Ignatieff’s “party of the network”

John Geddes reports on the wrap-up to the Liberal thinkers’ conference

by John Geddes

Michael Ignatieff’s wrap-up speech at his Liberal thinkers’ conference in Montreal aimed to push the listener out the door with two quite separate impressions in mind.

By announcing tax and fiscal policies, he tried to leave them with the notion that this Liberal leader is decisive. By wrapping up the whole affair in a bow called “network government,” he tried to convey a sense that the ideas floated over three days fit in one package.

Neither thrust was entirely convincing, but neither was a complete dud.

His announcement that Liberals would freeze corporate tax rates, rather than pressing ahead with further cuts scheduled by the Conservatives, is sensible if not spectacular. He argues that Ottawa can’t afford the cuts as it grapples with a huge deficit, and anyhow the federal tax rate for companies is already easily competitive with U.S. rates.

The related promise to hold the deficit to one per cent of GDP, around $15 billion, within two years of a Liberal government winning power is a modest goal and basically in line with what’s expected to happen if a government of any partisan stripe behaves responsibly.

Fixing on “network” as the weekend’s word to conjure with is more risky. As my colleague Andrew Potter mentioned when we were chatting after the speech, the notion of a “network society” was hot in the 1990s. Now, Ignatieff might well mean something newer and freshly relevant—network is, after all, one of those encompassing, concatenating words—but I couldn’t make out exactly what he had in mind.

For instance, he mentioned that Canada needs an overarching energy and environment strategy, one that would somehow involve investing in clean-tech, renewable energy and also relate to Canada’s status as the biggest energy exporter to the U.S.

“We’ve got to understand, and I think we understand in this room, and we can see it on the website that so many Canadians understand it, that the crucial investment we must make is in clean-tech, renewable energies and energy efficiency,” he said.

“Again it’s a place where we have to have a national strategy, in which we bring the partners together, we create the right fiscal incentives, the right allocation of responsibilities. We talked all weekend about networks. Here’s where we need a network of responsibility.”

Sounds interesting, I guess. I can’t quite envision this network, though. I can imagine, say, federal tax breaks or direct subsidies for the some greenish energy companies. I can imagine more stringent building codes when it comes to heating and cooling. I’ll be interested to see in the coming months if Liberals come up with an approach that can be called a network to stitch various workable energy and environment policies together.

I suspect excited Liberals will dismiss this as caviling. The notion of the network is expansive enough that it feels like a chance to breathe after the four years of the niche policy-making that’s Stephen Harper’s specialty. Ignatieff appeals to the hankering for a grander vision, but he’s also alert to the possibility that it might all sound silly.

“This network conception of how we govern ourselves,” he cautioned, “we need to think through. This is not an abstraction. We can feel this is how we live and actually work.”

In part, the network metaphor is appealing because it offers the prospect of thinking sweeping thoughts without necessarily financing costly programs. If the federal government under Ignatieff would be creating networks with the provinces, NGOs, companies, even other countries’ government, then it wouldn’t presumably being paying the full fare for whatever those networks actually do.

“We are not a Big Government party,” he said. “We are the party of the network, and that’s what we need to understand.”

And as soon as they figure it out, one might add, they need to explain it.

Answering questions from reporters after the conference, Ignatieff was pressed to explain his thinking on the looming problems related to the aging of Canadian society. He insisted that this isn’t cause for a gloomy outlook. Still, he allowed that as the baby boomers retire, the tax base will shrink, health costs will rise, and more middle class families will stagger (my verb, not his) under the double burden of raising kids and supporting older parents in declining health.

He spoke of Liberal interest in “strategic investment in health care,” largely  preventative care, as well as home care to keep the elderly out of expensive nursing homes and hospital beds for as long as possible. He also alluded to investing in “health care innovation” and the need for provinces to share health information.

All fine stuff, of course. But then he said this: “That’s where I want to go first—then we deal with what we have to deal with.” It was an afterthought, but a laden afterthought. I couldn’t help thinking that what we’ll have to deal with will amount to a great deal.

No doubt coping with the problems of health and an aging populace will fall to networks—governments, families, even charities in some cases, company benefit packages. But can the Liberal approach to government rest primarily on thinking about Ottawa’s place in such networks?

