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Then-Liberal leader Stephane Dion is applauded Michael Ignatieff prior to Question Period in the House of Commons on Feb 27, 2008. (Tom Hanson/The Canadian Press)
Then-Liberal leader Stephane Dion is applauded Michael Ignatieff prior to Question Period in the House of Commons on Feb 27, 2008. (Tom Hanson/The Canadian Press)

John Ibbitson

Spectre of the carbon tax kills Liberals' big-thinking buzz Add to ...

Montreal - The buzz came in the morning, when panelists and David Dodge, former governor of the Bank of Canada, called for a new, voluntary extension to the Canada Pension Plan that would allow Canadians to increase their contributions to and benefits from their government retirement plan.

This is exactly the sort of forward-thinking initiative that this policy conference was intended to generate. The only problem is, the Conservatives are thinking about doing the very same thing.

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The chill came in the afternoon, when panelists, egged on by former Toronto Star columnist David Crane, told the gathering that the most sensible way to green the Canadian economy was to impose a carbon tax.

It was exactly that proposal that many blame for the defeat of the Liberals in the last election. It would be a courageous party, in the Yes Minister sense of the word (i.e., politically suicidal), to propose it again.

After a jittery opening day, participants here are feeling better about the forums and discussions. Most of the real idea-swapping happens in the antechamber outside the ballroom, where the speeches and panels take place. Inside, things are often pretty dull. Outside, the discussion is lively.

If the people here have any say in the matter, the Liberal Party will seek to redefine itself as a party committed to social policy and the environment. There is nary a word about the deficit, about keeping taxes low, about fostering international trade.

The question for Michael Ignatieff and his team will be to what extent the party sticks to that platform going into the next election. To the extent it does, Canadians will be offered a clear choice: focusing on getting the books back in balance, or focusing instead on new investments to make the population healthier, better educated and more secure.

Either-or elections are the best kind. They are about ideas and futures and choices. But they are very, very hard on the party that loses. Which is why the road will take many turns before this party finally has something to take to the people.

 

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