Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Canada's Kennedy

After reading a great deal of hype about Liberal leadership candidate Gerard Kennedy all week, both on blogs and in the mainstream media, I woke up on Thursday morning with an overwhelming feeling that after a long, hard race, the guy was eventually going to win. No, he's not one of the frontrunners, and so many people are referring to him as "virtually unknown outside of Ontario" that I'm beginning to think it's part of his name, but the Canadian Press's Joan Byden made a good case that given the way the leader will be chosen, being the least unloved candidate is more important than being the most loved candidate. This could very well work in favour of a candidate like Kennedy, and he clearly has enough die-hard fans to keep a serious campaign running for as long as it takes.

Now, as an NDP supporter, I'm very much of two minds on the Liberal leadership race, and when it came to Kennedy, I was finding those two minds squabbling a bit. On the one hand, I wanted to see a candidate from the left flank of the party win, because I'd rather have a quality centre-left politician running the country than someone like, say, Belinda Stronach (or for that matter, Stephen Harper). On the other hand, I also wanted to see someone win who had less of a chance of steamrolling my actual party of choice. After pondering this conflict for a while, I finally decided that whether I should be secretly be cheering for the guy or hoping he's eliminated by someone better known depended on his positions on a few key issues that are near and dear to my heart. I then killed an hour trying and failing to find the information I wanted online, before finally realizing that I was probably going to have to track him down and ask him myself. I was resigned to waiting for at least a few months as the man worked his way across the country to Liberal-poor Alberta, but in a rather jaw-dropping coincidence, that very afternoon I read this post from Edmonton's daveberta, letting us know that Kennedy was going to be in town the very next day speaking to students at the University of Alberta's law school. Now, I'm neither a student nor a Liberal, but I did what any self-respecting political blogger would do under those fortuitous circumstances: I crashed the Party.

I arrived fifteen minutes before the event started, and ended up sitting behind's Jason Morris, who was liveblogging the event from his seat. (I'm telling you, we political bloggers are everywhere!) Kennedy's plane was late, so he didn't arrive until about a half hour into the scheduled event time, but he was in command of the room from the first moment. He looked very much at ease sitting on the desk at the front of the room--so much so that he could have been a professor if it hadn't been for the suit. He announced that he was definitely "running to be leader of the party" even though he hadn't officially declared yet. He then got into the generalities about his vision for Canada: first of all, to make sure the Liberal party has a vision, which he says it hasn't in a while; and second, to make Canada the world's "first international country" and to make that work with a "certain Canadian style" in which "every culture that's there should get to help decide what Canadian values are." He also talked about the need to take on extreme poverty, saying that "Liberals want people to have social and civil rights, but Liberals in the 21st century know those rights don't mean anything unless everyone has them." He said the Liberal party needs to become an open party, which it isn't, at the moment--and that one way of doing that is to make sure 50% of our parliamentarians are women and that Parliament also represents the diversity of the country. He talked about how he's always held a public open meeting every month in his own provincial constituency, and that that's helped him stay close to the people. He then concluded by saying the he wasn't "running to be the king leader," which he regards as a "very old model." He wants a more "distributed leadership."

He then entertained questions from the floor for the next hour and a half. Here are what I could catch of his articulated positions on the following (I apologize for all the things I missed--I'm no expert at shorthand!):

Québec question:

His basic position seemed to be that "we need to accept that there are two cultures in Canada and the smaller culture needs some help to survive." He then clarified that, though, by insisting that the francophone culture is spread throughout Canada, not limited only to Québec. He sees it as a difference between looking at the francophone culture as a distinct society within the borders of Québec and as a distinct society of all French speakers. This is no big surprise given that his wife is Acadian, but still good to hear. When asked about whether he would include the Chinese as another major culture in Canada, he stuck with the old model, saying that "the official idea should still be built around two cultures with a huge tolerance for other cultures," although "down the road we should be promoting the notion that all Canadians should speak three languages."

Health care:

He seemed to be very much an ideologue on this issue, which pleased me, because it's one of the few issues I myself am ideological about. He opened this issue by blasting Alberta premier Ralph Klein's proposed "Third Way" reforms, saying that "the Third Way is no way," and that it's "a lazy way of going about things"--if you don't have enough doctors and you allow them to practice in a private system, that will further impoverish the public system. On the more general topic of private care, he was an unrepentant advocate of steering away from reforms in that direction: "you don't want people not delivering care because they need to make a little more money." He also said that the Canadian Institute of Health should be publishing stats about what's not working--a sort of "report card"--and that the provinces should be better at sharing information among themselves.

Senate reform:

In response to this question from a young guy in a tie (almost certainly another crasher from the opposite end of the spectrum), he started off by saying that he "can't say he gets very worked up about the Senate" and that he's "not a big fan of changing institutions." He says he hasn't shut the door on it, but it's not a priority for him.

