BUSINESS WATCH

The Liberals plan to revisit their roots

The party has settled into a mindless rut under Chŕetien, and it will take more than a good conference to move them out of it

Peter C. Newman July 22 1991
BUSINESS WATCH

The Liberals plan to revisit their roots

The party has settled into a mindless rut under Chŕetien, and it will take more than a good conference to move them out of it

Peter C. Newman July 22 1991

The Liberals plan to revisit their roots

BUSINESS WATCH

The party has settled into a mindless rut under Chŕetien, and it will take more than a good conference to move them out of it

PETER C. NEWMAN

At long last, Jean Chrétien has shown some vital signs of political life—he has called for a Liberal thinkers’ conference in Aylmer, Que., just across the river from Ottawa, for November 22 to 24.

The format of the meeting will be based squarely on the 1960 Study Conference on National Issues, held at Kingston, Ont., which did so much to resurrect the Liberal party, also then in opposition, under Lester Pearson. It’s the first time since he was elected as leader in June, 1990, that Chrétien has been willing to expose himself to the uninhibited exchange of ideas. Those ideas will eventually be translated into policies (at a policy convention next February), then fashioned into the platform for the general election expected in 1993.

Four main themes will dominate the discussions, to which 200 of the country’s best thinkers—card-carrying Liberals or not—will be invited. The first forum will be on the role of Canada’s political parties in the 1990s, which will examine the historic coalitions that once were the roots of Liberal power in Canada, and how policy issues can be resolved in an increasingly fractured community. A panel on globalization will deal with the impact on the Canadian economy of free trade with the United States, the 1992 reorganization of Europe, the rise of the Pacific Rim and related issues. Another discussion, under the vague heading of “Institutions,” will tackle reform of the Senate and House of Commons, as well as examining the future of such worthy but troubled Canadian organizations as the CBC and CN Rail. A session on politics and communities will round out the deliberately vaguely worded agenda, designed to give everybody lots of debating room.

The meeting is being billed as a nonpartisan event meant to bring together non-Conservative, non-socialist thinkers, but its real purpose is to provide the Liberals with some badly needed policy momentum. Everyone concerned with planning the conference keeps using the 1960 Kingston precedent as their

inspiration, though only Senator Keith Davey and a handful of Chrétien’s other advisers were actually there. Having attended the Kingston gabfest myself, I can see its attractions—as well as its dangers—for today’s Liberal party.

The Kingston conference was held against a background of political turmoil and growing dissatisfaction with the then-reigning prime minister, John Diefenbaker. Pearson, who had been chosen party leader two years previously, had experienced a sour debut, with botched motions in the House of Commons and a party which, having given up power in 1957 after a 22-year run, didn’t know how to behave in opposition.

That long-ago conference was organized mainly by Mitchell Sharp, then a Torontobased vice-president of Brazilian Traction Light and Power Co. Ltd. (today’s Brascan Ltd.), who had been a deputy minister of trade and commerce in Ottawa before being displaced by Diefenbaker. Later, he would serve Pearson as minister of finance and then external affairs. Sharp, who has been Chrétien’s mentor ever since Chrétien became his parliamentary assistant in 1966, is also helping to organize the Aylmer think-tank. He believes that gaining thoughtful new recruits for the

party through such an event is as important as gathering new ideas. That was one of the main features of Kingston. A survey I did in 1968 showed that 48 of the 196 men and women who attended were later named to senior Liberal appointments.

The meetings not only provided new blood for the party, but also moved its centre of ideological gravity decisively to the left. In his speech, “Towards a Philosophy of Social Security,” Tom Kent, former editor of the Winnipeg Free Press and soon to become Pearson’s chief policy adviser, set out most of the then-radical ideas that catapulted the Liberals back into office.

Two of the Kingston delegates from Quebec were to become important in Canadian history. Jean Marchand, then president of the Quebecbased Confederation of National Trade Unions and attending his first Liberal meeting, made some stirring remarks that left their effect on Pearson. As prime minister, he invited Marchand into his cabinet, granted him almost unprecedented powers and personally pushed him (instead of Pierre Trudeau) as his successor.

Also there was Maurice Lamontagne, a Harvard-trained economist who was Pearson’s chief Quebec adviser. “The ultimate objective of economic activity is the maximum common welfare,” Lamontagne stated in his Kingston speech, going against the economic orthodoxy of his time.

Kingston worked because it gave voice to a new generation of small-1 liberals who could be drafted into the party because they had faith that Pearson was the kind of leader who could take their ideas, march into electoral battle with them and eventually make them come true.

The present leader has yet to win that kind of faith from his followers—to demonstrate that he can grasp an idea, turn it into policy and translate it into action. The Liberal party has settled into a mindless rut since Jean Chrétien took over, and it will take more than a good conference to move him—and the party—out of it.

The party’s strategists are hoping to fight the next election mainly on an economic, rather than a national unity, platform. They hope to revive the old slogan that “Tory times are hard times” and amuse one another with the story of how Louis St. Laurent and William Lyon Mackenzie King, Pearson’s predecessors, used it to kill Tory chances for a generation.

The motto dates back to the time when R. B. Bennett, a hard-rock Tory from Calgary, was Canada’s prime minister for the worst (19301935) of the Depression years. At one election rally, when St. Laurent repeated the slogan, pointing out that, conversely, Liberal times were good times, a heckler yelled out: “It’s a coincidence!” The Prime Minister, who had earned his nickname Uncle Louis for being kind to political heretics, nodded and replied: “Ah yes, my friend, but which coincidence would you rather have?”

The world has changed since the Liberals gathered at Kingston more than three decades ago. But at least they’re starting to think again, and in today’s political climate, that’s great news.