Political party conventions are strange things.
They’re meant to whip up enthusiasm among potential volunteers and donors in between elections. So on one level, the intended audience is entirely inside the clubhouse. But snippets of coverage will make their way to the broader public, meaning these events also serve as infomercial for the unconverted or undecided.
That means tent revivals like the Liberal Party of Canada convention held in Ottawa this past weekend offer a glimpse of how a political party would present itself to the world – maybe even how it genuinely sees itself – without the unpleasant intrusion of nasty opposition politicians, messy news stories and slavering journalists.
Within the closed ecosystem of this convention, the $13-billion bag of catnip that lured Volkswagen to Canada to build car batteries was a visionary investment that would spawn thousands of jobs for the now and an entire industry for the future. The constant drip of news stories about Beijing meddling in Canadian elections was a cheap and unseemly melodrama. And American-style cultural corrosion was crouching on Canada’s doorstep, with Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre cracking his knuckles as he waited to usher it in.
The Conservative convention was held in this very same hall in September, 48 hours after Queen Elizabeth died. That convention was set to be a thumping victory for Mr. Poilievre, but given the overlap between Tories and monarchists, it was almost touchingly awkward to watch the party try to throw itself a tonally appropriate wedding in the midst of a worldwide funeral.
The Liberals, on the other hand, ended up with a headliner problem, also induced by events in the House of Windsor. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivered his keynote speech on the opening night of the convention before flying to London for the coronation of King Charles, leaving a hype gap later in the program.
The party solved this problem by bringing in avatars of two different versions of past glory, one of the capital-L Liberal sort and one of the small-l variety.
First was former prime minister Jean Chrétien. He riffed at length on the greatest hits of Liberal governments of the past, which seemed designed to make the faithful in the room feel as though those accomplishments were theirs, that those policy wins were what made Canada great – indeed, what made it Canada – and to reject Mr. Poilievre’s refrain that Canada is broken.
“Canada was never perfect. No country ever was,” Mr. Chrétien said. “But we did not look back. We look ahead and move Canada forward. We made it more just, we made it more prosperous, more caring, more tolerant and more diverse. That is what Liberals do best.”
He also snuck in a reference to the Shawinigan handshake, because no one who knows how to work a crowd is going to leave their best applause line lying on the floor in the dressing room.
A short time later, Liberal MP Rachel Bendayan introduced a discussion between Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland and Hillary Clinton, suggesting it came about because Ms. Freeland rang up the former U.S. secretary of state and Democratic presidential candidate to ask if she’d have a chat about the future of the Liberal Party. “As one does,” Ms. Bendayan grinned, about having this sort of Rolodex.
Amid a broader discussion of the state of the world and various issues on which Canadian and American progressives can enthusiastically agree, much of the conversation was underpinned by Ms. Clinton’s status as a mascot of how far things have come for women, and what hasn’t changed nearly enough.
At one point, discussing the real-life perils of online ugliness, Ms. Clinton described herself as “Exhibit A” for being attacked and whittled down by people saying hideous things about you.
“And you’re still standing!” Ms. Freeland exclaimed.
“Part of the reason is because I have learned to take criticism seriously but not personally,” Ms. Clinton said. “And it’s really, really important to try to learn that lesson. Sometimes your critics – even though you hate it – sometimes your critics will teach you things or tell you things your friends won’t. And you have to have enough willingness to be able to say, ‘oh, well, you know, maybe I didn’t do that as well as I should, or maybe I ought to try something different.’ ”
A couple of moments later, Ms. Freeland raved about this smart take and likened it to advice she received from former Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne, who told her you need to have a thick skin to do politics, but not too thick to let criticism penetrate. “That is really wise,” Ms Freeland said, before the conversation moved on.
There was no sign in Ms. Clinton’s tone or in Ms. Freeland’s response that this exchange was anything other than what the whole chat was engineered to be, which was a mutual onstage cheerleading session.
The Liberals built themselves a happy little terrarium in which to dwell for a few days in that Ottawa conference centre, basking in the sun-lamp glow of their own enthusiasm, undimmed by crass or mean outside forces. That’s what a political convention always is, even when you’re the party that’s been running the country for the past eight years.
But then there was that enthusiastic exchange about how wise it is to find useful feedback in criticism you aren’t thrilled to hear, to listen to people other than your friends, to recognize that not everyone who says things you don’t like is just being an extravagant jerk.
It was difficult to resist the urge to tap loudly on the glass to see if anyone inside this particular terrarium was really listening.