Friday, October 9, 2009

Putting Policy Centre Stage and the Thinkers Conference

Plans are apparently in the works apparently for the Liberals to hold a "thinkers conference" in January modeled on the famous "Kingston conference" that Pearson organized in 1960 and that set the direction of Liberal party policy for many years to come. Obviously this conference will operate much differently than the one almost 50 years ago, but the Liberals stand at a crossroads today similar to then.

Even as a big policy person myself, I don't believe that policies or platforms actually win elections, but narratives do. Whoever has the best story to tell about why they deserve the reins of government and why the other parties don't stands the best chance of coming out on top as long as long as the public buys the narrative.

And bad narratives that you can't shake can certainly lose you elections. Today there seem to be 3 related narratives that are a big drag on our support levels even though to varying degrees they aren't actually true:

1) The Liberals aren't proposing any policy and yet want to be seen as a government in waiting
2) The Liberals don't sound like they'd govern significantly differently from the Conservatives
3) The Liberals don't stand for anything and don't really know what they are about.

Now Michael Ignatieff has been out there proposing policy in broad strokes, and in ads, speeches and Question Period has been saying where the Conservatives have gone wrong and how the Liberals would be different. I understand he's going to give a speech this Tuesday that will give more details on his plans for the environment. These are all good steps. But they haven't been enough to reach the people we need to win over. I've met many non-partisans who believe these three negative narratives in spite of the reality. We need to reach them better.

A "Kingston for our age" as Michael Ignatieff once described it represents an excellent opportunity to reverse the narratives bringing us down and show to the country that unlike Stephen Harper we want to bring the best minds and ideas together to address the big issues of our time. That you can't trust Stephen Harper with our county's future, but you can trust us.

It's not a guaranteed homerun by any means. There needs to still be sufficient Liberal party grassroots input into the conference as there does expert opinions or it could end up being portrayed as an elitist affair. And it can't just be a bunch of "position papers" or "think tank sessions" being presented and everyone goes home with no ideas actually being decided upon or it could be seen as just talking around in circles. Those sessions were worthwhile at the convention, but people will be expecting a lot more from something modeled on the Kingston conference.

When it's over the media and the public should know our overall narrative of what we are about and be able to say it in 10 words or less. And they should know some very specific things we'd do in government. They don't need to know where we stand on every issue, we don't have to give away the whole platform, but put enough on the table that no one can credibly say anymore that we don't have a plan for government or that we wouldn't govern very different from Harper. A similar conference helped Chretien and the Liberals come back from opposition in the early 90's, it can help us now.

If we are worried about ideas being torn to shreds by Conservatives outside a campaign, something that doesn't withstand scrutiny outside the writ could just as easily be slammed during the campaign. There are many directions we can take that the Conservatives won't be able to criticize (and wouldn't adopt either) and that the public (particularly those that have lost faith in all Ottawa politicians) would favour. We shouldn't be afraid to put them forward sooner rather than later.

Waiting till the campaign for any real policy specifics risks the negative narratives feeding a downward cycle that with each drop becomes harder to get out of. We can easily gain back any support we've lost now and it starts with being a party that doesn't just oppose, but also proposes. And getting in that pattern needn't wait till January either, it can start in the weeks ahead right in the House.

Don't get me wrong, I absolutely believe we can win back government in the next campaign, but Canadians aren't going to be willing to give it to us until they know and understand why we want it and what we'd do with it. Between now and March our main goal should be to ensure they do.

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Anonymous said...

This is a very well-thought-through, instructive piece, Danielle. In a way, it in and of itself provides a "narrative" for renewal in the Party. I hope many people read this.

Sheila Gervais

Stephen said...

Plans are apparently in the works apparently for the Liberals to hold a "thinkers conference"

Sorry if this sounds rude, but Paul Wells blogged back in July that Ignatieff's proposed policy plans were already months, if not weeks, overdue.

"Thinkers' Conferences" have been forecast for last summer, this fall, and now next year.

Deadlines have come and gone like so many ultimatums on EI.

Sorry, but it's hard to take Ignatieff's plans for anything seriously these days, given how seriously he seems to take them himself.