Sunday, May 03, 2009

LibCon 2009: eco-friendly turtles and afterthoughts

Gotta love Vancouver.

The room service menu at the Hotel Vancouver has an entire page devoted to human companions. Tasty snacks and serious meals are available for dawgs, and, for some reason, cats. I had to phone down about the "eco-friendly turtles" on the menu, however: turns out they're a plush toy made of recycled materials for the canines. Bravo, Hotel Vancouver: I'm truly impressed. And your white labs in the lobby have been a joy to meet.

But back to LibCon 2009.

This Convention, unlike the Conservative one in Winnipeg, was open and transparent to the media from day one; but it's easy to be transparent when there's nothing much to see. The event was symbolic, not substantial--intended to mark a turning-point for the Liberal Party and rally the troops. In the latter, it clearly succeeded: delegates left the Convention obviously pumped. Whether or not this is a true point of departure, a brand-new direction for the Liberals, however, remains to be seen.

Certainly the polls are starting to move in their favour, and a further post-Convention bounce is likely. Michael Ignatieff's message of unity may well resonate with Canadians, badly affected by the recession, who might be a little tired at this point of Stephen Harper's antagonistic style, not to mention his floundering in the midst of a crisis. But what future are we really being offered?

On reflection, I realize that I was overly dismissive of Ignatieff's speech to the delegates yesterday evening. Not because it contained much substance--it didn't--but because its primary theme, a new way of doing politics that seeks compromise and collaboration instead of confrontation, was delivered with sufficient passion to make its mark. In addition, his notion of belonging to the imagined community of Canada in various ways versus a narrow patriotism is well worth exploring: in it, perhaps, we can see the end of formulaic multiculturalism on one hand, and ruthless assimilationism on the other.

But these are merely words. We have heard these lofty visionary statements before from the Liberal Party: the reality has been that its famed pragmatism soon ceases to be in the service of vision, and becomes instead a series of disjointed tactics for winning and maintaining power. Liberals oppose from the left and govern from the right as the old saying has it, and I saw nothing over the past few days that promises anything better.

I attended today's press conference with Ignatieff. He was clear on one or two issues: for example, he promised to bring in one national standard for EI, likely to be 360 hours of work as the eligibility threshhold. EI restrictions and 54 different eligibility standards presently existing across the country are a sore point for Canadians at the moment, and the Liberals clearly hope to tap the rising anger. It is likely to be a key issue in the days ahead.
But this will be only a temporary measure to help Canadians weather the recession.

His party will press ahead with a cap-and-trade system to address the issue of greenhouse gases: it will not introduce a carbon tax.

I had the opportunity to ask him a question about the asbestos issue, since he has been dancing around it for weeks: now that the Health Canada report on asbestos is in the public domain, will he and his party take a final, definitive stand on the export of this carcinogen to the Third World? His reply is a textbook example about what's wrong with Liberal politics, renewal or no renewal.

What I got in response was a series of disjointed talking points. They're taking asbestos out of the Parliament buildings, so there must be something wrong with it. Of course Canada shouldn't be exporting anything that can harm others. Science must drive this issue, but, he said, there is substantial disagreement on the dangers of chrysotile asbestos.

In fact there is no more "substantial disagreement" about the dangers of chrysotile than there is about global warming, despite the claims of the Chrysotile Institute and those of the climate change deniers respectively. If science is really to drive policy on this, then Ignatieff should stop trolling for votes and start boning up on the literature.
He might begin with the aforementioned 16pp Health Canada report.

On April 1, Ignatieff stated: "[W]e have an obligation to international agreements to the countries that we export to, to make them aware of the risks." This appeared to me at the time to be a substantial withdrawal from his more forthright statement on March 28: "Our export of this dangerous product overseas has to stop." And so it is: but he reiterated the former statement this morning. Does this signal an intention to place chrysotile asbestos on the Rotterdam Convention list of toxic substances, something Canada has been fighting against for years?

Ignatieff also stated that this is a matter of some concern to Quebec, where the toxic mineral is mined, and that his party would have to work with the unions; he compared the issue to tobacco, in an attempt to make it look complex and difficult to resolve quickly. But we are talking here about all of 700 part-time jobs. Surely the proven lethality of the product should be all that is required to make a clear statement of intent.

This, in a nutshell, is what's wrong with Liberal discourse. It's all hints and suggestions that can be taken any way at all. Because straight talk is so rare from these folks, we are forced into a process of divination. An asbestos worker in Quebec listening to Ignatieff this morning would have been heartened; so might apolitical opponents of asbestos exports, or supporters of the Rotterdam Convention. A journalist at the presser thought she had heard a clear indication that Ignatieff would ban the production and export of asbestos.

Yet I can find nothing in his words that indicate a commitment to do anything at all. Uniting, bridging, unifying: concretely this would appear to be the same old "all things to all people" approach that Liberals have used for decades to gull the voters.

And so, by the end of this Convention, having met some simpatico bloggers and delegates and had a pleasant enough time, I nevertheless find myself looking forward to returning to a real world of unequivocal talk and commitment. I've had quite enough snake oil for the moment, although the hunger of the electorate for it has historically been insatiable. Renewal? I don't see it. Just a renewed determination to put the same old same old into the driver's seat. And sadly, I think they're on the brink of pulling it off.

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