The case against Liberal primaries

Interim leader Bob Rae says he would support U.S.-style primaries to select his replacement. Here’s why it’s a bad idea.

As desperate as Liberal party of Canada members may be for reform and renewal, we shouldn’t just jump into bed with the first pretty reform proposal that happens by. This should be a slow and deliberate process. As a Liberal, I fear we’re jumping into bed with open primaries too quickly, and risk regretting it the next morning.

On Thursday, the Liberal party’s national executive released a list of proposals for reforming and restructuring the party, after leaking it to select media days earlier. (The leak is a major problem in itself, but one for another day.) The idea generating the most attention would see the Liberals adopt an open primary system for selecting the party’s leader and riding nomination candidates.

The proposal involves creating two classes of Liberals: full-fledged party members, who can stand for party office, vote in internal party elections, and be delegates to a convention; and “supporters,” who would sign a “Declaration of Liberal Principles” confirming non-membership in any other party. Both classes would be able to vote in a primary-style process to select the next party leader, with results weighted by riding. The primary campaign would take place in different regions over a few months to maximize media attention. A similar process is envisioned for riding nominations.

I have two serious areas of disagreement with this proposal: the timing and primary process itself.

First, the timing. The party executive wants to amend the constitution so the new leadership selection process can be adopted at the biennial convention in Ottawa January 13-15, 2012, barely two months from now. Meetings to elect delegates to that convention are happening now, and many are being cancelled and the delegates acclaimed due to a lack of people willing to fill all the available spots. It’s not as if this concept has been debated in Liberal circles for months. We’re just getting this now. We’re talking about fundamentally changing the most important thing we do—selecting a leader—and we’re rushing into it.

This summer, during the party’s Extraordinary Convention teleconference, I submitted a proposal to speed up the selection of a leader so that he or she would be in place by the fall of 2012. I was told there was no hurry, that we need a lengthy reform process first, that we need to take our time. A counter-proposal to delay the leadership race to spring/summer 2013 was approved. Now, the same people that argued for that lengthened period for reform want us to rush into fundamental reform in just two months, with just days until delegate selection.

Process matters. And whether you agree with the primary proposal or not, this process is flawed. There isn’t nearly enough time to properly consider all the options and have a full debate within the party. However broad their consultations may have been, this is still a lame duck party executive trying to force a rushed decision from the top-down. This isn’t the way to build a consensus.

The second problem is the primaries themselves. Let me first say I was glad to see the process would be weighted equally by riding, so that each riding has an equal voice and vote, regardless of the number of people that vote. An unweighted system would see population-rich regions such as Toronto dominate the process and pick a leader without national support, and without requiring candidates to campaign across Canada. Unfortunately, that’s my only positive comment.

One concern is the potential for shenanigans; supporters of another party signing up as Liberal “supporters” to vote in the primary and negatively influence the process, such as voting for the least-favoured candidate. The effectiveness of any such campaign would be dependent on turnout, but the primary proposal acknowledges this risk by requiring “supporters” to sign a “Declaration of Liberal Principles” and affirming they’re not a member of another party. Unfortunately, it’s toothless. Party membership lists are private so there’s no way of knowing, and such a declaration is hardly a roadblock to partisan rabble-rousers.

That aside, my concerns about the primaries go deeper. We should give value to being a Liberal member, and this approach goes in the opposite direction. One of the key incentives for joining a political party is the opportunity to vote in leadership and nomination races. This proposal devalues membership. Already, during each successive election, it has become harder to get Liberals to volunteer to knock on doors, stuff envelopes, and get out the vote. We need committed members, and more of them, to successfully rebuild this party.

In the past, the barriers to entry have been significant and an argument about the nefarious influence of backroom operators could be made. But that was when we had a delegated system for leadership selection. We don’t have that anymore. At the last convention we adopted a one member, one vote (OMOV) system. No longer do you need to be elected a delegate and spend upwards of $1,000 on fees, travel and accommodation to have a say in electing the party leader. All you need to do is take out a $10 membership and you have a vote. It’s that simple.

I’m not entirely clear why some are eager to dump OMOV without even giving it a run. I think OMOV gives us all the benefits of a primary system without any of the flaws. It’s a low barrier to entry; all you need is five minutes and $10 to sign up online. Granted, some people may not be willing to take out a membership, but I think that’s a small commitment to make. And given the negatives as I’ve outlined, I think it strikes the right balance.

I want to broaden the Liberal tent and make it more relevant to Canadians too. But open primaries are gimmicky and unlikely to build a lasting connection between the Liberal party and Canadians at large. I just don’t forsee a groundswell of Canadians rushing to get involved to pick the next leader of the third party. Gimmicks aren’t the way to engage people. I’d rather build a democratized party where membership matters, and encourage Canadians to join and support us for our ideas.

A journalist covering the technology sector for a trade magazine by day, Jeff Jedras is a life-long Liberal supporter and activist from British Columbia who now calls Toronto home. He blogs as A BCer in Toronto.

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