As we all emerge from our holiday retreats, we are looking at a New Year that will be absolutely critical for our party. More importantly, it will be absolutely critical for the province and the country we love.
In 2011, the New Brunswick Liberal Party renewed its structure. We opened ourselves up to new people, we made ourselves more responsive to new ideas, and we made sure our leaders have to be open to challenge and criticism. We showed that we could learn and change without altering the fact that we are Liberals, united by shared values and a belief that every one of us is stronger together.
Now, 2012 has to be the year when we renew our ideas. And as proud as we should be for the renewal of our structure, there is a fierce urgency in this moment that compels us not to rest.
The Conservative Approach to Governing.
The Conservative Party under David Alward has shown that they will pursue the wrong ideas with great discipline. They will tell us that New Brunswick has certain limits, and that the problem is that we want too much. They will tell us that school children and families in poverty are the ones who have too much, they will tell us that there is no principle higher than a balanced budget, and they will do all they can to make us focus on the limits on what we can hope for. A good day for them is a day when New Brunswickers settle for less.
When David Alward and Blaine Higgs tell us that we need to want less, it is fair to ask them what we should stop wanting. Should we stop wanting a province with the best schools in the country? Should we stop wanting a future where every child grows up knowing how to read, but never knowing hunger? Should we stop wanting a province that offers clean air and water, and a natural beauty that others envy? Should we stop wanting a province where every young person can aspire to get the training they need and a job they love? Should we stop wanting a province where our streets are safe and our parents can retire with dignity and security.
The Liberal government made progress in all those areas - higher literacy rates, lower unemployment, faster population growth, lower poverty rates, and more students pursuing a higher education. And it has been these areas that the Conservatives have targeted with cuts to schools, social programs and health care. And in 2012, they have primed New Brunswickers to expect a full assault on all the progress they've made, and the hopes they have for our province.
The Alward Tories believe that government can't do anything right. And they are going to try to govern in a way that proves it.
We can expect them to put forward a vision where we are all on our own, where hope is naive, and government can't do anything more noble than run a reminder service for your car registration and a plane service for cabinet ministers.
That's their vision. So, what's ours?
Making Renewal Count.
We need to respond with real ideas, and concrete alternatives. If we sit back and criticize alone, it will be hard for New Brunswickers to believe there is a better way. If we try to get away with only cosmetic change, we will look as if we believe we are entitled to the next turn in government...and the voters will rightly make us wait a long, long time.
We need to finish the job of renewal by showing we have new ideas and real answers.
A lot of people have asked me in the last month if I am going to run for the leadership of our party. And I appreciate and treasure every bit of that encouragement. I've tried to do right by the party by reflecting on the question that I think should be the real test of whether or not someone runs. It shouldn't be because you can win, or because you want the job, or because you fit some magical profile of what a leader should be.
The reason to run for leader is if you have a sense of what you want to accomplish as Premier. If we have really renewed ourselves as a party, then vision should trump ambition. This open letter will share with you some of the ideas that I think are worth fighting for, together.
Liberals have always been party of the center. But the center isn't some neutral place between two extremes. Liberalism is a real set of unique ideas. Liberals are the only party that believes in both individualism and equality.
We believe in individual rights, and that every individual should be free to reach their full potential. Our friends in the NDP sometimes forget this, and choose groups that government should help-- like having bloc voting rights for unions and certain groups in their party constitution, or allowing provinces like Quebec to opt out of individual language rights. There's a reason we are the party of the Charter...we believe every individual is free, and is an end unto themselves.
But unlike the Conservatives, we also believe that individuals are stronger when we choose to work together, and when we take on the opportunities and responsibilities of being part of a community larger than ourselves. We know that by pooling our resources, we can build the infrastructure that makes business more successful, we can have hospitals and schools that give us all peace of mind, and we can make sure that there is the equality of opportunity for everyone that makes sure every individual has an incentive to work, to create and to contribute their full potential to our community.
