of the report's proposals, and commented, "Oh well, there is nothing here that you want us to do, is there?"
And my heart and my hopes and my energies and even my commitment to the organzation plummeted. It was only through the "building of relationships" that all of the other goals, including fund-raising, were going to be accomplished. And if the "board" were not interested in that somewhat abstract and somewhat immeasureable and intangible goal of building relationships with the various individuals and constituencies connected to the project, there was no way a single "executive" or co-ordinator would ever be able to accomplish the needed revival of the project's future. Ironically, we all know that it is the relationships that will endure long after the engagement with the project, or the party, has ended...so why do we consider this aspect to be so unimportant!
Similarly, the culture of the Liberal party has not been to build relationships, except perhaps with giant donors, and with those who can obviously make a difference in the profile of the candidate and the party when it is needed. And that culture has to change.
The Liberal Party has, right now, the opportunity to transform itself into the most effective "service" provider in Canadian history. And in order to do that, it will have to take off the "suits" and the platform rhetoric and the detachment and the boardroom culture that may have served it very well, and move to a "Timmy" attitude, in which every human encounter is potentially another great step forward in this project called nation building. And that attitude has to accompany each and every letter, and every e-mail and every phone call that all members in all constituencies and regions in the country enter into. We have to renew our commitment to the street and the needs of the people living both on the street, and in the houses on the streets in every village and town and suburb and city.
We have to build bridges between rural and urban, and between young and old, and between east and west and between and among various ethnicities by bringing them together in living rooms, (yes with Timmy's timbits and coffee if desired) and discussions and active listening, a skill that needs to be taught in every interview with every new party member. It is not only the policy positions that matter to Canadians; it is the question of whether those who represent us know and care about what we think, and feel and hope and fear. And it is those intimate hopes and fears that form the kernels of policy papers. And in order to write the policy papers, those writing them need the intimate details of the hopes and fears of those willing to share.
And so we have to drop the mantle of the intellect, at the front end, in order to listen to the hidden meanings from the ordinary people, that can translate into a national direction and policy proposals.
And we need much more than "polling" to accomplish that end.
In fact, it is when and how we use polling that has to change. People have grown cynical about both the exercise and the professionals engaged in the profession. It has become too invasive, and to slick and too profit-centered.
And too dehumanized!
It needs to be used only after the policy proposals have been generated, and the informal relationships have 'vetted' the proposals.
And people, everywhere are starving to be listened to, to  be heard, and to be thinking of and seeing themselves as "making a difference" and that difference cannot be tokenism.
If we can generate volounteers to re-build Haiti, and Angola and Somalia, perhaps the next generations of volunteers can be trained by the Liberal Party of Canada through the provision of real service and real learning and real opportunity for making a difference right here at home.
And the needs of this country are legion. As is the potential of its people. And the Liberal Party can and must become, once again, a vehicle for the unpacking and the release of that energy both in its own interests and in the interests of the country and the globe.
As others have said, "The world needs more of Canada" and the traditions of the Liberal Party of Canada are in great need of being unlocked and released  here at home and around the world.

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