When Mike Crawley won the presidency of the Liberal Party of Canada in January 2012, defeating Sheila Copps, Alexandra Mendes and Ron Hartling at the party’s biennial convention in Ottawa, the party faced a number of challenges: declining public support, a weary volunteer base and a worrying fundraising gap. Add to that running a leadership race, and creating a supporter system at the direction of the delegates as part of that leadership process.
Two years later, as Liberals prepare to elect Crawley’s successor in February at the next biennial convention in Montreal, it’s a very different scenario. The party is riding high in the polls under a popular new leader, volunteers are engaged, the party just had its best fundraising quarter in recent memory and the supporter system brought 300,000 Canadians into the Liberal fold.
I recently interviewed Crawley about his term as president, and his advice for his successor. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
What do you see as the role of party president, and has that changed since you took the job?
The role of the president depends on what the party is going through at that given moment in history. For the first portion of my term I was a very active president. The board had to manage the decisions around the leadership selection process, and one of my roles was to ensure there was a number of candidates contesting the leadership, and encourage candidates to seek the leadership. Later the role changed somewhat, and was much more about acting as the voice of the membership, speaking to the leader on the wishes of the membership, and providing oversight of the party for the members as well.
What were you seeking to accomplish when you took on the job?
I wanted to create a much more cohesive party. PTAs (provincial and territorial associations), ridings, and the Liberal Party national office need to work together as one, not as separate silos. I think that’s been a chronic problem the party has had for years. I think we’ve made great progress in breaking down a number of those barriers, particularly between LPC and the PTAs, and they’re working much more in concert than I’ve ever seen before.
The second was to build an on the ground political organization, which to a great extent the party hasn’t had in many years. We’ve made great progress getting a network of field organizers across the country, and uploading paperwork and administration from the provinces so they can focus on field organization.
Third was to improve our fundraising capacity and modernize the fundraising infrastructure of the party. On that score it’s been great progress. The recent fundraising results are a result of the leader and his popularity, but were also aided by the enhanced infrastructure we’ve created.
Finally, the selection of the leader was critical, at a key juncture for the party, and we took the time to have a truly open and competitive process. I think we had the most open leadership process any party has had in Canada at the federal level. Over 300,000 people were engaged and became involved. We accomplished a lot of what we set out to in that regard, and taking the time to run an open leadership process has served the party well.
Was there anything that was unexpected?
There were a lot of people eager to be part of the change, and really renew the party.
I was probably a bit surprised at some of the resistance there was to some of the (organizational and administrative) changes. Probably more resistance than I’d thought, but we got there in the end. It was difficult sometimes. We tend to cling to what we’ve got. My view at the time was that we needed to make the big changes we’ve been putting off. Different parts of the party should act as one. Having separate PTAs with boards that are accountable to ridings is not exclusive of working together.
There’s still a lot to be done creating channels and vehicles for open policy discussion and debate within the party. The Justin Trudeau campaign did some great stuff with SoapBox during the campaign, and bringing some of those processes over into the party would be a good thing.
Was the supporter system a success? Should it be reformed?
The supporter system was a big success. It brought a lot of new people into the party. We’re having some success converting them into more active participants in the party. In terms of opening up the party, it achieved what we needed it to, it was the right vehicle. We won’t be in a leadership race for years so there’s time for tweaks but we’re making good progress, and we’re looking at new, different and creative ways to engage with supporters.
Is the party ready for the end of the public subsidy provided to political parties?
We certainty are. We’ve had that date fixed in our minds since the beginning of my term. Staff, and Mr. (Bob) Rae when he became interim leader, were very fixed on that looming date. We’ve come a long ways to relying solely on individual donations. We’ve had our best December, our best quarter in Q4, and all the evidence is the party is able to compete with the Conservatives on fundraising without this public subsidy.
What would you say is the biggest challenge facing your successor?
The obvious challenge is winning the 2015 election. That we put forward as strong a campaign as possible, that we’re as organized as possible across the country. That’s the obvious challenge for the next president, working in concert with the leader and the election readiness team.
What advice would you give your successor?
My advice would be take the big steps to open up the party, to build a more cohesive party, and be vigilant in making sure the organization doesn’t slip back into some of those old bad habits.
Any final thoughts?
It’s been an honour to be president of our party at such a critical juncture in its history. I truly enjoyed working with Mr. Rae, Mr. Trudeau and the board of the party in moving it forward.