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Canadiana, Federal Politics

Feature: Can the Young Liberals save the Liberal Party of Canada?

Young Liberal pamphleteers attacking the crowd with pens and stickers.

“The future leaders of the party are in this room,” Bob Rae told the assembled crowd of Young Liberals. “They’re you.”

And they want Rae to be right. In fact, they want him to take this platitude one step further — that the future leaders of this country are assembled there, never mind the party. They came to think big, and so they hooped and hollered as he told them what political leaders have told youth wings in their parties since parties have had youth wings: that they are the leaders of tomorrow. And to show their appreciation for his kind words, they gave Rae an NHL All-Star Game hockey jersey with his name on it.

These Young Liberals came from across the country to hear encouragement from their (interim) leader who shares their belief in a common set of guiding principles: that ideology is not central to how they define themselves; that universality and equality mean more than social justice or social conservatism, staples of the left and right; and critically, that fact-based evidence over gut feeling remains the best method for governing.

In many ways, the Liberal Convention held in Ottawa last week was the coming out party for the Young Liberals of Canada. Former party president Alfred Apps indicated that of the 2,600-3,000 people expected to attend the event, over a third of the registered delegates were under 26. I met one delegate on the escalator who told me he was 16, but had trekked to Ottawa from Southern Ontario to vote for the behind-the-scenes policy wonk and strategist that would be the party president.

This would be, for many, their first foray into the political world that is the national convention. It would be mine, too.

Many delegates came to kick-start their own burgeoning political careers. Zach Paikin, the 20 year-old son of TVO The Agenda’s Steve Paikin, was the youngest delegate running for National Policy Chair. And he garnered endorsements from former Ontario Premier David Peterson, former astronaut and MP Marc Garneau and former Ontario Cabinet Minister George Smitherman.

“Zach is the future and he’s here now,” Smitherman told CBC of his endorsement of Paikin.

Smitherman was not alone in his enthusiasm — many witnessed a changing of the guard, that these Young Liberals were there to be heard.

“There is a certain amount of generational change happening in the Party,” claimed Sam Lavoie, president of the Young Liberals. “Young people want to take a bigger role. We are willing to push the envelope, and we have the numbers and the willpower to flex our muscles when it’s needed.”

After the Liberals were shellacked in the May 2011 election, everyone anticipated a period of defeat-induced malaise. But to surprise of many, the Liberals came out swinging. They indicated the January convention would not be a maudlin or dour affair, but rather an opportunity to revitalize and rebuild. They hoped to start the process of determining what they stand for, why they still exist, and why people should vote for them.

The Young Liberals of Canada think of themselves as the life of party, both literally and figuratively, and the conventions are their time to shine. I saw them on the convention floor as they cheered policy resolutions; as they queued up to vote; as they pamphleted for candidates; and as they ate cold pizza in back rooms.

So when the life of the party throws a party, you attend. We were supposed to assemble at the National Convention Centre 10:45 pm. As I entered the historic building, the first thing that struck me was the noise — the pounding beat of muffled bass, the same noise you hear standing in line outside a club. I had to speak up to persuade the security guard on duty to let me in with my media badge. The event was for Liberals, after all. He could tell I wasn’t one of them, but he acquiesced.

Down the stairs and into the hall, there was a smattering of people standing in dim lighting around cocktail tables with drinks, avoiding the dance floor that was set up in front of the massive DJ table and speakers. To his  credit, Bob Rae was in attendance, chatting easily in an off-hand way — as easily as one can shouting over music — with Young Liberals keen to experience what the centre of power (of the third party) feels like.

It was awkward, in the way that quasi-political events can be when you introduce club beats and halter tops. While most of the young men milled about in the first suit their parents had bought them, acting the high-rolling political figure they one day aspire to be, some of the women swayed through the room as they would at any nightclub.

But the party arrived then, as it so often does in the Liberal Party, with a Trudeau. I had been walking towards the Convention Centre behind Justin Trudeau and a friend laughing jovially in French until we parted to use separate entrances. 20 minutes later, Trudeau arrived. He didn’t so much enter the room as the room parted to make way for him, before a bevy of young women cocooned him for giddy laughs and snapshots with his famous father’s smile. The cult of the leader appears alive and well in the Liberal Party.

It would be easy to make fun of the Young Liberals of Canada, especially after seeing them in action at the convention. This weekend demonstrated that despite some of them being too young to even know what governing feels like, there remains an underlying arrogance to their view of the Liberals as the ‘natural government party’ of Canada. The youth wing oscillate between worshiping yesterday’s leaders and treating the party as theirs for the taking. They are giddy at the thought that “Yes, we are the leaders of tomorrow!”, which sounds disturbingly like the arrogance that left them with 34 seats.

They talk of connecting with Canadians, so they allow “supporters” to vote for party leader. But when they talk grassroots fundraising, they allow the Laurier Club to throw private parties for $1,200 donators. How can they support something within the party that seems fundamentally at odds with the Liberal message of reconnecting with everyday Canadians, most of whom don’t have that kind of money to donate to a political party?

They take it for granted that 3,000 Liberals came to a non-leadership convention — after all, why wouldn’t they come?

Every tempered step forward is counteracted by intense navel gazing. And against their better judgement, they cannot let this strange mixture of timidity and arrogance go.

Their challenge, when the music fades and they fly away home, is how best to translate this momentum, this great sense of pride they have in being Liberal, into workable politics once again. Perspective is crucial. Yes, two thirds of the resolutions debated at the convention were put forward by the Young Liberals and yes, over half were adopted — but this assumes the resolutions they put forward were the most pressing concerns of Canadians.

But were they? They were unable to control their own message going into the convention, allowing themselves to be defined in the media by their interest in legalizing marijuana and abolishing the monarchy. However interesting or legitimate, these are tired and divisive non-starters, and unlikely to rally voters to the cause. And of these, only legalization was adopted.

After going down to defeat in 2008 thanks largely to the unpopularity of a carbon tax, Liberals are terrified of even talking about this idea. Young Liberals should be free of such constraints in their thinking, able to see themselves as the conscious of the party. We see glimpses of this in their resolution to abolish the monarchy, yet even here they fail to see that while important to them, few Canadians lose sleep over the framework of our constitutional monarchy. And in the process, they look hopelessly out of touch.

Yet they are cutting their political teeth at a time when it is unfashionable to be a Liberal, which may train them well for the hard slog back to respectability they face. The Young Liberals are becoming a force to be reckoned with within the Liberal Party, but is their youth, energy and enthusiasm enough to keep the party on-track towards political relevance? Can they escape the confines of the past that — more often than not — seem to chain their feet together?

Can the Young Liberals save the Liberal Party of Canada?

I don’t believe so. But for the youthful delegates listening to R. Kelly tell them that usually he doesn’t do this, these are questions and debates for another day. Here, on the dance floor in our frozen capital, they could forget the dire political straights their party is in and just enjoy themselves. 

While Trudeau was entertaining his adoring fans, Mr. Rae had somehow been convinced to join the growing party on the dance floor. And I watched as the former Premier of Ontario, now interim Liberal Party leader Bob Rae, got his groove on to “Club Can’t Handle Me” by Flo Rida. Trudeau spotted the good times being had and, never one to turn down a party, escorted his cadre of female fans to the floor to tag Rae off the dance floor.

Rae looked relieved. I finished my drink and bundled up to face the cold night outside.

– – –

An alternative version of this article appeared on the blog at This Magazine.

About awreeves

Editor-in-chief at Alternatives Journal. Author of 'Overrun: Dispatches from the Asian carp Crisis'.


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