There's been a lot of ink spilled about the Liberal thinkers conference last weekend. Some seize on the corporate tax freeze, others on Robert Fowler's blistering critique of the party, still others on the age of the participants in the room. My sense is that, in the short term, the issues discussed in Montreal - on the surface - won't matter. It is the deeper changes, to thinking, to culture and to process that will determine if Montreal was a success.
Are these deeper shifts happening? Hard to say, but here are three lessons the party should take away from Montreal if it is to succeed in the long term:
Lighten up. The scariest thing about the images from Montreal is uniformity. The participants were older. And white. And male. That is a problem easily (and repeatedly) identified. It also needs to be fixed. But there was another interesting challenge - one more subtle and less commented on.
Ignore the uniform demographics and count how many people are in suits. And a tie. On a Saturday.
Most Canadians I know don't wear suits. Ever. Even when working with in Fortune 500 companies, or at the banks, people look professional, but suits? Increasingly less and less. So does the Liberal Party need a new dress code? No. But it speaks to the culture of the party elite. When people look at a party they want to see themselves - people they trust and believe in. Even if Canada were populated only by white, older men, most people would probably still look at the conference and not see themselves there. Moreover, many would imagine the event as unapproachable, or unwelcoming - teeming with slick operatives in silk ties. If the Liberals are going to win again, they'll need to be an approachable group people feel like they can belong to. Keep the suits if you must, but think about the culture.
Figure out the Internet. Many participants were amazed by how many people were participating and asking questions online through Skype or Twitter. This belies a lack of understanding of how the Internet is reshaping the way people live, work and organize. Over the past few decades, before campaign finance reform, the party had become accustomed to relying on big donations and it so its capacity to reach out to party members diminished. The Reform/Conservatives were the opposite. Early on they were too scary for traditional big companies and cultivated a vast network of small donors. For them, the Internet was a blessing (it enhanced their strategy) and campaign finance was a godsend (it meant their strategy was the only effective one). Today, the Conservative donor network keeps them well financed and effective.
The danger from all this is that the Liberals will walk away understanding the power of the network, but believing they can control it rather than simply harness it. You can't. All those people online, they aren't there to do the bidding of a party communications director. They are there to share their story and engage with peers. Working with such a network requires a radically different skill set than dealing with the media or cultivating big donors. It also means getting comfortable with the fact that you aren't in control of the message (you're just seeding it) or the medium (you're just a platform for others to play on). If Montreal did anything it let the younger leaders show the old timers what social networks and connectivity can do. Will be interesting if the right lessons get drawn. But the party had better figure it out soon - the Conservatives have a serious head start.
Be honest and clear. The weekend's highlight moments occurred when speakers bluntly and firmly pushed back on basic ideas or assumptions. Janice Stein responding to a question about women's issues in foreign policy by saying she was much more concerned about the destabilizing effect of large groups of unemployed young men. Roger Martin talking about how Canada's health-care system is one of the most expensive and inefficient in the G7. Pierre Fortin (who gave a model speech) spoke bluntly about how little money there will be, for anything. Parties need to give people hope, but they also have to be honest.
Most Canadians still struggle to understand what the Liberal Party stands for. The public knows what both New Democrats and Conservatives stand for. Both parties have been happy to eschew certain voters in order to stay focused on what makes them who they are. It is sometimes hard to know who the Liberals will eschew. Injecting a little dose of honesty and clarity a la Janice Stein into the party's communications might help. Sometimes you have to tell the public that their priority isn't tops on the list and that there are bigger fish to fry. It isn't easy, especially for politicians. But being honest and clear about where the party stands and where it doesn't can produce better results than the status quo. The Conservatives may have had a scandal-rife year, but they aren't going anywhere so long as people know who they are and don't have a clue about their rivals.
Jane Taber noted that at the last "thinkers conference" in Aylmer the Liberal Party shed its protectionist past in favour of globalization. But that took some time to become clear. The impact - if any - of the Montreal conference will likewise take a few years to be fully realized. But maybe a similar transition will take place, with the famously centralist party favouring a more networked, open and engaging approach to both its members and governing. It will be interesting to see what unfolds.
David Eaves is a public-policy entrepreneur, open government activist and negotiation expert based in Vancouver