Ramrod straight, white-bearded and enunciating each word as if he were reciting the Psalms, Robert Fowler, a 38-year veteran of nearly every senior posting that counts in the federal civil service and Canada’s diplomatic corps, last week delivered his sour benediction at the Montreal Liberal thinkers’ conference. His double-barrelled rant left the audience—consisting in part of mandarins toilet-trained in deference—troubled and bewildered. That was obvious from their body language; none came up to congratulate Fowler for his courage.
The heroic Canadian bureaucrat unexpectedly took advantage of his position as an equal opportunity inquisitor by blasting both Stephen Harper, his Conservative rescuer, and his Liberal host. He accused Michael Ignatieff’s party of being “in danger of losing its soul,” and Stephen Harper, who helped secure his release from terrorist capture in North Africa, of sponsoring a foreign policy designed strictly to gain domestic votes from ethnic communities.
Appointed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as his special envoy to bring peace and stability to Niger, where Tuareg rebels were fighting the government over mineral rights, the Canadian bureaucrat had been kidnapped in December 2008 and held for ransom—until he was set free four hair-raising months later. Fowler’s appearance at the Montreal Liberal conference reminded some delegates that there was one other witness to international violence and double-dealing in the hall, namely the not-so-freshly-minted-anymore Liberal leader, who had survived forays into similarly dangerous venues while researching his elegant essays on Third World tinpot potentates and their slutty attitudes on human rights.
For the delegates who made that connection, it was a moment worth noting; for the others, it was a footnote to what turned out to be a successful gathering where epiphanies were floated as a dress rehearsal for the Grits’ election manifesto. Speakers grappled “with the big issues facing our country,” rattling off several encyclopedias’ worth of factoids while parading their impartiality by ignoring the obvious reality that their hosts were Liberals, starved for marketable ideas.
There is an election in the wind, and Canadians don’t, ever, vote for what they already have.
The Liberal platform has been a long time coming, though any student of the Count from Petrograd’s prodigious literary outpourings could easily have traced the dominant principles scattered through his 14 non-fiction books and countless articles. They add flesh to the bones of his hectic fact-gathering tours as a free-floating advocate of civil liberties, while attempting to meet the needs of strangers and recording the deeds and misdeeds in dark places where human rights cannot be taken for granted.
It was a lousy accident of timing that the Grits’ intellectual free-for-all was held the same week as their ill-advised parliamentary motion promoting overseas women’s abortion rights was defeated in a vote by Ignatieff’s own caucus. The Liberal party whips suffered from the worst staff work since Benito Mussolini’s tank corps, whose members were always shooting at one another.
The parliamentary goof was particularly unfortunate because abortion is one of those orphan issues that has little electoral upside. (There ought to be an ironclad rule among Canadian politicians that, if asked about it, they can switch to some such diversionary tactic as: “Hey, let’s plant some water lilies in the oil sands tailing ponds.”)
Nobody was actually saying it, but there was an uncomfortable undertow among the Liberal power brokers at the Montreal gathering that they had to get this one right. The options for reviving their mandate are running out. These wayward political geniuses—who not so long ago had earned the title of Canada’s natural governing party—had better appropriate the useful advice offered by the 53 thinkers assembled at the impressive powwow. It provides the best chance to renew their rudely interrupted hold on office, lost four years ago to the redoubtable Mister Harper.
The Liberals chose a leader who can claim the political centre, not as a tactic but as a reflection of his personal values. And that’s hunky-dory as far as it goes. But now, Michael Ignatieff must grab the bull by the tail and look the situation straight in the face. His valedictory speech summing up the conference on the Sunday afternoon was his best ever: tough, well thought out and faultlessly delivered. It will become the template for the election campaign.
The Montreal weekend offered the Liberals a welcome chance to establish themselves as 21st-century players with a plan. The sub-conscious but defining shift that took place during the Montreal sessions was that instead of limiting themselves to debating policies, the speakers and delegates began to assay contemporary values and the networks that make them real. It was the intervention by Jeremy Kinsman, a former senior ambassador who now lectures at the liberal bastion of the University of California at Berkeley, that led the assembly in that direction.
Whenever Canadian Liberals debate their destinies, the word “Kingston” is their mantra. In 1958, when Tory renegade John Diefenbaker decisively defeated them, harvesting 208 seats—the most remarkable sweep by any Canadian politician—and Liberal leader Lester Pearson emerged with only 48 members, he convened the Study Conference on National Problems at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., for the fall of 1960. I was there and witnessed the magical rebirth of a comatose political rump. But the gabfest’s main endowment was the new-wave Liberals it provided to take over the command posts of the Pearson administration, which came to power three years later. (Of the conference’s 196 non-partisan delegates, 48 later claimed senior government appointments.)
What I found most memorable was the mood of self-confidence that gradually pervaded that epic gathering. They were all there, the big-L and small-l liberals, progressives of every vintage, creed and persuasion. Bob Fowler would have felt right at home; nothing about the Liberal party was beyond criticism.
The defining quote of the Kingston conference was the closing remark by professor Frank Underhill, who made a stinging confession about voting Liberal. “At times,” the classical scholar confessed, “I have had to hold my nose while marking the ballot.”