With Al Gore and Jeffrey Sachs headlining, Liberal party insiders held a policy conference at Mont Tremblant, Quebec last week, designed to do for progressive ideas what think tanks have done for conservative ideas in past decades: make them dominant.
Billed as a new ideas generation council, the conference sponsor, Canada 2020, will hold seminars across the country as well as run the annual headline event. Co-founders Tim Barber, Eugene Lang, Thomas Pitfield, and Susan Smith say Canada needs progressive voices, not to deal with fundamental problems apparently these have been dealt with already but to make the most of the unprecedented opportunities that are staring us in the face.
A perspective on the website extols our Maple Leaf Model of democratic capitalism for bringing together the best of Japanese, American and the European social market model. Canada is on a roll, we are a land of milk and honey. What we need to do is make our brand known around the world.
It is true that investments of billions of dollars by business in corporate-friendly think tanks have helped conservatives engineer a huge shift on policy debate. Al Gore, whose film, An Inconvenient Truth explores the issues around global warming, pointed out how Exxon Mobil finances some 40 groups whose main purpose is to denigrate global warming and climate change as serious issues.
It is true that more progressive voices are needed on a range of issues identified by Canada 2020 including climate change, malaria eradication, Quebec-Canada, and fiscal issues.
But it is false to assume that serious structural problems do not exist in Canada, and a mistake to imagine policies can be crafted without addressing political economy issues, including capitalism itself.
Canada 2020 has not analyzed post-Trudeau Canada. If it had it would see that much of the success in the land of milk and honey is due to rising commodity prices and a devalued dollar. The real story of a country on the roll is unsustainable growth patterns in the U.S. driving Canadian development. Corporate profits at record levels do not equal success.
A rising dollar, and cooling commodity markets will soon bring into the open severe domestic problems that have been ignored: chronic long-term unemployment in many regions, growing inequality of income, poorly-funded social programs, under-investment in public transportation, recreation and culture, inadequate municipal infrastructure, and a host of workplace concerns over health and safety, discrimination, harassment, poor working conditions and wages.
When examined closely the Maple Leaf Model is premised on people working hard for low pay, sacrificing public services to meet fiscal targets set by bond dealers, and not asking questions about why this has to be so.
The goal of the right is to convince people that there is no point in working together to make change. For conservatives, the market looks after the economy, the political system is ineffective and corrupt, and the best you can do is fend for yourself. This right wing messaging fits well with over consumption and waste embedded in the corporate economy model. Rather than think ahead, drive fast, smile, have a drink and forget the rest.
People possess the collective power to make change. The left need this to be widely understood.
Progressive social movements have been responsible for most of what has been achieved in the past 150 years from the vote to the equality clause in the Charter of Rights. That is why the right works so hard to discredit trade unions, women's organizations, environmentalists and other activist groups.
If Canada 2020 wants us to see ahead clearly, it needs to look closely at the economic history of the country and the planet. If the idea is to redesign the Liberal Party as a progressive political option, then an annual event at a Fairmont Hotel with some American keynote speakers might do the trick. But better optics are not going to make right-wing ideas less dominant.
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