Monday, May 09, 2011

Members shouldn't read about constitutional proposals in press leaks

While the decisions made by the Liberal national executive are often questionable, so often it's more the process than the decision that bothers me the most. That was quite evident with this story today. As the saying goes, what we've got here is a failure to communicate.

Much of Liberaldom has been preoccupied these last few days with the question of picking an interim leader and the timing of the race for permanent leader. Well, as permanent as any Liberal leader these days.

The constitution, which we changed after Jean Chretien announced an 18-month road to retirement, requires a leadership convention to be called within six (actually, with WOMOV it's five) months of the leader declaring his attention to resign, which Michael Ignatieff did last week. Our habit of changing the constitution regularly in response to specific circumstances is probably part of the problem, but it is what is is.

Essentially, it comes down to three camps. Some want to get a new leader in place quickly for various reasons, primarily to get on with the rebuilding and avoid the fissures (and cost) a long race can create. Some want to delay the leadership process (anywhere from one to three years), to either focus on rebuilding first, make the reform debate part of the leadership process, or maybe give the Conservatives less time to run scary commercials before the 2015 election. Finally, there's the camp that may prefer either timeline, but just think we have rules and maybe we should try following them for a change.

Frankly, I'd put myself in the third camp. I don't want to spend an extraordinary length of time with an interim leader choosen by the national executive on advice of caucus; we need a leader with a mandate for reform from the membership. Six months does seem short; I do understand the concerns (maxed-out donation limits, for example) but the rules are the rules .

As I mentioned earlier this week, I'd be open to a proposal to move the leadership convention to one year from now if, and only if, the constitution could be amended in a way that is both legal and involves a real and open vote by the members at large. But I wouldn't support going longer than one year, for the reasons outlined above.

That appears to be what the national executive is proposing. I say appears to be, because all we have to go on are leaks to the media. And that richly symbolizes what the real problem is here: the failure of the national executive to have an open process and directly communicate with the membership at large. It is unacceptable that we have to read about this stuff in leaked media reports.

For the record, I did have an indication that such a proposal was in the works. But a few off the record backchannel conversations does not equal an open and inclusive debate and consultation with the membership. Alf Apps is quoted as saying the feedback from members has been overwhelming. Oh has it really, Alf? Who did you talk to exactly? How many people? What did they say? I have no idea and, I'm sorry, but I'm not inclined to take your word for it. We have plenty of open forums that can be used to canvass the membership; they should be used.

And when I went to find the link to the CP story for this blog, I saw it had been updated and my jaw hit the floor when I read this from Apps:

However, Apps said the statement obtained by The Canadian Press is "an old draft" and some elements of the proposal were changed prior to Monday night's conference call with national board members. He would not say what had been changed.

"Everyone should just take a Valium until our national board vote," he said, adding that a final statement will be delivered to all caucus members on Tuesday, one day before caucus is to meet to choose an interim leader.

The arrogance, it positively drips off the screen. Take a Valium, Alf? Seriously? If we're pissed off Alf, and you better believe we are, it's because you're operating a closed-door back-room process that makes clear you could actually give two shits about the members you purpose to represent. A final statement will be delivered to caucus? What about the party members, Alf? When do we get included in the process, exactly? I think our party would be a lot better off if Apps resigned today and turned over the interim presidency to one of the national VPs; every time this guy opens up his mouth it sets the party back a year.

We need openness and transparency and this process, whether you agree with the outcome or not, has had none. And that's symbolic of the problem with today's Liberal Party.

What of the alleged proposal? Again, it's heresay at this point, but at first blush I may be fine with it.

On the rules for interim leader, these may have no constitutional force and effect but they don't need to: essentially, candidates for interim leader are being asked to make several promises -- not to run for permanent leader, and not to pursue merger talks without a mandate. There may be nothing legally preventing the interim leader from running for permanent leader, but if they don't make the promise the executive won't vote for them and if they make the promise and break it, the consequence is political and will be exercised, or not, by the membership. The executive can use whatever criteria they wish to make their decision, and I'm fine with the ones they've outlined.

As to permanent leader, I'd still like more information on this "virtual convention" they propose to change the timeline for permanent leader. As I said before, if I can be satisfied the process is both constitutionally permissible and puts the decision firmly in the hands of the members at large, then I'm inclined to support it. I would like to see the constitution written in such a way to give some measure of flexibility on timing though so we're not doing this nonsense every few years. That's not how these things are supposed to work.

I keep coming back, though, to process. And even if the end result is the best in the world, if it's tainted by a closed, backroom process I'm going to find it hard to support. The national executive needs to communicate openly and publicly with the membership immediately, but its thinking and the options on the table, and allow an open debate to happen on the way forward.

Proposals hatched in backrooms and floated in media leaks are not the way forward.

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Scott MacNeil said...

Until the LPC Executive acknowledges that they are there to listen to the grass-roots all is lost. We need to start a petition to stop the kind of "backdoor" & star-chamber edicts that have tainted this party the last decade or so!

Eugene Forsey Liberal said...

well said, on all counts. good idea, troubling handling.

Tony said...

Although I agree the grass-roots and indeed all members need to be consulted in the leadership process we are in a bad position with no leader at all. I am all for the caucus picking an interim leader so we can get started rebuilding. By rebuilding I mean rebuilding with input from all members not just the executives. But trying to include all members in picking an interim leader seems to be a bit much and how exactly are we to do it in a timely manner. If others are like myself they have written lengthy letters to the powers that be laying out our thoughts on who should be interim leader amongst other ideas. Seriously this infighting over who is to be interim leader does more to drive us apart and it is also bad publicity. There really is only a few members who would be suitable as interim leader and although I have a favourite(Goodale)I will not be too disappointed if it is someone else. It seems to me the problem is not who gets picked but rather how it is being done. Well all the more reason to get it taken care of quickly so that we can get on with fixing certain problems such as who does what and how. The more blogs and articles I see ridiculing how the Liberal party is handling this the worse it makes our party look. We do have avenues to let our party executives know how we feel without airing our dirty laundry in public. Join and then all members that actually want to be part of the party and the changes that will happen can participate in the discussion. We need to stop the public squabbling seriously.

Fiddlers' Green said...

Very well put, I pretty much agree with everything you said. Reading Brian Rice's blog on the process, gives me some more faith.

This probably could have been avoided if there wasn't a rush to push Iggy out the door and not let the door hit him on the way out. He could have announced an intention to resign sometime in 2012; and had the Bienniel been behind us, would not have needed to stare down a leadership vote. Alas, he felt the need to leave immediately,and now we have to deal with a somewhat inflexible constitution.