What doesn't change
The morning papers are filled with commentary about the Liberals' "thinkers' conference" last weekend -- all from people who didn't attend the event. The most harsh criticism comes from The Globe and Mail's Margaret Wente, who argues that Michael Ignatieff is "cooked" because his party is trying to dream up new social programs and grand, expensive new national projects. This is more or less the line from some National Post commentators too.
On Saturday, several of us (those actually in the room) were listening quite closely when Ignatieff made these remarks.
“I think the really interesting thing that’s coming out of the conference for me -- and I’m still still trying to formulate it -- is a different vision of government, that is not command and control,” Ignatieff said in an online interview on Saturday afternoon. “We can’t do it from Ottawa. And an activist government doesn’t mean another big, high-ticket federal program. What it means is getting a network of deciders together to face common problems.”
I'm intrigued about the way a handful of columnists can write that Liberals want a big high-ticket federal program, or a carbon tax, or whatever, in the face of the opposite statement coming from the actual conference. There may be several ways in which this is interesting, and maybe even a bit disturbing.
- One of my colleagues argued that no one was ever going to understand what Ignatieff was saying about "networked" government and his hopes for a federal government that would "convene" rather than command from the centre. I fear today's papers may prove her correct.
- It's great that technology allows for columnists to report on events that they haven't attended -- I'm assuming all of these commenters followed proceedings on the web or TV. But it's obviously not a substitute for actually being in the room and listening to the nuance of the discussions and the general tone. There's a problem here, not new to journalism as I've seen it over the past 20 years. One way of reporting on this meeting was to actually attend, listen, take notes, ask questions of the attendees -- and then write up what happened. Another way is to sit outside and take shots at the event with simplistic pronouncements. We learned back in the constitutional days that the latter kind of reporting/commentary usually prevails. What a dunce I am, actually going to the trouble of travelling to Montreal and sitting through three days of discussions. I should have stayed home and written about it from afar.
- One Liberal said to me last weekend that the people criticizing the predominance of "old white guys" at the meeting were old white guys themselves. Similarly, all this stuff about Liberals as tax and spenders comes generally from people who came of age in the 1970s, when the Liberals were fond of taxing and spending. The problem is that we haven't seen that kind of Liberalism in more than three decades and that the more recent record -- 1993 to 2005 -- actually flies in the face of that portrayal. No one who achieved voting age after 1990 -- people who are nearly 40 now, thereabouts -- would have a clue what these folks are talking about, except as ancient history. At least two of the former prime ministers who attended the conference are more famous for balancing books than they are for spending, for instance.
All this fear and loathing of Liberals past is sort of like the fretting that a certain (senior) segment of the population did when the Germanys reunited -- oh no, they're going to start another world war. The world has moved on. It is possible that political ideas, including those for activist government, have shifted a bit since the 1970s. But that's probably too subtle or difficult to write about in this day and age. Much easier to sweepingly dismiss the whole three days of discussion as a flashback to the past.