University of Toronto
4 min

Bottom-up and not top-down engagement

The Liberals concluded their winter caucus meeting yesterday morning, and they threw open the doors to the media for the leader’s closing remarks. And I will have to say, crappy microphone aside, Michael Ignatieff was a pretty remarkable performer. With yellow-diamond signs saying “Liberals are working” in both official languages projected on each side of the stage, Ignatieff started with a shout-out to the Haitian community, and a condemnation of the Immigration minister for not further extending the definition of “family” for the purpose of this particular crisis.

But then he got to the real substance of his speech – his plans to re-engage Canadians in the democratic process. While his party will be holding day-long sessions on issues around unemployment, democratic governance, the status of women, veterans, the state of health care, and so on, they’re also planning on a series of town hall meetings – in every single constituency, he promises – to hear from Canadians what their ideas are. This will culminate in the Canada 150 Conference in Montreal at the end of March.

Ignatieff says he wants to stop the “politics of distance,” and the politics of staged events. He wants the exercise to be a bottom-up and not top-down policy renewal, because the only way to form a government is to earn it – not simply treat it as an inevitability as too many people in his party have in the past. He says he wants to offer a vision of the future.

And it sounds pretty amazing – if he can actually pull it off. But does he face a country that is still politically disengaged? I mean sure, we’ve got the prorogation rallies happening (including an impromptu protest at an event Harper was attending in Toronto yesterday as a kind of teaser for the nation-wide rallies on Saturday), but I have to wonder if this isn’t anger at politicians “not being at work” rather than genuine political engagement. Will these people be discussing ideas they have for the Canada they want, or is it just to protest prorogation, end of story? And barring this, will those Town Halls be simply visited by Liberal partisans, alongside a few Conservative and NDP supporters in to protest/give a hard time/agitate, let alone more Greenpeace flash protests? Because that is also what political engagement has become for some people, which puts off many others.

If he can pull it off, power to him, but it’s going to be a tough slog. Nevertheless, it’s something that politics in this country needs.

Meanwhile, Jack Layton’s new bright idea is to bring in a new law that would require a Prime Minister to get a vote in the Commons before invoking prorogation. Not that apparently, it’s constitutional. During his scrum this morning, Kady O’Malley reported that the answer he got from constitutional lawyers was in the negative, but Layton wants us to know that the constitution extends beyond the document itself into other legislation that he can get the support of other parties on. Except that it doesn’t really make sense, other than of course a rather cynical attempt to cash in on the anti-prorogation sentiment in the country right now. It doesn’t make any sense in the Parliamentary tradition, and I can’t see how this would make the situation any better, given that it would be useless in a majority Parliament. Really, I would almost think we’d be better off adopting a UK-style system of prorogation, where they have to get the Queen down (or the GG in this case) to read a speech about what was accomplished in the previous session as a means of justifying prorogation, and then the new session opens something like ten days later with a new Throne Speech. That would probably have just as much effect, since it would require public justification – and an accounting of what was accomplished. But I don’t see that happening either. Oh, and good luck trying to get such a prorogation limiting law passed as a Private Members’ Bill. Unless of course he simply plans to introduce it for symbolic effect, with no hope of it ever coming to pass.

Elsewhere, The Canadian Press takes a look at Stockwell Day’s record as Finance Minister in Alberta – given that he’s the new Treasury Board president who’s supposed to help keep tight control of the purse “or murse strings” as Day has been quoted as saying in order to be gender-balanced – and lo and behold, he doesn’t have a record as being a cost-cutter. Quite the opposite, in fact. Imagine that.

And finally, I had this exchange with Scott Brison as he came out of the winter caucus meeting.

Q: The logo for the Canada 150 Conference is pretty gay.
A: I hadn’t noticed [smiles].

Q: Does this mean we’re taking over?
A: I’d say we’re a diverse party with an eye on the future, and a future that includes all Canadians. But as the party of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, that has helped ensure equality for the GLBT community, I think it’s perfectly appropriate. The Liberal party is a bit of a rainbow itself. As such, it has its own “Rainbow coalition,” and all Canadians can depend on us to defend their rights.
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