Monday, January 25, 2010

Where or where is Liberal policy gone?

It seems that there is a deliberate Liberal strategy of representing nothing to anyone except to be an alternative to Harper for everyone! Imagine a supposed intellectual saying that he does not want to scoop himself. Rather he does not want to lay out any policies that the Tories might attack and take attention away from their own faults. But if he had a decent set of policies that Canadadians accepted a Conservative attack would simply be counter productive for them. The idea that Harper is simply going to defeat himself may be correct but more likely it is wishful thinking.

In search of Liberal policy
By Susan Riley, The Ottawa Citizen
Will the thinking never end? The federal Liberals are competitive in the polls again, but how sustainable is their revival if they continue to be coy about their agenda?

Not that they appear to have an agenda, hidden or otherwise. All leader Michael Ignatieff offered on a recent tour of university campuses was predictable criticisms of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's style and polite evasions.

He didn't want to "scoop himself," he told those inquiring about his employment policies. "You're taking me farther than the Liberal party is prepared to go," he said, in answer to a detailed critique of university funding. The tarsands, he repeated, are a fact of economic life -- nothing he can do about that.

He encouraged anti-prorogation organizers in a Facebook posting this week, and confirmed he will be attending Saturday's protest in Ottawa, but refuses to back Jack Layton's call for legislation limiting future use of prorogation. When asked to define his political values, he paused then replied: "I'm passionate about freedom." So was George W. Bush.

On the pressing issue of looming deficits, he told reporters it isn't his problem, it's Harper's problem -- and he, Ignatieff, isn't about to help his rival out of the swamp. (Never mind what happens to the rest of us, I guess.)

He continues to answer questions with questions, urge patience and promise a bold new vision any time now. He sounds like Karlheinz Schreiber: wait until next week, then the true story will emerge.

But shouldn't you know where you want to take the country when you enter politics? Should you have to consult so widely to unearth your deepest convictions?

This policy striptease is supposed to end next week, when the Liberals hold mini-seminars on selected issues, including the job market, governance and Afghan detainees. We'll see if concrete, memorable proposals emerge -- but the precedents are not encouraging.

To date, Ignatieff's "substantive" speeches -- on foreign affairs, the environment, the economy -- have fallen flat. They are a predictable mélange of Harper-bashing and recycled nostrums about Liberal values. Nothing daring, nothing novel, nothing remotely appealing to disaffected voters.

All demands for more precision (including from anxious Liberals) are now fobbed off with the promise of a thinkers' conference in March in Montreal, an ecumenical gabfest designed to prepare policy for the Canada of 2017 to coincide with our 150th birthday.

No one -- well, hardly anyone -- is against thinking, particularly long-term thinking. In fact, outside the hothouse of daily politics, it happens all the time.

The challenges of coming decades have been exhaustively chronicled and are obvious to any alert citizen: climate change, the shift in economic power from North America to India and China, an over-taxed and inadequate health-care system, to name a few.

But while Liberals ponder the future, they are vague, or mute, about present-day problems. Making development aid effective. A $56-billion deficit. Unconstrained greenhouse gas emissions. A limping health-care system. Disappearing pensions. Persistent unemployment. (Let's add, for mischief, the ludicrous expense of shipping snow to the ill-chosen winter Olympics site.) At the same time, the prime minister isn't idle, one day distributing remaining stimulus cash, the next talking gravely about cutting unspecified federal programs -- madly peddling the fiction that further punishing an already demoralized public service, along with a robust economic recovery, will be enough to get us back to surplus.

If Liberals want to be taken seriously -- if they differ from the government in anything but style -- they would join a growing consensus calling for a temporary increase in the GST to help pay down future deficits. Former Liberal finance minister John Manley, now president of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, is the latest to endorse this approach.

If the Ignatieff Liberals were truly visionary, serious about courting youth, they'd revive the idea of a national carbon tax, too -- to hasten the transition to clean energy and replenish depleted federal revenues.

Unfortunately, there is only one leader with the guts and cunning to try something that daring and Harper is hardly going to endorse a GST hike, given that he created the monster cuts in the first place. (He has tempered his anti-carbon-tax rhetoric somewhat, however.)

The sorry truth is that no major party is honest enough, or respectful enough, to present Canadians with hard choices. Easier to pander, or ponder.

At least Ignatieff is emphatic about one thing. He wants Liberals to stop thinking of themselves as the natural governing party. He says: "If I can achieve one thing as leader of this party, it's to get that out of the vocabulary."

He's succeeding. Polls aside, it is increasingly hard to see the Liberals as an obvious alternative -- in fact, it is hard to imagine them saying anything pertinent about anything.

Susan Riley writes on national politics.

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