Wednesday, May 18, 2011

On Alf, consultations and constitutional straitjackets

Tuesday evening I attended a pretty successful social event and informal renewal brainstorming session in Toronto with over 100 Liberal Party members ... and guess who came to dinner?

The Edward Blake Society is an informal group of Toronto area young professional Liberals (say, age 25 to 40) who get together regularly to lift a pint and talk some politics and about building the party. Usually there's 10-15 of us, but what was going to be an informal post-election drinks and dinner mushroomed on Facebook to nearly 150 RSVPs, and about 100 people of all ages showing up Wednesday to share ideas for renewal in a positive spirit.

And among those who showed-up was embattled Liberal president Alf Apps, who listened to ideas and debate for over an hour before making a fiery speech to those present, including some likely very confused patrons at the Elephant and Castle.

Let me say first of all I give much credit to Apps for coming to a room he knew wouldn't be overly friendly to him. That took gumption, which I admire. That said, I found his remarks somewhat baffling and out of touch. He urged Liberal youth to storm the Bastille of the party, either not realizing or accepting most of us see him as Louis XVI. And speaking of which, he assured us he wouldn't be resigning until the biennial in January and only 14 people have called for him to quit (guess Facebook doesn't count). He outlined the consultation process on the process for interim and permanent leader, and picked a number of questionable fights with caucus. I don't see caucus as blameless, but the ferocity of the shots was odd. He said it's wrong to let the interim leader run for permanent leader -- I agree and I said so with Ignatieff did it in 2008, but I think Alf felt differently then. And he promised we'll have the text of proposed constitutional amendments by Friday, and floated the idea of voting on a preferential ballot to set leadership timing: next spring, next fall or spring 2013. And that he said that if youth don't take back the party and revolutionize it in the next leadership, it will be all our fault. All in all, a rather odd performance I felt, and mixed reaction from those present.

Moving on, the drama around the constitutional proposals for the leadership and biennial continues. As mentioned, consultation continues this week. I'm told we don't have the amendments yet because the final ones haven't been drafted yet; they're continuing to evolve as consultations continue and the picture has changed a fair bit since this (now out of date) document was written. We've been promised we'll get to see what we'll be voting on by Friday.

From what I'm hearing, the idea of approving a fairly open-ended timeframe in which to allow the executive to call the leadership (as was floated previously) wasn't well received, and is out. We'll likely be asked to approve a specific date range of perhaps one month, ie. May to June of 2012. I think that would find wide support, and would meet the concerns I've had about the previous leaked proposals.

I have a sense that this process is meandering toward a good outcome, shaped largely by feedback received by the national executive from across the party. We'll know for sure when we see the actual official final proposals. And I believe consultation has been happening to a degree. I'll say it again though: for me, the biggest problem is that it hasn't been a transparent process.

So much drama and mistrust could have been avoided by making the consultation process more open and transparent, and communicating openly and directly with members. Instead, it has relied on filtering down through our unwieldy infrastructure of PTAs, commissions and riding associations. Each group had a responsibility to report discussions down and feed opinions back up the chain, and some groups do it better than others. That leads to some on the member level being left out. I take from this two lessons: our bloated infrastructure is a barrier to agile reform, and we need more open communication and information flow directly to members, and through public forums.

Finally, much talk in Liberal circles about if the extraordinary convention to amend the constitution is even constitutionally legal. I'm not a lawyer so I'll give it to you in a nutshell: you're not allowed to have an extraordinary convention within six months of a biennial. The biennial needs to legally be held by mid-December. The extraordinary convention would vote to delay it to January, which would make it retroactively legal, but only retroactively. So there's some that say the extraordinary convention can't be held, which basically means they say we can't delay the leadership and need to just pick a permanent leader in October.

Frankly, my take on it is this: I'm not keen on looking for ways around the constitution, but I'd rather bend to find a way to let members have the chance to vote either way (early or late leadership) than stick to the letter and not let people's voices be heard. It may not totally be by the letter of the book, but giving people the chance to vote is certainly by the spirit. If members disagree, they can vote no. But I want to have that chance to vote either way.

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WesternGrit said...

"Instead, it has relied on filtering down through our unwieldy infrastructure of PTAs, commissions and riding associations. Each group had a responsibility to report discussions down and feed opinions back up the chain, and some groups do it better than others. That leads to some on the member level being left out. I take from this two lessons: our bloated infrastructure is a barrier to agile reform, and we need more open communication and information flow directly to members"

In BC, while several grassroots members (riding association members) were organizing large discussion forums, our PTA apparently already HAD a meeting to pass info up to Nat HQ. Funny thing is, it seems many of us never heard of these meetings - which supposedly included riding presidents. THIS is the communication challenges we speak of, right? Makes me wonder about my time spent at riding meetings, or my Laurier Club payments...

James Curran said...

Dear Jeff,

The voices of the people were heard. It's how the constitution came to be in the first place - by consultation of the grassroots itself. Were the voices of the people that drew up this constitution less important than ours now?

Jeff said...


Do the voices of the people that wrote and passed that constitutional amendment a few years ago (which I'm having a hard time remembering doing, frankly, so i'm not sure how high-profile or grass-roots this debate was) get to stand forever and ever, or can the voices of people today be heard too?

Let the people vote. If they want status quo, they can vote for status quo. But letting people vote is better than not letting people vote, period.

Jason Cherniak said...

Just to clairfy, those who say the special convention is illegal hang their hats on two main interpretations that are uncertain:

1) The June convention couldn't be delayed past Dec 17, even though the last day of the June convention was to be June 19.

2) There is exactly a one-day "illegality". If the special convention were held on Friday June 17, which was to be the first day of the June convention, there would be no argument.

In short, it is a highly legalistic and pedantic argument. In my view it is wrong, but it ignores the clear statement in the LPC Constitution that the constitution is to be interpreted by the National Executive unless the Council of Presidents or a natioanl convention overrules them. The NE has a right to use the interpretation they have and the only way to challenge them would to be to bring a motion to either the CoP or the special convention itself to tell them they are wrong.

In any event, even if these people are right, the national executive could probably get around it by adopting an Agenda on June 17 then continuing on June 18 with the real issues.

John Lennard said...

Correction, Jason. It's not *exactly* a one day illegality, it's *at least* a one day illegality. The National Board could have chosen any date between June 18 and December 17 to hold the delayed biennial convention, none of which would permit the holding of an extraordinary convention as scheduled.

Adopting an agenda on June 17 and real issues on June 18? Now who's being highly legalistic and pedantic?

Jason Cherniak said...

John, I've always thought it's best to respond to a legal argument with another legal argument. In every case, you've avoided answering my response, which is that the national executive's interpretation is defensible by noting that the bienniel was scheduled to end on June 19. I take that as an acklowedgement that I am right, even if you won't admit it.

John Lennard said...

Jason's just being facetious again. He knows as well as I do that a convention sets its own agenda. For all we know, the biennial convention, had it been held as scheduled to begin on June 17, could have decided to conduct all of its business that day, or perhaps even taken several more days to get through everything it needed to get through. That's why, when discussing postponing a convention, the relevant date is ALWAYS the date on which the convention was supposed to begin, not when it was notionally scheduled to end.