Politics

Sex, drugs and pipelines: Liberals debate policy road to 2019 federal election

Thousands of Liberals are gathering in Halifax today for a policy convention meant to plot a course to next year’s federal election.

Policy convention will debate energy independence, decriminalizing drugs and a fixed link for Newfoundland

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes the stage at a Liberal Party of Canada donor appreciation reception in Regina March 8, 2018. Trudeau will speak to party members Saturday at a policy convention in Halifax that begins today. (Michael Bell/The Canadian Press)

Thousands of Liberals are gathering in Halifax today for a party policy convention meant to plot a course to next year's federal election.

More than 25 per cent of the expected 3,000 attendees will be 25 or younger — members of a key demographic the party must court as it works to fire up the troops and start building strong local ground campaigns.

"I think this convention will be very well served, and our party will be very well served, by having a new generation of Canadians offering their voices, their involvement and their energy as we look toward the 2019 campaign," said Braeden Caley, spokesman for the Liberal Party of Canada.

"Young Canadians were a really important story about how Justin Trudeau was able to build a winning campaign in 2015, and it's encouraging to see even more young Canadians are getting involved on the road to 2019."

Over the next few days, convention delegates will be focusing on the work of training field organization teams, grassroots fundraising and dreaming up new social media engagement strategies.

Members also will debate 30 policy resolutions, which will be narrowed down to 15 by the time the event wraps up Saturday evening.

As the government wrestles with a jurisdictional brawl between Alberta and B.C. over the contentious Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project, one resolution being presented to the convention by Alberta Liberals calls on the party to develop a strategy for oil and gas independence.

It calls on the government to consult with provinces, territories, municipalities, Indigenous peoples and other stakeholders "to determine acceptable infrastructure and pipelines necessary for independence."

Oil and gas independence

"Canadian oil and gas independence would allow Canada to ensure that domestic natural resource extraction and usage would be carried out more efficiently, safely and sustainably than in countries which export oil and gas to Canada," the resolution reads, noting that Canada imported 759,000 barrels of oil per day in 2016.

Other resolutions to be debated at the convention include:

  • Decriminalizing sex work and the sex trade
  • Creating an office of an independent Indigenous health care auditor to report to Indigenous peoples and Parliament, and an Indigenous health care ombudsman to respond to complaints from patients
  • Developing a comprehensive policy on restorative justice
  • Creating a dedicated Ministry of Seniors
  • Supporting locally grown food supplies in northern, remote and Indigenous communities
  • Creating an environmental bill of rights

Another resolution calls for the construction of a fixed link between Newfoundland and Labrador. A recent study found the idea of a link to be feasible, and pegged the price tag at about $1.65 billion.

Newfoundland Premier Dwight Ball estimates the link would take 15 years to complete and said it has the potential to be a "nation-building project." He compared it to the Confederation Bridge that connects Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick.

Another resolution recommends decriminalizing low-level drug possession and consumption. It proposes tackling the opioid crisis by treating drug abuse as a health issue and expanding treatment and harm reduction services.

Pointing to Portugal

The resolution cites the experience of Portugal, where criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of drugs were eliminated in 2001 and replaced with treatment or administrative sanctions. Since then, the number of deaths from overdoses has dropped and the social cost of drug abuse has decreased by 18 per cent.

The convention officially kicked off with a ceremony Thursday evening that featured a number of speeches and musical performances. Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil called the event a "launching pad" for the 2019 campaign and called on members to ensure Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wins back-to-back majorities.

"Let's not stop halfway through this. Let's continue to make sure he continues to be the prime minister of Canada who's a shining star on the international stage, but is also changing the face of this great country of ours called Canada," he said.

Outgoing party president Anna Gainey said that, with the election just 18 months away, Liberals can take nothing for granted.

"We know the stakes. Justin Trudeau's positive plan to strengthen our middle class is on the line," she said.

Conservative deputy leader Lisa Raitt, who will attend the convention as an observer, said of the 30 resolutions, 20 are about spending money and five are about new regulations.

"That seems to be so contrary to what our point of view is in the Conservative Party, which is how do you create economic growth and how do you promote (the) private sector growing more jobs. It's interesting to me that they're going to be focused on spending more money," she said.

Deputy Conservative leader Lisa Raitt will be attending the Liberal policy convention as an observer. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Raitt said the Liberal government has shown a fondness for high spending and debt, and these policy resolutions suggest there is no appetite in the Liberal grassroots for actions to rein in spending.

"What is said in that room often times becomes the Liberal policy platform, and maybe it will sneak-peak," she said. "If it's all about how to spend more taxpayers' dollars, then I think we're going to have a very, very clear path in 2019 about what we're going to be putting to Canadians in contrast to what the Liberal Party is putting to Canadians."

Guy Caron, the NDP's parliamentary leader, will also be attending as an observer. He said some of the policy resolutions, including one on guaranteed basic income, have come up in past but were not acted on.

He said if the resolutions are adopted by the grassroots but rejected by the Liberals as policy, they'll amount to no more than "public relations."

And if some of the resolutions seem familiar, he said, it's because the NDP has suggested them already.

Pitch to progressives

"When you just basically take the positions of the third party and pass them off as yours, it is very flattering. We are quite happy if it becomes a reality because the Liberals are in a position to implement those," he said.

"But I certainly hope they are not doing so in the hope of attracting progressive voters, then leaving them with squashed hopes."

Liberals hope to replicate the winning campaign of 2015 next year, and are beginning to lay the groundwork at a policy convention this weekend. More than 25 per cent of attendees will be 25 years or younger. (CBC)

The convention also features a distinguished lineup of guests — including David Axelrod, who served as chief adviser and campaign strategist to former U.S. president Barack Obama. Axelrod is credited with crafting a winning campaign strategy that encouraged broad participation through the internet and social media.

Other speakers include: David Miliband, former U.K. foreign secretary; James Curleigh, president of global brands for Levi Strauss; Tareq Hadhad, a Syrian refugee who founded the business Peace By Chocolate; and Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, founder of The Boardlist and an advocate for women in tech industries.

Trudeau takes the podium Saturday afternoon, and several of his cabinet ministers, including Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, will also take the stage.

The Liberals swept up all 32 seats in Atlantic Canada in 2015, and the Halifax venue is meant to offer a reminder of how the hard work paid off in the last campaign.

The Conservatives will hold their own convention in Halifax in late August.

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