That’s the problem that Ignatieff  sent his reinvigorated party policy wonks home to ponder after their Montreal weekend.




Browse

Ignatieff’s “party of the network”

  1. "party of the network" so is this code for government by coalition?

    • No, it's code for "hate the troops."

      • Right you are! That solves it then!

  2. And didn't Canadians soundly reject this? What is he planning government by twitter wherein he is the head Twit?

    • Speaking of twits.

      • thanks for admitting your status at the outset.

      • You must be one right. You were twittering this weekend were you not. Tell me whats your hero Iggy going to do now that he has run out of options. Now that his tinkers conference ended in failure? Of course it wont matter to you. The LPC could have a donkey for a leader and you would still vote Liberal. You don't vote on principle you vote on impulse.

        • This, of course, from a person who continues to vote the way he did in 2006, in spite of that party completely going back on every single principle, promise, and value they stood for.

  3. Are the Liberals pulling a cunning move to outflank the Conservatives on the right? That would be cool, but as usual, they've just left me confused about what they stand for.

  4. We'll find out a lot more when an election is called. At least we know Harper won't get a majority.

    • Waw, you must have access to that special deck of cards.

    • Wow, you must be telepathetic!

    • I wouldn't count on that. After hearing what I have heard in the past 4 days coming our of Fowlers mouth, and also coming out of Dan Donovan's mouth (both professed Lifetime Liberals) about their own Party, I think we might just be saying Bye-Bye to the Liberal Party.

  5. Quick, everyone: what is Medcalfe's Law?
    ….. or how do you calculate the power of the network

    (number of nodes)squared

    • Could Iggy be a secret agent of the Matrix! Huh ho! WE are screwed for sure! Tee hee!

      • Iggy and the rest of us are too old to enter the matrix

  6. "or direct subsidies for the some greenish energy companies"

    Would that be catagorized as being responsible?

    • Direct subsidies for research, product development in strategic sectors has been a hallmark of US, European and most Asian countries for decades and has led to some remarkable successes. Canada hamstrings itself by using it's ineffective SR&ED approach.

      • Yeah, we talked about that as well. From where I sit the current SR&ED approach doesn't seem to do much for the company doing the research, but it HAS spawned an entire industry of people filling out the paperwork!

  7. ‘networks of healthcare deciders’ sounds like the end of a commitment to universality and equity

    ‘networks of green-tech deciders’ sounds like markets crashing

    ‘networks of social activist deciders’ sounds like trouble

    I honestly can’t envisage what Ignatieff is implying. Gov’t is huge and of necessity networked. I think Ignatieff had better tread carefully to explain the difference (in his mind) between Small gov’t and No gov’t.

    • Government by committee! We all know how well committees work! The new politbeureau!

      • Yes, it's so sad that people only exist in the binary states of complete individualism or complete collectivism.

        Oh wait.. they don't.

  8. Policy doesn't win elections. Leadership and organization do. Somebody in the Liberal Party of Canada needs to be reminded of this.

    • I think they are deaf because they just don't get it!

      • Societies are all about the individual versus the collective. The NDP stands firmly in relation to be willing to start off with the collective and from there move toward the individual. The Conservatives main frame is to approach this by starting off with individuals and from there move toward the collective. Both approaches have their merrits. I believe the Conservative approach will lead to a more progressive society because the capacity to reason resides within the individual not within the collective as such.

        But the Liberals have a problem in this regard: they, as a party, do not really know from which end to appproach their thinking. Sometimes they indicate they will follow the NDP's lead and other times they indicate they will follow the Conservative lead. They need to decide, as a party, which is the way to go for them. That I haven't seen yet.

        • If both approaches have their merits, wouldn't it follow logically that the Liberals are the party that tries to balance the individual and the collective on equal terms, rather than moving from one to the other? What exactly is wrong with that approach? The Liberals are if nothing else pragmatists…

          • You're absolutely right, Joseph. The best approach is one which decides which approach will be best for any particular policy sphere, and applies it, not in a dogmatic and ideological way, but in a flexible way which takes account of reality and the facts on the ground. Conservatives and Dippers would love to turn our political discourse into a dialogue de sourds between two diametrically opposed ideological camps – that would exclude the pragmatic middle, and of course, the Liberal Party. That's not the Canadian way. Even Harper has turned out to be more pragmatic than advertised, although this has more to do with his minority government status than a genuine wish to govern pragmatically in my view.

