November 5, 2011

Over the next two months, Liberals across Canada will be debating the kind of party we want to be.  The Ottawa biennial convention, which runs from January 13th-15th, will decide on constitutional and other changes that will determine the future of the Party.

As leader of the Party I have been crisscrossing the country since the end of May, talking to groups large and small, and also spending time on the phone and internet engaged in discussions and debates about our future.

The national board of the party will be releasing a discussion paper very soon, but the point of that paper is not to end the conversation at all, but rather to ask questions and put choices out there for a good debate.

What I have to say today is certainly not the final word, either.  But in my current role I am taking this opportunity to give my views about the future direction of the party.

A successful political party is not a debating society or a social club.  In a democracy like ours the purpose of the Liberal Party of Canada is to elect enough Members of Parliament so we can form a government.  That might seem trite and obvious, but there are still many people around who seem to be satisfied with a Party that is small and comfortable, or a group who seem to have some psychological urge to be in charge of a tiny project.

We are part of broad movement of people around the world who share some important beliefs.

Liberals know that open and transparent markets should be there for the common good, and not just to serve greed, that the creation of wealth both fosters and is dependent on education, good health, strong civil society, the rule of law, and a keen sense of something called “the public good”.  The pursuit of wealth and social justice are not enemies. But it takes good government and strong leadership to protect the common good, the public good, and to help the pursuit of individual and collective prosperity.

Everyone (except the Harperites) understand that this depends on sustainability – of the planet, of the air we breathe and the water we drink, of our businesses and our personal and public finances, of our ability to pass on something greater and better to future generations.

This in turn is held together not by force or tyranny, but by trust.  Trust is the basis of commerce, of our social dealings, of our politics.  We need to understand more deeply its value as we go forward, and we need to realize that for many Canadians trust has been lost.

The “occupy movement” is a powerful reflection of what happens when trust breaks down. But it’s more – while it’s often seen as just a protest movement of the marginalised, it’s also speaking to a clear sense among the middle class people around the world that the government is not in their corner, that it has stopped fighting for them.

In the Liberal Party we’ve had our own trust issues.  Everyone here knows that in our past we have allowed competing ambitions and warring factions to undermine that very necessary value and culture.  I am a realist, and know full well that politics and personal ambition meet very often. But we have to keep working at reinforcing the good humour and personal respect that are the hallmarks of good health.  My sense is we’re making good progress on this front.  Certainly in Ottawa the caucus is working well together, and we are building a strong and effective team.  I am reminded of the sign on a door I saw once while canvassing : “beware of dog.  He’s small but he knows Kung-fu.” The Liberal caucus in Ottawa may be small but we know how to fight.  And we’re not fighting each other.  We’re fighting Mr Harper and his reactionary agenda.

Achieving political success demands that the party put the movement’s ideas to work, at every level – locally, regionally, nationally.

Until our electoral system changes, the fundamental unit is the riding.  That’s where members get elected, that’s where we meet and persuade voters, that’s where the ballot boxes are counted.

We are weak in too many ridings across the country.  Our first task is to build strong, effective, open and transparent, lively and engaged, riding associations in each and every part of the country.  That means broadening the membership base, taking the control of membership forms away from riding chairs and the pta’s, and encouraging people to come together locally to build stronger and more representative organisations.

Ridings should not be controlled by small cliques, or by people who try and keep people out because they’re afraid of losing control.

We need accountability and transparency up and down the system.  All regional, provincial, and national efforts need to join together in this common commitment.

I think the Liberal constitution is too long and complicated, and seems to be based on a culture where mistrust is big so everything has to be written down.  Some of the things I hope one of the things we’ll be discussing are about simplifying our structures so they can be more flexible, and can change as they need to.

I don’t want a war over the future of PTA’s and Commissions, but I do want a recognition of the current financial reality and financial challenge.  Both the corporate and the government cheque books are closed.  We have to become leaner, and the turf wars have to stop.  Every section of the party, from bottom to top, and from the caucus to Metcalfe St to the local ridings, has to work together.  Period.

Our organisational and financial focus needs to be the Victory Fund, the automatic deductions that have gone from zero to two million in two years.  We need to convert political supporters and voters into financial supporters, and a Fund which helps both the riding and the national party is essential.

Some riding associations are pretty wealthy, and most are not.  We cannot requisition that money, but we can ask that the strong help the weak.  This is already happening.
We shall face a stark market test over the next few years.  Unless we can broaden and deepen our financial base, doubling our funding into the future ourselves, every year, we shall find it difficult to run a truly successful national campaign when the next election comes in 2015.

We don’t yet have full command of the best techniques and technologies to help make that happen.  We need to get them to allow us to level the playing field.

We have had some recent successes with e-mail blasts, but to put it simply we need to be able to identify more people who are likely to want to help.  I am fully committed to building Liberalist, and to expanding  its reach.  We need to do that to be able to get our message out in new and exciting ways, and to be able to get the money in.

Finally, our re-build should, in my opinion, speak to the need for a broader electorate choosing our leader and choosing candidates for the next election.

Party contests should be responsibly financed, but reach a wider group.  There will be proposals forthcoming for your consideration to allow all Canadians who have signalled some broad support for our party to be able to choose the next leader and future riding candidates.  That will be an interesting and important discussion, but if we speak for a movement we need to build a movement.  Other parties have chosen a more restrictive route – we have a chance to take a more exciting approach.

It’s a good time to be a Liberal.  As that great liberal and great democrat Tom Paine once said “these are times that try men’s souls”, but he also said that this is not the time for “summer soldiers” and “sunshine patriots” – we have much work to do, and we need thousands of shoulders to the wheel.

Bob Rae is a former member of Parliament and former premier of Ontario.