CEOs as Liberal Party thinkers

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Michael Ignatieff did a well publicized tour of Canadian Universities in January. Judging from the list of 40 speakers he invited to address the upcoming Liberal thinkers conference March 26 to 28 in Montreal, he was not impressed: only one student is invited to speak (water activist Ryan Hreljac), and no younger faculty.

The Liberals went for business leaders: 11 CEOs will own the podium (sorry). In 2010, knowledge seemly increases with salary, and brains are best found in the biggest executive suite. Aside from Ryan Hreljac, education is represented by three University and College presidents, two business school heavies, two political scientists, a health scientist and an economist.

Liberal thinker gatherings have been important. The federal-provincial cost-sharing welfare state was a centre piece of the celebrated 1960 Kingston study conference. The policy ideas led to Pearson minority Liberals governments (supported by the NDP) introducing medicare, the Canada Pension plan, a social safety net, aid to post-secondary eduction, bilingualism and even a flag. Pearson advisor Tom Kent explained in his memoirs that the Liberal rebirth was because it got its policy ducks in line first. That attracted the talented people to the party.

From the line up in Montreal it looks like the Liberals are expecting to continue their partnership with the Conservatives. Anyone looking for a potential Liberal-NDP coalition would expect to see at least one trade unionist, one farmer and one peace activist (say Steelworker economist Erin Weir, former National Farmers Union president Nettie Wiebe and Steve Staples of the Rideau Institute). Environmental activist Steven Guilbeault (formerly of Greenpeace), Sherri Torjman a social policy analyst from the Caledon Institute and health professionals Carolyn Acker and Marie-France Raynault are going to feel pretty lonely.

Older Liberal thinkers (over 65) number at least 10 by my count. David Dodge who in 1995, as Deputy Minister of Finance under the Liberals, engineered the destruction of the Just Society ideas Liberal thinkers endorsed at Kingston is invited, maybe to explain why. Or maybe we get to learn why as central bank governor later, he and his colleagues looked the other way, as the loopy world of speculative finance grew out of control, and blew out the world economy. Derek Burney is invited, the man who told Brian Mulroney to sign the free trade deal, so Canada could share its non-renewable energy with the U.S., and give up the industrial policy tools we needed to access the world market. Limiting the list to older male substitutes for the aforementioned, the Liberals would have learned a lot more from hearing Wayne Roberts talk about food security, or Donald Gutstein about media concentration.

The Liberals did invite a number of women which is encouraging. It would be more encouraging, if it had also thought to invite more than one aboriginal (Sheila Watt-Cloutier) and at least one visible minority thinker from Canada, say of East Asian or Chinese extraction (an American, Sheryl WuDunn, is invited), and at least one African or Caribbean Canadian (apart from Dominique Anglade, one of the three co-chairs).

No people from the world of the arts are on the list; not one poet, painter, choreographer or musician. Amateur sport does not need to be discussed either apparently, no athlete or sports administrator was invited.

Pierre Fortin of the University of Quebec in Montreal is the academic economist speaking. I wonder if he will float his idea that Canada should adopt the U.S. dollar as its currency. Lately, he has prominently been arguing that Quebec is about to hit the debt wall, and needs to increase government service fees, which everybody pays, and cut services, which most people need. So far, he has not suggested restoring the $6 billion in income tax cuts made by the Charest government, which mainly the well-to-do pay.

Is the new big Liberal idea to call for More Hardship, or Hardship for More?

The president of the CD Howe Institute is invited, and will no doubt explain why corporate tax cuts are important. Younger thinkers such as Marc Lee, Seth Klein or Iglika Ivanova of the B.C. CCPA, who could make some people feel uncomfortable by talking about climate justice, poverty and inequality were somehow overlooked.

The 1991 Chrétien Liberals thinkers conference in Alymer Quebec signaled to those paying attention that while the idea was to defeat the Conservatives, their economic vision was not going to be changed. After all, it was designed by CEOs in the first place.

In Montreal the Liberals will for sure show the business elite of Canada they have a friend in Michael Ignatieff. While Canadians face serious downward economic pressures, and a worsening job market, the Liberals must think the people who got us into the mess are the ones to get us out of it.

Duncan Cameron writes from Quebec City.

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