Monday, March 9, 2009

In Search of Big Ideas

I generally begin my day with a perusal of headlines on National Newswatch. Today, like most days, every Canadian political story seemed to be about party strategy.

Can the Liberals regain the Catholic vote, and maybe pick up the evangelicals as well?
Has Harper lost touch with his right-wing base?
Could Conservative attack ads against Layton turn him into a martyr and drive left-leaning Liberals to the NDP in sympathy?
Can Iggy wash off the stink of Dion and revive the party's fortunes though aggressive fundraising and membership drives?

And the big idea from the Ontario NDP's newly minted leader? Topple the Grits.

Much of the blame can be laid at the feet of the media, which has always been far more interested in handicapping horse races than any serious discussion of issues. But one can hardly blame them when the parties themselves are becoming increasingly obsessed with election strategy, internal politics, and pandering to strategic demographics, regions and special interest groups - and far less interested in coming up with any bold new policies that might potentially scare voters.

In this way, the marketing campaign takes precedence over the product being sold, and every new policy or pronouncement is judged, not on how it will benefit the country, but by how it will 'play' in Alberta. Or in Quebec. Or among middle-class professional women ages 24-40.

Here's a thought: instead of telling us how you plan to win the next election, tell us how you plan to make this country a better place to live for everyone.

We are at a critical moment in our history. The world economy is not only in crisis, but may in fact be going through a fundamental transformation. The planet is on the brink of an irreversible climate shift. Our cheap, accessible supplies of fossil fuels are about to run dry. Twentieth century models of warfare, trade, international relations and national identity are crumbling around us.

These are big problems, and we need big ideas to solve them. And yet, the biggest ideas we hear coming from our political elite are how they are going to break through in Quebec or Alberta, or how they are going to save us all eleven dollars and sixty cents in tax, or how they are going to completely revamp the way party members choose their leadership.

One symptom of this is the number of people who have asked me why on earth I want to spend all that money to go to the Liberal Party Convention when the leadership (i.e. the important stuff) has already been decided. When I mention things like Party policy workshops, they invariably make pshaw noises, as if the party's plan for the country wasn't nearly as important as which leader looks better on TV.

And they wonder why nobody votes.

Stephane Dion, God help him, had a big idea with his Green Shift. Some disagreed with it, many more simply didn't understand it, and nobody in the party besides Dion seemed willing to back it up or even explain it properly. Instead, it was thrown out there almost apologetically, in naked, shivering isolation instead of as part of a broader, comprehensive platform.

The results were entirely predictable - and, I suspect, intentional. Because big ideas are risky. They require knowledgeable and committed people to put differences aside to make them work. They require commitment to a long term vision of the country that may be at odds with the power brokers and the petty regional fiefdoms.

No, far easier to stick with the small ideas. The ones that appeal to people's baser instincts of greed and self-interest. The ones they can disown if they suddenly become unpopular or unfashionable.

If this small-minded, piecemeal approach continues, we will never have progressive tax reform in this country because it might piss off the wealthy. We will never have national child care because it might piss off the childless. We will never have a national energy policy because it might piss off Alberta. And so we plod along, rearranging deck chairs on the rapidly sinking ship of traditional capitalism and our North American lifestyle, congratulating ourselves whenever someone from our team gets to sit in the captain's chair.

Forgive me if I'm more interested in what's going on in the engine room.


  1. Maybe Canadians are just too complacent to take the time to appreciate big ideas like the Green Shift. We have always been blessed with clean air, clean water and abundant natural resources. Nothing lasts forever, and when the next big idea comes along, we may be eager for positive change. In the meantime, we seem to be content to just rearrange the deck chairs, and view politics as a sport.

  2. " tell us how you plan to make this country a better place to live for everyone." Right on, Jennifer! Here is our contribution, join us.