Navdeep Bains on the new way Liberals will choose their leaders

Navdeep Bains had a lot riding on the Liberal party’s convention vote today on a motion to drop the traditional delegated process for selecting leaders.

The MP for the suburban Toronto riding of Missisauga-Brampton South co-chaired the so-called renewal committee that proposed the switch to what’s called a “weighted one member, one vote” system. It happens he was also a major player in what will now go down as the party’s last delegated leadership convention.

The motion passed. From now on, all paid-up Liberals will vote for future leaders, although the total votes in each riding will be tallied up and allocated according to a 100-point system. That means a riding in which, say, 5,000 Liberals vote will carry the same weight as one in which only 500 cast a leadership ballot.

The change has the effect of making Bains forever more an intriguing footnote in the history of suspenseful, dramatic, delegated leadership conventions. At the 2006 Montréal convention, he supported Gerard Kennedy, but when Kennedy dropped out and threw his support to Stéphane Dion, Bains led a big block of Sikh delegates to the eventual winner.

That prompted grumbling that Bains was playing the unsavory role of ethnic power broker in the party. True or not, however, that charge carries much less sting when you consider that 90 per cent of all Kennedy delegates crossed to Dion, including much less visible contingents than the Sikhs, like university students.

Still, Bains is permanently associated with the sort of tense, real-time brokerage politics that only a close-fought, multi-candidate leadership convention can generate. He is uniquely associated both with the successful push for direct voting for leaders, and with what will now be seen as the florid sunset of the delegated convention system in Montreal.

I ran into Bains on the Vancouver convention floor minutes after the one member, one vote motion passed earlier today, and asked him a few questions.

Q. What’s the importance of one member, one vote?
A. It basically transforms the way our party connects with our membership on very important point—how we elect our leaders. There’s a lot of emotions connected to this process. It’s often the selection of a future prime minister, and our grassroots will have a direct say now. It’s very empowering to. This was really about those voice that weren’t being heard.

Q. But in 2006 you were a key player in a delegated leadership convention that was so exciting. Don’t you have some misgivings about giving up the potential for that kind of dramatic moment?
A. There’s always give and take in any selection process. Yes, there was excitement in a delegated convention, but it excluded the ability for many members to participate directly. We have to reach out to the membership. When people join a political party they want to be engaged. This is a refection of our consultation with them over the past few months.

Q. One of the delegates who spoke against the change from the floor said that since a $10 membership buys you a vote, and members don’t have to show up at a convention, this will increase the chance of ridings being swamped by so-called instant Liberals. What do you say to that concern?
A. I actually take personal offence to the notion of ‘instant Liberals.’ They are Liberals. We want a membership base of 500,000, a million people. If you have a big base of hundreds of thousands of people in the Liberal party, and the party is open and inclusive, that is much better than the 65,000 where we are today.

Q. Another complaint is that because this is weighted one member, one vote, every riding ends up with the same impact on a leadership vote, no matter how few signed-up Liberals live there. In other words, a rural riding with a hundred members counts for as much as an city riding with 10,000. Isn’t that unfair?
A. We want to respect all regions of the country. We want to be a party of 308 ridings. We don’t want to be simply an urban party, we want to be a rural party too. And there are instances where a riding might not have the same population base—in a P.E.I riding, say, compared to my riding of Brampton-Mississauga South, the pool of potential Liberal membership is much smaller. To deal with that sort of situation we came up with a very fair system of allocating 100 points per riding.

Q. Is it right to say that this new leadership selection system will only work properly if the party succeeds in building up a much larger, permanent, active membership base, so it’s not just a matter of a surge of memberships sold when there’s a leadership race?
A. You’re absolutely right. This is just a first step. Now we have to reach out, we have to engage, we have to have strong recruitment strategy, technology, more field workers to go to these ridings. We may not win the next election. But if we continue to build a base in these ridings, I’m confident we can win them in the near future.

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