          • No, the middle comes about by having a good balance between the individual and the collective. But the approach towards the balance must be taken from either end AS AN APPROACH. You are confusing approach with balance.

          • I like the way you put it, they are off balance, but I also believe is because they lack leadership as a party, so this poor MPs don't know which way to go, I think most are trying to be loyal to the party but feel off.

    • In the short term you may be right. Eventually, I hope, a plan or a direction or a vision for the country might be seen as something good a political party can bring to the table. In between partisan shots and fundraising, I mean.

  9. Network governance is still reasonably popular in public policy circles (and social network analysis is very big in the social sciences). My understanding is that it represents an alternative to the usual debate between markets and hierarchies. Traditionally, those on the right have argued that markets/decentralized competition is the best way to allocate resources. In contrast, those on the left fear market failure (eg. markets may not produce goods with high social benefits), and so prefer to direct things directly through command.

    Network governance is a sort of middle way approach. There may be hybrids between markets and bureaucracies that are more effective. For instance, in corporatist states like the Netherlands, key stakeholders get together and form the basis for covenants (which are not quite laws). Alternately, in Japan, firms (keiretsu) have traditionally been large networks of different enterprises (which fulfill many of the functions of the state, by providing for their workers). So you might have privatization, say, but with efforts to ensure that private firms coordinated appropriately, possibly through some mechanism that created links between the private firms. You might still have an old-fashioned bureaucracy, but it wouldn't regulate every little detail, and it could have increased ties to stakeholders, so that its policies could adapt to feedback.

    What I think Iggy is really doing here is positioning himself in the centre. Network governance may well be code for "new Labour" or "third way" policies.

    • Very insightfull post, hosetohoosier.

      Hybrids between markets and bureaucracies can also be found to work differently in The Netherlans regarding the shcol system. And that process starts kicking in right after elementary school education. After elementary school, the bureaucratic education stystem is set up such that entering into secondary education relates indirectly to post secondary education, thereby keeping in mind market demand and flexibilty. For instance, a student may go directly to secondary schools with higher post secondary schooling in mind (direct networking so to speak)

      • But students who first go to lower secondary schools (not purely academic but heavily mixed with practical applications) will at all times, if the marks so allow, stream into the other system of direct streamlining, i.e. a student starting off as a mechanic at a lower standard, can climb up into the higher standard educational settings (for instance working towards a masters or anything like that, engineering etc) the indirect way. Now if the markets would need more of the practical skilled workers they could potentially be there, but if more higher educated workforce is needed, they can draw enough of them up without starting them off from square one.
        And besides, the mix of practical and theoretical educated people is a very good mix to have within a changing economy and for coming up with fresh new ideas in an evolving world.

  10. Huh. And you guys all attended the Montreal conference, at least online, did you?

    You should have come to Waterloo Region, I guess. There, we heard about CIDA, for example, from a student's perspective while he was here. They shut down aid to Africa without any reasons given to the African nations, and this student was appalled and no supporter of CIDA. Then he went to Ghana, and discovered that CIDA was the most respected of all the aid agencies there. Why? Because the CIDA people on the ground were the most responsive to the needs, sometimes changing, of the people of Ghana.

    Which is, I think, a good example of an approach that would place more emphasis on empowering the people on the ground–or network of aid deliverers, in this case–rather than the top-down disconnect this student originally based his opinion of CIDA on.

    As, hopefully, the Liberal Party will do itself. Leaders actively listening to the network (in this case of riding associations, individual Liberals, and general citizens) to develop the solutions to problems.

    As opposed to everything coming down from PMO, as is currently the way this country is run.

    • Africa isn't in Canada

      • Finally, a geography major! I've been asking this question for years…

    • "As opposed to everything coming down from PMO"

      This is not correct. The Harper government has been very deliberately attempting to disentangle the Federal gov. from areas of provincial mandate. This is called decentralization. One of his goals is to allow greater autonomy across the country. I think that makes sense.

