Liberal Biennial – From The Floor

A team from NATIONAL’s Ottawa office is on the ground at the national Liberal Party convention in Halifax. Consultant Fernando Melo reports from the convention floor on the mood of delegates, what they’re hearing, and the strategy behind it. 

As Liberals gather in Halifax this week, the convention seems to be coalescing around a single ethos: “We have come so far, but there is more work yet to be done.” The conference centre is full of reminders of projects undertaken by the Liberal government, alongside exultations to keep up the “Hope and Hard Work” that brought the Liberals to a majority government in 2015. This is a Liberal Party gearing up to spend the next 18 months in election mode.

While the keynotes and big players won’t take the stage until this weekend, the ongoing policy discussions and speeches from an assortment of cabinet ministers provide hints about the party’s potential election messaging. Unlike in the lead-up to the 2015 election, the Liberal Party doesn’t appear to feel like the 2019 election will be run on the economy. Instead, they seem headed towards a focus on social issues. At the very least, it seems the party will be pushing social issues throughout the next 18 months and seeking to frame these discussions to their advantage. Minister of Transport Marc Garneau noted that this government has done the work to get the economy back on track, and now is the time to ensure that all Canadians can benefit from it. Do not be surprised to hear this mantra repeated right through until October 2019.

Outgoing Liberal Party President Anna Gainey kicked off the first night’s plenary session with a reminder that the 2015 election did not mean the end of the Liberal Party’s hard work. She highlighted the fact that over 100,000 new members have joined the party and that in 2017 and throughout 2018 Liberal activists across the country have continued to engage with their communities through national Days of Action. This level of community engagement, said Liberal Premier of Nova Scotia Stephen McNeill, would be the key to the federal Liberals replicating his party’s feat of winning a legislative majority. The party is using the convention as an opportunity to energise their base, reminding them of the successes of 2015, while preparing the groundwork for another large-scale volunteer effort.

The party faithful were told that the reason they must work hard to return a majority Liberal government in 2019 was “not about power, but purpose” by Halifax Mayor and former MP Mike Savage. This purpose was to build a more inclusive Canada, a Canada that is open for all to be whom they are, and to work together for a stronger and brighter future. This policy of inclusion, particularly of Indigenous and new Canadians, will be the general theme that the Liberals run on in 2019, as the party doubles down on the positive messaging seen in 2015.

Treasury Board President Scott Brison highlighted this message of inclusiveness by giving a brief history of how the Liberal Party has been the champion of equal rights and inclusion for all, arguing that it was Liberals who helped create the environment where LGBTQ individuals can be who they are without fear or shame. He credited the Liberal-drafted Charter of Rights and Freedoms and successive legislation for this success, and called on all at the convention to defend this legacy and build on it for a more inclusive future. This call will be echoed in Liberal messaging over the next 18 months, with the party focused on developing policy that brings more marginalized peoples into the mainstream.

Mr. Brison noted that the work being done at this convention had the possibility of being as important to Canada’s future as the aforementioned Charter of Rights. The message is clear: the Liberal Party is on a mission to continue building an inclusive Canada by winning more electoral victories.

This party is squarely focused on invigorating its base and newfound supporters for the 2019 federal election. The action thus far provides a glimpse into the next 18 months on the federal scene. The tone of the convention is that of a party ready to defend its record. The Liberal Party knows its strengths: social issues, inclusive messaging, and a strong base of supporters. They will attempt to frame the “ballot question” around these areas in 2019, allowing them to play to their strengths.