At this morning's briefing about the Liberals' Canada 150 conference planned for this weekend, an official *** stressed that it often takes time to figure out significant events in a party's history. Case in point -- the 1991 Aylmer conference, which in retrospect was seen as pivotal to the Liberals' preparation to govern. The official mentioned how Aylmer was written up in the Toronto Star in the immediate aftermath. Here's the story... I looked it up when I got back to our office here. (That *** denotes a correction I made to an earlier version of this post, when I accidentally strayed off the rules of engagement re: sourcing this briefing. Apologies. I filed in haste.)
Toronto Star Day: Monday
AYLMER, QueLiberal well runs dry at policy conference
By William Walker TORONTO STAR
AYLMER, Que. - The Liberal plan was to bring together thinkers and policy experts for a non-partisan conference to gather up all the brightest and best ideas for the 1990s.
But many delegates left the Liberals' weekend Aylmer conference concerned that no great new ideas had emerged.
"The question I have is how are we going to start answering the disillusionment out there? We have to start addressing that and I'm concerned we're not doing it here," delegate Tim Murphy told the conference in a comment from the floor yesterday.
"I think it was more of a solid learning process," said Peter Donolo, an aide to Liberal Leader Jean Chretien.
"I think the idea was to get some thinking going and any ideas would be a bonus," said delegate Allan Golombek, a Toronto consultant.
"Is it concrete ideas you're looking for or ideas whose time has come?" asked delegate Nancy Hawley, a Toronto poverty activist. "There are not a lot of new ideas, I mean, we've heard them before, but they're ideas whose time has come."
Even Chretien, when asked three times by reporters to name one specific bright new idea he'd heard, could only speak of "a new world" and say "we have to move in a new direction."
Some major challenges were identified. First among them was how Canada could remain competitive in an economic war being waged on the global stage without losing its national identity of offering citizens protection through strong social policies such as medicare.
There was also talk about public cynicism in the political process, how national institutions might be reformed and how Canada needs to better educate its youth and train its work force.
Murphy, a party activist and Toronto lawyer, said most of the conference's three solid days of policy discussions focused on problems these issues posed for Canada, rather than potential solutions.
"At this stage, we're still talking about the politics of despair and not the politics of hope," he said of the discussions, which at times lapsed into partisan complaints about where Prime Minister Brian Mulroney has led the country in his seven years in office.
Strategist Hershell Ezrin, once principal secretary to then-premier David Peterson in Ontario, had a telling answer when asked by a delegate how Liberals should communicate their good intentions.
"If we knew what we wanted to do, it would be a lot easier to communicate it to everybody else," Ezrin said.
As Murphy prepared for his five-hour drive home last night, he had only two new policy ideas on his mind: The concept of a better education for our high school students to make Canada's work force more competitive. A national lunchbox program in schools to help make it easier to learn for children who come to class hungry.
Golombek said he came away impressed with the idea of spending more money on research and development, although he admitted that concept is hardly new.
He also liked American economist Lester Thurow's suggestion that Canada get an economic game plan, although exactly what that should be was not explained.
Hawley said she was impressed that Liberals at the conference seemed to understand that economic policy and social policy are not competitors or right-left issues, but must go together.
Many delegates agreed the conference was not as non-partisan as it was billed. Virtually every delegate was a Liberal, including former candidates, former MPs, party workers and youth members.
Among the names: former cabinet minister Marc Lalonde; Saskatchewan Liberal Leader Linda Haverstock; Liberal Senator Allan MacEachen; and Eddie Goldenberg, Chretien's top aide; along with other Liberal MPs, their assistants and backroom organizers.
Murphy said it would have been be extremely difficult to keep the political people away from such a conference, and said he hopes only that the process will begin to "chip the rust off" the party's policy formation process.
Sheila Gervais, the Liberal party's executive director, said the party will take the weekend's transcripts and see what can be salvaged.
The plan is to take the best ideas from the weekend and put them before a party policy convention in February, where Liberals can vote on whether to adopt them.
The test will be to see exactly which February policy resolutions bear the stamp: Made in Aylmer.