Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Constitutional plenary thoughts: OMOV, ex-officios and much more

Probably the biggest reason I decided to spring for the delegate accreditation for the recent Liberal convention rather than go the free route as blogger/media was so I could have a voting card and cast my vote for One-Member, One-Vote during the constitutional plenary. It seemed like a small price to pay to help ensure no Liberal would need to pay such a price again just to have a vote for party leader.

I actually even left our group interview with Senator David Smith a few minutes early to make sure I was at the plenary in time and I was able to grab a front-row centre seat for the proceedings. And first up was OMOV, and the YLC amendment.

OMOV and the YLC amendment

As I took my seat I saw a youth friend who has been a fierce, and fair, advocate for the YLC amendment; he was passing out literature advocating its passage. I asked him if he felt it would pass or not, and he indicated he felt the No side had done an effective job and he was predicting the youth amendment would fail. I was a little surprised, frankly, and wondered if he was joking with me a little.

As the proceedings got underway though, I looked behind me at the microphones to see who was lining-up to speak for and against the YLC amendment which, along with OMV, was first on the agenda. I recognized YLC communications director Braeden Caley at the yes mic, but at the no mic waiting to speak was Justin Trudeau and YLC presidential candidate John Lennard. As soon as I saw Justin, someone seen as a strong advocate for youth, at the mic I was very excited for our chances of defeating the amendment and I hurriedly grabbed my Blackberry to tweet the news.

Braeden made a good pitch for the amendment, but I thought the other speakers on the yes side could have made a stronger case. Justin however was very persuasive and eloquent, as was John with his statement that youth “don’t need a booster seat” to make their voices heard. In the end, as I raised my voting card to oppose the amendment I looked behind be and was surprised to see it wasn’t even close, and the YLC amendment was handily defeated.

It was surprising given the unanimity of youth opinion that we had seen during this debate on the blogs, Facebook and En Famille. I think, in the end, everyone just considered the arguments on their merits, and came to the conclusion this amendment just wasn’t compatible with what OMOV is supposed to be about. I think John’s arguments, and also Justin’s intervention from the podium, were also persuasive.

We then moved on to OMOV, and at this point I was fairly confident of its passage. It seemed like something that had begun with more interest from the wider party membership had come to be embraced by the party leadership coming into convention. MP Navdeep Bains introduced the OMOV amendment as renewal chair and has been advocating for it for some time, as has LPC executive director Rocco Rossi. Michael Ignatieff also used his address to the YLC biennial on Friday to urge passage of OMOV.

At the plenary, Belinda Stronach and Bob Rae also made strong pitches for its passage. And in the end, once again as I raised my voting card and looked back at the hall behind me, the vote was pretty overwhelming in favour.

Being in that room it felt good to be part of bringing such a profound democratic change to the Liberal Party. And I was proud of our delegates, especially our youth delegates.

I always felt this would be a hard change to get through because, well, conventions are fun, and if there’s anyone that’s likely to be persuaded by that argument its those able to be delegates. They put what’s best for the party as a whole first, though, and that was great.

And the youth, who could have taken their ball and went home after their amendment failed, also put what’s best for the party as a whole first by largely supporting OMOV. Even one of the youth who spoke for the YLC amendment urged his fellow youth to support OMOV either way. It was great to see such maturity and vision.

Now, OMOV is by no means the end of party reform. It is just the beginning, and that will be the topic for another post. But it is a strong and meaningful start, and one I am happy to have been a part of.

Reducing riding slates

Another amendment from the national executive proposed reducing the number of delegates each riding can send to convention from 20 to 14, essentially reversing the decision to increase the # that was made at the Montreal convention.

I opposed this amendment. The more delegates the merrier, particularly given the large number of ex-officios given automatic spots. As well, more delegates sharing those fixed overhead costs means lower convention fees.

I’m not unsympathetic to the counter-arguments we heard during debate. Primarily, that small ridings can’t afford to subsidize that many delegates and/or send full slates, compounding rural under-representation when their unused spots are back-filled with overflow delegates from urban ridings. But as I said I think higher attendance means lower fees which can help more people attend. And we should look at other ways to make conventions more accessible. But stopping active and committed Liberals that want to attend from attending isn’t the way to address these concerns.

In the end, most agreed and this amendment was defeated.

Suspension of memberships

I had to step out of the hall for a bit, and as I came back inside the debate over the amendment to creates rules to allow the national executive to suspend or revoke memberships was just ending.

