Thursday, November 10, 2011

What I’m looking for in a Liberal Party of Canada president

A key part of the Liberal Party of Canada’s reform process will be electing the next national executive at the biennial convention in January, and I’m glad to see we have four capable candidates seeking the position of president: Sheila Copps, Mike Crawley, Ron Hartling and Alexandra Mendes.

I’m looking forward to hopefully getting a chance to meet all four and hear their ideas for reforming the party. And if you’re in Toronto, the Edward Blake Society is hosting a free event where you can meet all four candidates on November 28 at 7:00pm at Pauper’s Pub, 539 Bloor Street West.

In the interim, here are a few things I’ll be looking for from the presidential candidates should I be a voting delegate. These aren’t meant to include or exclude anyone, and some may even be contradictory, but then I’m a complicated fellow.

STAY OFF TV: I like to play a little game with my political friends. Who, I ask them, is the president of the Conservative Party of Canada? No smartphone googling allowed. Most draw a blank. A few will offer-up Don Plett, but he’s a past-president and better known as a Harper patronage appointment Senator. None can come-up with the correct answer – John Walsh – without Google.

And, frankly, that’s the way it should be. Walsh doesn’t do the pundit circuit on Power Play and Power and Politics, he’s not quoted in the Globe and Mail. He just focuses on quietly doing his job: building and growing the Conservative Party organization across the country. And he seems to be doing a fairly decent job.

That’s what I want from a Liberal president. It’s not your job to be on TV as the public face of the party. That’s the job of the party leader and the parliamentary caucus; let them be the public face. This isn’t a job for the limelight, and if that’s what you seek you should drop out. Focus on reforming the organization and communicating with members: directly.

COMMUNICATE WITH MEMBERS: I’ve come to believe lately that one of the biggest problems our party executive has had is one of communication. They may have the best of intentions, and arrive at the right decisions, but the process has been tainted by a failure to communicate openly, which breads suspicion and mistrust even if we’re all happy with the end result.

There have been some efforts lately at more communication, including regular e-mails to members from membership secretary Rob Jamieson. And there was a tele-town hall last weekend. But still, far too often Liberal Party members hear about party decisions and proposals second-hand, through media reports and leaks, instead of directly from the party. For example, apparently there’s a white paper on party reform floating around, according to media leaks. I haven’t seen it though. (UPDATE: It's now public.)

That is unacceptable, and it must change. We should never read about major party proposals or news in the media before we hear about it directly, as members, from the party itself. Anything else is unacceptable in an era of e-mail, social media and instant communication.

We’ll be debating our party structure through this process, but whatever happens to the national/provincial/territorial association/riding association model, I want the next party president to commit to not relying on this structure to communicate information and decisions down to the membership. Use it and leverage it, yes. But you must also communicate directly with members.

And note I said with, not to. Engage directly with members. With modern technology, there’s no excuse not to.

MANAGEMENT EXPERIENCE: Now more than ever, this isn’t a job for a title hunter, resume padder or favoured insider. It’s time for the Liberal Party to be run like a corporation and we need a proven manager, ideally one with experience managing distressed assets. We need a turnaround specialist.

One of our biggest challenges is also one of change management. Ask any private sector organization that has undergone major change: the biggest obstacle has been getting their people onboard and helping to drive the change, rather than obstructing it. How you manage the change is as important asthe change itself, and crucial to its success.

I want to see management skills and experience in our next president, and a demonstrated commitment to open, consultative leadership.

A NEWCOMER, BUT WITH INSIDER EXPERIENCE: Contradictory? You bet. But like I said, I’m complicated. And as with all things, it’s a matter of balance.

I don’t want someone beholden to the current power structure, or too wedded to the way we do things that they’re unwilling to consider major changes. Because I believe everything about the way we do things needs to be on the table. What services should be delivered by the national party? What services by the PTAs? How much resources should go to the ridings? Should we starve the national office to feed the PTAs and decentralize, or eliminate the PTAs to save resources and centralize, putting more resources into ridings? Do we really need, and can we afford, the youth, seniors, aboriginal and womens’ commissions?

I don’t know; I’m still considering those issues and I welcome the debates. But there can be no taboos in this process. No sacred cows. Everything must be open for consideration, and I want a president who isn’t closed off to any possible course of action entering the debate or beholden to one part of the organization for their support.

At the same time, I don’t want a complete outsider. They need to be familiar enough with the party, its structure and its people to know its strengths and weaknesses, what it does well and what it doesn’t, what should stay and what should go, and what we’ve tried in the past that worked and didn’t work.

It’s a balancing act. I don’t put much value on institutional memory when it’s a memory of failure. But we need to know enough about the past so we don’t repeat those mistakes.


Of course, I'll want to hear their specific ideas and proposals. But while that's important, it's not the most important. Change and ideas should be coming from the bottom-up anyway. More important for me are these intangibles I've laid-out to recognize what kind of leader they'll be.

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1 comment:

Ron Hartling said...

I couldn't agree with you more on all counts, Jeff. You've nailed exactly why I decided to stand for LPC National President. On staying off TV, I've also asked the John Walsh question to close to 1000 Liberals in my 100 or so meetings with ridings and likewise found nobody who could come up with the answer. My track record is all about communicating with members and enabling them to be heard. I offer all the proven experience you ask for in terms of successfully managing transformative change in large, complex organizations, but would suggest another key requirement, which is foresight. Specifically, when did candidates first speak up about our Party's long decline and start advocating solutions - before or after it was too late? Your balancing act requirement re insider experience is especially insightful. The best experience comes from having made the system work for members and riding associations. What we don't need are those who held positions of influence during the decline but either failed to recognize the decline or chose not to speak up for fear of being seen by their fellow insiders as rocking the boat.