Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Primary Debates

In his Macleans.ca debut, my friend Jeff Jedras takes aim at the proposal Liberals will be voting on in January to move to a US-style primary system to choose the party's next leader and nominate candidates.

While I've already voiced my support for this system, Jeff raises three valid critiques which I want to take the time to rebut - one logistical, one conceptual, and one on the decision-making process.

1) Logistical: "One concern is the potential for shenanigans; supporters of another party signing up as Liberal “supporters” to vote in the primary and negatively influence the process, such as voting for the least-favoured candidate."

Again, I point to the Alberta Liberal example, where such shenanigans were tried (against a much weaker party) and failed spectacularly.

The reason for this is simple enough - most people don't give a big enough damn to try something like this, and those who do are too high profile to risk getting caught. Finding 50,000 rabble rousers willing to sign up and make Tony Genco the next Liberal leader simply can't be done under the radar, and whoever tried to organize a campaign like this would seriously hurt their credibility.

Seventeen US states let Democrats vote in Republican primaries and vice versa. Their rationale is that a candidate who earns primary votes from across the aisle, will also earn general election votes from across the aisle. If Karl Rove can't find a way to get Denis Kucinich the Democratic nomination, then I don't think we have much to fear here.

I know some are concerned about special interest groups taking over a nomination meeting, but a $10 membership fee isn't going to stop them - if anything, a supporter system makes a takeover harder since it takes more votes to win. If an anti-abortion group goes from needing 100 votes to 120 votes to win a nomination meeting, it makes it that much more difficult for them to get their candidate of choice nominated (remembering of course that all candidates still need to be green lit by the party).

2) Conceptual: "One of the key incentives for joining a political party is the opportunity to vote in leadership and nomination races. This proposal devalues membership. Already, during each successive election, it has become harder to get Liberals to volunteer to knock on doors, stuff envelopes, and get out the vote. We need committed members, and more of them, to successfully rebuild this party."

Here's the thing. By itself, party membership means nothing. The point of signing someone up to be a member is to get their contact information so that you can get them to knock on doors, stuff envelopes, and get out the vote. I agree we need more of these people, but the way you get them is by making it easier to join the Liberal fold. Consider the supporter system a gateway drug to lure liberal-minded Canadians into the big red tent (and yes, I totally intend to put that line, creepy as it is, on a button at the Ottawa convention). Once they've registered, they can be invited to become full fledged members, volunteer, and donate money.

Yes, we need to make membership meaningful to retain and engage members. But if we want to grow the membership, we need to tear down the barriers to becoming involved, and a primary system would do just that. You don't think a few of the millions who signed up to vote for Barack Obama in the 2008 primaries also gave their money and time to get him elected in the ensuing general election?

I know many are uneasy about "instant Liberals", but if this change means thousands of new Canadians pouring into our ranks, then that's fantastic. There are instant Liberals I signed up for leadership votes who are now more involved in the party than I am.

3) The Process: "The party executive wants to amend the constitution so the new leadership selection process can be adopted at the biennial convention in Ottawa January 13-15, 2012, barely two months from now. Meetings to elect delegates to that convention are happening now, and many are being cancelled and the delegates acclaimed due to a lack of people willing to fill all the available spots. It’s not as if this concept has been debated in Liberal circles for months. We’re just getting this now. We’re talking about fundamentally changing the most important thing we do—selecting a leader—and we’re rushing into it."

I know the Liberal response to every problem is to call a Royal Commission, but this gives delegates to the January convention two months to debate the idea - plenty of time to make up their minds. Liberals have talked about "renewal" for years without anything happening - it's time to get off the pot or shift the way we do politics.

The reality is we need to lay down the ground rules for the next leadership race before we find ourselves in the next leadership race. We're now a third party, and a series of rolling primaries would add much needed excitement to the contest, helping us introduce the next leader to Canadians.

I don't think the end result would be any different under one-member-one-vote or the registered supporter system. But, like Jeff says, process matters, and this new way of electing leaders would send a message to Canadians that the Liberal Party is willing to change and open itself up to Canadians.

UPDATE: Jeff responds to my responds here, to which I respond here and he responds here. At this point, I call him and argue Hitler was against a primary system, to which he calls me a redneck and hangs up. Let's agree to disagree and call it a draw.