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, while I agreed with the need for bringing some formality and process to this, I had concerns about vesting so much power around the decision to allow someone’s later return with the membership secretary.

In the end, it seemed many people had concerns around just what would constitute behaviour that would lead to suspension or membership termination, and this amendment failed.

I still believe there needs to be some formality here, to avoid repeats of Paul Martin’s meaningless “suspensions for life” and the media kerfuffle created when such folks reapply for membership. Hopefully membership secretary Rob Jamieson and his team can consider the objections of the delegates and return to the next biennial with a revised proposal.

LPC not ready for cybertime

An amendment that may have seemed routine became quite contentious during the plenary. It dealt with candidate and delegate selection meetings, and who was eligible to vote at such meetings. After the words “in present at person at the meeting” the amendment sought to add “or is deemed under a Party Bylaw to be present” so as to not exclude the possibility of advance polls, main-in ballots, or Web or phone voting.

This motion was seized-upon by people who have, in my view, legitimate concerns about the feasibility of electronic voting, as opening the door to such a system without a fulsome debate.

While the constitutional advisors pointed-out other rule changes would still be required to bring in e-voting, opponents countered this motion would open the door to that change by making it a decision of the party executive, rather than the membership.

As I said, I share some of the concerns that have been raised about e-voting. You can buy memberships online without ever having to show ID. And with e-voting you could be e-mailed a PIN top vote online too, all without every having proven identity. How do we know that person even exists? What’s to stop someone from buying 100s of fake memberships and voting them all? These are some of the issues that would have to be addressed before we’d ever consider e-voting.

All that said, while in-person voting makes great sense for a densely-populated urban riding, in our rural ridings it’s much more challenging. And there did seem to be a rural-urban divide.

Many of those concerned about e-voting were from urban ridings. But those from rural ridings were concerned defeating this amendment could shut the door to mail-in ballots, which were used extensively in BC, for example, during the 2006 leadership delegate selection voting.

The alternative is to run multiple concurrent polls, and during our 2004 nomination selection we did just that in Vancouver Island North, running polls in Port Hardy, Gold River, Campbell River and Comox. But that was a significant logistical and volunteer challenge I don’t think could be duplicated today.

In the end, this amendment was defeated, which was unfortunate. While as I said I share the e-voting concerns, we need to recognize that one-size does not fit all and we do need some flexibility for rural ridings.

The other YLC amendments

It wasn’t a good constitutional plenary for the YLC. I didn’t support their OMOV amendment, but I did support some of their others. Their amendments regarding caucus members serving on the national executive were withdrawn (I’m not sure why) which left three others for debate.

The first dealt with ex-officio delegates, who receive automatic delegate status at conventions. Essentially this motion, which I supported, sought to remove ex-officio status from former MPs and Senators, while maintaining it for sitting caucus members and privy councilors. In essence, its about reducing the influence of ex-officio party elites vs. the elected grassroots delegates.

The debate became quite forceful, and I have to say former Glengaary-Prescott-Russell MP Don Boudria really pissed me off with his comments against this proposal. Seeming visibly offended and aghast, Boudria termed the amendment insulting to him and all the past MPs and Senators who have worked very hard for the LPC, almost saying how dare we propose taking away automatic representation from people who have worked so hard for the party.

Well, I’m sorry Don, but WE ALL work very hard for the party. And we all also work very hard so that you and your colleagues can get elected to the House of Commons. We, however, don’t get a salary or a tidy pension. Now, I don’t minimize the effort that MPs and Senators make, politics is a grueling and demanding profession. But, the point is, WE ALL work hard, and WE’RE ALL Liberals. And I doubt a past MP would have much trouble earning a delegate spot.

Being elected to the HoC or “called” to the Senate doesn’t make you more privileged than anyone else. I absolutely agree with ex-officio status for current caucus members, that makes obvious perfect sense. But “Status for Life” is inappropriate, and it’s un-Canadian. We’re all Liberals, Don. And while you claim a lack of respect shown for MPs, I thought your intervention showed an insulting lack of respect for the Liberal workers without which MPs couldn’t get elected.

In the end, I’m very sorry to say this motion failed. But I’d like to see it back, with a more forceful and active campaign behind it next time.

The next YLC amendment sought to require all policy resolutions sent to a biennial convention to be considered by delegates at the convention before going to the floor. In essence, this amendment sought to restore the policy workshop process that was stripped from this convention in favour of a prioritization vote by riding presidents-only following a non-binding debate and vote on En Famille.

