It’s more than six months into his reign as Liberal leader, but Michael Ignatieff is still short on details when it comes to policy prescriptions.
There has been a shroud of mystery surrounding the Liberal platform since Ignatieff became interim leader in December and his leadership was affirmed in May. Nevertheless, red flags have been raised in some quarters.
“We’ve been disappointed with the positions they’ve been taking,” says David Eby, executive director of the BC Civil Liberties Association. Eby cites Liberal support for Bill C-15 — mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offences — as an example.
“It’s not a traditional position, as we understand it, for their party to approach crime from a law-and-order/prisons perspective. We think it’s the wrong approach to deal with drug addiction, which we view as a health issue.”
When the Liberals voted to pass C-15 in the Commons, many MPs grumbled privately that they weren’t happy with doing so but were following orders from above.
Eby is also concerned that this might signal a move away from the decriminalization of marijuana that began under Chrétien.
“To see the Liberals voting for mandatory minimum sentences instead of continuing that policy approach that had been set up by Chrétien is disappointing,” Eby says.
But Eby’s got questions. Where were the Liberals on Omar Khadr? Where were they in fighting for the return of Abousfian Abdelrazik? Where were they in making sure that the recommendations of the O’Connor and Iacobucci Inquiries were followed?
Liberal MP Navdeep Bains, who chairs the party’s platform committee, says the party isn’t focussing simply on prisons as the solution to crime.
“In terms of the platform aspect, we will make sure that we focus on stronger, safer communities, and we also focus on the causes of crime,” Bains says. “Specifically, ensuring that we have environments where people can reach their potential, who can deal with some of these inequities that exist in society, [which] have contributed [to] some of these problems. We don’t want to shy away from that position.”
Helen Kennedy, executive director of Egale Canada, has noted the recent silence from the Liberal party.
“I haven’t seen anything on the recent announcement on the visa requirements, and we know that we have a number of [queer] refugee claimants from Mexico who will now be further disadvantaged when they’re trying to flee that country,” Kennedy says.
Kennedy mentions that the party has not taken a position on Bill Siksay’s private member’s bill on trans rights, though in an interview earlier this year, Ignatieff indicated his awareness of the bill.
“I’ve not looked in detail at that Private Members’ Bill,” Ignatieff said at the time. “We’ve not taken a public position, but I don’t want to stand against any measure that enhances the rights of the trans community.”
What Kennedy does praise is the party’s commitment to renewing the Court Challenges Program, should they return to office.
She would also like to see the Liberals take a strong stand when it comes to the human rights agenda of Canada abroad.
“We have tremendous potential through CIDA — with respect to training for our embassy staff abroad, with respect to international human rights and taking a clear stand on some of the violence and the human rights violations for communities abroad.”
Answers to policy specifics are difficult to come by at the moment. With the party directing their attention to the summer “working group” on Employment Insurance — the line they drew in the sand and a likely election trigger come September — a lot of other policy issues have been sidelined.
Add to this the fact that some Liberal MPs appear to be shrinking from the media this summer. The Liberal communications apparatus is directing journalists to address policy questions to Liberal MPs in their shadow cabinet — but many of those MPs are travelling or on vacation over the summer and not doing media interviews.
“We’re being very strategic in the sense that there are certain issues we’ve come out on — for example on early learning/childcare, and high speed rail,” MP Bains says. “The other issues — we will see when we want to communicate those. It could be just before a campaign, during a campaign… it’s more of a strategic decision. Right now, it’s still a work in progress and we’re still consulting the party, stakeholders and Canadians, and the ideas that we do have, that we feel comfortable with right now, we’ve decided to hold off and communicate those at a later date.”
Another Liberal source says the party is having trouble costing their platform promises. Anxious to sound fiscally responsible, the Liberals are waiting to see how the budget updates develop over the summer and the fall to gauge what campaign promises are economically viable.
“Ultimately, people realize that things have changed and are changing in terms of the economic circumstances, and that some of the costing of some of these initiatives would need to be scaled appropriately in light of some of the economic challenges that we’re facing in the country,” Bains says. “How would we be able to manage and put forward a prudent and responsible program in light of these unprecedented deficits?”
As to the direction of the party, there have been some hints coming out of the Liberal convention that took place in May, with resolutions covering items like affordable housing (which could signal support for Libby Davies’ Bill C-304), reversing the ban on MSM organ donation (though conspicuously not the blood ban), reforming the Human Rights Commission to extend its reach to socio-economic class, and to establish sub-committees for the rights of children and for gender equity and equality.
But according to the Liberal Party constitution, Ignatieff has a veto on any policy resolutions — one he already demonstrated when he nixed a resolution on implementing a carbon tax.
According to Bains, so long as the leader explains his decision fully, he is within his right to exercise that veto, which Bains feels the leader has done.
But on most policy positions, Ignatieff has been vague, despite his insistence on keeping the Liberals as the “Party of the Charter.” When asked specific policy questions — for example, retaining the program exemptions at Heritage Canada for queer publications, or the problems with the bill on the sex offender registry in light of an unequal age of consent — Ignatieff demurs.
“There are a lot of things that they could be taking a clearer stand on,” Kennedy says.
But for the summer, at least, it looks like the Liberals will keep playing their cards close to their chests.