The Federation of Canadian Municipalities met in Halifax a short while ago and some of the federal political party leaders addressed the gathering. Bob Rae was at his candid and disarming best. He began by observing: “For some time I have wanted to be the Liberal leader in the worst way. Be careful what you wish for.” His wry smile induced all kinds of laughter.
Rae phoned me a few days ago to talk about the parliamentary debate on the Libyan intervention. He was on his game – to the point, eloquent, searching for solutions, and heartily friendly. I put down the phone and realized that he knows his role. We worked well together in the Foreign Affairs Committee of Parliament for over two years and I can tell when he finds purpose in what he says.
He has other reasons to be upbeat. The “Extraordinary Convention” held this past weekend by the Liberal faithful witnessed over 2,000 members spending three hours on the phone, deciding their future and coalescing around their shared belief in liberal principles. Sure, they’ve fallen a long way and the climb back up will be arduous, but those doomsayers who believe the party is in its death throes weren’t involved in the convention, nor have they been in the ridings.
The riding to which I belong – the London North Centre Liberal Riding Association – pulled itself together following the election loss and opted for an entirely new direction. Sure, politics is still important, but they are filling up their days cleaning parks, picking strawberries for local social agencies, and volunteering at the food bank. In other words, they’re moving down into the community to levels that Liberals have hardly mined in years. And it’s altering their outlook. The distance from power, with four years to build, has provided them with the opportunity to think outside of the box. They’ll need to go farther to get a good grasp of the community, but they’ve made a good beginning. They want to find ways to support small business, to promote environmental reform in numerous venues, and to participate in citizen action committees that the City of London has established.
This is the new liberalism and we’d better get used to it if we are to discover relevancy again. I’m convinced that what Liberals are looking for is a potent mix between leadership and citizen engagement, but it won’t come through the old channels of political power or alignment – at least I don’t believe so.
Citizen’s organizations create a unique kind of political environment by creating “spaces” within a community – places for dialogue and action. Formal politics is highly organized, with organizations sitting on top of organizations (I know this sounds repetitive, but it’s just the way it is). Everything moves up in a hierarchy – relentlessly. And the more it does so the farther it moves away from average citizens. All these levels come complete with their own mandates, sets of procedures, and accountability. The entire structure funnels to the top. Citizens interested in politics feed the machine but don’t actually manage it.
Citizen politics appears disorganized in comparison but it actually isn’t. It’s just closer to the ground and doesn’t require all that high fallutin’ machinery. This is the star Liberals must now follow.
And there’s lots to work with. On May 2nd, the day of the election, the Liberal Party had 51,000 members; three weeks later is was over 57,000. Following the 2008 election membership in the party remained stagnant, but now, after its worst defeat, the party is growing somewhat dramatically. This is no guarantee of success, nor does it mean it will get the rebuilding phase right, but it does imply there is something to build upon.
Maybe Bob Rae has it wrong. I know what he meant, but being a Liberal right now is hardly the “worst way.” We have been so removed from power and its nearness now that we are free to innovate, to imagine, to plan, to capture, but above all to grow the courage to achieve. Let the others gather around the campfires of Ottawa. Let’s stake our ground in the very communities that give this country so much potential. It will be hard; it will be humbling; and it could well be painful. But in the end it will be worth it.