Liberals ready to Think Big

Nice reporting from the Star today, confirming that the Liberal party’s long-anticipated Big Thinkers conference is set to go in January.

I’m generally quite in favour of these sorts of things. A political party is the hinge institution of a democracy, where policy gets transferred into power. It’s bad for democracy when a party is too ideological and unwilling to sacrifice principle for power — as was too often the case with the Reform party. But it’s probably worse when a party is so blindly focused on gaining and keeping power that it loses sight of why it wants to govern in the first place. See: Liberal party from 2000 to 2006.

But here’s a caution to the Liberal party. From the Star’s piece, you already get the sense that expectations for this within the party are high, and getting higher by the week. As always, Liberals are thinking back to the famous Kingston conference that energized the Pearson years, and the Aylmer conference that gave Chretien a push. It’s like they think all they have to do is read a bunch of academic papers and the majority governments will beat a path to their door.

But things have changed a lot in Canada in the nearly 20 years since the Aylmer conference. It’s a much different country, and it faces much different challenges. I don’t have a solid argument on this, but my feeling is that the ideological landscape of Canada has narrowed considerably since then. What that means is that Canadian politics is much less amenable to Big Ideas and Grand Narratives. That isn’t to say we don’t face problems, many of which are open to partisan disagreement. But in general, the country seems to me to have become substantially post-partisan. To put it in a way that will drive a lot of you nuts: Canada, as a state, might have reached the End of History in the Fukuyamian sense.

Which means that the idea that the Liberals will come out of this conference brimming with a grand national vision is misplaced. Instead of a big policy conference every few decades, where they expect to set in motion a strategy that will bring them years of comfortable power, the Liberals might want to consider having a regular series of small conferences. Hold them every two years, or one a year alternating official languages. Or better yet, make long-term strategic thinking a permanent part of the party appparatus. But keep it small and keep it nimble — the world operates in a much higher tempo than it did when Mulroney was in power.

What the Liberals need are not a couple of Big Ideas (High Speed Rail! National Energy Grid!) that will require massive amounts of political and financial capital, but a whole bunch of great little ideas. Can a bunch of little ideas add up to a comprehensive strategy that could serve as a proper political brand? Of course. It’s harder to do, and it requires, in many ways, far more in the way of leadership.

Is Ignatieff the man for the job? Maybe, but only if he shows himself willing to think small.

(In many ways, what I’m getting at is something close to what Andrew Coyne and I both argued a few years ago for the 40th anniversay of This Magazine — our little essays are available here.)

are different challenges facing the country,

already feel the excitement building in the party, and with excitiemetn

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