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LPCBC Policy Conference 2013 – Ralph Goodale Keynote Speech

Posted on January 23, 2013

Notes for Remarks by
Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada
to the
Liberal Party of Canada in British Columbia
Surrey, B.C.

January 19th, 2013


Good afternoon everyone.

Let me first thank Liam St. Louis for his very kind introduction, and thank you to all British Columbia Young Liberals who have such a great impact on our Party.

It’s my pleasure to bring you the greetings and good wishes of our Parliamentary Caucus – all Liberal MPs and Senators – and especially Leader, Bob Rae.

With Bob’s interim stewardship of the Liberal Party due to come to an end in April, I want to take a minute to say a special word about my friend and colleague, “Bob, the Rebuilder”.

For Liberals in every corner of Canada, he has done an extraordinary job over these past 20 months – keeping lively and viable that “Liberal idea” that we all hold so dear.

This has been a perilous time for Liberals … since May of 2011.  It was entirely possible that our Party could have expired.  Political survival is never guaranteed to anyone.  Our destruction was (and is) the stated goal of both the militant-right and the militant-left.  Harper and Mulcair would like nothing better than our demise, and they work at it, relentlessly, every day.

More than anyone else, Bob Rae has stood in their way – the right person in the right place at an absolutely critical time.

  • His deep well of experience, both provincial and federal …
  • His storehouse of knowledge, judgment and understanding …
  • The vast array of Canadians and international personalities whom he knows, and who know him, and whose respect he has earned …
  • His amazing oratorical skills, his spontaneity in Question Period and his easy interaction with the media …
  • The deep respect he shows for Parliament and the institutions of our democracy …
  • The consistent principles that equally guide his conduct when the cameras are rolling, and when they’re not …
  • His “sunny ways” (as Laurier would describe them) … that positive instinct to see every glass half-full, not half-empty … to look for the best in people (even our opponents) … to be fair … to build always a more inclusive society and a better country.

With all these assets, Bob Rae motivates our Caucus and holds us together as a team.  He has kept us visible, relevant and credible.

He also nurtured the Party across the country.  A lot of great Liberals rallied to the cause.  Some former supporters came home.  Some brand new people got engaged.  And now, the Liberal Party has before it the genuine prospect of once again serving Canada as this country’s government.

It remains for us to EARN that privilege.  But the fact that IT IS POSSIBLE once again, is a major tribute to Bob Rae.  And this Party says “thank you”.

Trying to interpret public opinion polls is always risky business – especially more than two years before an election and when our Party has yet to select its new leader.

But given the consistency in poll-after-poll-after-poll over the past six months, one conclusion seems clear – despite the deep uneasiness that Canadians have with Stephen Harper, both for WHAT he does and HOW he does it, the vast majority of Canadians do NOT see Thomas Mulcair as the answer they want for their future.

That means there is “room” and there is “need” for the Liberal alternative.

An alternative to a high-handed government that abuses people and institutions and values “just because it can” – a government that believes “might makes right”.

Mr. Harper is happy to remind us – frequently – that he has a “majority” government, and he claims a “strong mandate”.

A majority of seats in the House of Commons?  Yes.  But majority support among Canadians?  Not even close!

Only 60% of eligible Canadians voted in 2011, and Conservatives got barely 40% of that 60%.  So do the math.  Mr. Harper’s “mandate” comes from just 24% of eligible voters.  76% cast their ballots for somebody else, or didn’t vote at all.

To make voting more meaningful in this country and to make election results a more accurate reflection of how Canadians actually vote, we need to begin an honest conversation about some form of modified proportional representation in our electoral system.

In the meantime, modest mandates like the one given to Stephen Harper beg for modest interpretations.  Do not over-reach.  Do not exaggerate.

The government should NOT use its artificial numbers in the House to get away with anything it wants – with IMPUNITY – without regard to what others think and feel and hold dear.

A sense of impunity leads to excessive ministerial behaviour – like Bev Oda’s orange juice, and Jason Kenney’s limousines, and Peter MacKay’s helicopter-rides to private fishing holes, and Tony Clement’s ornamental gazebos and sidewalks-to-nowhere in Muskoka, and Jim Flaherty’s wrongful letters to the CRTC, and Julian Fantino’s misuse of government websites.  The list never ends.  They behave like they’re exempt from all the rules.

A sense of impunity also leads to massive government mistakes – like the F-35 fighter-jet fiasco.  Close to $50-billion is at stake here.  It’s the biggest sole-sourced, untendered, non-competitive government purchase (against all the rules) in Canadian history.

The Parliamentary Budget Officer AND the Auditor-General AND the private accounting firm of KPMG … all found this file to be riddled with incompetence since 2006 (since this government took power).

Worse still, it is riddled with deceit.  They kept two sets of figures to hide the truth.  What they told Parliament and the public was deliberately misleading.  Why?  Because of that sense of impunity – they thought they should get away with it … that the rules didn’t apply to them.

