Friday, January 6, 2012

At a Crossroads: One Green's Hopes for The Liberal Party of Canada (Part 1 of 2)

Next week, the Liberal Party of Canada will be hosting its biennial policy convention in Ottawa. At this convention, Liberals will be making a number of decisions regarding the Party’s future direction. Along with electing a new Party President (prediction: it’ll be Sheila Copps), Liberals will be voting on a number of electoral reform initiatives which seek to open the Party and, in some cases, radically change the way in which leaders and riding candidates are elected, and what sort of power they might have within the Party.

These proposals have been put forward in an effort to spark the debate amongst Liberals about how best to reinvigorate Canada’s oldest political party (and I’m not just referring to the fact that the Liberal Party of Canada has been around since 1867 – I’m also referring to the current demographic composition of the Party). Politicians, pundits and grassroots party members all seem to agree that it’s high time for the Liberal Party to get its act together.

This past summer, I wrote about a possible way for the LPC to reinvent itself (“A Door Exists for the Liberal Party. Will Liberals Step Through It?”). In that blogpost, I discussed the Liberal’s on-again, off-again relationship with combating the climate crisis, and suggested (essentially) that the Liberal Party should become more like the Green Party. Interestingly, with the sorts of resolutions which will be discussed at next week’s convention, the Liberal Party of Canada might find itself on the way to doing just that.

Before we take a close look at some of the proposals which will be on the table for Liberal delegates at next week’s convention, it’s time for a little disclosure. I’ve actually had the pleasure of attending an LPC policy convention in Ottawa in the past, when I was a member of the Liberal’s Willowdale riding association, back when Jim Peterson held that riding, and was Minister of International Trade. The LPC was riding high back then, and it was certainly interesting to be an observer in the trenches at the height of the Chretien-Martin war within the Party. I had a great time at the convention. It was only after leaving Willowdale and relocating to Sudbury that my association with the LPC came to an end, after an incredibly dismaying meeting with the local Liberal riding organization which pretty much told me point-blank, “We don’t want your help, but we do want your money.”

It was only after Elizabeth May won the leadership of the Green Party that I joined the Sudbury Greens. What led me to both join and stay with the Green Party for the past 5 years now has been the Green Party’s bold articulation of policy in a document known as Vision Green, which is based on policy approved by grassroots Party members. I write about this not to promote the Green Party, but because I’ll be coming back to the concept of member-approved policy in a little bit.

So, despite being Chief Executive Officer of the Sudbury Federal Green Party Association, I guess it’s fair to say that I still have a soft spot in my heart for the Liberal Party of Canada. My Doctor says that there’s nothing that she can do about it, and hopefully it’ll go away with changes to my diet and exercise.

The Green Party of Canada, of course, has drawn supporters from all other parties, so you needn’t be so very surprised that I was once involved with another political party. Here in Sudbury, I know of Greens who once belonged to the NDP and the Progressive Conservatives. It’s not unusual for people to take a close and critical look at the organizations to which they belong, and to assess whether or not they can continue to support those organizations, especially when an organization appears to be heading in a direction which might conflict with one’s personal values. In politics, however, those in the public eye are too often vilified for having the audacity to “change their minds” about a particular issue, or to be critical of their own parties. And that’s one of the reasons why, in my opinion, Canadian politics has found itself in the sad state that it’s in today.

And clearly that’s one of the reasons that I continue to remain involved with the Green Party. Admittedly, this is my own opinion, but I have been one of my Party’s biggest critics over the past several years, with regards to the direction which the membership has taken on a number of policy initiatives, and, at times, with the actions of Party Leader Elizabeth May. I can tell you, however, from personal experience that I have never been chastised by anybody in the Party’s administrative apparatus or governing Council, or by May herself (which might simply be reflective of the level of importance that staff and decision-makers within the Party ascribe to my rants). And that’s because the Green Party really is unlike any other political party. We tolerate and encourage discussion, and dissenting points of view are respected. Goodness knows if you put three Greens in a room, you’ll end up with 6 or more different ideas about any specific issue! Yet, somehow we manage to make it work through a consensus-driven approach to decision-making.

And the Liberal Party of Canada might soon find itself in a similar circumstance.


First, let’s take a look at the most media-hyped resolution that the Liberals will be discussing, and that’s the idea of opening up nomination processes for the Party Leader to non-members. While joining the Liberal Party isn’t particularly cost-prohibitive for prospective members, it does come with the baggage of having to self-identify as a Liberal. Sorry, I just couldn’t resist.

