Hot! How six months can change a party

TheStar,com –
Published On Sun Sep 12 2010.   Thomas S. Axworthy

Fifty years ago this month, the Liberal Party of Canada was broke, demoralized after two consecutive defeats, and fighting off threats from other parties to take over their core progressive base.

Yet, starting on Sept. 6, 1960, when 200 individuals paid a fee of $25 and their room and board at Queen’s University to debate each other for five days in what was billed as a “Study Conference on National Problems,” the Liberal party began an astonishing comeback.

The conference, organized to engage non-partisans, was followed within three months by a national party rally where thousands of Liberals, in turn, debated and prioritized ideas. Then with its thinking clear and the party re-energized, a “leader’s advisory committee” took the results of this work and transformed them into a platform of 75 proposals.

Six months after Kingston, the Liberal party was competitive again. In the 1962 election, it humbled the Conservatives, and in 1963 formed a government that passed into law the platform mix of social and economic policies that have governed us ever since. Six months of sustained party effort eventually changed Canada. Today’s Liberals, in not nearly as desperate a predicament as their predecessors, should take heart.

Many contributed to the Liberal comeback, but the driver was Walter Gordon, a prominent Toronto businessman. First, he raised money to pay back a bank loan that was immediately due. Next, he made a series of policy speeches that eventually became Troubled Canada, a book which served as the de facto Liberal economic platform. He then hired Keith Davey to put organizational muscle and communications shine on the new policy framework. The modern Liberal party is Walter Gordon’s most enduring legacy.

The issues debated at Kingston were largely the same as those that preoccupy us today — trade, employment, social security, skills training, the role of cities, food quality and effective defence. Gordon spoke at a panel on “how independent can we be?” Only the absence of any discussion on the environment dates the relevance of the proceedings.

The first thing that Gordon’s team got right at Kingston is that they knew that thinking is not emoting. A party is not built on tweets. At Kingston, the delegates were stimulated by outstanding papers from Maurice Lamontagne on “Growth, Stability and the Problem of Unemployment” and Tom Kent’s “Towards a Philosophy of Social Security.”

These two presentations were based on a key philosophical point — the need to move from “negative” liberty, or the absence of constraints, to “positive” liberty where opportunities are accessible to all. These ideas were provocative — in part because the authors thought they would be presenting to a closed room before Lester Pearson decided to open the proceedings to the press — but coherent. The policy Rubicon was crossed. The Liberal party from now on would be an activist party.

Self-congratulation is equally the enemy of serious thought. To avert that malady only one member of caucus — Jack Pickersgill — was invited to speak there. There was much grumbling from the old guard about “non-Liberals” taking over the party, but the new voices who participated, like John Turner, Jean Marchand, Alastair Gillespie and Judy LaMarsh, eventually joined and became leaders themselves.

Ideas, too, are not enough. They have to be communicated and put into an appealing political package. The 1961 policy rally took the ideas of Kingston and encouraged thousands of grassroots Liberals to ponder the results. One large change resulted. Pensions were not a major theme at the Kingston conference, nor was the subject highlighted in the working papers to the 1961 rally. But the Liberal delegates had other ideas — they insisted that, along with medicare, pensions have the highest priority in the forthcoming Liberal platform. The Canadian Pension Plan is the result.

The relevance of the Kingston conference is this: In 1960, like today, the conventional wisdom is that governments defeat themselves. Opposition is enough. But the reformers argued instead that a positive plan had to complement the negative parliamentary attack. Liberals had to think as well as react. And such thinking had to be informed by a coherent philosophy and a clear narrative. The great reform plan of 1961 was not poll-driven. Gordon did not even hire Lou Harris to do Liberal polling until months after the policy framework was in place.

Serious thought, new voices and party engagement committed to improving the life chances and choices of every Canadian were the strength of Kingston. It is a formula still relevant today.

Thomas S. Axworthy is a distinguished senior fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs.

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