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.

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