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Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff gives his closing speech at the party's policy conference in Montreal on March 28, 2010.


Federal-Liberal-party-in-opposition policy conferences have an interesting history, and can provide a key to understanding what that party really proposes to do.

So, in 1960 the Liberals assembled panels of "thinkers" in Kingston to consider their policy options. And then the red team decided that the 1960s would be about following the leadership of Tommy Douglas and the CCF-NDP - or, perhaps a little more accurately, pre-empting that leadership while rubbishing it at election time.

The motionless conservatism of the St-Laurent era was set aside. Medicare, pensions, and many of the other sinews of Canada in its current form were then woven via a parliamentary partnership with Douglas and his caucus (many of them staffed out by Douglas' senior public servants - people like Tommy Shoyama - who moved with their Premier from Regina to employment in the federal capital).

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In 1991 another assembly of "thinkers" was convened in Aylmer. The options were canvassed again. And once again a course was set. The Liberals decided that the 1990s would be about following the leadership of Preston Manning and the Reform Party - or, at least, pre-empting that leadership while railing against it at election time.

So the Liberals set aside John Turner's improbable opposition to free trade. They also mostly set aside the Liberal Party's situational commitment to national enterprise and common endeavour (with, to be fair, some honourable exceptions like a new national child benefit and some major post-secondary education initiatives).

A new course was set that transferred federal deficits to provinces, briefly froze spending on the federal civil service, embraced the hollowing-out and foreign takeover of our economy, wasted many billions on tax cuts, and conducted a set of experiments with deregulation (catastrophically destroying Canadian domestic television via a deregulating CRTC, for example).

By the end, Paul Martin was boasting in front of his people (happy business crowds) that the federal government's role in our society had been reduced to what it was in the 1950s.

Louis St-Laurent and his bank-board cabinets would have been pleased.

Which is why the succeeding Harper administration has had relatively little left to do, other than to finish the job by destroying the federal government's freed-up fiscal capacity - reducing the GST, cutting corporate taxes in half, and continuing to reduce income tax on wealthy individuals.

This past weekend yet another Liberal think-in met in Montreal.

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Ludicrously, Michael Ignatieff informed a breathless nation that this time the message is about process.

Nothing can be looked for in future from our national Parliament or its subordinate government. Instead we shall have new process.

Prime Minister Ignatieff will convene arbitrarily appointed academic seminars made up of unelected and unaccountable "deciders" who will assemble, deliberate, and set new courses for us all - in our best interests, whether we like it or not. And then the deciders will disperse across the land to magically make it all happen by themselves.

Once again, it would seem, Mr. Ignatieff's own MPs are to be left out in the cold.

Canada has seen this before from a (shall we say) miscast national leader. John Diefenbaker also believed that if he talked about something, it had been dealt with. It's an approach to national issues that didn't work particularly well for him. As formulated by Mr. Ignatieff, this approach to government didn't work particularly well for Franco, Peron or Pinochet, either.

There is, to be sure, a role in government for working with stakeholders. But Mr. Ignatieff does little justice to the people he invited to talk to him with this pathetic, lame and content-free proposal. The fundamentals of the challenge before us were fairly clearly put to him.

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Our economy is fragile, undercapitalized and over-leveraged, crippled by under-investment in fundamentals, and facing deepening skills shortages while also generating growing unemployment.

The foundations of security for Canadian families - pensions, Canadian health care, employment insurance - need to be renewed and fearlessly managed (and, in smart ways, expanded) to meet need and demographic change.

Our country has disgraced itself internationally on many fronts.

Sometime very soon, Canada must stop its sole current national priority - spending on tax benefits for people who don't need them. Instead we are going to have to focus on some real work, renovating and renewing the fiscal, economic and social foundations of our national life. And we are going to have to set a new course on war and peace, the environment, and many other issues that speak outside of our borders.

There is a vast, boiling vat of angry populist Conservative attack ads, repeated in the conservative echo-chamber English Canadians are mostly allowed to read and watch, waiting for the national leader prepared to take these issues on.

That would be quite a job, going over the heads of all that firepower, defeating it, and taking the real issues to the people of Canada. Which is, contrary to Mr. Ignatieff's apparent view, nothing but opportunity.That is what political courage is for. That is how mandates for change are won.

But first you have to want it.


Update In his closing speech, Mr. Ignatieff proposed that spending on tax benefits for profitable companies be frozen at its current level. It's a start. That wasn't so hard, was it? (When the Liberals starting spending on these tax giveaways, corporations were taxed at 30 per cent. By the time they were out of office, their giveaways had whittled this rate down to 21 per cent. The current rate is 18 per cent - where Mr. ignatieff would like to freeze. Mr. Harper is aiming for 15 per cent, one of the lowest rates in the western world).

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