And make no mistake – the Harper Conservatives still believe that.

Nothing has changed fundamentally in this boondoggle.  There is no admission of wrong-doing.  No apology.  No change of course.  Just a lot of spin and bafflegab to obscure the fact that they’re plowing ahead to get the exact same result.

Their sense of impunity also leads to a corrosion of democracy.

Basic questions never get answered in Question Period.  Parliamentary Committees are forced to go behind closed-doors – to do the public’s business … in secret.  Minister’s offices delay and subvert Access-to-Information.

Omnibus Bills and Closure Motions are used routinely to kill debate and prevent honest scrutiny of legislation.

Hundreds of millions of dollars are wasted on self-serving tax-paid advertising, external consultants, the most expensive Cabinet in history and coming soon … 30 unnecessary extra MPs.

There’s a systematic campaign of character assassination and intimidation aimed at charities and non-governmental organizations, public servants, scientists, statisticians, even Officers of Parliament and public interest “watchdogs” – to discredit them and shut them up.

From the Parliamentary Budget Officer to the Nuclear Safety Commission, from church groups like KAIROS to Indian Chiefs like Theresa Spence, the message is clear – if you dare speak truth to power, this government will slander you.

That same sense of impunity also leads to election financing fraud for which the Conservative Party was investigated, charged and pled GUILTY.

And don’t forget the unexplained election irregularities in Etobicoke Centre and in Peterborough and in Labrador, and the massive on-going investigation into thousands of illegal telephone calls, starting in Guelph, but potentially contaminating the last election in more than 200 ridings across the country.

At every turn, when a government operates with that sense of impunity – that notion that “might makes right” … we’ve got the numbers so let’s just “do it” … never mind the rules or what anyone else may think … just steamroll right over them – when those attitudes settle in, our democracy is compromised.

Integrity becomes a casualty.  Cynicism grows, and good people just walk away from any engagement with politics.  Liberals need to be an antidote to that.

Beyond trying to find that workable version of proportional representation, we also need to do some other things.  Rebuilding a credible Parliamentary democracy will demand a new Prime Minister who is prepared to forego and reverse some of the power accumulated in the now all-too-powerful PMO (the Prime Minister’s Office).

Real authority needs to be re-invested back in the hands of individual MPs.

The whipping of votes should be reduced.  The Throne Speech and the Budget Speech are clearly matters of confidence, yes, on which Party discipline is required.  But few other votes need to be dictated by Party leaders.  Let individual MPs think for themselves.  Let Ministers work to earn their support, not just demand it and “whip” it.  Let them all be accountable for how they perform.

Strengthen Parliament’s real control over the Estimates and spending – give the House of Commons the power, for example, to cut the budget for government advertising.  Require the government to seek annual approval of its plans to borrow money.

Put explicit rules in legislation to limit the use of Omnibus Bills and Closure and Prorogation.

Make every Motion and every Vote in every Committee fully public.

Give greater independence and decent funding to the Parliamentary Budget Officer.

And strengthen the capacity of Elections Canada to supervise honest elections, to investigate crimes like telephone fraud and voter suppression, and to prosecute them BEFORE another election comes around.

Liberals need a strong agenda for such democratic reform.

That’s one very good way to attract strong people into public life … people who want to achieve things, and not just be mindless puppets for the Prime Minister.  And that will make VOTING something that matters once again, increasing Canadians’ appetite to get to the polls.

Liberals also need to be an antidote to deeper POLARIZATION in Canadian politics.

Ever since the last election, both the Conservatives and the NDP have been pushing a polarization strategy.  They want to drive everyone else off the playing field, so they can have it all to themselves.  Just the two of them.

They claim that a polarized political system would be so much simpler.  Just two mutually-exclusive parties – one right, one left.  Everything would be reduced to a straight, clear two-way choice.

No distractions.  No complexities.  Just black-or-white, good-or-bad, right-or-wrong.

Simpler, right?  Maybe.  But better?  Not so much.

A classic demonstration of what you get from polarization can be seen just across the border in the United States.  Americans are deeply divided – the hostages of rigid ideology.  Their political atmosphere is toxic.  They lurch from one precipice to the next.

Decision-making is paralyzed.  Accommodation is seen as weakness.  Even on the most critical issues which could re-trigger another recession, polarized politics makes it exceedingly difficult to find any common ground … to find solutions that rise above division to earn broad-based support.

That’s because polarization is all about driving wedges, not building bridges.  It’s about pushing people apart, not pulling them together in common endeavour.

Polarization is negative, corrosive and wasteful.

It creates white-hot differences between two hostile camps.  It feeds off searing conflict.  It gets personal.  You learn to “hate” your opponent.  You don’t want to just defeat him – you want to destroy him, because polarization teaches you that you are “right and righteous”, and the other guy is not.

