"Dude, what the hell?"
Actually, a lot of folks have been very supportive and hopeful about my decision to join the NDP. But now that the swirl of interviews is over, I wanted to explain my decision in something longer than a tweet or sound bite. Basically, it's all about ideas. I know it isn't the safe choice, or the politically easy one. But for me, it is the right one.
So, by now you likely know that I've accepted an offer to work with Dominic Cardy and the NDP on an exciting new policy initiative. It's called "Our Province NB", and this will be a substantive approach to developing a platform with citizens from a variety of backgrounds. We seek out ideas from committed, thoughtful New Brunswickers on a variety of important questions. These challenge papers will come from thoughtful people regardless of their partisan background. Once on line, anyone who registers for the process -- whether they join the party or not --can comment, propose changes, and post their own response papers. The party's leadership must directly engage people in discussions. Later, votes on certain policy choices will happen in the open with full transparency, making sure the leader must account for his choices in light of a very open debate and decision-making process.
The initial topics are ones that are urgent, and that the two traditional parties seem to want to ignore. They include finding solutions to some challenges that must be answered in the next few years, such as:
How do we attract new creative economy jobs,people and investment in the sectors that are growing without putting public funds at risk?
How do we make sure that all our citizens can participate in the economy, tackling stubborn problems like poverty and illiteracy within the budget constraints we have?
How do we deal with an aging population, where senior care will require significant new spending, without shortchanging the programmes that keep younger families here and support their opportunities?
How do we make sure that our education system prepares people for the new economy while promoting 21st century skills such as problem solving, creative thinking, collaboration and global awareness?
How do we reform our government and its institutions to restore faith in our democracy, and faith in New Brunswick as a fair and clean place to do business?
The process won't shy away from proposing ideas, or in welcoming constructive debate. It recognizes that the next election will require clear plans and bold ideas from those who seek to lead, and that discussions should happen now so that voters can make an informed choice.
Lately, watching the Legislature has reminded me of that old joke about the two hunters who surprise a bear. When one starts to run, his friend warns him that he can't outrun a bear -- to which the runner replies that he doesn't have to outrun the bear, he just has to outrun the other guy.
If we don't attract new industry, reach citizens falling out of the economy, improve our schools and reform our democracy, New Brunswick will struggle to keep up. Lately, the two traditional parties have spent a lot of time slamming each other but little time spelling out real clear policy choices. It seems like they just want to outrun the other guy so they can win power, instead of describe what they would do about the bears that threaten our economy and our future. I want to be a part of a party that earns trust through ideas, not by just shutting up and hoping the other guy blows himself up.
I was impressed by the fact that Dominic Cardy wanted people who haven't always been his supporters to get involved and debate ideas with him. A leader who welcomes critics is a leader who won't be co-opted by a few close backroom advisors if he becomes Premier, and Dominic fits that description.
Now, many of you know that I've had a ten year affiliation with the Liberal Party. And, while my choice is more about feeling positive about this new process, I do owe you an explanation about why I couldn't find that same optimism about the place where I was.
There are lots of good people in the Liberal Party. I've long outgrown the knee jerk partisanship that suggests that one party has all the good ideas, or that any party is going to be right all the time. That kind of debate bores me, frankly, and it isn't helpful.
I have struggled since the last half of the previous government's mandate to feel comfortable where I was. I took my mandate seriously and worked within the government to advance the ideas I felt good about, like education reform, early childhood education and poverty reduction. I respected my cabinet oath to work from within, and through our party's renewal process I tried to be clear about the things that should change -- such as making real democratic reforms, rolling back costly tax cuts that didn't work, and depoliticizing economic development. I even backed a leadership candidate willing to support those ideas and add some good ones such as an environmental bill of rights. Some will say I should have given it more time, others will try to use the time I spent trying to make it work to question my sincerity now. There's no perfect time to declare an amicable split, but I do believe the Liberal Party has chosen what it wants to be and made it clear that it does not share the ideas I promoted. I should note that parties have every right to do that, as citizens have every right to decide if they fit with a party.
The Liberal Party has chosen a different route, one that entrenches the things that I thought needed to change. The new leader has made it clear that Liberals will defend the past tax cuts and continue to tell people that the deficit can be tamed by cutting alone. He has made it clear that he does not believe in structural changes to reduce the power of the leader and his advisors, but will keep the same model we had in the last government, where as long as the leader endures public meetings, he may make all the decisions. The Liberal Party will not be quick to support limits on patronage appointments or politicized economic development. Mr. Gallant says he opposes patronage, but he has managed to oppose every actual rule against it, preferring to get elected by saying "trust me to make better backroom choices". And the Liberal Leader stands by his stated opposition to things I believe in, like more financial support for making college affordable and an earned income tax credit to help the working poor. He mocks these as "making more promises", but for some of us, having things we want to accomplish is what makes politics more meaningful than a season of American Idol.
The fact that federally, the front runner for the Liberal leadership has also ran opposing the release of detailed policy options, while Tom Mulcair has sparked real debate on diversifying our economy and reforming our democracy is not lost on me. The Liberal Party is about to elect leaders at both levels who mock the very idea of proposing clear ideas, instead urging people to give them a blank cheque on policy because they are new and exciting people. If we were casting a Disney Channel pilot, I would agree. Because we are governing a country,I cannot. It is clear that we have suffered from Mr. Alward being elected without having to think clearly about what he believed in and what he wanted to do. The solution is not to elect another unprepared leader in anger, but to insist that the next election be fought on substance and ideas.
However, I remain hopeful that this can happen. I worked with Dominic Cardy on the anti-patronage bills and watched as the government yielded to good, solid ideas. I am excited by the fact that here is a party open to ideas and debate from those who don't support it blindly, instead of regarding criticism with suspicion. And I still believe there is room for people who want to enter public life for what they can do there, not what they will be there.
I am less concerned all the time with who gets elected, and more concerned with the urgency of good ideas. I hope that others will join a discussion that puts ideas above party, policy above ambition, and our future above all else. No party has all the answers, but at this critical moment, the leaders in public life best ready to offer an alternative to failed conservative policy and a government prepared to lead are Dominic Cardy and Tom Mulcair.