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Liberals must commit to protect vulnerable

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It would seem that the Liberal Party of Canada had a very successful gathering in Ottawa a few weeks ago.

There was lots of enthusiasm. The convention attracted a large slate of delegates, including a good number of youthful members. Delegates were pleased with the way Bob Rae has handled his responsibilities as interim leader. Party finances look encouraging. An energetic yet experienced individual was elected as party president, and delegates passed a few resolutions to prove to the world that they are concerned with policy issues.

It did not hurt to have a newly elected NDP member of Parliament from Quebec defect to the Liberals on the eve of the convention, which speaks volumes about the thinness of the surge in NDP support in that province in the recent federal election.

Yet some observers continue to predict the demise of the Liberal Party as being bereft of new policy ideas, and still married to the concept of a strong central government imposing the taxes to pay for it all (in contrast to the Harper Conservatives who seek to empower the provinces and back down, if not out, of big-ticket national undertakings.)

There is no doubt that the Liberal party will have to come up with more substantial policies than legalizing marijuana.

I recall the first time I met and conversed with Michael Ignatieff, before he became leader of the party. He spoke of what he hoped would be the major objective of the Liberal party -- protecting the vulnerable. After he became party leader he continued to enunciate that theme on a consistent basis.

Protecting the vulnerable is what liberalism is all about.

In today's terms, it means improving the level of support to those who must rely on social assistance. It means increasing the inventory of affordable housing for low-income tenants. It means assisting those who face a future perplexed by dementia.

It means generating meaningful employment opportunities for the unemployed and under-employed. It means helping those criminal offenders who are candidates for rehabilitation to find a productive and law-abiding future. It means a health-care system that provides quality care to all our citizens.

It means creating educational opportunities for young people who lack the financial means of attending a post-secondary institution. It means finding new ways to address issues of poverty and hopelessness that still afflict so many of our aboriginal communities

Obviously, protecting the vulnerable is an enormous task. All who require protection cannot be accommodated at the same time. A government must have priorities, and must recognize that there are some sorts of vulnerability that are not susceptible to short-term solutions.

Protecting the vulnerable is expensive. Progress will be made only when the economy is healthy enough to generate the necessary tax revenues. It cannot be achieved without a strong central government, but one that allows the private sector to prosper and generate revenues.

Unfortunately, Ignatieff was unable to convey his concept of liberalism. He was so damaged by pre-election negative advertising that he was not perceived as a credible messenger. He was too easily thrown off the message in the heat of the election campaign, and particularly during the leaders' debate.

In the United States, one of the potential Republican presidential candidates, Mitt Romney, accused President Barack Obama of trying to create a European-style social democracy where the role of government is to take from the rich and redistribute to the poor.

That does not strike me as being too bad as long as it is not carried to excess.

Yet Romney, with an annual income -- together with his wife -- of about $21 million, seeks the leadership of a party that opposes any and all tax increases even on the super-wealthy. The role of a revived Liberal party must be to ensure that this county does not drift in the same direction.

So, yes, it may seem old-fashioned to some, but the future of the Liberal party depends on its steadfast commitment to protecting the vulnerable.

Charles Huband is a former Manitoba Appeal Court judge and former leader of the Manitoba Liberal Party.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 30, 2012 A10

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