From February 20-23, federal Liberals will gather in Montreal, and one of their tasks will be to elect a new national executive. Last week, I published interviews with some of the table officer candidates. This week, I finish with the candidates for party president.
Two contested elections will be held for national board positions at the Montreal biennial – national membership secretary, and party president. The two candidates seeking the office of president – Brian Rice from Vancouver and Anna Gainey from Montreal, both offer impressive ideas and distinct visions of how they see the role, and what they’d like to do in the position.
I recently spoke with Brian Rice about his campaign, the challenges facing the party and the role he sees the president playing in meeting those challenges. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation. My interview with Anna Gainey will be published Tuesday.
What’s your background in the Liberal Party of Canada?
I joined the Liberal Party of Canada in January of 2009. That was the first time I managed to find someone who would accept my $10; I’d tried to join several times before that but back in the day it was a little harder. I realized that if I wanted to see a Liberal government, and if I believed in the values of a Liberal government I couldn’t sit on the sidelines anymore. All Liberals in the country need to get involved.
I called my (Pit Meadows-Maple Ridge-Mission) riding president, and he swore at me for five minutes that he was a Conservative and had been trying to get the party to replace him, and then he asked me if I wanted to be the president. My initial reaction was hell no, but I was turned around when I went to my first biennial in Vancouver in 2009. I met with people and learned more about what the party was about, and what riding presidents are supposed to do. Other than the past candidate, who wasn’t really that involved, I was really the only active member in the riding when I became president.
Over the course of three years I pretty much worked full time as a volunteer, and worked as hard as I could to start recruiting more active people, using social media to find like-minded Liberals in the community, build relationships with them and get to take positions om the executive. I’m extremely proud of what I did there; it was a dead riding and we turned it around and gave Liberals a voice.
Shortly after becoming a riding president, I was working in the New Westminister-Coquitlam by-electio for Tim Beck Lee. I’d worked on a provincial election, but just doing data entry. I was full time and I learned a ton; it was a great first federal experience being able to shadow someone with the experience of (campaign manager) Greg Wilson.
During that campaign I went to my first BC Federal Council meeting (composed of federal riding presidents in BC). I was nominated as deputy chair – what no one told me was the chair would soon be leaving – so I ended up as chair two weeks later, which put me on the LPC(BC) executive about nine months after joining the party. I started working in turning the BC organization around. Then I ran for vice-president of LPC(BC) and got that, and when David Merner stepped down to run for the leadership, I was president.
Why would you like to be national president?
There’s a personal side, and a party side.
I’ve discovered that I really like this. I was on the national board (as LPC(BC) president), and at first I was quite nervous. I’d heard stories about the way politics was done on the national board. I got there with some trepidation, but I found I was actually pretty good at the politics at that level, and I’m good at working with my colleagues to find a course that addresses everyone’ concerns and brings people together around common ideas. I really enjoyed my time there. I’m running because I think I have something to contribute, I’m good at the job, and I enjoy what I’m doing.
Then there’s what I want to accomplish. My focus has always been on the riding associations. I don’t see a path to victory on a modern campaign that doesn’t require well-organized, well-trained volunteers on the ground, making contact with voters in personal ways. That mean we need to have local organizations managing the recruitment and training of volunteers, making sure they’re welcomed and valued. In my experience, and from the stories I’ve been told by riding presidents with longer, the party has never really been interested in riding associations, been in interested in what they should ne doing, and never provided them adequate training. We’ve been running the party from central for so long we’ve forgotten how to empower the volunteers on the ground to do the work they want to do.
I’ve been travelling a lot, and I haven’t found a riding without two or three volunteers that want to help make Justin (Trudeau) prime minister. They’re asking how they can help. They want to know what they can do. I hope to answer that question as president, and change the way the party and the board answer that question, so we can be much more of a service organization and give them the tools they need to be successful.
How’s your French coming along?
It’s coming along very slowly. I’ve learned that trying to learn French in the middle of a national campaign; they’re mutually exclusive activities. I wake up in the morning and have an hour to make calls or learn French; I’ve been choosing calls. My wife and I are doing an immersive program with our kids in the spring in French. We’re going to go to Quebec and take an immersion program for one month. My goal is to, by the end of the summer, understand enough to be able to hear and understand what I’m being asked, and hopefully soon respond too, and chair meetings without translation.
How do you define the role of national president?
Constitutionally it’s pretty clear what the president’s job is: to chair the national board. As a result of being chair, they’re ex-officio on every commission and every committee of the national party. I think implicit in that role, one of the main jobs is to listen to what’s going on in the party and sit at all those tables not from a micro-management perspective but to hear what all those organizations are doing, find ways for them to work better together, and look for areas where they’re duplicating their efforts.
Staff also report to the national board through then president, and the president is constitutionally responsible for the administration of the party. We delegate a significant amount of the organization to the national director, but it’s still the president’s job to make sure the national director and the staff that report to the national director are doing what the board has asked of them. The board sets out the broad direction and they work out the details. I’ve witnessed on my time on the board motions being passed to direct staff to do something, and the president not making it a priority for staff.
Those are the two constitutional jobs; the other role the president has is to meet with the caucus and leader, meet with key stakeholders, and go to caucus when they have concerns about the party.
The second side of it is the fact I’m a full time volunteer and, while the president’s role is not full time, I have the ability to be full time. The national board and national director will have to device, when it comes to activities over and above the role of president, how I can be of service.
In BC, I walked into the office each day and had a conversation with the executive director with my president’s hat on, working through his problems and providing guidance. When that meeting was over I took off my president’s hat, put on my volunteer’s hat, and asked how I could help. I was able to fill a lot of gaps in BC by being a volunteer with a good understanding of what’s going on and being available.
I hope that’s the same experience I’ll have with the national director. I’ll be able to use my experience going across the country, meeting Liberals in their ridings and providing training, to help the party provide those services I’ve discussed. It will be up to the national director and the board; that’s not my decision.
What’s your first priority should you get the job?
A strategic plan. The party doesn’t have a strategic plan right now. I come from a project management background and I still can’t believe we don’t have a plan. We asked the ridings and the commissions to generate a plan in the last term and we still don’t have a plan. That, to me, is inexcusable.
It’s the plan that gives staff direction, but the plan also defined what the board thinks our success criteria are, and it’s how the members can hold us to account. If we don’t tell the members what what we’re going to do, how can the members hold us to account for doing it?
I’m big on accountability. The Council of Presidents is an organization with some challenge, but I’m hoping we can get it active again and they can hold us to account.
We need strategic planning. We’ve got two years, there will be an election in 2015 and we can’t just approach it willy-nilly. We need to actually create a plan.
(Other party office interviews)
(Other party office interviews)
- LPC national board candidate interview: Maryanne Kampouris for national policy chair
- LPC national board candidate interview: Arif Khan for national membership secretary
- LPC national board candidate interview: Leanne Bourassa for national membership secretary
- LPC national board candidate interview: Chris MacInnes for vice-president, English
- Exit Interview: Liberal Party of Canada national membership secretary Matthew Certosimo
- Exit interview: Liberal Party of Canada president Mike Crawley