That’s the political legacy of Preston Manning and Stephen Harper.  And Thomas Mulcair plays the same game.  Good for partisanship.  Not good for Canada.  Because problems don’t get solved.  They get perpetuated.

The deep-seated conflict that lies at the heart of polarized politics truly appeals to only a small number of extreme partisans, on the one side and on the other.  They relish the constant fight.  The hotter the better.  It turns them on.

But it also turns-off large numbers of other people.  They don’t hold extreme views.  Perpetual campaigning is not their thing.  They don’t like polarization or the bitterness it breeds.

So what do they do?  They just drop out of the political process altogether.  Talk about “voter suppression” – they are the ones who stay home on election days.

But here’s the good news!  Canada is far too complex a country – too subtle and nuanced, too fundamentally decent, too full of hope and ambition – to be content for very long with the polarizing wedge politics of hate, fear, greed and envy.

People will look for something better.  The greater Canadian instinct is to want to pull together to achieve goals that are bigger and more worthy.

The future will belong to those who blaze that trail.

Let it be an energized, rejuvenated Liberal Party that points the way … through the new Leader we choose in April, through the fresh ideas we all generate in this process, through new members and supporters, through hard work, organization and fundraising, through politics without IMPUNITY and without POLARIZATION.

At the core of it must lay a clear message of economic competence and strong management.

And we know how to do that.  When Liberals last took over from a failing Conservative administration, we were saddled with a $40-billion annual deficit, ballooning debt at 70% of GDP, little economic growth, high joblessness, high taxes and low expectations.

The world financial media called Canada back then a candidate for honourary membership in the Third World.

That’s what Liberals inherited from Conservatives.  And we fixed it!

The deficit was gone in less than four years.  We tabled 10 consecutive surplus budgets.  We saved the Canada Pension Plan, and we strengthened Canadian financial institutions.

Both debt and taxes came down.  Inflation and interest rates stayed low and stable.  The economy grew every year in the range of 3% — and 3.5 million net new jobs were created.

That’s the Liberal record … what the financial press came to call the “Maple Leaf Miracle”.

We also invested … in infrastructure and innovation … in education, from childcare to Grad-school … in children and families … in the future of medicare … in the environment (including a specific, fully-funded plan that would have achieved 80% of our original Climate Change obligations) … in a place of respected influence for Canada in the world … and in the needs and hopes of indigenous peoples through the historic Kelowna Accord.

And let me finish on this latter point.

Surely as a country we have grown past the situation where First Nations and other Aboriginal people have to hold hunger strikes and blockade railways in order to be heard.

Some will blame the Aboriginal side for being unclear or too theoretical or having a poor track record, but the same criticisms could apply to governments.  There’s lots of blame to go around.  The onus for making progress now rests squarely on the Prime Minister.  He’s the one who holds the power, and he always likes to tell us that he’s “the one who makes the rules”.

That was apparent in 2006, the moment he took office, when he cancelled the Kelowna Accord.  That fully-funded, five-year Accord provided a specific plan to make progress on Aboriginal housing and water, healthcare, education, economic development and good governance (including the innovative concept of a First Nations Auditor- General to ensure transparency and accountability).

It took Paul Martin and his government nearly 24 months of careful dialogue to build the trusting relationship in which Kelowna was rooted.  That Accord had the support of the federal government, all 10 provinces, all three territories, and all five national Aboriginal organizations – until Mr. Harper killed it.

Much good-will was lost.  But some hope was rekindled in 2008 when the government apologized for the tragic legacy of Indian Residential Schools.  Sadly, there was little follow-up.  And then the same thing happened again in 2011 after out-going Auditor-General Sheila Fraser described Aboriginal communities as the most impoverished in the country – nothing changed.

Then a year ago, in response to the widely-reported misery in Attawapiskat, Stephen Harper agreed to a Crown-First Nations Summit.  But again, a year has passed with no progress, which brings us to the Idle-No-More movement, a hunger strike by Chief Spence, and the tumult last week in Ottawa.

So where to from here?

First, out of the glare of publicity, Mr. Harper must give Theresa Spence the assurance that the neglect of past years will be rectified.  She must be persuaded to live, not starve.

Secondly, it will take time to restore the respect and the trust that made Kelowna possible, especially in the complicated fields of treaty rights and land claims, but a credible beginning must be launched forthwith.  The government needs to be consultative, not unilateral.  They must be prepared to serve the greater good, not merely a narrow ideological base.

Third, to show good faith, immediate progress can be made in several key areas.  For example, a transparent public inquiry could get to work right now on what happened to hundreds of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls.

The budget this spring could bring federal funding for the K-12 education of First Nations children up to the higher amounts per-child that provinces invest in non-Aboriginal kids.  The discrepancy is a disgrace.

And the feds could get rid of their “cap” that limits support for Aboriginal child welfare and limits the number of young people who can get post-secondary education.

These things would be a start.

In these field and so many others, let Liberals blaze the trail.


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