Balanced budget, electoral reform back on policy agenda for Liberals at convention

·5 min read

OTTAWA — Balanced budgets and electoral reform are back on the agenda for Canada's Liberals this week as the party holds its first in-person policy convention in five years.

The last time the party had a full convention was 2018 in Halifax, when the Liberals still held a majority government, nobody had ever heard of COVID-19, inflation wasn't a constant anxiety and Russia hadn't launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The Liberal government is also coming off a rough winter, with the government hounded by allegations it is failing to protect Canadians and the electoral system from foreign interference.

Most national polls have the Liberals trailing the Conservatives by several points in recent months, and some Liberals see the three-day convention as a chance to regroup and remember who they are and what they are trying to do.

"This is a huge opportunity to re-energize," said Greg MacEachern, a longtime Liberal strategist.

Many Liberal members of Parliament agreed when they were asked about the convention Wednesday.

"Look, we've got a lot of work to do," said Associate Finance Minister Randy Boissonnault. "We have a lot of ambition. We have a lot of energy, and we want to keep building the country and that's what we're going to talk with liberals around the country about this weekend."

More than 4,000 Liberals are registered for the weekend, though the party hasn't clarified how many are attending in person or virtually.

They will hear from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a keynote speech Thursday evening before Trudeau leaves for London to attend the coronation of King Charles.

Former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton is the main draw for Friday, a woman MacEachern said can still draw big crowds.

Having lost to Donald Trump in the 2016 election, Clinton can also be a reminder to Liberals not to let their guard down as they begin planning for the next campaign against Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, he said.

"She's a reminder of how not to be blasé about these things," said MacEachern.

A new party president will be elected Saturday.

But much of the three-day event will be set aside to debate three dozen policy ideas. None are binding on the party, but some could form part of the Liberal platform in the next election.

If the Quebec wing of the party has its way, that will include a promise to balance the budget. The resolution is one of 16 that are being "fast-tracked," which means they will go right to the convention floor for debate and vote, rather than having to go through additional discussions in break-out sessions.

The Liberal wings of each province, as well as the one that represents all three territories, all got to identify one policy resolution for fast-tracking. So did the caucus, and the party's commissions for women, Indigenous Peoples, seniors and youth.

Quebec's Liberals say that after years of high government spending to manage the pandemic, Canada's debt is too high, and they expect Canadians and Conservatives to "place significant importance" on managing debt in the next election.

Few members of Parliament or cabinet ministers would pick a lane on that proposal Wednesday, insisting it will be a healthy debate. But the push would be a 180-degree turn from the 2015 campaign, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's unexpected promise to run deficits to allow for investments in economic growth and families helped get him elected.

Trudeau promised then to only run deficits for three years, but the Liberals have never balanced the budget. For the last few years, they could blame that fact on COVID-19. But their latest budget predicts deficits will continue for the next five years.

MacEachern said the Quebec budget resolution is something that can't be totally ignored, because the Liberal party is a centrist one that has fiscal conservatives in its ranks.

"Keep an eye on the blue Liberal wing of the party because, you know, there are people that are concerned about how much spending has been going on for the last couple of years," he said.

Ontario Liberal MP John McKay is among them, saying Wednesday that while he understood the need to spend during the pandemic, and now appreciates the recent budget move to shrink the deficit, he would "prefer" for it to happen faster.

"I do think that you need to pay for what you commit to," he said.

The party's grassroots are also pushing for another return to 2015, in a way, with the British Columbia wing fast-tracking a resolution to resume debate on reforming Canada's electoral system.

Trudeau famously promised that the 2015 election would be the last to use the first-past-the-post voting, but did not keep that promise after he said a consultation process could not find a consensus for a new system.

The B.C. Liberals are calling out that broken promise as they call for the party to back the creation of national citizen's assembly to debate and put forward a new proposal on electoral reform.

Other policy resolutions relate to defence spending, affordable housing and combating disinformation and misinformation in politics. The party will vote on the resolutions that make it to the final stage on Saturday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 3, 2023.

— With files from Mickey Djuric and David Fraser.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press