Party rebuilding isn’t a new Ignatieff preoccupation

Even as policy sessions get rolling here in Vancouver today, there remains a consensus around the Liberal convention that restoring the party machine—boosting fund raising, modernizing voter tracking, streamlining administration—is the main business at hand.

I’ve heard some Liberals talk about how Michael Ignatieff is a policy thinker who has been forced by circumstances into concentrating instead on party operations. Although there might be a bit of truth to that, it would be wrong to suggest that Ignatieff returned to Canada to try his hand at politics without realizing that rebuilding the party apparatus would be the main work of any new Liberal leader.

Cast back to the spring of 2005, when he was still a Harvard human rights professor, and Ignatieff delivered a speech at Osgood Hall Law School in Toronto. That lecture struck me at the time as an odd one for an intellectual like Ignatieff because he focused on political parties themselves, rather than on any particular set of policy questions.

“Despite all the vital ties that bind—flag, currency, the Charter, common social programs
and economic prosperity—we are aware that one vital institution that binds us together, the federal political party, is failing us,” he said then.

He did not distinguish between the Liberals and Conservatives in a critique that found the parties incapable of forming genuine national coalitions, saying that “each of our national parties is now at risk of becoming merely a regional or sectional interest group.”

In particular, he focused on the necessity of the national parties (one presumes he didn’t include the NDP in his thinking, but he wasn’t explicit on that score) connecting Quebec to the rest of the country. Indeed, no matter how accustomed we grow to the Bloc Québécois’ large contingent on the Hill, its presence remains an unsettlingly weird element in Canadian political life.

Yesterday Ignatieff protested loudly against those who have claimed, “absurdly” he said, that Liberals don’t have a lot to do in Vancouver this week. That claim, absurd or not, is based on the relative lack of buzz surrounding policy questions here and of course the absence of a leadership contest.

Considered in the context of Ignatieff’s Osgoode Hall speech four years ago, he’s got a point. If we think of Ignatieff as a guy who came back to Canada with the view that the withering of the Liberal party as a national coalition-building institution was the main problem at hand, then this convention’s focus on the operations of the party is right on target.

Or perhaps the better phrase would be, “right on the money.”  Fundraising is such a deep preoccupation among the party operatives gathered here. In a rather grandiloquent phrase, Ignatieff termed the efforts to restore Liberal fund raising capacity a bid to strengthen “the financial sinews of war.”

Which does sound better than “the financial sinews of national coalition-building.”

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