Wednesday, November 09, 2011

An Open Party

The Liberal White Paper on party reform has been leaking out over the past few days, and will reportedly be released in full tonight. I'm sure there will be a lot of worthwhile ideas within it, but the one likely to grab the most headlines is the proposal of moving to a primary-style system where any Canadian could register to vote for the next Liberal leader (and perhaps in local nomination meetings too). Without a doubt, this will be a hotly contested vote at this January's convention.

Before the rhetoric starts flying, both sides of this debate need to recognize this isn't going to lead to millions of Canadians stampeding out to vote in Liberal Party primaries. A $10 membership fee and the stigma of political party membership is a deterrent for some, but if you give a damn about who the next Liberal leader is, those are pretty small barriers to jump over. So when supporters argue it's going to double the party base and opponents argue it's going to lead to a takeover, they're both being melodramatic.

With that caveat given, I come down strongly in support of the concept, for the following reasons:

1. It will get more people involved in the party. Not as full fledged members, but consider this a gateway drug. First you hook them with the primary system, then you lure them into the seedy world of political rallies, membership forms, volunteering, and donating money.

2. The party will get valuable information from these supporters. In the new age of micro-targeting and fundraising, having additional data on Liberal-inclined voters is worth a lot more than a $10 membership fee.

3. Symbolically, it's the right play to make. It would send the message that the party is changing and that it's open. Voters have grown increasingly cynical of backroom old-style politics, and this would counter that.

4. It would create excitement and draw media attention to the Liberal leadership race. In the past, this would have been a given, but life as a third party is different. The next leader is likely to be an unknown to voters, so getting media attention during the race makes introducing him or her to voters afterwards a lot easier.

The argument opponents of the primary system usually raise is that it opens the party to a takeover. Poppycock. The Alberta Liberals switched to an open supporter system for their recent leadership contest and, sure enough, Craig Chandler's PGIB group threw their weight behind a far right candidate (who has since jumped to the Wildrose Alliance). The result? Their man finished fourth with 626 votes. If a weak Alberta Liberal Party can shrug off a right wing takeover in the heart of Conservative country, surely the federal grits have nothing to fear.

Even at the riding level, if a special interest group wants to stack a nomination meeting, they'll find the 10$ a head to do it now. A supporter system actually makes takeovers harder, since it means more votes are needed to win. Instead of signing up 100 anti-abortion activists to win a nomination meeting, you might need 120 or 150.

No, the only downside I see is on the financial ledger. Any leadership format outside of royal succession is going to lead to instant members, so there's an argument you might as well get some money out of it. This move will likely wind up costing the party over half a million dollars.

That's not an insignificant sum of money to write off. In the end, I think much of it will be made back by eventually getting donations from some of the new members and by making membership meaningful enough that supporters will want to join.

The payoff of opening the party up to all Canadians exceeds this cost. It would be a bold move, at a time when the Liberal Party is hungry for boldness.

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22 Comments:

  • I agree that in most respects it's a good idea, but I think it'd probably be better to go with a 2-stage primary, where the first stage is open only to members, and then the top three finishers from that race go on to the second round where any Canadian could register for free to vote.

    I read this idea on another blog today but I can't remember where; it was linked from a CBC blog post.

    By Blogger Brandon E. Beasley, at 6:34 PM  

  • I like the idea, but will anyone run for the leadership?

    Dominic LeBlanc is hiding, Scott Brison and Justin Trudeau are out. A primary system will not work well if Bob Ra is the only candidate.

    By Blogger Jordan, at 6:35 PM  

  • Apart from the American terminology, how is this different from One Member One Vote?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:45 PM  

  • To point out, one can argue there was a Conservative takeover of the ALP - he just went under the name of Sherman.

    By Blogger Volkov, at 8:00 PM  

  • If it is an Open Primary, then anyone can vote, even if they are not Liberal Party members. If it is a Closed Primary, then only signed up members of the LPC can vote in the primary, and they have to pay to join.

    Bob Rae indicated a middle ground: no Open or Closed but a kind of Half-Open Primary - if you indicate (his words) "broad support for the Party" and its ideals, you can become entitled to vote in the primary.