  11. This "networking" concept reminds me of George Bush's "thousand points of light" which he referred to often and in his inaugural adress on January 20, 1989 an excerpt of which follows:

    "I have spoken of a thousand points of light, of all the community organizations that are spread like stars throughout the Nation, doing good. We will work hand in hand, encouraging, sometimes leading, sometimes being led, rewarding. We will work on this in the White House, in the Cabinet agencies. I will go to the people and the programs that are the brighter points of light, and I will ask every member of my government to become involved."

    Maybe Iggy intends on trying out a Canadianized version.

    • That's a good point. But George Bush didn't really try it, did he? He spoke about it, perhaps he hoped to implement something, but it never got off the ground, I think. If it did, it was too short-lived for it to register with me, anyway.

      So, it is a question of putting the talking into the doing, I think. And that will probably take some time (plus, I'd think you'd have to be in government–not opposition) but while he's in opposition, perhaps Ignatieff will have the time to put things in place.

  12. We're in the throws of a global economic crisis. Unemployment is up. Retirement security is down. People are suffering.

    The time for blue sky ramblings about changing the nature Canadian governance is over; the time to set up and do something has long since arrived. Tell me what you're gonna do, or sitdown and shut up.

    • Yes, by all means, don't think about what to do before you do it!

    • That's right – stay frightened, and don't think ahead. Cling to what you've got, including our visionless CPC government.

  13. He is the party of the red jelly bean, man – no sunglasses

  14. There will be no new Red Book its only available in PDF or via Tweeter , or maybe the Red Wiki (easy to edit)

    • 2 major policy virages were tken by the Liberals compared to the Red Book: NAFTA and GST. Both decisions, arguably, were central to the Liberls' ability to conquer the deficit and pay down the debt.

      On the subject of government in general needing to be willing to take the right decision and not be blindly bound by partisan policy platforms, I believe in a slightly weighted preference for the former, not the latter.

      If, however, your comment was merely a drive by slagging, motivated by partisan malevolence, then pot, meet kettle. If I am in error, please forgive my presumption.

  15. Michael Ignatieff has been channelling his inner Joe Clark.

    On the abortion vote, he demonstrated that he counted count.

    And the "party of the network" is just "a community of communities".

    Joe was either ahead of his time, or Iggy has just gotten to the late seventies in catching up on things since he became interested in adding PM to his curriculum vitae.

    • Wow. What a lovely compliment.

      If Ignatieff can serve at the level of Joe Clark, our country will be in excellent hands. For myself, I'm not convinced he's THAT great!

  16. Isn't it funny that the party that was going to scrap the GST is now the one calling for it to be raised?

    It'll make a great election platform, if he ever grows a spine and actually forces one.

    • Considering Harper's performance vs. Harper's claims.. do you really want to go there?

      At least for the Liberals, one can argue this is a different Liberal party than before. Ignatieff is not Chretien.

  17. Liberal "Spenders Conference" Ends…with More Proposals to Raise Taxes
    March 28, 2010
    Michael Ignatieff's Liberal "Spenders Conference" has wrapped up and what are the big, innovative ideas that have come out of the weekend?

    On Friday, it was a proposal to hike the GST back to 7 per cent, an idea Ignatieff admits is on the table.

    On Saturday, it was a clarion call to bring back a job-killing carbon tax on everything, an idea Ignatieff took credit for first promoting in his failed leadership campaign against Stéphane Dion.

    And on Sunday, right from Ignatieff's mouth? He called for job-killing business tax hikes to pay for big and grandiose Liberal spending programs. This is just one more step in Ignatieff's plans to raise as many taxes as he can get his hands on.

    • Does putting the date at the top somehow give your lies legitimacy? Does saying "job-killing business tax hikes" on more than one thread make it less of a bold-faced lie?

      Just wondering how it works.

