Policy, not simply a new leader, the route to Liberal success

Justin Trudeau has decided to put his name in the hat to become the Liberals’ next hope at changing the party’s fortunes since being removed from power in 2006. The hope – by some – is that Trudeau’s name will give the party some name recognition for the next federal election (slated for 2015).

What Mr. Trudeau is doing is a commendable thing. It’s not an easy decision to attempt to reform and rebuild a party – to at least bring it back to opposition status – when you’re trying to raise a young family. Commentators to this point have focused on the question of whether or not a coronation would be a good thing for the Liberal party, on the merits (or not) of Justin Trudeau’s candidacy and on the inner circle of advisers who are now guiding him. What has been largely overlooked in the analysis has been what the Liberal brass refuses to do time in and time again – rebuild the party properly: with fair policy and being the party of inclusiveness.

The party has been trying to re-connect with Canadians for the last six years – if not longer – and things have not been going according to plan. They may have edged the party (internally speaking) into the 21st century but they haven’t fixed the foundational problem of why they have failed to regain the trust of Canadians: policy.

What does the Liberal Party of Canada stand for in 2012? No one really knows. The two most recent policy conferences have been disastrous – to say the least. For instance, the last one saw a “supporter” system approved whereby outsiders, alongside party members, can determine who the next Liberal leader would be. With this format, non-party members (e.g., Conservatives, New Democrats, etc.) have an opportunity to sabotage the process and leave party members wondering why they should join the party in the first place.

For the last little while, active and non-active Liberals have pondered where the Natural Governing Party and the “good ol’ days” of the 1960s and 70s have gone. Well, in short, it took a lot of work and dedication to get to that stage.

Before ‘Trudeaumania’ in the late 1960s there was Lester B. Pearson, an iconic Canadian prime minister. He lost the 1958 general election badly with the Conservatives winning a record 208 seats (Stephen Harper would only dream of that today) and the Liberals reduced to a mere 48 seats. What Pearson’s Liberals did next to rebuild the party and trust of Canadians should be noted and served as a memo for those active at all levels of today’s Liberal Party. They went across Canada to recruit a team of ambitious policy experts that would write proposals for a policy conference. What was crucial, following the ground-shifting Kingston conference of 1960 was that Pearson created a “national rally” (a reshuffling in order to sift through the proposals, adapt them, and turn them into a platform, which included proposals like the Canadian Pension Plan).

Those policy whizzes later ran as candidates in subsequent elections and many became MPs, ministers, and even prime ministers (i.e., John Turner). The Kingston conference was able to address the challenges of that era’s recession and attempt to turn it around. It took the Liberals three elections (two under Pearson and one under Trudeau – 10 years) to regain the trust of the majority of Canadians under new leadership of the bright, young, and talented Pierre Trudeau.

Whether it is Justin Trudeau or someone else who becomes the next leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, the new leader would be well advised to look at the 1960 Kingston conference (studying both the conference and the time period well) if they want to do things properly. The tools and people needed for the job today already exist; they just need to be employed properly and the process and people need to be treated with respect. It’s great to have a leader that knows how to grab the headlines but a leader with substance can provide the credibility necessary to prove to voters that the party is ready to form a government. The only way to do that is to patiently take the long path to sound, consistent and visionary policy development. In Canada, governments typically change when voters opt to send incumbent governments packing but the only way to be positioned to take advantage of that possibility is to amply demonstrate that one possesses the substance and the competence to be deemed a government-in-waiting.

Foreign Policy Expert