Note to Liberals: please stop talking about marijuana

One says he’s “a proven advocate for members.” Another says he’ll remove “obstacles to grassroots engagement.” A third wants the policy process to be “an effective tool for grassroots members.”

The people running to be the Liberal party’s next National Policy Chair are all preaching to the choir. Their fate is in the hands of Liberal delegates who took a day or two off work to fly to Ottawa to debate Liberal policy resolutions with other Liberals who took a day or two off work to fly to Ottawa to debate Liberal policy resolutions.

This is not exactly a representative sample of Liberal members, to say nothing of the voting public. But they’re the ones with the votes, and to them, “grassroots engagement” matters.

“Your vote counts just as much as mine,” Bob Rae told them this afternoon, during the convention’s opening ceremonies. It’s a lovely sentiment, but it’s not exactly true. Party members vote on policy resolutions, but party leaders write election platforms. That’s as it should be. Otherwise, the whole enterprise would swiftly go to pot.

And so it has. Liberal delegates will soon vote on whether Canada should “legalize and regulate marijuana.” But even if that resolution passes, The Other Green Shift may yet be excluded from the next Liberal platform. Just because it’s good policy doesn’t make it good politics; the Leader’s Office, not convention delegates, will have the final say.

The reason is simple: the grassroots speak for themselves, but the party has to speak to the whole country. We elect party leaders to reconcile the two.

None of this is to say that party policy processes don’t matter. They do. Debates about policy can engage voters who might never otherwise consider getting involved in a political party. Bring an issue to a national political convention and it will vault onto the national agenda, if only for a moment. Were it not for one of this weekend’s Young Liberal policy resolutions, for example, the chattering classes would not be chattering about the future of the monarchy—though perhaps that would have been for the best. If the timing is right, raising an issue can make a real difference; the Paul Martin government refused to join the U.S. missile defence program after a Young Liberal policy resolution urged them to do so.

Unfortunately for the grassroots, the timing is rarely right. Marijuana and the monarchy will almost certainly exit stage left after this weekend’s convention, destined for the same obscurity as their Liberal, NDP, and Conservative predecessors—proposals long forgotten, hopes left unfulfilled, paths not taken. The road to electoral disaster is paved with their good intentions.

Besides, I doubt you’d find a single delegate this weekend who sincerely believes that big-L Liberals can win an election by becoming small-R republicans. The harsh realities of politics are what will save the Queen.

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