Ideas matter in politics

This past weekend, the Liberal Party of Canada held a “thinkers” conference in Montreal in an effort to rejuvenate grassroots input into party policy and generate ideas and discussion to be considered for the party’s next election platform.

This effort has been pilloried by many in the media as a pointless endeavor and by the Conservatives as a “spender’s conference.”

Ironic, given the contrasting track records in spending of Stephen Harper’s government and Jean Chretien’s Liberal government in the 1990s.

It is a shame the pursuit of ideas in politics is now so universally frowned upon.
This weekend, Liberals listened to a wide assortment of business leaders and community activists on a broad range of policy issues.

Many of them spewed predictable partisan garbage about how Stephen Harper’s government’s radical right-wing agenda (if you can really call it right-wing) has destroyed Canada as we know it.

Others, however, offered much more valuable insight.

In particular, David Dodge, former governor of the Bank of Canada, provided a gloomy yet realistic projection of the path Canada is on for the foreseeable future.
But why all the doom and gloom?

Simply put, the government is too big, and in certain areas costs are out of control.
The costs of maintaining current social programs such as health care have soared as the population is aging, and it’s getting worse.

Complicating matters is a shrinking labour force and a declining tax base. Dodge warned of stark choices in the future if spending on health care is not reined in and reformed. He challenged the Liberals to talk about real solutions, not just more spending.

The problem is not only in health care but also in the overall size of government. Spending has increased astronomically at all levels of government. As deficits increase and debt mounts, we are ill-prepared for the coming strain on the state. A crisis is coming, and so far none of our political leaders have the foresight or the political will to do anything about it.

These are serious problems that need to be addressed. They need to be solved by more than increasing spending or doling out meaningless tax credits.

It’s time for big ideas.

The Harper government has made it clear that it does not take the long-term financial future particularly seriously.

It has ramped up spending, lacks a credible plan to tackle the deficit and seems to lurch from crisis to crisis without a vision or purpose clearly staked out.

Harper’s government embodies the notion of “power for the sake of power” that they used to mock Liberals about.

Instead of focusing on the issues that really matter in the long term, the government creates boutique policies and symbolic measures tailored to groups most likely to vote for them. No big ideas and no vision, just the next election.

That’s the leadership vacuum that Michael Ignatieff needs to fill if he is to be successful.
He cannot hope to measure up to Harper in the traditional notion of leadership as strength, but he can stake out his own ground in leadership based on vision and purpose.

So far, Ignatieff’s track record is not good. Instead of communicating to Canadians the hard choices that need to be made, he tells them what they want to hear. He will wave a magic wand and make the deficit go away, while increasing spending and not raising taxes.

The Liberals seem to have abandoned their legacy as deficit fighters, which, considering Canada’s outlook according to Dodge, they should be embracing with enthusiasm.

Ignatieff needs to harness his image as an academic to put forward bold ideas and create a vision to tackle the problems Canada will be facing.

So far, he has promised to freeze corporate tax reductions to funnel even more money into our already unsustainable social programs and implement a national daycare program. That is not vision. That is boilerplate Liberal rhetoric from a bygone era.

If he wants to beat Harper, he needs to truly show vision and have the courage to talk about the issues that threaten our country’s prosperity in the long term.

I will probably not agree with his solutions, but at least big ideas will finally be talked about and discussed by all parties. Our nation will be better for it.