Well, with the concept of Primaries, someone wouldn’t have to become a member in order to take part in decision-making. As I understand the concept, both LPC members and others would be able to cast their ballot for a leadership contender. Non-members would simply have to sign a pledge which affirms that they share “liberal” values, and that they are not members of another federal political party.

This is somewhat similar to what we recently saw happen in Iowa earlier this week, when Iowans turned out to vote for a Republican presidential nominee of their choice. Most of those who participated in the selection were registered Republican voters, but many weren’t; they were either Democrats, members of other parties, or “Independents” (those not affiliated with any political party).

Liberals will need to come to terms with whether opening up their electoral process to non-members makes sense for the Party. There certainly would be trade-offs to consider. In the “pro-primary” column, one could certainly suggest that a primary would likely attract new blood (potential voters and supporters) to the Liberal Party, by involving people traditionally outside of the nomination process in Party decision-making. While most who cast a ballot probably wouldn’t stick around, the fact is that some will, and the Party will certainly benefit by increasing the size of their list of contacts to hit up for donations. Those points alone might be enough to sell the idea of primaries to a Party which is growing increasingly concerned about its number of members and the amount of cash which the Party has been raising.

There’s also been the suggestion that a Primary process might engage the mainstream media to a more significant extent than a more traditional approach to selecting a leader. Personally, I’m not sure that I buy that argument, as Liberal leadership conventions have always generated a lot of media hype. However, watching the NDP’s leadership selection process has been like watching ice melt, and so far, the NDP aren’t generating a significant level of interest amongst Canadians. That may yet change (the NDP had better hope that it changes) the closer we get to the day in which leadership ballots are counted.

And now that the Liberals are the third place party, there may be less media emphasis on the outcome of a traditional leadership convention. Again, I’m not certain that would be the case, given the way in which the LPC selects its leader through a delegated convention process. Let me be clear about this: watching TV coverage of live action from a convention floor, including speeches of leadership contenders to delegates is infinitely more interesting than watching reports on membership ballots being counted at 40 different locations. Contrast media coverage of the LPC leadership convention of 2006 which elected (surprise!) Stephane Dion to coverage of the 2009 Ontario provincial PC election which saw Tim Hudak elected after counting a number of preferential ballots (*yawn*).

Some Liberals are also concerned that, despite signing pledges about liberal values, partisans from other parties might turn out with enough numbers to potentially sabotage the leader selection process. Clearly, that’s more of an issue at the riding level, and Liberals could find mechanisms which would assist in curtailing those kinds of partisan opportunities.

Personally, I’m not a fan of the Primary process for either the election of leaders or, as some have suggested, riding-level candidates. Maybe I’m just hung up on the notion that membership should have its privileges, and one of those privileges is to be a part of the decision-making process regarding representation. I’m not sure that a candidate elected by non-members, whether it be the leader or (especially) at the riding level can claim to have the same level of legitimacy as a party representative as one elected entirely by party members can. And in politics, having acknowledged legitimacy is incredibly important.

In Sudbury, one need look no further than to the recent provincial election, in which many NDP supporters refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of a nominated candidate, due to the fact that both he and his supporters were deemed to be too new to the Party by the old guard, who then shied away from assisting with the campaign. The NDP will deny this, of course, and certainly the NDP’s chosen candidate ended up running a decent campaign which almost toppled a provincial cabinet minister. But, nevertheless, from what I’ve heard, there was a perception by some members that the candidate wasn’t “NDP-enough” (or, as I’ve heard it, “enough of a dip”). And that perceived lack of legitimacy hurt the campaign. If the Liberals flirt with a primary process, they risk opening that same door x 308.

If Liberals do decide to support a primary process, they will find themselves in a unique situation in Canadian politics, and I have to admit, it will be an interesting situation to watch unfold. Maybe they’re on to something here after all, even if I’m not a fan. Certainly, give the Liberals credit where it’s due: this is the sort of bold new idea which the LPC should be debating right now.

The Leader’s Authority

The outcome of this resolution is the one which I’ll be watching most closely. Right now, the expressed political will of the membership of the Liberal Party of Canada can be over-ridden by a decision of the Leader of the Party. You see, along with all of these electoral reform resolutions being discussed at next week’s biennial convention, Liberals will also be voting on policy initiatives, which have worked their way through a process initiated at the riding level. At the convention, Liberals will determine whether they are ready to adopt some of these new policies (I see that one has to do with the legalization of marijuana, for example).

