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You Can So Teach an Old (Liberal) Dog New Tricks

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If there's one thing that all Liberals can agree on it is that we need more support from more people, not less. So why is it that some in the Liberal Party of Canada are using the disturbing and polarizing language of ageism?

In numerous published articles and interviews, it has become open season on the "old guard." Older people seem to be framed as out of touch and constitutionally unable to cope with change. This troubling language is an unfortunate shift in tone for the party that Michael Ignatieff last year appropriately called "The Big Red Tent."

Of course, fresh thinking and new energy is indeed vital to any organization. However, "fresh" doesn't necessarily mean young. The attitudes that are vital to driving positive change are hardly the restricted purview of the young, just as being "old" doesn't necessarily mean being wise.

"New" and "fresh" has nothing to do with age and everything to do with mindset, values, and sincerity of purpose.

It is absolutely true that political parties must find new ways to engage young people in the democratic process. But if anyone thinks that gimmicks, fads or celebrity status is enough to restore trust in our political process, they are kidding themselves. Like the rest of us, young people want intelligent, hopeful, honest and responsible government. They want to have trust in our institutions and respect for our political leadership.

Some, like Michael Ignatieff, have said: "The old guard will have to hand over the keys to the next generation." That regrettable statement came from someone who was first elected at age 59, and was forced to retire at 64, after leading the Liberal Party to one of the worst defeats in its history. Had Liberals won and Ignatieff become prime minister, he would have been almost 70 years old when seeking a second mandate. Would he have proposed "handing the keys" then? "The Liberal Party belongs to the young," screamed the title of hisGlobe and Mail commentary. No it doesn't. The Liberal Party belongs to Liberals. All Liberals.

There are enough wedges in life and politics. Why do some Liberals seem intent on manufacturing another one? How young is young, anyway? Is there a "best before" date that I should be aware of? I'm 50 years old. Does that make me old guard, middle-aged guard, new guard or no guard? I really don't know. But what I do know is that this polarizing rhetoric is unhealthy and is artificial. It feels like a settling of accounts, not a sincere attempt at articulating a new party doctrine.

Liberals -- by temperament and belief -- do not discriminate. This is an inclusive party. Yet the message that some Liberals are sending to a large number of people is far from an inclusive and tolerant one. It is also a terribly misguided.

Age and experience makes you smarter. It gives you insight, wisdom and self-awareness. All of that is a precious commodity in a political leader and can only be earned the old fashioned way: by growing up and living a full life

In his new book Lettres à un Jeune Politician, former Parti Quebecois Premier and Bloc Quebecois founder, Lucien Bouchard, renounces the sovereignist project. His experience in the private sector since leaving politics has shown him how futile and counterproductive the separation debate has been for Quebec. Instead, Bouchard now says that Quebec will only achieve its true potential through economic development and that the relationship with Canada isn't so bad, after all. It took some time in the real world for Bouchard to truly appreciate how it works.

Glen Clark (first elected when he was 29), who led a disastrous NDP government as Premier of British Columbia, has spent the past decade in an enviable apprenticeship at the feet of Jim Pattison (83), one of the greatest entrepreneurs in Canada's history. Jimmy is alive and kicking and leading the Jim Pattison Group, a gigantic enterprise that employs 30,000 people around the world. He built his company with his bare hands from scratch. Today, my bet is that Clark (now 55) would be the first to confess: "If I only knew then what I know now..."

Some within Liberal ranks have disparaged Bob Rae (64) as being "too old" and that as "interim leader" he didn't do anything of consequence. Well, that's nonsense, of course. But give me the wisdom and judgment of a guy who has been around the block a few times, has the scars to show for it, and has the guts, fortitude and character to get right back on the horse after a setback. I'll take a seasoned guy like that any day of the week.

Rae ran the second most important government in Canada (at age 42), served as a legal counsel and board member to significant corporations and headed public inquiries and international observer missions. He's an author and a Rhodes scholar. Today Rae has the energy and vitality of a man half his age and twice the fire in his belly for the country he loves. That never goes away. Bob Rae has learned a lot from his mistakes and his successes. And he is the first to acknowledge that he is a better person today because of it. That is why he would have made an exceptional candidate for the permanent leadership. It is also why the Liberal Party was so crazy to run him out of town.

