Thursday, November 10, 2011

We need to make a Liberal membership worth having

I’m working on a piece about the Liberal executive’s open primary proposal that will hopefully run Friday, but rather than make it even longer I’d like to tackle some of the other reform proposals released today here and make a wider point about membership.

Make membership worth having

I feel we should give value to being a Liberal member, and as I examine proposals for party reform and make my own, that will be my guiding principle. We need to make a Liberal membership worth having.

We need to get people more involved in the party. Why? Because you don’t build success by having an election every four years, expect people to show up and work hard for four weeks, and hope for the best. You need to be building on the ground between elections, organizing in the community, developing policy. That’s the thankless work of party members and riding associations. And it’s my firm belief that our party reforms need to put riding associations and individual members at the centre of what we do.

How do we get more people involved at the riding level? By making membership more relevant, meaningful and valuable. Right now, it’s often meaningless. Too many riding associations are closed shops, which must change. And even if you can get involved, many feel it’s pointless in an organization that is too top-down driven.

We can start by recognizing why many people get involved, and also become disillusioned: policy development. The policy process today is largely an exercise in mutual self-satisfaction, because whatever is developed is ignored by the leader who writes their own platform. Forcing the party to run on the policy actually developed by the members would go a long way to making membership meaningful.

Another would be to reward long-term membership. Have truly open nominations (no leader protection for incumbents or power of appointment) but lengthen the period of time you need to have been a member to be able to vote. This allows for a wider pool of candidates but encourages them to get involved in the party earlier if they’re contemplating a run, and encourages people to join earlier and become active.

The executive’s proposals for reform

The key when examining the proposal from the executive is to differentiate what is proposed as constitutional change, and what is merely an “affirmation” of something. Many of the items in the summary (they haven’t officially released the full document they leaked to the media, but thankfully the media have) are mere requests to affirm things the executive has done or can do on its own authority.

And some are even more meaningless. For example, the item on unprotected nominations. As mentioned, I favour truly open nominations. But all the party proposes is that the convention “affirm the principle” of open nominations. No constitutional change. There’s language about the board only rarely approving exceptions at the request of the leader. But it’s meaningless unless the leader’s power of appointment is removed from the constitution. This isn’t change at all.

  • Among the other proposals, a “don’t be mean to our leader” war chest is a nice idea. But it wasn’t a lack of will that stopped us from fighting back in the past; it was a lack of cash. You can give it a name, but you still need to raise the money and there’s only one donor pool.
  • I agree with reforming and professionalizing the fundraising operation. But when I read about a major national campaign to pay for database technology I worry about national fundraising trumping riding efforts. That must be managed carefully. Again, there’s only one donor pool.
  • I’m curious how the executive proposes to “enforce targets with respect to Victory Fund and Laurier Club participation in all electoral districts.” Enforcement implies consequences for non-performance. What would these be?
  • I mentioned earlier that we need a major overhaul of the policy process to make it relevant and the leader accountable for running on our policy in the election campaign. But there’s no meaningful proposal on policy. It merits one item out of 19, and simply “affirms” that we all talk about policy on the Web site. It would remain the same meaningless busy-work process it is today.
  • It’s proposed to keep the PTAs but evolve more of their functions to the national level. I favour efficiency of service delivery, but it’s unclear to me what model accomplishes that best.
  • An annual report seems like a given.
  • Open nominations for electoral district candidates by October 15, 2013. Indeed, at the latest, I agree. The more time with a candidate in place, the better.

Ending the debate too early

There are some things in these proposals I like, and some I don’t. And I’m not sure this is the way to be going about this. It seems to be presented with a certain element of finality, despite the language in the introduction about debate and discussion.

Instead of presenting specific choices as items to be voted on, I’d rather this have been presented as items for discussion in broad categories. For example, have a category on structural reform of PTA and national roles. Present a range of options, from PTA elimination to strengthened PTAs. Invite discussion, and even voting on the range of options. That would make more sense, and build more consensus, than presenting finished single options. It would signal an open process, instead of signalling the desired outcome.

All the requests that the “convention affirm the executive board decision” on a range of topics also gives me pause. Let’s remember, this document is coming from an outgoing national executive with a less than sterling track-record on some of these issues, and one without a mandate for broad reform. We’re right now having executive races for all our party offices, to elect an executive with a mandate from the membership for reform. A healthy and vibrant debate must be part of this process, and the current executive should be trying to facilitate that debate and not try to bind the hands of those that will be elected and short-circuit the debate process.

It just feels to me that this is being presented as the end of the reform process. Which is funny, because I thought it was just getting started. I know I am.

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Tania Mysak said...

Jeff, good thoughts and I will admit I still haven't worked my way through the 80 pages but I want us to go a step further back and look at why people are disillusioned from ALL parties. Unless we start to serve the people and not the party, membership perks won't help a bit!

Mark said...

"...lengthen the period of time you need to have been a member to be able to vote..."

That would appear to contradict what's on offer.

Jeff said...


A good point.