Electoral reform:

I was extremely disappointed by his response on this issue. I didn't really expect him to favour it--most Liberals outside of Alberta don't--but he doesn't even seem to know what it is. When asked whether he'd be interested in seeing a citizens' assembly a la Ontario on the federal level, he said he'd be happy to see that happen, and I was pleased to hear him acknowledge that citizens need to be involved because "the present system serves the people elected by it." But then he started going on about how politicians "need to be willing to give up their jobs," which isn't at all what electoral reform is about. To make matters worse, he referred to proportional representation throughout as "representation by population," which is something entirely different (and which Canada already has). And when he gave his personal opinion, he said that "representation by population" wasn't "going to do it" (to which I really wanted to ask: do what? because all we're asking for is an opportunity to make everybody's vote count, and it would definitely do that!), and that "big ridings aren't the answer." He then concluded by saying that for him, the citizens' assembly is about "getting people debating again," not so much about building a better mousetrap. All I can say is that it's a good thing his fellow Ontarians have different ideas.

Liberals in Alberta:

Another audience member asked what he would do to make people who vote for Liberals in Alberta feel connected to the party. (I almost yelled out "proportional representation!" at that point, but I held my tongue.) He said that having lived in Edmonton, he saw no reason why Alberta couldn't elect more Liberals--that there were some things to overcome with respect to the National Energy Program, but knowing Albertans, he knew they could go Liberal. I don't know--I would have found that answer very unsatisfying if I were a Liberal, given that they've been trying and failing to make inroads in this province for decades. But I suppose it's not my battle.

International trade:

His ideas about this seemed very general, but it seems to be something he feels strongly about. He insists that this should be something that a truly international Canada "should be very good at." He also thinks we shoudl be finding a way to diversify in trade, not necessarily in terms of getting away from the U.S., but about reaching out to other countries and other markets.

Afghanistan and the military:

He thinks there's a lack of clarity on the current mission in Afghanistan, and as a result there needs to be a debate: "Are we going to be peacemakers there or just peacekeepers? Are we going to be there for a long time?" He also seemed to be cautious about joining forces with the U.S.: "We're good friends with the U.S., we can take things on with them, but we need to make sure we only do that when it fits our values." He believes that it's important to support the military that we have, though, regardless of whether we stay in Afghanistan or not.

Stem cell research:

The question from the floor was about Canada having one of the most restrictive policies about stem cell research and whether he would "bring us in line with other countries." He impressed me on this one by saying that he didn't know enough about this to answer, but that it was his impression from what he did know that we were actually well ahead of the U.S. on this. He said that "he'd need to know more" in order to address it properly, and then added that "biotech is one of the areas we can grow in."

Business and the environment:

My notetaking hand was getting tired by this point, but I did catch him saying that while this kind of thinking is "heresy for Liberals," he thinks that "individual businesses that take on some social responsibility are a good thing." He later added that "social responsibility is something to talk to the businessperson about, not the business." And in terms of Kyoto, he thinks it may be possible to meet our targets by looking at certain environmental technologies like carbon sequestering and peat moss. He also added that the numbers aren't as bad as the Conservatives claim they are, but that they're not as good as they should be.

So what did I learn? I suppose the big thing I learned is that I'm really not a Liberal. Yes, I realize that this isn't actually news, but it was really driven home for me this afternoon. As I said, I went to hear Kennedy speak in the hopes of finding out for myself whether I should be secretly rooting for him or hoping he got knocked off by someone better known, but I came out feeling like doing neither one. What I found was a perfectly fine man with mostly decent ideas about what should be done with the country, and he was being both sincere and informal, which is a combination I eat up. But the sum total of my reaction, both positive and negative, was a shrug. And this is really not what he wants to hear from people like me--idealistic pragmatists are the core constituency of the Gerard Kennedies of this world.

Would I be happy to see him as the Prime Minister of Canada? Sure. Do I think he's the best choice of the lot? Probably, yeah. Do I think he'd win over the "soft" NDP voters who fled the Liberals in this past election? Almost certainly a few. Do I think he can win over enough of us to give the Liberals a majority government without also cutting substantially into the existing Conservative support? Absolutely not.

[Update: For a more, um, Liberal perspective, try's rundown of the same event. Poor Kennedy, ended up speaking to not just one but two political bloggers. You can't take us anywhere.]


Dr.Dawg said...

Damn. When I read your headline, I thought you were writing about Ignatieff. :)

kurichina said...

The lack of coherence on Afghanistan concerns me, as does the lack of knowledge or proportional representation. I originally thought I'd like at least one of the leadership contenders.... looking more and more like I won't. Oh well, makes things easier I guess. :)

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Yeah, those things concern me, too, as do a couple of others. I just hope he's the sort of guy who's willing to listen to people who know more than he does about the areas he hasn't focused much on.

He really does look like the best of the lot, though. I mean, I'm sure I'd get along just fine with Ignatieff, but I don't think I want him running the country.

Tim said...

I'm with you on Kennedy, IP, and like you, I am not a Liberal supporter. Still, he strikes me as a cut above "the best of a bad bunch", and it seems to me he is open-minded enough to grow as a politicians. Still, I wonder if some time as an ordinary MP wouldn't give him a broader perspective on certain issues. a leap from Ontario cabinet minister to potential PM strikes me as a bit quantum.