Thursday, May 5, 2011

A Great First Step....

Ideas matter. Parties are about principles, not image, tradition or patronage. And the Liberal Party had better learn that you can't be a modern party without accepting democratic reform.

The New Brunswick Liberal Party's Renewal Commission released a discussion paper today that shows that our commissioners took their jobs very, very seriously. The document captures what many of us believed we heard from the people who have worked for the Liberal Party and want it to succeed.

There are three quick thoughts I wanted to blog about as we begin this next conversation among Liberals and liberals in New Brunswick.


For once and for all, this report makes it clear that those who think we will return to power simply by replacing Shawn Graham's face with a new, baggage-free one on the posters are deluding themselves. Our defeat was one based upon substance -- the people who most wanted to believe in the Liberal Party could not feel dependably connected to the policies we pursued. The same top-down politics and policies with a new image will give us the same results.

The good news is that while substance and policy are serious areas to have a problem, they are fixable ones. We clearly have a ready resource of party members who want party membership to mean they share in developing ideas, not just being a source of labour in campaigns. If we emerge with a strong sense of who we are, and have something concrete to say on emerging issues like democratic reform, community building, equal opportunity, and environmental concerns, we can reconnect to voters. Especially if we also learn that.....


It is notable that Liberals want a shared, clear definition of what it means to be a Liberal. It tells us that people will not join parties and work to get candidates elected without knowing that they share values that let them comfortable predict how their party will behave in office. The report confirms what the public seemed to be telling us -- that by the end the changes we stood for were too unpredictable to sustain that relationship of trust with the people who elected us.

It is intriguing that the dichotomy between the tax cut budget and the poverty reduction plan stood out as bewildering to Liberals. Indeed, the tax cut budget was the first time the Liberal government fell in the polls to the point where defeat seemed plausible. The public had stuck with us when we raised taxes on upper income citizens, arguing that to address the issues of literacy, poverty, and the crisis in seniors' care we raised in the election we had to roll back some Tory tax cuts. They stuck with us through changes in education, health and post-secondary education, all of which had some mistakes of process but also were sincere efforts to address issues we promised to, low literacy scores, poor access to health services, and affordable colleges and universities. We could be controversial-- but when we became unprincipled, we lost. That's a big lesson, and the party grassroots is telling us to underline that point.


The model of finding an electable personality and surrounding them with a strong unelected advisorocracy is officially dead. Liberals want an open party where debate is rewarded more than deference. And this is a good lesson, because if we want to get back the voters we lost to the Greens and the NDP, we will have to show a real openness to changing how government works, how decisions made, and perhaps how elections are fought. Liberals pride ourselves on being the party who is unafraid of progressive change, and our democracy can't be the exclusion from that rule if we want to be taken seriously.

Learning from defeat means more than blaming the NB Power deal. It means asking how we allowed our party to develop a culture where a reversal of policy as huge as NB Power could happen with no checks and balances for party members to be heard, and where debate was equated with disloyalty. Our Commission's fine work confirms a lesson I had the privilege to learn during our time in government through education reform and poverty reduction. No matter how capable one leader can be, there is more wisdom to be found if we have the patience to allow more voices to make decisions.

Liberals rightly are proud of our past, but we cannot be blind to change. Forty years ago, voters wanted to find a leader who shared their values, vote for them and turn them loose to change things. Today, they want to be partners in making decisions and executing policies. We have moved from the "Just Watch Me" of the Trudeau era to the "Come Help Me" of citizen engagement. In reforming our party, we will show if we have learned the lessons of history.