  • In my brief experience of membership in the Liberal Party, the point of membership was so that you'd get hit up for money every month or so.

    Non-membership was much more pleasant and I remained just as involved in campaigns.

    By Blogger Brian Henry, at 9:58 a.m.  

  • Having had policy discussions punted to late 2013 or even 2014, what rights the Roadmap gives to party members regarding the design, passage and implementation of party policy is a critical aspect. The Roadmap does not represent any change in this area; there is no empowerment of the LPC members or new Supporters in this critical area; the old system of All animals are equal but some are more equal than others is continued.

    This lack of remedy for this obvious democratic deficit in itself is reason enough to be concerned about the rush to change. Perhaps it is time to slow the train down a bit and peer into its insides ...

    By Anonymous CuriosityCat, at 10:40 a.m.  

  • Dan,

    On the shenanigans angle, I won’t try to elevate it the level of a major risk. It is, however, an issue to be aware of. And there are indeed ways to mitigate it. I think regional weighting, for example, makes it a lot hard than it would be under a purely open system, as you’d have to move numbers in ridings across the country.

    The Alberta case was interesting. Ironically, I believe many conservative PCers feel small-l liberals used their anyone can join at any time model to help propel Redford into office. On the ALP, there may have been a half-hearted attempt but with the ALP even more of a non-entity than the LPC, why would anyone really bother? Maybe if they were a more credible threat; that’s purely speculative though. What isn’t, though, is that the ALP primary didn’t generate the waves of excitement and participation that proponents hoped for, and that LPC primary proponents are predicting if we adopt it federally. It wasn’t a bang, but a whimper.

    And if you want to draw on a U.S. example of primary shenanigans, how about Wisconsin Republicans putting up “fake Democrats” as primary candidates? It may not happen much at the presidential level, but Democrats and Republicans regularly play such games for other federal, state and local offices, although usually not as blatantly.

    Anyway, if they want to try a takeover I’d rather at least have their $10. ;)

    On value of membership, a primary system does nothing to tear down any of the barriers to membership, and it makes membership less valuable and attractive at the same time. We do need to tear down barriers to membership, and I’ve made several suggestions in that regard. Accessible riding associations, member-driven policy, that’s how you engage and retain members. Creating a separate membership-lite supporter class doesn’t tear down a single barrier, unless you consider a $10 fee and having to call yourself a Liberal being a barrier to being, you know, a Liberal. Let’s tear down the real barriers and get them to join, for real.

    I liked your drug analogy, so here’s another creepy expression for you: why would they buy the cow when you’re giving them the milk for free?

    On process, I don’t think wanting to take longer that two months (with the holiday season thrown in for good measure) to consider a change sprung on us out of the blue by an outgoing executive really equates to wanting a Royal Commission.

    Yes, we have talked about renewal for years. However, a) we haven’t been talking about primaries, and b) sorry, things have happened. We were both in Vancouver a few years ago when delegates adopted one member, one vote, after years of thorough, full and proper debate not just by delegates, but by all party members. This was a major achievement of renewal and reform, and although some are ready to throw it out without even trying it once, and while it may be easier for some to argue against a delegated system that no longer exists, let’s not pretend it didn’t happen.

    Look, I know there is a great appetite for change in the Liberal Party. But change for change’s sake is foolish, and just because something is new doesn’t mean its better. Instead of being presented with an amendment from Alf Apps and the current board and being told you’re in favour of “reform” or you hate the troops, we should take the time to consider this properly and think it through.

    Whether you support the end-game or not, rushing the process is still wrong.

    Finally, let me end by saying as long as we don’t have good ideas and an idea of what we as a party stand for and what we want to be and do, all the rolling primaries in the world aren’t going to generate any interest. It would merely be flash over substance, and that’s the same mistake we continually make in this party.

    By Blogger Jeff Jedras, at 12:29 p.m.  

  • The attempt to hijack the Alberta Liberal Party failed because it wasn't nessessary.

    Alberta Liberals seemed quite willing to elect the worst candidate possible without outside help.

    By Anonymous Frank, at 1:00 p.m.  

  • I think regional weighting, for example, makes it a lot hard than it would be under a purely open system, as you’d have to move numbers in ridings across the country.

