Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The half-bold, half-timid Liberal Party Convention

There are three primary lessons from this Convention.

First, the Liberal Party of Canada is well on the way to a renewal that will stun Stephen Harper (who believes he has hammered in the final nail on its coffin with the elimination of direct public political party funding), and disconcert the NDP when they discover that they are being nudged aside as a party of protest.

Second, the amendments to the party's constitution show that the LPC is half-bold, half-timid, with a rump of party members who long for the old days of Liberal ascendancy without effort on our part, and fear changes in structure that mean the future is uncertain at best and perilous at worst.

Third, the results and the voting patterns at the Convention demonstrate yet again that in the age of social media (internet, twitter, facebook, iPads – you name it), conventions that do not involve substantially more party members and supporters in setting the agenda, proposing and adopting policies and constitutional changes, are antiquated, ill-equipped for the modern age, and lack legitimacy.

Let's look at the amendments to the party's constitution that passed:

The powerful changes to the fundamentals of the LPC are the incorporation of good business practices – the annual plan; the driving of the plan down to constituency level; the setting up of a Liberalist with teeth, able to do the job properly and match (and beat!) the Harper new Conservatives; the admission of supporters to vote on leader selection.

These changes are going to be the ones driving the LPC in its triumphal resurgence to the party Canadians trust most to govern this sprawling, compassionate, beleagured, energetic and stable country of ours.

We WILL fix our finances.

We WILL both plan and provide supporters with access to our progress in achieving our annual plans.

We WILL resuscitate the dead electoral associations in the 80 plus ridings.

Now for the bad news – the significant constitutional amendments that did NOT pass.

A good summary of the problem timidity caused at the convention is this, from A BCer in Toronto:

On the other side is an equally impressive list of actions delegates took to timidly embrace the status quo and avoid taking power from the leadership for themselves. Delegates rejected a plan to end the leader’s ability to veto any policy developed by the membership they don’t like. The leader can still appoint all the candidates they want. A total ban on appointments wasn’t on the table, and even a compromise proposal to limit appointments to 20 was rejected. A “ballot initiative” proposal to allow any Liberal to put a constitutional amendment or policy on the agenda at a national convention if they can gather the support of 5000 members, bypassing the need to get the support of a provincial wing or party commission, was rejected. Delegates even rejected an amendment to allow them to set their own rules of procedure for conventions.

There was also a balancing on the supporter front. After welcoming supporters to vote for party leader, delegates rejected letting supporters help pick local riding candidates. And the leadership race will happen across the country on one weekend, not over successive weeks in a series of rolling regional votes.
And the failed amendments are:

However, the problem this list of failed amendments reveals is that our elected MPs still believe there are two classes of citizens in the Liberal Party of Canada: them and us.

This elitist attitude is shown by the clear reluctance of the parliamentary part of the party to allow members and supporters any control over what the Caucus might deem to be policies worthy of inclusion in the election platforms, and the reluctance to put limits on the ability of the Leader and Caucus to parachute in candidates of their choosing and veto policies passed by majorities at conventions.

Alfred Apps was right when in his background paper to the Roadmap for Renewal the argument was made for more direct involvement of members and supporters in both deciding on policies and ensuring that their voices are heard and respected.

When we consider that substantially more convention attendees voted on the marijuana proposal than bothered to vote on the use of a primary for electing our leaders, we can see part of the problem.

When the most that can pass with respect to electoral reform is the preferential vote system to replace our achaic and undemocratic first past the post system (and with no meaningful debate on the virtues of proportional representation), then we see that our leaders and our representatives at the convention are more timid than Liberal supporters in general.

Only by allowing supporters and members to place items on the agenda, and participate electronically in discussing such items and voting for them, will our party have finally overcome its appalling archaism, and start remedying our internal democratic deficits.

Members and supporters should pay particular attention to the willingness of candidates who seek election as the permanent leader in 2013, to support remedying our internal democratic deficits and the deficits in our electoral systems.

Any candidate who avoids discussing these issues and committing to meaningful and immediate reform should by bypassed. It would be better to take a chance on a relatively unknown candidate then to be locked into having as leader someone who believes in first and second class citizenship for Liberal Party MPs on the one hand and the rest of us on the other.

So the message of the Ottawa convention is that it was a good start, but only a start. We have a heckuva way to go to become a democratic party, worthy of being elected as the government of our country.


  1. I disagree with some of this interpretation: http://blog.pocolib.ca/2012/01/over-reading-it/.

    Also not sure what you mean by this: "However, the problem this list of failed amendments reveals is that our elected MPs still believe there are two classes of citizens in the Liberal Party of Canada: them and us."

    I don't recall any members of caucus speaking on these amendments - though I could be wrong. And the voting was done by about 1000 delegates or so, so if they had wanted to overrule caucus they most certainly could have done so.

    As for electoral reform - PB was the only system that had resolutions submitted by the members, and there was in fact a long discussion about PB and its relationship to PR-style systems (like STV) in the sessions with M. Dion. He also addressed some of these issues during the plenary - briefly, due to the 1min time limit.

    We did pass one resolution that virtually bans "participat[ing] electronically in discussing such items and voting for them," though I believe this was largely by accident. I'll have more to say on this topic on my blog soon.

  2. Adrian, read the background paper of Alfred Apps - it very clearly sets out that there is a policy hierarchy in the LPC, with the Caucus and Leader being the primary level, and with power to decide which policies to adopt no matter what members think, and the party members are asked to become activists and push their own favourite causes but not to expect to give orders to the MPs they elected. This is stated in black and white terms.

    Of course, with the change in the election of future leaders by both members and supporters, and directly by them, any leader will face loss of office if he or she does not carefully poll and consider what Liberal supporters want the party to have as policies, both ongoing and for elections.

    A major reason for the LPC losses in May 2012 was the debacle of the platform policies - withheld until the writ was dropped, and then swept away by Harper's drumbeat of stability in bad times and no wicked coalitions.

    It is striking that the LPC has no policy of meaningful electoral reform, despite the strides being taken, for example, on the UK scene in remedying that country's democratic deficits.


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