      • Jenn, you are putting some interesting thoughts out there, but to say that the Harper government only works by means of the PMO is not true. There has to be some body in place which can in actuality direct movement. Even Mr.Ignatieff will eventually come to understand that much. (think about last week and the defeat of the Lib motion in the House. Think about if everyone would just pick and choose without a directive coming from somewhere. You think Ignatieff will ever be able to govern without some sort of ultimate control of the party he leads? Stop dreaming in that regard.

    • "He called for job-killing business tax hikes"

      No, he called for a freeze on future business tax cuts, which is appropriate given the hundreds of billions in tax cuts already made under Chretien, Martin and Harper. Given Canadian corporate profits over the past decade plus — and the total lack of evidence that further corporate tax cuts are needed — this isn't unreasonable. About half of Ottawa's budget comes directly from personal income tax, so it makes more sense to address the personal vs. corporate tax burden, and shift both to consumption taxes wherever possible.

      But it seems you learned your reporting techniques from Ryan Sparrow, who's at it again with lies and political interference to protect his Big Daddy:

      http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/tory

      Hey big spender …

  18. Oh and I would NAIL Harper with attack ads. Bring up everything: the Alberta firewall; Canada as the " Northern European welfare state in the worst sense of the term"; the support for the Iraq invasion; prorogation; "separatists and socialists", the whole works. Stay factual but blast him.

    • You must be Peter Donolo.

      You know I'm good with attack ads, but recycling attack ads that you've already done for firewall, welfare state, and Iraq will get you nothing but a nice warm comfy seat back on the opposition benches. Besides, you don't want to go back to Iraq while Ignatieff is your leader, 'cause he was even more pro-Iraq war than Harper was.

      You may get some mileage out of prorogation ads though, and out of "separatists and socialists" in Quebec.

  19. Oh and I almost forgot…

    Advocate a proportional voting system for federal elections and promise to hold a referendum on the idea if elected.

    • Oh what the heck, if the taxes on carbs and grease, and the alliance with Denmark. and stigmatizing decriminalized marijuana, and the attack ads don`t work, then let`s do whatever we can to get back into power even if it means dragging along a couple of other parties with some other totally brilliant ideas.

    • Spare us all!

  20. SpenceBC – it's called pragmatic fiscal policy dear boy – fiscal policies that actually aim to pay for what you offer in the way of public services. As opposed to fiscal book cooking – the Flaherty / Harper version – throw money – because you don't have any better ideas – and then bury heads in sands – because you don'r dare use the phrase "raise taxes to pay back the money".
    jarrid – thousand points of light – Ha! More like the Dark Ages from 2000-2008 with Darth Vader Cheney trying to conquer the Universe!

  21. Network decision-making is a good idea – it's visionary and practical at the same time, and it's obvious that we can and should makes changes in that direction when it comes to governance. As soon as you think about it for even a minute or two, all sorts of complementary ideas spring to mind.

    I think the CPC bigwigs had better put their thinking caps on – right now, the only thing they have to offer is: "Everyone else is a screw up, and we're not horrible."

    • "Everyone else is a screw up, and we're not horrible."

      So, they've got nothing but to continue the lies, then?

  22. what about removing the supply mangagement from dairy production?

  23. interesting comment, realy like the point on the carbon tax. What I fear the most from an environmental policy from the government is producing regional conflicts, Alberta v Quebec specifically. If we are to address AGW then we have to avoid as much as possible the provincial fighting.

    also like your point on drugs. If anyone is interested there is a great paper on drug decriminalization in Portugal
    by Glenn Greenwald http://www.cato.org/pubs/wtpapers/greenwald_white

  24. Ignatieff is a good, sound fellow. He would probably be a good PM.

    But he's a bore for Canadians. He did not share his life with them – it was lived mostly abroad in adulthood. So they cannot relate to him emotionally.

    Nor is he a spectacularly interesting man. He suffers from excessive caution, playing safe.

    He is interesting as a writer, but only to intellectuals.

    He came to politics too late. Contrary to public perception, politics is a very tough profession, and you need years of training to succeed in it. It's just like medicine. You have to do the hard slog.

    But Ignatieff made the mistake of thinking politics needs no experience, that any tall reasonably pleasant looking fellow who can string two words together can do it.

    He's now paying the price for that foolish presumption.

    Politics is like a bird flying. It seems easy until you try doing it.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *