So, many people have asked what I thought of the thinkers conference. I was hesitant to write anything, as I am far from objective (I was involved in planning early iterations of the conference, some aspects of which made it into the final event), but for what it’s worth, here are a couple of comments.
The use of new media, directly integrated into the conference was one of the best i have ever seen. A real accomplishment. Ignatieff was blown away that people were asking questions live to panelists from Nunavut and Labrador. And he was right to be. This is a huge accomplishment for the web team, who have fought to get the freedom, flexibility and independence they need to engage properly in the new media world. After this conference, they have earned the space they need. Congrats go to my friend Marc Gendron, who leads the team.
Some of the panels were very good. The pensions session in particular was serious and presented a real range of diverse options. For the most part the Davos style worked very well. The buzz in the room was quite positive. If the Liberal party emerges from the conference with a clear sense that the health care status quo will bankrupt the provinces, and that the demographic shift has massive economy-wide implications (both of which were repeated over and over), then this is a positive on the policy front.
On the more critical side, I would have three comments.
First, the speakers were dominated by usual suspects. While some were great (Fortin, Dodge, Fowler and Stein in particular), others felt tired, and as if the party was looking back rather than forward. This could have been an ideal place to give voice to a new generation of policy thinkers – those the Liberal party will need to help them develop a 21st century agenda.
Second, the speakers generally outlined problems, rather than solutions. In the opening scene setting session, this was useful. Fortin’s powerful demographic prognosis was the bitter pill necessary to frame a serious conference. The subsequent thematic panels, however, would have been more effective had each speaker been asked for an innovative policy idea. These ideas could have then focused the discussion and provided focal points for post conference planning. What’s more, asking each speaker for innovative, out of the box ideas, could have identified policies and ideological perspectives that should be brought into the mainstream discourse. This is precisely what Cameron is doing in the UK – who in one year, has brought Philip Blond’s big society ideas from radical niche policy to a central pillar of his manifesto. In so doing, he is re-aligning the British political spectrum – exactly, in my opinion, what Ignatieff needs to do.
Third, while many friends were there and it was a lot of fun, the audience was the wrong demographic. They were overwhelmingly Liberal partisans, mostly from 1990s governments, a vast majority older male. This is undoubtedly due to the significant entrance fee, and the fact the payment had to be made to the party. The result is there was a feeling of reunion, rather than rejuvenation. Had the audience been more diverse – ideologically, professionally and demographically – then the conference could have legitimately claimed to be a non-partisan event. As Andrew Potter wryly called out in his scathing column on the media’s treatment of the conference, the partisanship of the audience became overwhelmingly clear during Ignatieff’s closing speech. The speech to me got the tone of the event wrong. It’s campaign style, and the drumbeat standing ovations from the crowd, surely made the few non-partisans present uncomfortable.
In the end, when the conference planning was moved into the OLO, I think a conscious decision was made to play it safe. To not go for a “game-changer”, but rather an incremental step in the policy development process. With this goal in mind, the conference should be deemed a success. And as I said, the use of new media has established a new standard for Canadian policy conferences. In my opinion, however, by focusing on problems rather than solutions, by relying on usual suspect speakers, and by inviting a partisan audience, the conference limited its reach and its potential to transform the political narrative outside of the political bubble.