Former Paul Martin cabinet minister Jean Lapierre called the Liberal leadership interviews in Winnipeg on Saturday an "Épreuve de patience." Roughly translated: An ordeal and a test of patience.
Some observers may find that characterization rather charitable.
Like the U.S. primary debates, it would have been far better, albeit more risky, if a professional journalist asked hard and specific questions tailored to each candidates relative strengths and weaknesses. The benefits would have far outweighed the risks. Marginal candidates would be exposed for all to see. And more importantly, Canadians would have been engaged and learned something useful about the Liberal Party. Candidates would also have been tested under pressure.
Repetitive softball questions do nothing to advance the public policy discourse Liberals say we need. Nor are they a meaningful gauge for the agility, knowledge and authenticity of candidates.
This was a very unfortunate missed opportunity.
Once again, very little, if anything was said on the most pressing issues facing the country. Canada's economic future, fiscal federalism and all that entails, health care, education, the plight of First Nations, and the rapidly changing world beyond our borders were AWOL. Instead, at least these Liberals appear to believe that weed, cheaper milk and eggs, rural farming, and a pipeline that will never see the light of day, are important enough to virtually monopolize two hours.
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Hat tip to <a href="http://www.punditsguide.ca/2013/01/trudeau-q4-fundraising-juggernaut-signals-beginning-of-the-end-of-the-liberal-leadership-race/">Pundits' Guide for crunching the numbers</a>.
The other repetitive and vexing question was on the matter of whether candidates preferred exporting natural resources raw or processed. That's like asking if you'd like ice cream on top of your slice of warm apple pie. Who wouldn't prefer that we process and refine our resources in Canada? No candidate bothered to take a stab at the complex historic, economic and regulatory root causes of our commodity-based mindset. The easy default position on this -- as in many other issues for some of these Liberals -- is to appeal to the partisan applause line by slamming Stephen Harper. This is substantively wrong and politically stupid.
It's all strangely reminiscent of the alternate reality of the Liberal "Green Shift" or "Family Pack" platform announcements. They sounded and felt good to a room full of arch-partisan Liberals, but were largely irrelevant to most Canadian voters.
A jaw-dropping moment for me came when Martha Hall-Findlay asserted that prior to the 2011 general election, Liberal MPs voted for the Harper Conservatives' law-and-order legislation that they were viscerally opposed to. Evidently, Hall-Findlay was one of those voting in favour of legislation that she believed was wrong on the evidence, wrong headed, and contrary to the interests of Canadians. So why did she do it? "We know they're wrong ... but well, we don't want to look like we're soft on crime, we don't want Stephen Harper to make us look like we're soft on crime."
Hall-Findlay suggests that she and some of her former colleagues voted on critical pieces of legislation that they opposed in private, yet voted for.
I cannot think of a more damning indictment of what's wrong with the political culture in Ottawa and the herd mentality of at least some Members of the House of Commons.
Above all, we elect Parliamentarians to be lawmakers. Legislators are duty-bound to rigorously scrutinize government Bills and hold the executive branch accountable for them. Unfortunately, we cannot expect Conservative government backbenchers to do that, which is why the role of opposition MPs is so vital. There can be no more solemn and important task in a democracy than for legislators to act with intellectual integrity in their role.
This isn't the first time Hall-Findlay has charged that Liberal MPs "feared" taking positions on various policy matters because of a dread of being attacked by Stephen Harper's Conservatives. A few weeks ago, she suggested that many Liberals, including current and former MP's, "feared" a discussion on raising the GST from 5% to 7% for the same reason.
Many Liberals -- myself included -- believe that given our fragile economic reality tax increases are simply is not on the table, especially when there is so much waste and inept management of our tax dollars as it is. To Ms. Hall-Findlay, that position means that I'm "scared" to talk about raising taxes. No I'm not. I just think that its an utterly stupid idea and pointless, distracting sideshow that completely ignores the far broader and more critical imperative.
First and foremost, Liberals must focus on growing the economic pie, expanding the middle class, and making life easier for Canada's working and middle class. The numbing bean-counting mantra of "fiscal prudence" has become a catch-all and empty phrase for some that want to superficially impress us with their managerial bona-fides. Setting the direction and priorities for a complex national economy requires far more sophistication, skill, and finesse than the ability to read a balance sheet.
Ms. Hall-Findlay' appears to believe that Liberal MPs were more concerned about their own electoral prospects than serving the interests of Canadians. Liberal MPs -- past and present -- must respond to these extremely serious charges. It not only impacts the credibility of current and past Liberal MPs, but those like me who proudly stood for office to become one.
I have gotten to know a majority of current and former members of the Liberal caucus. They are an outstanding group of public servants that have never -- ever -- been fearful or "afraid" of taking tough and controversial positions on a wide variety of issues. Ms. Hall-Findlay consistently implies that Liberals don't have the "courage", as she puts it, of their convictions. This is demonstrably false. And to this former candidate, it is also a deeply offensive accusation.
Ms. Hall-Findlay never misses an opportunity to remind people of how "smart" she thinks she is. She and others also talk about the great "substance" they have, and decry "celebrities" and the "platitudes" that come from them. There's more to leadership than cheap shots disguised as high-mindedness. Canadians deserve better than this.
Meanwhile, the obvious target of those not so subtle sideswipes, Justin Trudeau, engages by demonstrating real substance, not just talking about it. Just last week, he outlined fundamental reform proposals to return power to MP's and accountability to the House of Commons. These are the kind of consequential improvements that will go a long way toward repairing the battered confidence Canadians have in parliament. They will also serve to attract outstanding people that have no "fear" to do the job that Canadians entrust them to do.
Follow Daniel D. Veniez on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@danveniez