Today I went to my local Liberal riding's AGM. It was a much more lively and interesting meeting than I expected. I didn't agree with everything, but overall I was very impressed with the quality of the discussion and friendliness of the people. There were about 35 people there.
Our local MP, Andrew Telegdi, gave an interesting talk about being in opposition. He noted that in last week's throne speech, Harper didn't mention a number of important things: R&D, post-secondary education, the Kelowna accord between provinces and aboriginals (he noted, "Finally we were starting to make some progress!"), Kyoto and the charter of rights and freedom.
Telegdi said that the party is going to circulate a petition about the Conservative government's plan to scrap the Martin income tax cuts and instead reduce GST by 1%. (I'm not sure I support that. Income tax, which is progressive, is generally better than consumption tax, which is not. Critics say that the GST cut will not do as much to stimulate the economy as an income tax cut, but do we really need to stimulate the economy right now? Telegdi said that the GST cut will benefit Conrad Black buying a $300,000 boat more than an average person buying a $30,000 car, but since lower income people spend a higher percentage of their income on taxable items than the rich do, another way of putting it is that the GST represents a higher percentage of income for poor than for rich. I'm on the fence on this one.)
Telegdi also mentioned that we need to address the issue of China. He cited the local barbecue-maker Broil King as an example: while they make the highest quality barbecues, China is threatening them by dumping cheap barbecues on the market.
He also said that the Liberal Party civil war must be put to rest. (Hear, hear!)
Then Carolyn Bennett was introduced. A GP, she's the MP for Toronto's St. Paul riding, was Minister of State for Public Health in the last government, and now is Critic for Social Development. She was described as being on a national tour "kicking tires" to see if she should throw her hat in the ring for the leadership race.
Bennett has a lot of passion and great ideas. However, she talks really fast and bounces around from idea to idea quite a lot. I'm a fast thinker but I had trouble following her. I also didn't agree with a lot of what she had to say, not that that means much.
She started by saying that she thought the most important issue for our society and one that greatly affects seniors as well as families is early childhood education. I lost interest for a few minutes at this point.
She then started talking about something of greater interest to me, the remaking of the Liberal party. She said that Liberals have been frustrated by "father knows best executive style old fashioned kind of leadership" and said she wants to bring a more modern style of leadership where the leader is the center of a circle and not the top of a pyramid. She suggested that the biannual policy forum be moved to an online forum. She said that she comes from Women's College Hospital where the motto is "It's not what you do but how."
Then she started talking about health care vs health and sort of lost me again. I caught up when she paraphrased HL Mencken: "For every complex problem there's a neat simple solution. It's just that it's wrong." She said her guru is Ursula Francis, who said, "Good governance is fair, transparent, and takes people seriously."
The first question from the floor was, "We are getting sidelined by the NDP who keep saying you had years in power to do this. We need a good response. The NDP are going against the opposition Liberals instead of the ruling Conservatives." (I think this is an excellent and extremely important question.) Bennett didn't really have an answer. She said that she as Minister she had a lot of good stuff in the works that got canned when the election was called. She said that Olivia Chow got out front with a day care plan that won't fly because the Bloc won't support it.
She then said that the Liberals have to make the Conservatives continue with projects started by the Liberals. (Pulleeze... is that possible?)
Then Telegdi, who throughout the meeting sounded the voice of reason, provided a pretty good come-back to the NDP. He said, "If childcare goes down, Layton is as responsible as Harper."
The next question to Bennett was, "You said we should get in touch with you. But how do we do this? I write emails to party officials and get no response and I've been a party insider since 1968." (I'm afraid I didn't take any notes on her response and can't remember it.)
The next question was, "Is there a Plan B in finding a way to take down the duplicitous nature of the NDP?" The questioner said that NDP voters are sometimes not even Canadian citizens and used the example of Timmins, where he/she said 5,000 NDP votes in the last election are suspect.
At this point I thought the discussion got off on a really unfortunate tangent. We Liberals should be worrying about the Conservative government, not the smallest caucus in Parliament, the NDP. In the next few minutes Olivia Chow was mentioned four or five times, but she's a nobody. It shows how bitter people are that she beat Liberal veteran Tony Ianno.
Bennett said that 10,000 voters signed up on election day in Tony Ianno's riding. She said that Elections Canada isn't taking rumors of fraud seriously enough and we need private investigators to look into it. Someone said, "I thought this couldn't happen in Canada." Bennett said, "They glue-gunned my campaign office door shut!" She said that one woman in Ianno's riding boasted that she voted 4 or 7 times in different polls. She suggested that Liberals need to demand that photo ID be shown to vote, and then there was a long discussion about photo ID. Bennett said that the Liberals lost four or five seats due to voter fraud. Someone said that the Liberals should have done something about this when they were in power and cited voter fraud in the 1992 election.
The next question was about the democratic deficit in the Liberal party: "How do we get to the circle of people working together as opposed to the PM at the top of the pyramid?" Bennett said, "The brand of the Liberal party must be owned by the party and not just the leader's office. Paid organizers have more power than party members." She cited gun control as one area where there should have been more opinion gathering, especially in rural areas.
The last question was a real shocker. A guy asked, "You mentioned top-down vs grassroots. For years the public has complained that penalties are too light for criminals, and the Liberals refused to listen. Now Harper is listening. How do we respond?"
Bennett and Telegdi had no hesitation on this one. Bennett said, "Sometimes we have to provide leadership and provide education. Canada has the lowest rate of recidivism in the world. We need to provide leadership around the facts. Crime rates are way down but people think they're going up." Telegdi added that Harper is advocating the George Bush-style solution, which leads to situations like California, which spends more money on prisons than it does on education. He also noted that the Bush/Harper approach to using the death penalty and three strikes rules does not make the US any safer---just the opposite.
That was about it, at least according to my notes. I was interested to hear that my friend Herb Lefcourt, with whom I have been organizing a local chapter of Democrats Abroad, had put his name forward to be on the board of the riding association. I also had an interesting chat with a party official about the leadership race. He asked me who I wanted to be the next leader, and I said my mind was still open but I liked Bob Rae and Michael Ignatieff. He got all hot under the collar about Bob Rae, saying that after Rae became Premier he stopped taking his phone calls about an environmental issue that Rae had previously supported. He seemed to be favoring Gerard Kennedy... I'm keeping an open mind, but Kennedy is not my favorite person since my days volunteering at the Daily Bread Food Bank when he ran it... but that is a blog for another day.