The media pundits all say that Stéphane Dion, the new leader of Canada's Liberal party, has no baggage because his upset win owed nothing to conventional power brokers and insiders.
But I happen to know something about some old baggage in Dion's trumpeted commitment to the three pillars of social justice, smart economic development and enviro protection.
And what I know makes me very light-headed about prospects for transformational policies and very worried about the incredible lightness of being that's required when there's heavy baggage in ideas.
To be blunt: the joining of Dion's three pillars has its origins in a movement that's deliberately non-partisan - and it's a non-partisan movement that's going to see it through. Eco-Canadians, now hip to the advantages of minority governments, are increasingly inclined to ego-free action that starts with the needs of the planet, not the party. And pols who mess with this priority are not with the program.
The baggage I'm thinking of goes back almost 15 years, to when Bob Rae was in the middle of his term as premier, long before he was one of Dion's major competitors. The economy was in a downslide, and Rae went on TV with an appeal for public advice: should he continue with social spending and rack up heavy debt, or cut back on spending and focus on economic recovery. Workers of the world, give me a call, was his bold and courageous invitation.
At the time, I was a Greenpeace anti-nuke campaigner, and I knew enough to realize that Rae was wrong to pit social justice against economic development. I also had a hunch the solutions were bigger than both of us and would require an ecumenical effort. Lefties and greens had as much to unlearn as anyone, the thinking went, so there was no reason to tie this to any one party or group.
A few friends met to discuss a response: I was there, and so was Jack Layton, now leader of the federal NDP, who was just coming out of an unsuccessful T.O. mayoral bid and had campaigned hard for green economic innovation, and Gary Gallon, one of the most high-spirited, true-grit Liberals ever.
Gallon was still recovering from two terms as lead enviro adviser to the Ontario Lib government Rae had defeated. (Rae had campaigned as a green; he'd gained some notoriety when he was arrested just before me in a bid to stop the logging in Temagami.)
We called our pointy-headed associates to a series of meetings at Greenpeace's old Spadina digs, and we came up with a platform to create 100,000 green jobs that would pay for themselves via water and energy conservation and local food production. And we concocted an organization, the still-existing Coalition (as in non-partisan) for a Green Economic Recovery (since renamed the Coalition for a Green Economy).
None of us realized the United Nations would be sponsoring a conference that year in Rio to promote the challenging three-pillar idea. At the time, such thinking was unimaginable. There was hardly a sane person on either left or right, enviro or anti-enviro, who thought job creation, nature protection and fiscal responsibility belonged together.
That's the obscure origin of Dion's baggage. The basic concept enjoyed good traction thanks in large part to the late, great Bob Hunter, who took our ideas to the airwaves.
Bob Rae's government launched some of the programs suggested, the best known of which linked energy-efficient home renovations with jobs for laid-off construction workers, financed by low-interest loans. Layton, who soon returned to municipal politics, inspired the city's energy efficiency office and developed T.O.'s 1999 three-pillared Green Plan.
It's nice to think that the eco-economy connection is now old hat and safely ensconced in the office of the Liberal party leader.
But I think the origins of this idea create some baggage. Jack Layton needs to recover his inner statesman, which is what the best in Jack is about, and stop with the adolescent self-righteousness of NDP attacks on Dion's win. "A new paint job on the old corrupt Liberal car" is how they're sneering at Dion's new politics.
Elizabeth May, one of the first green leaders to champion the three pillars approach, needs to keep up her inclusive attitude toward all who've played some positive role. And Dion needs to remain an egghead, unafraid to acknowledge Layton's idea-popping role as an economic visionary.
Some thought has to go into the project of balancing the differences and commonalities among these three national parties before the next election. If this doesn't happen, the old-time party power brokers, with their obsolete politics of division and diversion, will leave us carrying the bag, weighed down by a Conservative government that pits environmental and social justice against economic growth.
Understanding the larger issue at stake will test whether these three leaders are really up to the incredible heaviness of being green.