The 1960 Liberal Party “Thinkers Conference” that recharged the party’s intellectual batteries and set much of the agenda for many of the activist Liberal government initiatives of the sixties.
By the time of its 1957 electoral defeat, the Liberal Party had been in power for an unbroken – and unequalled – stretch of 22 years. It was tired and out of gas, and its decimation at the polls less than a year later in the 1958 election confirmed the party’s crisis.
A generational shift of party managers took place under Leader Lester Pearson. Perhaps inspired by a 1933 Liberal Platform Conference in Port Hope organized by future Governor General (and then-Liberal Party president) Vincent Massey, Pearson’s crew devised the concept of a serious four-day “thinker’s conference,” held at Queen’s University at Kingston in the Fall of 1960, to bring together a non-partisan array of some of the county’s leading academics, business people and community leaders. With its learned papers and somber panel discussions, the Kingston Conference was a long way from a typical, hoopla-filled Canadian political get-together.
Among the eventual nation-changing ideas introduced at the Kingston Conference were national Medicare and the Canada Pension Plan, which would form the core of the Liberals’ 1962, 1963 and 1965 election campaign platforms and the blueprint for Pearson’s government.
Whenever the Liberal Party faced periods out of office in subsequent decades, it has sought a Kingston-style reboot.
The only truly successful Kingston sequel was the 1991 Aylmer Conference, which endeavored to show that new Leader Jean Chretien, a veteran of Pearson and Trudeau cabinets was not stuck in the past, and that the party had come to terms with the new realities – chief among them globalization and liberalized trade – of a new era. Once again, the discussions at the Aylmer Conference were a significant influence on the Liberals’ successful “Red Book” platform in the 1993 election.
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