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Of the defences of the Liberals' thinkers' conference - and specifically the exclusion of MPs - Tom Axworthy's letter to the National Post strikes me as the most persuasive.

"Policy-thinking should not be confused with platform-crafting and widespread dissemination," he writes in the final paragraph. "Caucus meets weekly on policy and political matters: every generation there can surely be a session devoted to out-of-the-box thinking. The caucus will then adapt these ideas their own needs."

I don't really disagree with that argument. But all the same, I find it impossible to believe this weekend is about much other than theatre.

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Admittedly, I have a bias that the fewer people there are in the room, the likelier you are to actually achieve something. A small meeting is more conducive to speaking candidly, to asking tough questions, and to actually connecting in some form of meaningful discussion. That's all the more true if it's behind closed doors and off the record.

Of course, not everyone has the option of meeting face-to-face behind closed doors with leading economists, business executives and academics. But as the leader of a national party, Michael Ignatieff most assuredly does.

In fact, that's what a lot of opposition leaders do when they're trying to cobble together an alternative vision. If not personally, they dispatch their senior policy people to meet with precisely the types of people speaking at the Liberals' conference, in hope of getting some fresh ideas.

Admittedly, that's not a very grassroots-friendly approach to policy development. But then, neither is this weekend. It's meant to be a gathering of elites - just one that they want the general public to know about.

Obviously, the Liberals have done these sorts of events before, and found them useful. But I'm not sure how different the 1991 Aylmer conference was from what many parties do before elections, other than the fact that we all know about it.

The Liberals might make some headway this weekend toward reinvigorating their policy process. But I suspect they'd make more of it if they were just doing their homework behind the scenes. And there'd be little downside to that - because from what we've seen so far, it's not as though the theatre is going to get especially positive reviews.

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Political Feature Writer

Adam Radwanski is The Globe and Mail's political feature writer. More

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