    This would be an attempt to widen the voters involved in selecting the Liberal leader and candidates for MP. It is like some US states which have the Democrats and Republicans allowing party members and Independents to vote. However, in the USA, you register as a Dem, Repub or Independent, and the voting roll reflects this, so it is easy to police.

    The risk of "raiding" or "hijacking" is greater for us because our voters roll does not show party affiliation. So we need some tests to prevent Harper's goons flooding in and voting for some fringe candidate they think will be a bad selection for the LPC.

    In earlier posts I recommended a Made-in-Canada Two-Tier solution: let all signed up Liberals vote first (using a preferential vote system) to select 3 candidates, with the winning one then be selected by a much broader set of voters in a modified open primary.

    This protects against hijacking, and gives signed up Liberals some say. The Tory party in the UK used a similar system of pre-selection in 2009 but the riding executive selected the 3 candidates. The results were wildly successful in gaining support in the open primary - see my posts on the doctor who won it.

    By Blogger CuriosityCat, at 8:13 PM  

  • A party takeover can be prevented through party bylaws, like the ALP did. Spending above a certain level must achieve majority vote from entire Board, which includes executive and rep from EVERY constituency. Pretty tough for someone wanting to take over party to take over majority of constituencies.

    By Blogger why_knot, at 9:58 PM  

  • I would be much more interested in another aspect of the American primary system. State based primaries, or in Canada province based.
    The race should take place over 5 weeks.
    The first week is the maritimes and has a local convention on the Saturday featuring a debate with all the candidates. Voting occors on Sunday and can be web, phone or in person.
    The next week same format is BC, the week after the praries the week after Quebec and the final week Ontario.
    This would build incredable media coverage. They can't help but get excited by a horse race. It would make everyone compete everywhere. It would compensate for the loss of a convention with the mini conventions. The media would cover the thing for 5 weeks!!
    The candidates would have to have strong teams everywhere and the momentum could shift, the strategies would be varied and it would be FUN!
    Coupled with the registered supporters angle it would be a huge win for the party.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:26 PM  

  • It's apparent that Bob Rae deserves a kick at the Liberal can, now that Dion and Ignatieff have been eliminated, after all he did run third in the last Montreal leadership convention.

    I can't think of anybody else who so fittingly represents the Liberal brand nowadays.

    By Anonymous Nola, at 12:29 AM  

  • Bob Rae is too old and won't to great in an election. Ontario is a key region that the Liberals need to gain in and that would be hard for him. He's effective in the House of Commons but he'd have a tough time in an election.

    By Blogger Jordan, at 8:19 AM  

  • Jordan - The race is still a year away from really kicking off so the candidates are obviously laying low.

    I'm sure there will be 3 or 4 serious candidates when all is said and done, even if some high profile names like Trudeau or Rae take a pass.

    By Blogger calgarygrit, at 9:33 AM  

  • Curiosity - the two-tier idea has some potential. I'm not sure it's needed in leadership races though - the amount of effort required to hijack a leadership contest makes it impossible to do without a public and concerted campaign, which would just look bad.

    But for nominations, having party members or the riding executive vet 3 candidates beforehand before the primary is an idea I like.

    By Blogger calgarygrit, at 9:35 AM  

  • Anon - I like the staggered primary dates too...it would build excitement and generate a lot of local media coverage, since you'd have all the candidates in the same regions at the same time.

    By Blogger calgarygrit, at 9:37 AM  

  • Great idea.
    Political partisans have hijacked the system (exactly as George Washington feared and predicted). I support this idea totally.

    By Anonymous Jacques Beau Verte, at 9:40 AM  

  • >>>Bob Rae is too old and won't to great in an election.

    Obviously, hogwash... just like when people said Obama was, sorry, too black to win. Or that Clinton was, sorry, a woman - with too much Clinton baggage. Or that Layton, sorry, was just too creepy in that moustache.

    Plus, the evidence of Reagan clearly proves this statement wrong.

    It's a pleasurable fantasy to imagine one can predict who citizens will vote for or against in advance, based on criteria the fantasizer deems important. But it's a fantasy all the same.

    >>>>Ontario is a key region that the Liberals need to gain in and that would be hard for him.

    I disagree. This is like when folks assert they "know" how Quebeckers or Maritimers or British Columbians will vote. Those folks are talking out of their ears - and relying on conventional wisdom. Humans are simply not conventional. Recently, Calgary, Toronto, Quebec, and the United States have proved that. Campaigns matter more than most prognosticators can accept.

