Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Why Ideas Matter

In the next few weeks, I've pledged to make this leadership race a campaign of ideas.  Touring around the province, our team has pledged to not just make this an organizational meeting. We will be putting forward real policy ideas to start a discussion about what it means to be a Liberal in 2012, and to give our party a vision that progressive voters can rally behind as an alternative to the AlwardCons' do-nothing government.

Before the specifics start to flow, this blog post will explain why ideas need to be a priority for Liberals. The challenge is not to change the superficial image of our party, or find a smarter group of backroom boys.  The challenge is to give people a reason to believe that they don't have to settle for the small dreams and limited hope they have with David Alward. People know they want more. But they need to re-establish trust in Liberals, and in our institutions, to deliver that to them.

Some pundits are saying that Canada is simply entering a more conservative age, and that conservatives have found the magic formula to win over the electorate because people are becoming more right wing.

I don't buy it for a second, by the way, but one can get the feeling that the talk has gotten into the minds of some Liberals and spooked them.  My friend Mike Murphy, who has a solid record in government, has started to try to adopt some conservative planks in his platform, pledging to fire 20% of the people who deliver public services and supporting Stephen Harper on some of his crime and decentralization planks.  And Brian Gallant, who I know to be a progressive Liberal, hasn't challenged him on this, which makes me wonder if we've become afraid to defend liberal values in the public arena.

That is one theory -- which is that conservatives are winning and we have to either adopt a few conservative ideas or stay vague and hope no one notices.  I'd like to offer a third way to winning elections.  Instead of stealing bad ideas or splitting the difference, let's renew our own liberal ideas to show we have listened to and learned from the people.

Because if you're like me, you see even more signs that people are coming to believe in the central value that separates us from conservatives ... they don't want to be left to sink or swim and they do believe that we are all in this together.

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.

And the economic case for liberalism has never been stronger -- at a time when emerging markets in China and India are winning on cheap labour we have to win on creativity, innovation and productivity. That means the employer who will hire my children will only come here if EVERY child has access to great schools and lifelong learning, and if we have the infrastructure to compete.

Unlike the Conservatives, we 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. 

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. THAT is why now we need new ideas ... to make people believe that their desire to work together can actually be achieved through our public institutions. That is our challenge.

That may be more of a challenge than choosing a shiny new face or funding a massive campaign, but it is the only path that leads to victory.

Here's how we renew ourselves.....

Too many talented young people have stopped believing government programs will deliver on issues like fighting poverty or sustaining our environment, so they tune out of the political arena, but are volunteering more than ever.  If we want them to see the debate between liberalism and conservatism as relevant, then we have to start supporting volunteerism and building networks of strong non-profits to meet the goals progressives share.

Conservatives have done a good job convincing people we are too broke to dream.  We need a people-powered plan for fiscal responsibility, including budgeting for long-term savings with smart social spending, ending crony corporate welfare, and making government departments accountable for results.

Too many talented people are leaving New Brunswick, and Conservatives have shown they are still fighting the old battle for cheap labour and losing good jobs and creative people.  We need to make jobs an economic issue, and have real ideas to encourage private sector investment in R&D, reward investment in start-up capital, and build creative industries from the arts sector to the green economy.

Voters have grown cynical about a politics they see as too stage-managed and unresponsive. We need a real democratic reform agenda to hold politicians more accountable between elections and reward the honest interaction young people have come to know through social media.

And we need to anchor our values with a new Covenant of Equal Opportunity that shows that we are a Liberal Party who will always remember that our province can only reach as high as we can lift the most vulnerable citizens and communities among us.

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 AlwardCons are capable of delivering solutions for. 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 new ideas and strong, liberal values.

In my statement announcing the tour, I said that Liberals shouldn't have to choose between change and substance. I believe that we shouldn't just demand both ... our party absolutely needs both.  If we try to take the easy road, offering only cosmetic change and vague ideas, the voters will call us out for it.  We need to find ideas and values that are worth fighting for.  It is time for Liberals to believe again.

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