I was very much in favour of this motion. Ironically, it seemed to be flying under the radar. As regular readers will know, I was a strong critic of the way the policy process was handled this round. On Friday I ran into the current (and re-elected) policy chair, Joan Bourassa. She was asking for my vote and, after I introduced myself, she recognized my name and was aware of the criticisms I had raised. Ironically, two minutes earlier I had just put on a button to support one of her competitors, LPC(O) policy chair, Maryanne Kampouris.

We proceeded to have a spirited discussion of the policy process, as she laid-out where she was coming from, the constitutional limitations she was working within, and where she desired to take the process, which is to broaden it as much as possible through tools like En Famille. I told her I shared that desire to broaden the process, but I felt restricting the vote to riding presidents was a significant step backward to desire, and I’d prefer the convention workshops to that, as it offers a broader pool of voters. I also stressed any revised voting process should require constitutional change, and MUST respect the weightings given to youth, women, seniors and aboriginals through the constitutional policy convention process. She indicated the switch of the convention from policy to leadership to policy had created complications there. Anyway, while I did support Maryanne I do believe Joan does want to broaden the process, and I hope that lessons have been learned from the firestorm over how the process was handled this year. Policy was the most hotly contested party office election, after the coin-flip YLC presidency of course.

But I began this digression because I learned, during our discussion, that Joan was unaware of the YLC policy amendment, something I found very surprising.

At the plenary, I was also surprised, and disappointed, by the intervention of the on-stage constitutional advisers. Their role is to offer non-partisan technical advice, but I felt they swayed the debate by telling voters they didn’t understand what the amendment would do. That seemed to be to cross the line into advocacy/campaigning, and it seemed like that to many others as well.

And in the end I think it poisoned the well against a well-intentioned and well-meaning amendment, with many speakers saying they supported the principle and intention of the amendment but felt it needed to be re-written, so in the end the amendment was defeated.

The final YLC amendment dealt with the creation of a new national executive position in charge of outreach. I didn’t support this amendment, I feel all executive members should be focusing on out reach, and we have enough of a bureaucracy without creating another position. Indeed, the size of the executive was reduced at the Montreal convention. In the end, the voters agreed and this amendment was defeated as well.

So, a tough constitutional plenary for the YLC, despite a few good amendments. I think though they could have done a better job putting up speakers to make the case for their amendments. A much better case could have been made for the policy amendment for sure.

UPDATE: Video on the OMOV debate and vote from Woman at Mile 0:

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Adrian Ludwin said...

Hi Jeff, isn't it legitimate for a legal adviser to say that an amendment is unenforceable or unclear? I would have thought that was their only real job.

Whether they could have given this advice earlier and given the YLC a chance to revise it is another issue.

Jeff said...

Adrian, I think it would have been appropriate for them to say what the language would do. Say this language would do X, Y and Z. But it's not their place to editorialize, to say such a consequence would be good or bad, or to say something is poorly worked or should be revised. That's a point of debate that should come from the No mic, not a point of clarification that should come from the table.

Jason Hickman said...

The media said the split on WOMOV was 80/20 in favour - was that about right from your point of view?

And I'm assuming people got up to speak against it, even if they were very much in the minority. Out of curiosity, what sort of arguments did they use?

Jeff said...

Jason, that's probably about right. The media had a better view from their risers than I did on the floor. It was pretty overwhelming, as I said. It was visually obvious, the chair didn't bother with a count.

As for the con-arguments, I wasn't taking notes and, frankly, none stick out strongly in my mind, which probably speaks to their effectiveness. Or my memory. Or both. I think one might have objected to the regional weighting. Another that it would make candidates less accountable, or the system open to abuse (say, repeating the Belinda-Quebec takeover when she ran for the CPC ldsp).

Speaking to people in the parlours and saloons, a common objection I heard was that the process of getting elected as a delegate and fundraising to pay your fee is a process of developing the political activists the party needs, a way of training future leaders. My response to that was that's well and good, we need that training, but you shouldn't have to jump though such hoops or prove yourself just to be able to vote for leader. That should be a fundamental democratic tenant of membership.

burlivespipe said...

Your thoughts on ex-officios is intriguing. Following along your lines, I think that by at least reducing them to past cabinet ministers/leaders would make a few more of the elderstatespeople maintain some ties to the riding level. I'm not familiar with many places that have a liberal tradition (being from the same wet coast as you) but the few examples I know its uncommon, tho not completely rare, to see the former MP or senator keep their fingers active at the grass roots level. Tho I understand part of Boudrias' argument...