Like Manning, Broadbent finds new life as thought leader

L. Ian MacDonald / iPolitics

Ed Broadbent on the left, as Preston Manning has on the right, has not only re-invented himself as a thought leader, he too has created a think tank that is a valuable source of ideas and public discourse.

The annual Broadbent Institute and Manning Centre conferences have become two of the most important events on the Ottawa calendar, tents where political soulmates can gather. Both conferences are notable for networking in the hallways, training sessions for young political activists, and partying well into the night.

“The idea is to have a good conversation,” Broadbent was saying Saturday afternoon as he sat in on a lively debate on Spending vs. Austerity. On the left were author and columnist Linda McQuaig, running for the NDP in Toronto Centre, and economist Armine Yalnizyan of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. On the right were former Conservative cabinet minister Monte Solberg and former StatsCan chief economist Philip Cross.

The boys in their blue suits were definitely the visiting team, while the ‘girls’ rocked the joint.

“We are,” McQuaig said of the friendly crowd, “just a roomful of people under surveillance by CSIS.”

On tax cuts vs. spending, Yalnizyan brought the audience to its feet when she said it was as if government told you: “I don’t want to make your life better, go shopping!”

Broadbent joined in the standing ovation. At 79, he still has that sparkle in his eye, and can still bring a crowd to its feet himself as he did in his opening remarks on Friday morning, when he denounced the Harper government’s anti-terrorism bill, C-51. “C-51 is flawed,” he declared, “C-51 is dangerous, and C-51 must be defeated by the Parliament of Canada.”

In a similar vein after a Saturday morning keynote on diversity and secularism, philosopher Charles Taylor blasted Stephen Harper for his comments about niqabs being anti-women.

“It is very dangerous,” Taylor, co-author of Quebec’s landmark report on reasonable accommodation, told reporters. “This kind of stigmatization is exactly what we’ve been trying to avoid.”

One of the tests of any political policy conference is the ability of organizers to attract participants from outside the country, to avoid the Canadian syndrome of navel-gazing.

open quote 761b1bThe Broadbent Institute’s Progress Summit demonstrated a movement and a party clearly united behind the leader.

Broadbent and his institute’s executive director Rick Smith did very well in landing Jennifer Granholm, the Canadian-born former two-term Democratic governor of Michigan from 2002 through 2010.

In the opening keynote on Friday, she simply blew the doors off the place.

“You wanted a Canadian-American,” she said. “Sorry, Ted Cruz couldn’t make it.”

Cruz is the Calgary-born first term U.S. Senator from Texas who, at 44, is running for the Republican presidential nomination. Because his mother was a U.S. citizen, he’s not disqualified under the U.S. constitution from running for president for being born outside the country.

She, on the other hand, can’t run for president because both her parents and grandparents were Canadian. “I have a constitutional ceiling of how far I can go because of my great Canadian birth,” she said.

It’s a good thing for Hillary Clinton that she can’t. A graduate of Harvard Law, Granholm is articulate, attractive and has managed a major industrial state through an economic crisis—the Great Recession of 2008-09.

Between December 2008 and June 2009, she said, 1,000 Michigan companies announced layoffs. And in Detroit, both GM and Chrysler had to be saved from bankruptcy by the 2009 bailout led by the U.S. and Canadian governments.

She also noted that 60,000 factories closed in the U.S. between 2000 and 2013. This isn’t all cell phones from China, or auto plants moving from Michigan to Mexico. Still, in a hall packed with trade union members, NAFTA we didn’t hafta is always a popular message with the brothers and sisters.

By the time NDP Leader Tom Mulcair arrived for a mid-day keynote, the crowd of 800 was ready to march, especially after Broadbent introduced him as “our leader.” But instead of giving a barn-burner, Mulcair was oddly subdued in his delivery. His speech was on a Teleprompter, which he doesn’t use very much, and he was clearly struggling with it.

He had an economic theme: “The middle class—and those fighting to get into the middle class are working harder but falling further behind.”

He also had an idea for ending income inequality and child poverty. Wait for it: Tax the rich.

“We will close the tax loophole currently enjoyed by CEOs on stock options and re-direct that money to low income families,” he declared. “This will be a dollar-for-dollar transfer in benefits from those who need it the least to those who need it the most.”

On his other populist themes– from $15-a-day child care to repealing the Conservative income splitting scheme—Mulcair has the makings of a core speech for the campaign trail.

Kudos to Broadbent on the left, and to Manning on the right. Their brands are built to last.