It is time for the Liberal party to start ‘Doing’ policy.

Attack ads, counter attack ads. Lots of earned media so far, and with some actual media buys happening, I am sure there is going to be some movement in opinion polls, and very early voting intentions, but seriously, what does it mean 2 years out from the next general election? Lets take stock of what the practical results of the first two weeks of Trudeau’s leadership are. The most obvious practical outcome is the incredible success of the Supporter category of membership in the Liberal Party. The Liberal Party raised a nifty half a million dollars in the first 7 days after the leadership race ended. I suspect that by the end of this weekend, the total will be approaching a cool $million. Not too shabby for the third place Party, two years away from a general election! And how did the Party do it? Well two words encapsulate it: Trudeau & Supporter. Here is a copy of one of Trudeau’s ‘asks’ that tells us there were 7,000 donors last week.

First Look at our Ad

When Justin Trudeau was faced by an immediate barrage of attack ads, the Liberal Party was able to send out mass emails to an enormous number of recipients, largely because the supporter category had added somewhere around a quarter million names to Liberalist. I am sure that the social media networking drove more than a few donors into Trudeau’s arms, but the lions share had to be in the form of click-throughs from the emailed communications.  I am thinking that the skeptics about supporter category are taking a sober second look at the concept right about now, as I do not think that the Liberals have ever really seen anything like this. But here’s the thing. People are motivated right now. There is a lot of excitement still in the air over the recent Trudeau win, but those Conservative attack ads are going to start to have an impact. It will not be long until the existing lists start to suffer from donor fatigue. (Not to mention bumping up against contribution limits). Without something more concrete than excitement and enthusiasm for Justin, the edge will come off. The need to replenish Liberalist with fresh contacts, and the need to motivate and engage people who have not yet contributed will become an ever more pressing concern.

I will never stop believing that a great event is nowhere near as good as an effective PROCESS. I know it sounds ridiculous to say that the Leadership race, and this huge fundraising boom is not the best thing that could happen, but that is exactly what I believe to be true. To put this most excellent fundraising week into perspective, the Liberal Party blew the doors off, and raised $500,000. At an annualised rate, this would yield $26 million, assuming the same level of excitement and engagement were sustainable year round.  The Conservative Party raises between $17 million in 2009 and 2010, up to a high of $22 million in 2011 from about 100,000 donors. They do this dependably, reliably, and repeatedly because they have systematized their fundraising and outreach efforts. They tap into people motivated by specific policy prescriptions, or ideas, and that is why their donors dig deep into their pockets again and again.

So how do you go about building a reliable process to recruit, and engage new donors? Well the answer is to appeal to people based upon something more reliable than excitement and pizzazz. That something is, and always will be to appeal to deeply held beliefs, which means policy. In a sense, the Conservative attack ads are highlighting this fact for us. They are absolutely correct that without any policy substance, the Liberal party is not going to forge any kind of real relationship with the electorate. I think that Justin Trudeau is also correct, that policy that is delivered from on high is not the best way of forging that relationship, and engaging more Canadians. The Trudeau campaign has actually started a process of soliciting policy input from Canadians, utilising a tool called soapbox. The website is ok I guess. It definitely has been envisioned as both an idea factory, and a tool for harvesting resources, but there is something missing from it. To my jaundiced eye, there is a proliferation of disconnected ideas, and no real way to pull the threads together into common themes, and ultimately serious policy prescriptions. I am not an expert in website design, or social networks/forums, but to my mind, what is missing is a stronger guidance and structure, so that people can actually assemble online clustered about policy themes and statements. For example, The Liberal Party has several prominent advocates, and scholars of democratic reform in our ranks. I am thinking Stephane Dion, and latterly Joyce Murray. If they were invited to build an online community addressing electoral reform, then we could be assured that there would be some solid policy prescriptions being presented for debate, and a tool like soapbox can form the meeting place where Canadian proponents of electoral reform could engage ever more deeply with the issue that moves their hearts and minds. With a few thousand dollars of seed money, plus a plethora of social networking tools, I can pretty well guarantee they could build a community of many many thousands of Canadians around this issue. And naturally, there are many policy fields that could engage large and small groups of proponents, each with a few prominent Liberals providing the steady guiding hand. Periodically, they could be asked to contribute funds to an advertising campaign to promote their policy prescriptions to all Canadians, thus drawing in new participants, donors, volunteers, and members, whilst forever banishing the public perception that Trudeau, and the Liberal Party is bereft of ideas.

As I said earlier, I am not an expert in forums or social networking, but I guarantee that Liberals exist who ARE. I can also guarantee that without processes to draw in, and ever more deeply engage Canadians with the Liberal party, it is ony a matter of time before the Conservatives, and the NDP stomp the Liberal Party. Because the fact is that the Liberal Party IS at a policy crossroad. And both of out opponents are ideologically driven, with ideas and policy at the heart of  their party’s. My ideas along these lines may be fatally flawed, but it is definitely time to start the hard work of building the Party, and policy formulation has to be front and centre in this effort.

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