    By Anonymous JBV, at 9:51 AM  

  • I just find it odd that Rae seems to be the only one speaking for the party.

    In a 34 person caucus Dominic LeBlanc, who I thought would shine, hasn't really been seen or heard.

    I don't expect anyone to come forward till next year but I find it odd that we haven't heard much from anyone else but Rae. I think about how Maxime Bernier pretty much toured the country speaking at events while out of cabinet.

    By Blogger Jordan, at 9:53 AM  

  • If Bob Rae was leader he would be hounded by his record as the NDP premier of Ontario. While a lot of what happened may not have been his fault, it doesn't matter. He will be attacked and it will work, just like it did to Ignatieff. The party needs someone with less baggage. He's excellent in the House of Commons and I think it would be fine for him to stay on as leader in the House if a leader comes from outside of caucus but Rae as the permanent leader will not work. Personally I like the man, he's funny and has charisma, but I'd have a tough time voting for the Liberals under his leadership.

    With the Conservatives unlikely to reach their balance budget anytime soon the Liberals need someone who can say they have a solid understanding of the economy, that would be hard for Rae to do. Someone like Ted Hsu could convince people that he is better suited to handle the economy over the Conservatives but I don't think Rae can.

    As well while some may not think his age is an issue the fact is he will be 67 by the time the next election is held. The party needs someone to stay on as leader for the long term, and having a 70 odd year old leader in 10 years doesn't really give off the image of a fresh new Liberal Party.

    However I do think he has a good chance of being the next leader. I listened to the interactive town hall and there was a few people saying they wanted him to stay on.

    By Blogger Jordan, at 10:07 AM  

  • >>>>I'd have a tough time voting for the Liberals under his leadership.

    Yep, that was already pretty obvious -- that's why you rely on your private interpretation of his experience and his demographic to "prove" your point.

    A Rae fan can look at the exacy same experience and demographic info and "prove" a case for him. They would seek a reason for him, and find. You seek a reason against him, and find. You can see this phenomenon, daily, in most political columnists (and their predictions are usually wrong - because humans are often unpredictble).

    By Anonymous JBVerte, at 10:20 AM  

  • The fact is he won't be electable, you can argue he's got lots of experience but proving that by looking at his time as the NDP Premier of Ontario is not going to work.

    By Blogger Jordan, at 10:43 AM  

  • >>>>The fact is he won't be electable
    That's what they said about Harper. And Obama. And Sarkozy. I think they said it about Bush, too. And Kennedy. And McGuinty. Nixon. Ford. Nenshi.

    You speak of a pretend "fact" which is imaginary, friend: you can't read minds or predict the future any more than I can.

    >>>>you can argue he's got lots of experience
    Think you're confusing me with the example of "a Rae fan" who sought him as Leader and/or PM. Me, I'm simply pointing out that you lack the magic powers you claim to possess.

    >>>>> but proving that by looking at his time as the NDP Premier of Ontario is not going to work.
    I didn't suggest it would, so I'm confused by your confusion. You think I'm talking about Bob Rae; I'm not. What I said was that "campaigns matter more than predictors are able to accept". And that, Jordan, is a fact.

    By Anonymous Jacques B.V., at 11:29 AM  

  • I don't understand these worries about a take-over anyway. If a candidate can get enough people behind them.. even if they normally vote elsewhere, then that's a pretty big sign that none of the other candidates on offer would have gotten the job done anyway.

    The only way you can argue against anybody having a right to vote is if you think some people don't have as much right to vote as others.

    By Anonymous Thwim, at 12:44 PM  

  • Allow me to propose a middle ground between the Fully Open and two-tier primary idea...

    Full Open Primary (for the mentioned "Declaration of Liberal Principles" declarers) but the first primary is nationwise for members. Essenually the LPC members become the Iowa Caucuses

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:06 PM  

  • I just love the idea that the LPC is looking at *yet another* way of selecting their Dear Leader.

    This will be, by my count, five different selection processes over the course of selecting three leaders.

    The Liberal Party is asking themselves what they stand for. It seems they stand for changing the rules to suit their current whims more often than they use those same set of rules.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:12 PM  

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