How about Marc Garneau? He's a guy who studied in Europe, is a rocket scientist -- literally -- pilot, navy commander and Canada's first astronaut. Garneau has led a large organization as CEO of the Canadian Space Agency, and his desire to serve has brought him to seek and win election to the House of Commons. He won and has been an extremely competent and informed Member of the House of Commons. Garneau is also flawlessly bilingual and knows his files backwards. Despite being in better physical shape than most 25 year olds, at 62, he's considered "too old" and "boring" by the new ageism of some Liberals. How can a guy that's been to outer space a few times be possibly called boring?

They claim that people of a certain age simply do not have the capacity to adapt and change. Yet the overwhelming evidence shows that the exact opposite is true. Rae and Garneau, for example, have spent their entire lives adapting to changing circumstances and realities. Time and again they have transformed themselves, taken courageous risks, and led change. They aren't alone. Age and experience -- good and bad -- hone our judgment and capacity for innovation and revitalization.

First elected at age 24, Jean Charest has spent his entire adult life in politics. Were he to be a candidate for the Liberal leadership, as some delusional Liberals fantasize, I would tell him to come back in 10 years, when he's 64, and ready. He would be stronger, wiser and better than ever.

But not to the new ageists. He'd be too old.

Speak to "old geezers" like Brian Tobin (57), John Manley (62) and Frank McKenna (64) -- all of who spent their formative adult years in elected office. Ask them whether they would have been better political leaders today with the knowledge they have accumulated in the private sector since leaving government service. In their current roles these men are at the very epicenter of the global economy where competitive pressures require them to be constant innovators. They know that if they aren't, real jobs and billions in wealth are at stake. Tobin, Manley and McKenna -- poster boys for the geriatric set to the new Liberal ageist paradigm -- manage more complexity and change in an hour than ageists will see in a lifetime.

Dubbed "Yesterday's Man" before he became prime minister at 59 years old, Jean Chretien's wealth of knowledge and experience, both within and outside government, helped him become an outstanding steward of Canada's national government. Oh, and he also won three consecutive majorities.

The new Holy Grail to some Liberals is how candidates "connect" with young people. Never mind with "connecting" with the other 80 percent of us. The number of Twitter followers and the decibel levels of swooning hordes are their gauge for whether someone has the depth and capacity to lead a party and a country.

That's how distorted this celebrity obsessed culture has become.

This is an insult to the intelligence of young people. It is also a profound disservice to them. We all crave intelligence, substance, and honesty from our political leaders. We want those that seek public office to have reflected seriously on why they want the responsibility that comes with it. We want political leaders with a depth of knowledge, insight and judgment that can only be acquired through experience. As sure as night follows day, the student becomes the teacher. And over time, that is ultimately how successful organizations strengthen and rejuvenate.

Stephen Harper's Conservatives will inevitably run out of steam. All governments do. Some Liberals may have calculated in that inevitability and concluded that the "fresh face" of a celebrity is all that's need to return to power. Perhaps that's true. So, if it is, then what?

Look no further than British Columbia for the answer. "Bubbly" and "fresh" Christy Clark (first elected at 31, but a paid political operative and staffer for most of her professional life) is a career politico who was briefly a talk show celebrity, and that's about it. Does the effervescent "Christy!" have the capacity to lead a government with an annual budget of $40.6 billion? There's eight months before a general election, but the smart money says that the answer to that question is a resounding "no".

As I reflect on the expedient, cynical and superficial choice BC Liberals made, I hear the voice in my head of that great philosopher, Sarah Palin: "How's that hopey-changey stuff working out for ya?"

Young people want to find their place, find their voice, be heard, and be taken seriously in our political process. There is a place for them. It is an important place. Their input, ideas, and participation are absolutely essential. Our system cannot function without them. In fact, it can't function without thoughtful, sincere, committed people of all ages.

Age is not the critical issue. Intelligence, character and content are. And the traits that often come with a few wrinkles and grey hair - knowledge, judgment, wisdom, and humility - is too. All the "young" and "old" want are leaders who can listen, are smart, honest, have good judgment, and have not lost their idealism.

We must reject the language of this new ageism. It is destructive and offensive and should have no place in the Liberal Party of Canada. Because the only people that a big tent party like ours should exclude are those who don't believe in what it represents.