    Doesn't that make it easier? You can hijack a lot more 50-member RAs than 500-member ones.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:03 p.m.  

  • Thanks for the response Jeff.

    I agree on the final point you raise. A flashy primary system won't make up for a lack of substance, but I do think if we have some substance to back it up, a primary system could help showcase this substance. Regardless, I don't think anyone would argue this is a panacea or should be done instead of other renewal options.

    As for the other points:

    1. The Republican shenanigans you mentioned FAILED and "fake" candidates would never pass a green light committee regardless. Like you said, not a huge threat.

    2. On Alberta, the Alberta Liberals still doubled the votes from their 2008 leadership race. I won't say that was all because of the primary system, but that's hardly a wimper.

    And you still have to pay for a PC membership, so if Liberals got Redford elected, that's hardly a strike against a supporter system.

    3. On value for membership, the end goal isn't getting people to pay $10 for a membership - it's getting them to advocate about the party to their friends, volunteer, and donate money. If it takes some free milk to get them to do that, then let's give out some free milk. We get their contact info and data when they're a supporter, all we lose is their $10.

    And I do think there is a bit of a psychological barrier to joining a political party just as there is to joining any organization. The spin will be the Liberals have opened the party and are encouraging all Canadians to participate in the selection of the next Liberal leader - that might make some of the millions who vote Liberal but have never taken out a Liberal membership at least consider signing up.

    4. On timelines, was there really a lot more than a 2 month debate on WOMOV? I mean, the primary idea has been talked about informally for years, was floated to the media this summer, and has been formally released 2 months before convention. I don't think there was much debate on WOMOV until at least February 2009 when the coalition crisis had passed.

    People should be able to make up their minds in 2 months, especially since this proposal will have a lot more buzz around it than most constitutional ammendments.

    I've criticized Apps on many occasions, but I'm willing to consider the proposal on its merits because I know the idea has been advanced by a lot of grassroots Liberals at renewal workshops since the election too. In the end, Liberals, not the national executive, will vote on it so this isn't a case of a new system being imposed on us.

    By Blogger calgarygrit, at 1:06 p.m.  

  • I would ban anyone who has given to another political party from voting in these primaries. This measure would lessen the potential for games, because it removes the hardcore partisans, who are engaged and most apt to mess around.

    Jeff is right when he says we need ideas, primaries won't motivate. However, if we have someone with an attractive message, this process allows for a "spark" that can resonate beyond the small circle of Liberals. Primaries will go nowhere without people armed with compelling ideas, but primaries can go farther if we have people with compelling ideas.

    By Blogger Steve V, at 1:18 p.m.  

  • Anon,

    You can hijack a lot more 50-member RAs than 500-member ones.

    If it's purely open, you can sign up members anywhere you can get them. They could all be in Toronto. The number of members in a riding is irrelevant if it's pure, unweighted OMOV. Only the raw numbers matter.

    In a weighted model, either primary or WOMOV, 1k members in one Toronto riding only gets you one riding out of 308. To be successful you'd need to build an organization across the country. And finding mischief makers in a few hundred ridings across the country is a lot bigger organizational and logistical challenge than doing a mass sign-up in your backyard.


    1. That the US example failed wasn't the point. I was trying to counter the proposition that shenanigans don't occur in the US system. Successful or not (and they don't always fail), they do happen.

    2. And the NDP just tripled their membership in Quebec. But you don't need to be a stats major to know why such figures can be highly misleading... :)

    3. There are many other ways to build a database. We have opened up the voting with OMOV, and yet most people seem determined to argue against a delegated system that no longer exists, except to pass this reform, of course.

    I'm not concerned at all what spin media and our opponents would care to put on whatever we do. It would be ironic, since the CPC has the same system we do now; the NDP is unweighted WOMOV. The haters will hate whatever we do. We should do what we thing is right, whether it's primaries or OMOV, and potential spin shouldn't be a consideration.

    My bottom line is I don't see that big a psychological barrier between members and supporter so that 1ks of people are going to flock to help pick the leader of the third party that wouldn't have otherwise. But I see a lot of negatives I've already outlined.

