Federal Liberals set to start 3-day convention, focusing on COVID-19 and upcoming budget 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listens to a question during a year end interview with The Canadian Press in Ottawa, Wednesday, December 16, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Thousands of federal Liberals will gather online Thursday evening for the start of a three-day national convention that promises to be downright dull compared to similar events held by the Conservative and New Democratic parties.

And that suits Liberals just fine.

They’re hoping Canadians will see a governing party focused on the serious policy issues of the day — the COVID-19 pandemic, the economy, climate change, the social safety net, systemic racism — without any of the infighting or controversy that beset the Conservatives’ convention last month and that threatens to similarly dominate the NDP’s convention this weekend.

Priority policy resolutions up for debate and votes at the Liberal gathering include calls for a universal basic income, enforceable national standards for long-term care homes and a green economic recovery.

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Nothing on the agenda is as potentially damaging as the Conservatives’ internal squabbling over the place of social conservatives in their midst or their refusal to accept a resolution that climate change is real; nothing is as potentially divisive as New Democrats’ incipient fight over the definition of anti-Semitism or as radical as their proposed resolutions calling for abolition of the military and nationalization of major automakers.

Click to play video: 'Universal Basic Income: Can the pandemic make it a reality?'
Universal Basic Income: Can the pandemic make it a reality?

The biggest buzz at the virtual Liberal event is likely to be around Mark Carney, the former governor of the Bank of Canada and the Bank of England, and whether his appearance at the convention signals an intention to finally take the plunge into partisan politics.

“It looks pretty tame, doesn’t it?” chuckles rookie Toronto MP Marci Ien, one of the convention co-chairs.

“But I have to say tame isn’t a bad thing.”

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Whereas the Conservative convention featured an attempted takeover by anti-abortion forces within the party, Ien says the Liberals will be talking about how the pandemic has hit women hardest and how to ensure an economic “she-covery.”

And whereas the Conservatives voted against a resolution recognizing that climate change is real, she says Liberals will be hearing from Carney, now the United Nations special envoy on climate action and finance, and Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault, a prominent environmentalist before jumping into politics, on what more needs to be done to combat the environmental crisis.

There’ll also be panels and workshops on systemic racism, reconciliation with Indigenous People, agriculture and protecting Canadians during the ongoing pandemic, among other things.

“These are the things that we’re focusing on, that we think are important,” says Ien,

Thursday night, the convention will feature a conversation between Chrystia Freeland, the current finance minister who’s preparing to deliver a budget in just over a week that will be dripping in historic amounts of red ink, with Paul Martin, the former Liberal finance minister (and prime minister) who tamed what now seems a comparatively puny deficit back in the 1990s.

Registered Liberals will also hear all about how to run a campaign safely, should their minority government fall or provoke an election during the pandemic. Most of that advice, from various panels sprinkled throughout the three days, will not be for public consumption.

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But there will be one open session about running a virtual campaign with two veterans of last fall’s U.S. presidential campaign: Caitlin Mitchell, senior digital adviser for the Biden-Harris ticket, and Muthoni Waambu Kraal, former national political and organizing director for the Democratic National Committee.

The convention itself will be entirely virtual, testing the party’s ability to appeal to Canadians without the normal visuals or hoopla that attend in-person conventions.

Click to play video: 'How the pandemic is impacting the latest business headlines including the upcoming federal budget'
How the pandemic is impacting the latest business headlines including the upcoming federal budget

Ien says the pandemic-induced digital convention has one upside: it’s allowing people, who might not have been able to afford travel and hotel bills, to take part from the comfort of their homes. The result is the largest policy convention in the party’s history, with more than 4,000 Liberals registered to take part as of Wednesday and more expected to join in.

It’s also forced convention organizers to find innovative ways to engage the virtual delegates. Ien, who will be hosting a conversation Friday evening with Carney, says she intends to use Instagram to solicit questions to put to the former central banker.

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One question is undoubtedly top of mind with most Liberals: Will Carney run for the party in the next election?

“I’ll ask him and let him know that there are many people inquiring, including you,” Ien says.

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