Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Building relationships key to Liberal Party renewal

By John Ibbitson, Globe and Mail, November 9, 2011
While the Conservatives and NDP foment divisions between an out-of-touch elite and angry workers, the Canadian economy cries out for a balanced, environmentally astute program aimed at protecting the earning power of the middle class, Bob Rae will tell the Economic Club of Toronto at noon Wednesday.

The Conservatives’ populist pandering “will fritter away the Canadian advantage unless we convince them to change course,” he warns.

“An ideological government is pushing a program of jails and jets that threatens our fiscal stability going forward,” he adds, while “the NDP wants to raise taxes, and then throws in a ‘tax the rich’ message for good measure.”
In his speech, Mr. Rae commits the Liberal Party to freezing increases in EI premiums, as part of an effort to shift the tax burden away from payroll and other taxes that hamper job creation.
In his budget update on Tuesday, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced the Conservative government will halve the planned increase in Employment Insurance premiums from 10 cents per $100 dollars of insurable earnings to five cents.
Mr. Rae would also dispense with “boutique tax credits” for things like sports equipment for children or for serving as a volunteer fire fighter, while also closing what he says are corporate tax loopholes.
“Creating a simpler, clearer tax code should be our objective, rooted in the twin principles of progressivity and support for innovation,” he maintains.
But while placing a greater emphasis on protecting the environment, many of Mr. Rae’s priorities mirror the Conservatives’ own: encouraging growth through innovation, intelligent taxation and increased free trade.
At the root of Mr. Rae’s speech is a claim – which will be hotly contested by the other parties – that the Conservatives and the NDP are guilty of populist pandering to their core constituencies.
Progressivity and innovation, as principles for the tax code make sense.
"Boutique pandering" as a governing principle does not make sense. And Mr. Rae is right about the Harper government's "boutique pandering" and not only in the tax credits.
However, while boutique hotels are fashionable, and high class boutiques are the caterers to the rich, the rest of the country is barely aware of the existence of those same boutiques. So far, so good, for Mr. Rae's speech later today to the Economic Club in Toronto.
However, the much larger question, while still involving taxes, is whether or not the Liberal Party can restate, reshape or even find and exemplify a set of values that connect with, inspire and raise the hopes of a majority of Canadians.
How, for example, does the Liberal Party reclaim the "respect for the individual" in its vision going forward?
How, for example, does the Liberal Party cushion the dramatic and tectonic shifts in our economic activity, including the need for a greener environment, with globalization and its attendant labour losses?
How does the Liberal Party reclaim the moderate (never mind the high) moral ground in Quebec where some petty thieves have reduced it to a sham of its former self?
How does the Liberal Party bring millions of Canadians to consider party membership when what it offers is still clouded in a murky past, a history of failed leadership, and an empty bank account?
Businessmen will speak of "developing relationships" with customers;  so will teachers, doctors, nurses, social workers and lawyers and accountants.
 However, building relationships, by a political party, means shucking the "power-at-the-top" and replacing it with
representative democracy within the party, if there is to be a potential for relationships to be built and sustained with ordinary Canadians, while preserving room for flexibility, within clear parameters, for those in Cabinet.
And such a process will mean a cultural shift for most male politicians from a culture of "speaking" and "telling" to one of "listening" and "responding".
If the Liberal membership lists are to grow, and they will have to if the party is to regain any hope of recovering some of its past glory, then people like my three daughters will have to become members. While they are engaged in their own professional careers, and parenting, they have little or no time for the volunteering that is a deep need of political parties. And volunteering plus fund-raising are at the heart of the political process, and now even more important with the Harper removal of public financing of political parties. So how does the party add value to the potential relationship it seeks to build with individual Canadians?
  • Well, to start with, it could devise clear and accessible ways to build a two-way communication between the party executive and members in the ridings that demonstrates on a continuing basis, the party is seeking and implementing the evolving views of the members.
  • And, it could submit to the members copies of speeches delivered by all M.P.'s in their ridings and elsewhere, so that all members could and would be informed of such developing currents.
  • It could develop an on-line radio station that would provide interactive programming sanctioned by the party, accessible for the general public.
  • It could develop a national newsletter to provide a platform for both members and the executive to exchange views, once again accessible to the general public
  • It could host public lectures across the country, as a learning resource for Canadians on topics covering the range of federal government responsibilities, in which the general public could witness a party enlivened by the healthy and respectful exchange of ideas as an integral component of a healthy democracy
  • It could set up its own Liberal Party think tank, for the purposes of conducting research on policy alternatives, as an integral generator of information and proposals for dissemination both to party members and to the general public
  • It could publish, as part of its radio and newsletter offerings, abstracts of the academic writings of its members, thereby demonstrating the individual competencies, and building relationships around those competencies between the members and the general public
  • It could develop and host international exchanges of political opinion on such issues as human rights, poverty, access to health care, comparative education to once again fertilize the garden of ideas to which the Liberal party is committed, as an innovation agent for all Canadians
  • It could host regional conferences in various parts of the country, bringing in experts and the general public for both workshops and discussions on policy ideas deploying party members as both experts and hosts, with goal, once again, to be the exposure of detailed policy proposals, and their implications, to the general public only this time on regional issues
  • It could fund raise for Liberal Party scholarships for aspiring policy students in academic disciplines congruent with federal government responsibilities, as well as research grants for established academics, with the option of publishing the results in party publications
Benefactors have to have a substantial reason and motivation to write those cheques, and they have to see that the party organization is determined to honour its pledge to educate, to stimulate and to generate healthy public debate among the citizens. That way lies "leadership" by the party and for the country.
Can the Liberal Party reach beyond the simplistic "primary voting" proposal for leader, to develop and sustain a vibrant, pulsating political nexus as an agent of democracy in Canada.
Time will tell. The opportunity is both large and welcoming. The challenge is to find the political will and the imagination and courage to achieve clearly articulated goals for the good of the country,as well as the life of the party.

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