Monday, January 16, 2012

Both hope and fear drove Liberal delegates in Ottawa

Looking back on my three days in Ottawa for the 2012 Liberal Party of Canada biennial convention it’s impossible to craft one clear narrative – did delegates embrace bold change or put their faith in the status quo – because the evidence is highly contradictory. And that, I suppose, is typically Liberal: hard to and pin down and define clearly.

On the hopey-changey side, delegates elected as president a candidate who promised a “bold new red,” Mike Crawley, over a veteran party stalwart of the 1980s and 1990s, Sheila Copps. For the first time in Canada a political party will let a new category of members, called supporters, into the fold to vote for its next party leader without actually taking out a membership. Instead of the leader appointing both national campaign co-chairs, one will now be directly elected by members. And not only was a controversial policy on marijuana legalization actually passed by delegates, the *interim* leader put aside his earlier opposition on the issue to signal he had been swayed by the debate and would advocate for the policy and defend it against the inevitable Conservative “soft on crime” onslaught.

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.

Taking it all in, I’m left with delegates expressing an odd combination of hope and fear. The sense that we needed to do something big and bold was prevalent. They recognize the party is at a crossroads, and will either return to relevance or fade away. Underlying it all was a current of fear. Time after time, delegates expressed concern over what the media headline would be Monday if they didn’t do something big and bold, whatever that may be. Be bold, or the Ottawa pundit class will pounce. Members were even scared of themselves, insisting the leader continue to be vested with power on policies and appointments members can’t be trusted with themselves. “How can you expect a leader to run on a policy they don’t believe in?” one Liberal asked me when ending the leader veto was rejected. Sure, but how can a party expect to engage and mobilize thousands of supporters and members to campaign for a platform they have no stake in?

This week’s convention was never going to be the final verdict on the great Liberal rebuilding project, but it was important as both a starting-point and to set the tone for the task ahead. With the mixed results, we’re clearly pinning our hopes on a new national executive, a leadership race that is still over a year away, and opening up that leadership race to every Canadian that’s not a member of another party that would like to participate. In a sense, we’re putting a lot of our eggs in a few key baskets.

I opposed opening up the leadership selection to supporters for a range of reasons, such as the devaluation of membership. I stand by those concerns, and I’m disappointed other initiatives that would have helped strengthen membership’s relevance, and the responsibility of members in our success or failure, were rejected. I’m willing to put those concerns aside and work to help make this supporter system a success. However, my concern is that it’s not the panacea its advocates, including much of the party caucus and establishment, expect it to be.

That’s because I believe many Liberals still don’t yet fully understand why we were rejected soundly by Canadians not just last May, but in several successive elections. There’s a sense that if we just throw open our doors by making it easier to get involved as a supporter, people will come flooding in. It’s not that simple though. We want them to sign up so we can get their data and market to them, but we’re not asking WHY THEY would want to come to us.

It was easy enough for Canadians to mark an X for us in the last election, but they didn’t. Why? We weren’t offering anything that was relevant to them and to their lives. One non-Liberal observer made a salient point to me: partisans think everyone wants to be partisans. But most people don’t. They couldn’t care less about how we pick our next leader. They just want to live their lives. If we want to mobilize them it’s not enough to just let them vote for our leader. We need to find a way to speak to the issues that matter to them and their lives, and convince them that we are the vehicle that can bring change on the issues they care about, or they won’t be interested.

That is the challenge the party is facing, and on which the verdict of our future, or lack thereof, will hinge. We have made it easier than ever before for people to get involved with the Liberal Party of Canada. But now, we need to give them a reason to want to. If we do, this bold experiment will be proven a success and we’ll look back on this weekend as the beginning of a great comeback. If we don’t, our slide from public relevance will continue. The delegates left Ottawa excited about the promise of the future, but the hard work is only beginning.

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calgarygrit said...

I know we've gone back and forth on this 50 times already, but I think this line of yours is the reason the supporter system is a step in the right direction:

One non-Liberal observer made a salient point to me: partisans think everyone wants to be partisans. But most people don’t.

We're not asking them to be partisans. We're giving Liberal-minded folks a greater say in how our party is run, by leting them vote for the leader. They don't have to become partisan Liberals to do it.

I don't think anyone is hyping this supporter system as a cure-all to our problems (well, they shouldn't be anyways). In reality, a WOMOV member vote likely won't be much different than a WOMOV member + supporter vote. But if it lets us connect a bit more with non-partisans, it's a good move.

Vancouverois said...

Personally, I am amazed (and distressed) that the vote for your Party President was so close. If just 14 votes had gone to Sheila Copps instead of Mike Crawley, the convention would have ended with her and Bob Rae standing on the platform together - making any claims of "renewal" utterly farcical. How is it that so many Liberals failed to recognize this?

From what you say, it sounds like many Liberals are also still looking for some sort of gimmick - "we have to do something big and bold!" Well, no. I think that what the Liberal party *needs* to do is to get grounded.

What about the leadership? All week, the media have been speculating (or going so far as to take it for granted) that Bob Rae is going to go back on his promise, and run for the permanent leadership. The NCC has already launched an ad against him (although I suspect their motives for doing so are not at all straightforward). Is it true? Or is it just bored pundits making trouble? I know some potential leaders sponsored hospitality suites, and the McGuintys reported expressed an interest in running (although I've heard that discounted as an attempt to counter the coronation talk). Any sense of what will happen on that front?

Jeff said...

Sorry Dan but I think you misunderstand my point, and I probably could have worded it more clearly. What I'm trying to say is that, as partisans, we view this through a partisan lens, and the non-partisans we're trying to recruit view this differently.

Look at it this way: we're asking people to become supporters as a way of getting involved, and getting their data, without the commitment of membership. As the primary inducement or payback for them agreeing to become supporters, we're offering them the opportunity to help pick the next leader.

Now getting a vote to pick the leader is an awesome prospect for people like you and me; but we're partisans. Our lens is a little different. And while we may think this will be a big motivator for supporters, that prospect is tinted by our partisan lens. Most Canadians just aren't that interested in how we pick our leader, and that alone won't be motivation alone for them to get involved.

We have created a system that will make it easier for people to get involved a supporters, yes. But just building it won't make them come. Now it ties back to my larger point about our continuing electoral decline, which I'm still not sure widely get: we are increasingly irrelevant in the lives of average Canadians. If we want to increase our support, and our vote, that is what we need to address.

A great example is this marijuana legalization policy, which frankly is the one piece of news to come out of this convention that will be of any interest to the average Canadians. If we can own that issue, identify the Canadians who care about smart on crime policy and drug reform that we're serious, and we will fight to open a debate on this issue and work for change, then the supporter system becomes a great way to get these people into the fold and use our party as a vehicle to help drive their issue forward.

To use an analogy, we've built the car. But without any gas, we're not going anywhere. I'd like to see more attention going forward on how we fuel this party up.

Jeff said...


I intend to address the leadership issue in depth in a future post in the next day or two.

Vancouverois said...

Very good - I look forward to hearing your take on it!