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The Hair Apparent Chronicles: The policy swamp

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John Baglow is at the 2014 Liberal Policy Convention all weekend so that you don't have to be. Here is his second communique from the floor. Read parts one and two of the series.

Policy-making at political conventions bears no resemblance to the process at union conventions with which I am far more familiar. There's a simple reason for that, of course: union conventions are the highest governing body of unions. Their word is law. Political conventions, on the other hand, are gatherings of the faithful, offering advice to the folks who are really in charge.

So what kind of advice is Team Justin getting?

Centre-right, libertarian-positive Andrew Coyne, for one, didn't like it. He was beside himself this past Friday, decrying "an almost parodically left-wing party." He was referring to its interventionist and strategic focus, as opposed to letting the market flip and flop, boom and bust, bubble and correct, leaving the usual trail of broken lives in its wake.

Shrinking middle class? Stagnant wages? Nonsense: we've never had it so good, Coyne huffed, in the teeth of the evidence. Inequality increased steeply during the 1990s, and "stabilized" in the 2000s, meaning that it's become a normal feature of the socioeconomic landscape. Intervention and national planning are clearly needed.

The question is, though, what the allegedly "left-wing" Liberal Party is actually going to do. I suspect that Coyne and other critics can rest easy in the long run.

The resolutions adopted in plenary yesterday represent policy directions, which is to say they are essentially thematic. Flapping on about costs and big government is well wide of the point: the new handbook of Liberal policies doesn't even constitute a program, much less a platform, as Trudeau policy wonk Bill Morneau makes clear (and that's the only clarity you'll get from him). It would be churlish, however, to say it's all hot air. Aboriginal issues in particular were emphasized, to the point of calling for the reinstatement of the Kelowna Accord, trashed by the Harper government in 2006, and repudiating the infamous and aptly-named "White Paper" of 1969, an assimilationist document proposed by Justin's father. Funding for the Sisters In Spirit initiative, quashed by the Harper government as well, would be restored. Outstanding land claims would be resolved. Even if we regard all this as the wish-list that it clearly is, it's a wide-ranging and surprisingly coherent response to a continuing national disgrace, standing in stark contrast to the crude and obstructionist approach of the Harper government.

There were, of course, the usual reassuring noises about other issues, such as national infrastructure, transportation, affordable housing, and greenhouse gases, in which consultation and strategizing were duly promised. But the language (as in a resolution about fracking and another about honouring our "sacred obligation" to veterans) tended to be frustratingly vague, and hence full of political trap-doors and bolt-holes.

A couple of resolutions did stray beyond the anodyne. One promised "careful limitations" on omnibus bills and in camera parliamentary committee meetings -- which could mean just about anything. But it also opened the door a crack to the possibility of proportional representation, offering a national dialogue on the subject, and after a (rare) debate on that specific point, received nearly unanimous support. A second, which will have the so-cons in a glorious uproar, recommended decriminalization of assisted suicide. There was also a strongly worded emergency resolution addressing Harper's attempt to rig the next election -- one can sympathize, perhaps, with Liberal alarm on that score.

But let's come down to earth for a moment. What will become of all this carefully sifted material, upon which riding associations, provincial and territorial bodies and now a national Convention, have lavished so much time and effort? Politics is the art of the possible, so the saying goes, but that's too often an alibi for carrying on business as usual. Any future Liberal government, while ignoring the entire package of dreams and values at its peril, would, as always, be free to pick, choose and even reverse direction (recall the campaign against wage and price controls by Trudeau père in 1975, which he proceeded to implement, or Chretien's campaign against NAFTA, which he signed shortly after winning the 1993 election).

A policy document like the one just produced is really little more than a statement of faith, although I'd argue that this is the case for any party in Canada's present political culture. The process of creating policy builds an illusory feel-good solidarity, affiliation and loyalty, while not committing adherents to anything at all except to get their party into power -- which is what the "Hope and Hard Work" slogan at the convention was all about. Nor does it commit that party, once in power, to anything either. As a piece of mass audience-participation theatre it serves its purpose, creating bonds of loyalty and galvanizing activists. But let's not imagine it's a mirror of the future under Justin Trudeau.

Don't get me wrong: it's great to get this stuff on the record. It sets a general political tone and direction, and, more importantly, from a progressive point of view, it provides a little leverage for holding politicians to account. I've been hungrily awaiting policy ever since the remarkably policy-free Trudeau assumed the leadership of his party. Well, now the Liberals have some. It remains to be seen, however, just how seriously it will be defended by the Leader and his inner circle.

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