In the frenzy surrounding the Liberal leadership debate at the party convention last week, one critical factor was often overlooked: the meeting was in fact called to allow Liberals from across the country to discuss new policy positions for their party. The Ottawa session was the culmination of an arduous 18-month process in which delegates to local policy conferences framed more than 300 wide-ranging resolutions. Delegates spent the better part of two days dissecting and voting on them, but when it adjourned Sunday afternoon the party was still far from agreement on positions that could form its next election platform. And on one key issuefree trade—Liberals still appeared confused and divided. “We have the embryo of a vision,” observed Liberal caucus chairman Douglas Frith, “but thank heavens the election is two years away.”
In fact, the convention fell short of developing any radical changes of direction for the party. Still, it did produce a clear picture of current Liberal concerns. Chief among them: free
trade, a guaranteed annual income, Quebec’s place in the Constitution, universal child care and an independent foreign policy. A recurring theme of the debates was that Liberals must move decisively from the right back to the centre of the political range, a position that helped keep the party in power for 20 of the past 23 years. Said policy chairman Rodger Schwass: “We sharpened some of our policies on the left end of the spectrum.”
Among the most contentious issues:
• The Constitution: A minority of Liberals opposed a resolution supported by party Leader John Turner recognizing the “distinctive character of Quebec as the principal but not exclusive source of the French language and culture.” That wording, opponents said, conferred on Quebec a special status resisted by the Liberals during the nearly-16-year tenure of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Toronto MP Charles Caccia—the only MP to call publicly for a leadership review-urged Liberals to “continue making francophones at home across the country, not only in Quebec.” However, delegates voted overwhelmingly in favor of the resolution, eliciting loud cheers from Quebec delegates. Said Quebec caucus chairman Raymond Garneau: “That warmed my
heart. As a francophone, I’m very proud to be a Liberal today.”
• Free trade: At workshop sessions Friday, delegates passed two apparently conflicting resolutions. The first cautiously endorsed free trade talks with the United States; the second emphasized global trade liberalization. Declared former Liberal cabinet minister Donald Macdonald, a strong free
trade supporter: “They’re totally confused. The party just looks silly with that kind of conduct.” The confusion was repeated Saturday. First, delegates easily passed a resolution, endorsed by Macdonald and Montreal MP Donald Johnston, that accepted free trade negotiations under certain conditions. But only hours later, delegates narrowly passed a quite different resolution—backed by MPs Caccia, Lloyd Axworthy and Brian Tobin— that called for liberalized trade in selected economic areas only.
• Guaranteed annual income: That debate underlined concerns about a Liberal swing to the right. “We’re perceived at the moment as a party that is not as left-of-centre as we were prior to 1984,” said New Brunswick delegate David Lutz. “And the guaranteed annual in-
come is a way to get back there in the centre.” A GAI resolution, with specific recommendations on how to implement the program, was passed by the plenary policy session on Saturday.
• Foreign policy: Delegates rejected a proposal to withdraw from NATO, but in a surprising departure from previous Liberal government policy they voted strongly in favor of a ban on
further cruise missile testing in Canada. There was heated debate as well on a proposal to declare Canada a nuclear-free zone. The party’s defence critic, Ontario MP Leonard Hopkins, labelled the proposal “a disgrace to Canada,” but it narrowly passed.
However, none of the scores of resolutions adopted last week are binding on Turner or his caucus. Indeed, party officials have scheduled a major “thinker’s conference” on Liberal policy next year, modelled after a 1960 conference in Kingston, Ont., which established the Liberal agenda for the following two decades. Afterward, a committee will go to work trying to translate grassroots thinking into a winning platform for the next election.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.