The Liberal convention’s undeclared star attraction

Watching Michael Ignatieff make his walk into the gleaming new Vancouver Convention Centre this afternoon—the sun shining abundantly on the water and the mountains that formed the perfect backdrop—he looked very much the man of the hour.

Every few strides, he and his wife, Zsuzsanna Zohar, had to pause to shake hands and embrace another clutch of beaming Liberals. They seemed so at ease. And why not? The polls are going his way and in two days he’ll be anointed Liberal leader  without an opponent left standing.

But now, only a few hours later, I wonder if I was right in thinking this was so definitively Ignatieff’s convention. Another name keeps coming up in the corridors: Mark Sullivan.

Never heard of him? Well, the Liberals would just as soon you never did, at least not much. He’s the co-founder of Voter Activation Network, known to the cognoscenti as VAN—the Sommerville, Mass.-based company that designed the key voter database system used U.S. Democratic party. The Liberals have bought the system, and brought Sullivan to Vancouver.

They are far from embarrassed about having bought the software package that helped propel Barack Obama to the presidency. But they sure don’t want the acquisition to turn into the story of the weekend. It might well be, though. With no leadership to decide, and not all that much policy or platform to debate, the core subject of this convention is clearly organization and fundraising.

And the key to gaining ground on the Tories on those closely related fronts is the system Sullivan is here to explain. Except not to the media. His name doesn’t appear in the media convention program, although it does in the one handed out to delegates. He’s not being offered up for interviews.

And his sessions explaining how to use the new system, along with a lot of other training being offered here to Liberal delegates on how to make it work, is the only significant part of the convention that’s entirely closed to reporters.

Not that that’s at all surprising. The system and the strategy it’s meant to support are party secrets, or sort of, and anything they can do to keep the Conservatives in the dark about it is just sensible. Sullivan is an American consultant, not a Canadian politician, so it would be a mistake to make him a star attraction. Still, it’s worth noting that the real action here is not on prominent display.

Yet the nuts and bolts rebuilding of the party, represented by the VAN system, should not  be a matter of intense interest only for the likes of the riding president who just told me in gushing terms about the closed session he attended with Sullivan.

Unless the VAN upgrade works, Liberals will fail. In his rousing address to Liberal riding presidents this afternoon, Ignatieff said: “We are not an election machine, we are a national institution.” He might better have put it a little differently: “Unless we are an election machine, we can’t be a national institution.”

They haven’t been much of a machine in recent campaigns. And it’s unhealthy for Canadian democracy not to have the Conservative and Liberal parties capable of competing on reasonably equal terms across most of the country. It’s bad for voters in the biggest cities to see so little they like in the  Tories, and bad for voters in the rural ridings, especially in the West, to find the Liberals so alien.

A big part of the solution is for the parties to find political personalities and policy planks that appeal outside their strongholds. But another part is for the parties to exploit communications and database technology to let them reach out more efficiently to voters and activists where they are weakest, and figure out why they aren’t  clicking in there.

No wonder they’re talking about Sullivan in the corridors.