01/12/2012 03:25 EST | Updated 03/13/2012 05:12 EDT

Time For Liberals to Take Long, Hard Look in the Mirror

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At this week's Liberal Party convention, my fellow delegates -- beyond debating and deciding on the candidates, constitutional amendments, and policy resolutions on the agenda -- need to confront the uncomfortable causes of our party's steady decline over the past decade.

We must acknowledge that we have a serious, self-inflicted credibility problem. In 2011, only one in 10 eligible voters chose the Liberal Party. Five in 10 voted for other parties and four in 10 did not vote at all. Even in relative terms, our share of votes cast has dropped by almost half since 2000.

And who can blame Canadians for casting their support elsewhere?

The attempted coalition with the NDP, supported by the Bloc, was a perfectly legitimate means of governing. But it also hugely damaged our credibility with certain voters. It was very soon after the election, so it appeared anti-democratic.

Coming as a surprise in response to a threat to public financing of parties, it looked selfish. Compounding the issue, Stéphane Dion had low personal approval ratings in the polls, so it seemed unjust that he would become Prime Minister.

The coalition is a good example of our party's tendency to overreact. Hyperbole plagues our rhetoric: we often exaggerate, in positive terms when describing our own actions and policies and in negative terms when describing those of our political opponents, which alienates us from reasonable people who might support us. We need to calm down and be honest with Canadians.

We've had five leaders in six years, only two of whom, Paul Martin and Dion, were actually elected by our members after a leadership contest. In the same period, the Conservatives have had one leader. It takes time for voters to get to know and trust the leader of a political party. Introducing a new leader every few years has made us seem unreliable and has contributed to our estrangement from the electorate. Our next leader needs to be in it for the long haul, win or lose the 2015 election.

During the same six years, the focus of our policy agenda has varied considerably. Just think back to Martin's "fix health care for a generation" and Kelowna Accord or Dion's shift to taxing carbon instead of income or the more recent family pack of policies advocated by Ignatieff.

On tax policy, our major positions have inverted since we became the opposition.

In government, we delivered significant personal and corporate income tax relief over many years while maintaining the GST at seven per cent. Now that we are in opposition, we propose hiking corporate income taxes while leaving the GST at five per cent.

At the convention, the members and leadership of the party should be focused on developing a compelling policy agenda that we can pursue regardless of the results of the next election. This agenda should be rooted in Liberal values of "individual freedom, responsibility and dignity in the framework of a just society," a phrase taken directly from the party's constitution.

What might such an agenda include?

Significant electoral and democratic reforms to empower individual MPs and weaken party discipline would be a great place to start.

A basic income guarantee for all Canadians would move us closer to equal opportunity while simplifying an overly complex system of income support programs.

A carbon tax that more accurately prices the real costs of greenhouse gas emissions into goods and services would be the most efficient way of mitigating climate change so future generations are free to enjoy our environment.

There is also room for comprehensive criminal justice and regulatory reform that enhances, rather than further restricts, the liberty of Canadians.

Looking outward, what is our vision for national defence, where spending has increased upwards of 80 per cent to $19 billion annually since the war in Afghanistan began? Is our spending on official development assistance -- nearly $5 billion last year -- effective?

The good news is that the delegates at the convention can turn the Liberal Party

around and make it relevant again.

If we learn from our mistakes over the past decade and we all commit to being consistently forthright with Canadians about the challenges we are facing as a nation, then this convention will mark the end of the beginning of our rebuilding process and we will be well positioned to attract a strong field of candidates for our leadership contest. If not, it may mark the end of the rebuilding process.

The choice is ours.