Right now, however, in the Liberal Party, a decision of the leader can simply render the Party’s policy process moot. This also happens in the Conservative and New Democratic parties (although it’s probably fairer to characterize the NDP’s situation as being one of neglectful omission, rather than an actual decision being made by a party leader). It does not happen with the Green Party of Canada; our leader is beholden to the Party membership to support membership-approved policy, no matter whether the leader agrees with it or not.

Now, it’s true, this kind of approach can create some difficulties for a leader, who may have to find themselves explaining why they are in favour of a certain initiative which they might not actually believe in. But guess what? These sorts of political pretzels are offered up for our consumption all the time, and especially when backbench MP’s are whipped by Party brass to vote in a certain way. Sometimes, MP’s will stay away from the House when they may be forced to cast a conflicted vote. Other times, they’ll vote with their conscience, and suffer the wrath of their Party (as two Northwestern Ontario NDP MP’s recently did when they failed to vote as they were told to do by NDP interim Leader Nycole Turmel and her Party’s Whip).

Now, some might say that there’s a difference between backbenchers and a party’s leader. I suppose that’s right, but the distinctions have a lot more to do with Canada’s media obsession with leadership. In the Green Party, for instance, the Party’s constitution does draw a distinction between the Leader of the Party on the one hand and every single other member on the other hand. Yes, there is a member-elected Council which oversees Party operations, and there is a leader-appointed Shadow Cabinet which monitors policy initiatives (and is usually comprised of riding candidates), but when it comes to the development of policy, all members are created equal, including the Leader. In fact, in the Green Party, the role of the Leader is defined simply as being a “party spokesperson”, who, as Leader, has but a few administrative and political powers in appointment processes (appointments to Shadow Cabinet; signing candidate nomination papers). But when it comes to policy, the leader is beholden to the membership.

And now the Liberal Party of Canada will be debating whether or not it will be appropriate to constrain their own leader in the same way.

There are pros and cons to this approach again, but for me, taking away the leader’s ability to determine the policy direction of the party is a sensible and progressive move for Liberals to make. Yes, it’s true, such an approach needs to be balanced by having flexible mechanisms in place to allow the leader some latitude to speak out on current issues which may have ill-defined or no membership-approved policy directions (example: Canada’s participation in NATO-led intervention in Libya; I doubt any party’s members had adopted a policy about that, prior to taking a position on it). Finding this balance may prove to be a challenge for a Liberal leader. Greens, at least, besides having a multitude of member-approved policies on which a leader can draw on, also have the advantage of an expressed set of values which can be relied upon by the leader to inform a decision.

I keep hearing about “liberal values”, but I don’t know that they’ve ever been codified in the same way that Green values have. If Liberals do indeed move forward with adopting this resolution to constrain their leader on policy matters, they may wish to explore the concept of exactly what the Party’s values are. As an active member of the Green Party, I can tell you that it’s refreshing to belong to a political party which operates in a values-based paradigm. And that’s again unique amongst Canada’s political parties.

Certainly if the LPC wants to demonstrate that it’s going to take listening to its members seriously, adopting a resolution which constrains the leader’s ability to determine the Party’s policies will go a long way. I mean, I have to say, as a former Liberal, I simply never understood what the point of going through an entire membership-driven policy approval process was when the leader of the Party can simply say “no” to any approved policy.

I realize I trot this example out every time I want to make this point, but it’s a point worth making. Back in 2009 at the Liberal’s convention, LPC membership reaffirmed a commitment to championing their carbon tax policy. Former Liberal Leader Stephane Dion made the carbon tax one of the centre pieces of the Liberal Party platform and campaign in the 2008 election, and many pundits believe that it may have been the biggest loser in terms of issues which contributed to the Liberal’s electoral losses. Be that as it may (and I think there’s some merit to that analysis, btw), the fact is the membership of the Party in 2009 reconfirmed its commitment to the policy – only to see newly elected leader Michael Ignatieff indicate on the same day that he would unequivocally not support a carbon tax. So much for the wisdom of the members. And why should one member’s opinion about policy outweigh the cumulative opinion of the membership, just because the one member is leader? Sorry, but that’s a completely elitist approach to democracy. The LPC would be much better served by following the Green Party’s progressive model.

(continued in Part 2...)

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)

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