Democratic government, to Liberals, is a place where individuals can work together and in doing so, become part of a community that makes us fully who we are. This belief is unique to Liberals. It is why ideas that are simple truths today, like Medicare to Equal Opportunity to the Charter of Rights, could never have happened under Conservatives, and why Conservatives fought every one of those ideas until they became too popular to resist.
Some commentators are saying that we are returning to a more conservative time, that liberal ideas like a broader common good, standing up for the underdog and fighting for equality are over. In New Brunswick, the Conservatives are peddling the myth that we lost because we changed too much, spent too much, and tried to accomplish too much.
If you're like me, you don't buy any of it. When I look at the success of the poverty reduction initiative, the way New Brunswick embraced community schools to the point that UNESCO embraced our model, when I look at how much we volunteer in our communities, I don't buy for a second that New Brunswickers have lost faith in the idea that we are stronger when we work together. If anything, liberal principles are stronger than ever.
The problem we, as Liberals, have to address is that people are losing faith in government as the best place for people to work together. And we have to have ideas that renew that covenant between citizens and our governments.
People didn't punish the Liberal Party for dreaming big, pursuing change, or even for being willing to spend more on education and health care. These were all issues for the first two years of our mandate, and polls showed we would have won a larger majority. We lost for two reasons - we became inconsistent stewards of liberal values, and because we too often made people feel as if change was something we did to them, not with them.
People know that we have bigger challenges than the Alward Tories are capable of delivering. But they want to be part of that change, and they need to know they can trust that change. To build that trust, we will have to run on ideas and strong, liberal values.
Charting a path forward.
In the next two months, I'm going to travel the province talking about the ideas it will take to win. I'm going to talk not about how we can look different, but how we can be different.
We need to talk about a new chapter for Equal Opportunity. The income gap between rich and poor is growing larger than ever, yet poverty and illiteracy are bad for business. We cannot lose a third of our population to poverty and illiteracy. If we are going to attract jobs and lower spending, and we need to act now.
We need to talk about growing the economy. We have lost hundreds of good paying jobs under the Alward Tories, and we need to talk about ending government bailouts of failing industries and instead invest in what communities need to attract good, stable jobs.
We have to renew our commitment to give our children the best schools in the world, not just schools that are the best we can do under the circumstances. We may have made controversial decisions in education, but at least the debate was about where to spend new money and how best to improve literacy and math scores. Today, the debate is only about where to cut and which boardrooms to amalgamate. We need to talk about ways to have the best teachers in the world with the tools they need.
We also need to look at new ways to connect voters to these shared goals.
That means as Liberals we will have to have a real platform for democratic reform. Not cosmetic change, like trimming a few MLAs. We need to talk about real change, like using citizen engagement to make decisions, opening legislative committees to online citizen input, and creating real consequences for politicians who lie their way into office.
It means coming up with new ways to engage communities, like rewarding volunteerism and redefining the relationship between government and the non-profit sector. It means finding more innovative, local solutions to social problems than telling people to send their tax dollars to Fredericton and let the government handle it.
I'm announcing this two-month tour so we can talk about new ideas as Liberals, so we can come together not just on how to seek the chance to govern, but on what we will do there. After all, it is meaningless to elect a leader who can win an election if they are not ready to govern in a way that makes us proud.
In the next two months, I will have a chance to meet hundreds of fellow Liberals, and progressives who could be Liberals, and talk about the province we continue to dream of. I want to listen to your ideas and learn, to propose some new ideas but also have them improved upon by conversations.
I'm embarking on this tour because a lot of liberals are telling me that this race can't just be a beauty contest, a clash of images where we debate which face can run furthest from our past. New Brunswickers are smart enough to call us out if we only make cosmetic change, if we try to get away with offering a new face instead of a new approach to governing. We can only win in 2014 by making the case that we have had both the humility and the vision to be the best choice for the future.
Many Liberals do not want to be forced into a choice between change and substance -- they want both. I'm looking forward to meeting as many Liberals as possible in the next two months, so we can dream together about the party and province we want.
Together, we can make it possible for Liberals to believe again.