Wednesday morning, the Liberals are going to be marking the one-year anniversary of their stunning electoral defeat by doing something that has the potential to be political suicide. And they’re doing it with cheers and applause.
Back at their policy convention in January, the party decided adopt a new set of leadership rules that allow a new class of membership to vote in the next leadership contest. Indeed, this new class – known as “supporters,” don’t have to be party members, but simply have to promise that they’re totally not a member of another party, and voila, they can cast their ballot for the next Liberal leader. What could possibly go wrong?
I can see what the party is trying to sell the change as.
“In one short year since last May 2, we’ve become the most open and modern political movement in Canadian history,” reads the press release. “We believe in a new kind of politics that inspires and engages Canadians to work together to solve our common challenges. Supporters are the new generation of Liberals who will speak up for change, come to local events, become members, join the Victory Fund in our ridings, and become donors. And when confirmed as eligible, they, like you, our members, will choose our next Liberal Leader. This is a tremendous opportunity for us. It’s time to shake up Canadian politics and do things differently.”
Where to begin?
Why don’t we start with Alberta, where the idea of the “supporter” category was first broached? Alberta, with its bouts of populist politicking, has been running virtual primaries for PC leadership for the past several electoral cycles, where absolutely anybody can pay their $5, sign up for a PC party membership, and cast a leadership ballot, right up to and including on the occasion of a second ballot. When this system – along with its preferential ballot – were used in the 2006 leadership contest, it produced the spectacularly bad compromise candidate of Ed Stelmach, and while he did win the next election by a great margin, he created an enormous rift in his own party, and he was forced to step down within a couple of years. This same process in 2011 produced Alison Redford as the leader, but it should be noted that she won in large part because she reached beyond the party base to bring on a large swath of teachers by promising them new funds if she were to win.
But the Alberta Liberals, thinking that the primary-lite idea was a great one, decided in 2011 to adopt this “supporter” model, and wound up with a larger than usual number of votes cast for said contest. But who did those “supporters” choose? Raj Sherman, disgruntled PC MLA, who then went on to become a bizarre and egomaniacal electoral candidate who spent his time running to be health minister in a theoretical minority government. He lost the party almost half of their seats, most of their popular support (which went to Redford), and he barely held onto his own. A stunning demonstration of the “supporter” model, was it not?
The Federal Liberals, however, are taken in by the “shock and awe” of getting raw numbers of ballots cast for the next leader, without any real understanding of the mechanics or dynamics of what this will actually mean. They’ve also been selling themselves on this notion of being an “open and modern political movement” and have started peddling phrases like becoming “a party without walls.” But one is forced to wonder if a party “without walls” can stand for anything at all, or if the Liberals aren’t desperately trying to recapture their old tactics of being all things to all people, while not realising that such a paradigm no longer resonates with the electorate.
I am reminded of the riding association meeting I observed last fall, where they were having a full and frank discussion about the future direction of their party. Part of that was laying out a distinct vision of what it means to be a Liberal. That discussion included some pretty sobering talk about maybe they needed to shrink the party – to consolidate some core values – before they could then grow. I thought at the time that maybe – just maybe – the Liberal Party was waking up to the reality that it faced and was going to do something about it.
This “supporter” policy is a move in the opposite – and dare I say wrong – direction. Instead of consolidating some core values for what it means to be a Liberal, the party has decided to abandon all caution, not only open the doors but knock down the walls as well, and let anyone who totally swears that they’re not a member of another party vote for the leader. So rather than standing for something, they now stand for absolutely nothing but some vague and undefined notion of “centrism.”
Yes, the membership is still there to determine policy, but that ignores the fact that the party has allowed the leader’s office to accumulate so much power that that very grassroots policy can be done away with on a whim. Remember how Michael Ignatieff simply said “not going to happen” when the membership voted once again to make a carbon tax party policy? Yeah. Now imagine a leader who doesn’t need to have a connection to the party to get elected by a swath of people who have no connection to the party – other than totally swearing that they’re really not a member of another party – really! – being installed to run things, to determine what grassroots policies he or she is going to run with, and oh yeah, who has no accountability mechanism to be removed. Rather, he or she will be further entrenched by those “shock and awe” numbers of “democratic legitimacy,” and damn anyone who tries to tell them otherwise.
Do you get my meaning?
I’ll fully admit that in a perfect world, Canada would revert to a system where the caucus chooses the leader because he or she is accountable to that caucus and can be fired at will (which leads to all kinds of things like more independent MPs and a more deferential leader). But sadly, misguided cries of “democratic legitimacy” have pretty much scotched that notion for any foreseeable future, and instead of making party membership mean something, the party has instead decided to devalue it even further with this new class of not-really-members.
If I were a Liberal member, I’d have some serious concerns and second thoughts, if not about the actual mechanics of this, but of the repudiation of this scheme that the Alberta election provided. But I’m not, and the Liberals are announcing its official adoption to great fanfare. And they will get to sleep in the electoral bed that they are now making for themselves.