Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Policy and the Liberal convention: Critics missing the real controversy

Following an article on Monday’s Hill Times with a slightly misleading lede, a number of bloggers yesterday either chortled with glee (my dipper friends) or shook their heads in anger that apparently the upcoming Liberal policy convention would feature no policy:

The federal Liberals will hold a major policy convention in early May, but they are refusing to discuss policy ideas and say they are avoiding making any policy suggestions that the governing Conservatives can copy in the next election.

They say they are keeping their still-developing campaign platform top secret in order to keep the focus squarely on the government amidst the rapidly deteriorating economy.

"What your policies are going to be in an election are announced just before you go into it. You don't want to provide an opportunity for target practice in the meantime," said Liberal Senator David Smith, one of four national campaign co-chairs charged with preparing the party for the next election.
There’s an important distinction here that the Hill Times failed to make, leading to confusion. There’s a difference between the policy platform a part runs in during an election and the policy that comes out of policy conventions.

The Hill Times reporter confused people by mentioning the convention. What Senator Smith, and indeed most of the article, talks about is the party platform. This is being developed by Navdeep Bains on behalf of Michael Ignatieff. Parties don’t generally release their electoral platforms months in advance of an election. Well, Stephane Dion released a (green) chunk of his, and it didn’t work out too well. But have the Conservatives released their platform for the next election? Have the NDP? Of course not. So let’s not go crazy here.

There will still be policy discussed and passed at the convention. But the fact is (and this is a whole other post and debate) the policy passed through the convention process rarely, if ever, makes it into the campaign platform. It’s generally passed, and then rarely heard of again. There are exceptions, of course. During the Paul Martin government, an anti-missile shield policy passed at convention greatly influenced Martin’s decision on that issue.

But by and large, convention policy is ignored by the party leadership. The same goes for the Conservative Party. It could also hold true for the NDP, I don’t know. But then they’ve never been overly concerned with pragmatic, electable policy at the leadership or grassroots levels, so maybe not.

The real convention policy controversy

There is a policy-related controversy brewing around the Vancouver convention though I touched on a few weeks ago that was missed by the Hill Times and the others. And it involves a sharp curtailment of the say grassroots Liberals will have in what policies end-up getting passed at convention.

Usually, at convention various workshops discuss all the policies in a given area (say, environment) and prioritize which ones will get sent to the plenary for debate and then a vote to be adopted as party policy.

This year, rather than have workshop the process has been moved online. A debate has been occurring on all the policies on En Famille, the Liberal members-only intranet site. That aspect is good; widening the field of people able to participate from just those able to attend convention is a positive step.

But while grassroots Liberals will get to debate online, they won’t get a vote on which resolutions get prioritized and sent to plenary. Not a vote that counts anyway – that’s restricted to riding presidents, a far more elite and restrictive group then if we’d stuck with the usual convention process.

It seems there’s been a battle going on within the party over the policy process. Initially, the party wanted to give the vote to riding and commission presidents only, who would supposedly consult their constituencies first.

There was push back to the narrowing of this power to such an elite group. While opening the vote to all would lead to some legitimate issues, a compromise was proposed: let all elected convention delegates and ex-officios vote online through En Famille. This was rejected by the LPC policy executive.

Instead, right now any party member can vote for policy prioritization through En Famille. You have until tonight at midnight, although you wouldn’t know unless you happened to check the site. Thing is though, the vote is completely non-binding. The riding presidents and commission presidents still have the REAL vote, the only vote that counts. They’ll be informed of the En Famille results before they vote but let’s be serious; they’re going to vote however they want to vote.

Is this going to be the Liberal version of grassroots empowerment? We give the membership an online forum where they can talk policy until they’re blue in the face and feel like they’re doing something, while at the same time we restrict the real decision-making power to an even narrower group of elites then held it before?

That’s a step backward, not a step forward. The gap between the rhetorical promise and the actual implementation is so wide you could drive a truck through it.

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ChrisInKW said...

This is very frustrating. The policy committee "encourages" EDAs to hold meetings where members could voice their policy preferences to their president. I question how many riding associations have followed through on this. My president is less than receptive. This is not renewal, this is a step backwards. Why exactly am I attending a Convention if there will be no real workshops?

Thee Messenger said...

This is very disturbing ! In my riding of Peterborough many grassroots liberals have informed me they have never been contacted by the riding president on policy matters for the Vancouver Convention.

There have also been no " Liberal Helping Events " organized in this riding as of yesterday !

Mark said...

There's an easy solution for this. Every EDA should have the power to send resolutions directly to en famille, and EDAs must have a policy meeting in order to have their delegates accredited. Even if they meet and agree to send no resolutions forward, that's fine. They could (in theory) have their meetings on line. But they must at least present some opportunity to their members to table policy resolutions.

tedhsu said...

Here in Kingston & the Islands, our riding president will be consulting with the policy committee and the results of En Famille voting by riding members before casting her votes.
To some extent the responsibility lies with riding associations in this case to make sure there is consultation.
Now having all convention delegates vote instead of just EDA presidents seems like a good idea. But I would also venture to say that a good number of convention delegates signed up because of the leadership race, or because they could afford to go, and not because they wanted to vote on policy resolutions.
At least the present process gives some say to active riding members who cannot afford to make the trip to Vancouver and therefore did not sign up to be a delegate.

Steve V said...

"But have the Conservatives released their platform for the next election?"

The Conservatives didn't release their platform for the last election until a week before the vote, and only then because they started taking heat.

ChrisInKW said...

This is why I signed up to attend the biennial:

"In the workshops, only one resolution is forwarded to the policy plenary sessions of the Biennial Convention, while there, they will be added to the priority resolutions that were originally forwarded for discussion."

This is the only direct policy vote members have had until this year, which has now been supplanted by a non-binding on-line exercise in futility operating under the guise of inclusion. Not a good thing. I don't understand why someone would attend "because they can afford to go" or why they'd attend for a leadership campaign of one person. The only reason left to go is for policy input, which has all but evaporated.

Quixotique said...

When I was informed via En Famille that my riding president would have a vote on resolutions to go from workshop to plenary, I contacted him to see if he would be aclling a meeting of the membership to discuss them and provide him with some guidance. I was informed that this was "news to me" (him) and he would check. That's almost a week ago now. I haven't heard a peep.

Ray Larson Jr said...

Hi Jeff,

I understand your concern and frustration. I look at En Famille as a work in progress. From my point of view it is light-years ahead of where we were when I first joined the party in 2006.
In Saanich-Gulf Islands we have held nearly a dozen policy town hall meetings all over southern Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands. We are all voting online and our President is well aware of our priorities and will be voting for them.

I think we should be concerned if this is a trend and continues down the path of just the party elite voting on what goes forward. I guess the frustration for a lot of you is that unlike BC you haven’t had a policy convention recently and decided on the top 10 priorities.

From what I understand from my wee little corner out here is that the policy process is no longer going to just be held at conventions as they are costly and time consuming. Instead the party is looking to the grassroots to continue the policy process online indefinitely so that the party never runs out of fresh ideas to put forward.

We can all see it has a long way to go, but I’m sure if we keep up the fight together we can build En Famille into a brilliant policy building medium. Keep your head up and do not waiver in your cause to bring the grassroots back into the fold of the party. - Ray Larson -Saanich-Gulf Islands

tedhsu said...

En Famille is a totally volunteer effort. We could sure use more volunteers...