    4. OMOV was debated in various forms going back at least to 2005. It was debated and defeated in an unweighted version in Montreal in 2006, and debated over the years that followed and during the aborted 2008 leadership race before being adopted in Vancouver in 2009. That's at least four years and two conventions worth of debate. That's a lot more than two months.

    How many ridings have held meetings to debate a primary? How many will before thise that can afford to be delegates go and decide in January.

    I hope some will, but I fear many won't. And while we're trying to build the base, leaving a lot of people out would be a step backward.

    By Blogger Jeff Jedras, at 1:25 p.m.  

  • I would ban anyone who has given to another political party from voting in these primaries

    That would make it pretty awkward for certain leadership and presidential candidates.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:38 p.m.  

  • It's ridiculous that any of these proposals are being put forth prior to consultation with any then voting on by the PTAs. Hell, LPCO hasn't even had an AGM since Feb. 2010. Which means the greateast amount of Liberal members are not even being asked to vote on such notions prior to a national convention. It also means that Ontario Libs will not be ringing forth any of their own resolutions.

    We havent even had aleadeership vote by WOMOV yet and we want to trash it? Really Dan? So much for our hard fought road to get 'er done in 2009 where we had failed in 2006. Let's just spit on the memory of all those that spent years getting that through.

    By Blogger James Curran, at 3:11 p.m.  

  • oops that should rear "any of them being voted on"

    By Blogger James Curran, at 3:12 p.m.  

  • To the first point about shenanigans, it does take place. Living in Texas (one of those states where you don't register by party and where you can vote in any party's primary), it happens.

    I can personally attest to receiving phone calls from people in 2008 who were Republicans who voted in the Democratic primary just to try and mess with the Democrats (they were calling to get off Democratic mailing lists). There was an effort by conservative talk radio hosts to try and get Republicans to vote in the Democratic primary.

    Is it enough to swing who gets nominated? No. There are other factors that decide the nomination (at least here), and Republicans voting in Democratic primaries and vice versa isn't one of them.

    To make a long story short, shenanigans happen, but I don't think it's ever decided a nomination.

    By Blogger JMiddleton, at 3:15 p.m.  

  • James - I'd argue the primary system is just an extension of WOMOV, in that:

    1) It would be weighted by riding
    2) It ends delegated conventions

    The only difference is that you go from members voting to supporters voting.

    So it's not undoing or replacing WOMOV. It's just improving it by making it more open.

    By Blogger calgarygrit, at 3:56 p.m.  

  • And as for consultation, what I'd like to see would be some kind of online straw poll of all members on these changes before the convention. It would be cheap and easy to do, and would give some direction to the delegates on what the grassroots think.

    Beyond that, the convention is basically where members are being consulted. If this proposal doesn't get 2/3 support, it won't happen. I agree it feels a bit more top down than I'd like it to feel, but this isn't being imposed on Liberals - it's merely being put on the agenda to be debated and voted on.

    By Blogger calgarygrit, at 3:58 p.m.  

  • Yeah. Haven't tried one way yet, so let's improve on something not yet attempted. I have no clue as to why the Liberal Party bothers to write trivial rules and constitutions. We clearly have no intention of following them any time in the near future.

    By Blogger James Curran, at 4:05 p.m.  

  • If it's purely open, you can sign up members anywhere you can get them. They could all be in Toronto. The number of members in a riding is irrelevant if it's pure, unweighted OMOV. Only the raw numbers matter.

    I know.

    That's why it's easier to hijack a weighted-riding system than an unweighted one. You get a bunch of Tom Long members down in Gaspé, and you're in business.

    Signup-for-signup, you are better off organizing the living snot out of defunct or moribund ridings in unfertile and rural ground, than you are in trying to hijack the party in areas where it is strong and has large numbers of active members or eligible voters to begin with.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:17 p.m.  

  • >>>>
    get off the pot or shift

    Sometimes U really bring a smile to my face

    By Anonymous JBV, at 12:35 p.m.  

  • As per usual, Steve V is a partisan idiot

    Fact: Steve V doesn't care about the population or the system or the country - he cares about the LPC

    By Anonymous JBV, at 12:37 p.m.  

  • You may want to have a look at James Morton's thoughts on the matter at http://www.jamesforvp.ca/the-primary-option-open-nominations-open-society/

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