Saturday, May 14, 2011

Open It Up

What I find quite refreshing about Rob Silver- apart from his terrific political instincts- the man understands the gravity of the situation and is positioning himself as a leading voice on the Liberal "reformer" front. For my money, Liberals would be wise to listen to him, that kind of energy and almost revolutionary commitment is SORELY needed moving forward. Yesterday, I read Rob seizing on an Ibbitson idea about having Liberals having American style primaries. I admit, my first instinct was to reject, primarily(oh punny!) because I worry about scenarios that allow for "gaming" of the system by our rivals. However, after letting it settle in, reading Rob's column, there is merit which is worth considering, particularly on the broader point of REFORMING how we pick our candidates.

I've long argued that ridings remind me of little fiefdoms, once someone wins a riding, they purge all dissent, installing a rock solid infrastructure that completely disallows subsequent challenges, at least formidable ones. It is this dynamic which contributes to the ROT in the party, people stay on to long, the same people control ridings, stifling new entrants, new vision, new blood, new ENERGY. I'm completely on board with any reforms that OBLITERATE the current conventions, but that's a wider point.

On the question of primaries, again I agree we need to open up nominations and voting. All to often, the process to become our standard bearer is reduced to marginal tactics and internal "gaming", rather than healthy democracy. A little club, that manipulates to pad the ranks, then restricts to put it back in smaller hands. I've always found it kind of unhealthy, particularly on the "new blood" front. I'd use the analogy of compost, if you just put it out and let it sit, it doesn't really work, you must constantly turn and change the composition to get a final product that optimizes eventual growth.

The one caveat with primaries, how to ensure our opponents don't bastardize the intent. I don't see massive numbers like down south, which suggest ample reason to worry about a motivated opponent base reeking havoc. One idea I have to further Silver's point, that respects my concerns, what about an open primary, with the stipulation you can't be a member of another political party and/or donated to any party other than the Liberals in the last year or two? Logistically, I'm not sure that is "on", but in this way you eliminate naked manipulation and you don't really "close" to the general public. Anyone who is a member of another party, or donates, is very unlikely to be receptive to the Liberals, so no danger of excluding potential voters, with the added bonus of keeping the process a "cleaner" presentation. Donations are readily available on the EC site, not sure about member lists, this may be a non starter, but worth considering.

Let's open up the process, I for one open to radical ideas, but not just for reforms sake. Upon reflection, the concept of an open primary has some merit that we should flesh out. We would just need some measures in place to keep certain interests from manipulating and making a mockery. One thing is clear, although I won't agree with everything, people like Silver have the right idea on where this party needs to go if truly is to survive.


Dan F said...

"All to often, the process to become our standard bearer is reduced to marginal tactics and internal "gaming", rather than healthy democracy."

Unfortunately, the process by which the Conservative government won its majority was by marginal tactics and 'gaming'. As much as it sucks, 'gaming' is simply playing the game to win, breaking the rules that you know you can get away with, regardless of the effect on democracy. Even more unfortunate, the person or party who makes it their objective to win at all costs, breaking whatever rules they need to, as the Conservatives have done, will usually win. Its quite Darwinian when you think about it. The opposite is also true at the other end of the spectrum with the Greens. Until this year they focused on principles rather than tactics, thinking that people would just vote for them because they agreed with them. In this election they focused on the tactics required to win a seat, and were successful.

Bottom line, marginal tactics will usually win out. It might be an unpleasant reality, but one we need to face if we want to win again. Otherwise we end up like the Greens.

Robert McClelland said...

The more pressing problem with open primaries like the Americans have is that our election dates are not predictable like theirs are. Consider the additional problems that would have resulted for any party if even just 25% of the ridings had needed to run open primaries back in March when it became clearer an election was imminent. So any system would need to address that problem as well.

Steve V said...


You'll never convince me that our riding nomination process is healthy or inclusive. You seem to be using a wider argument to discount my point. Don't forget, that BASE that has given them a massive financial advantage CAME from reform roots, populism, that legacy still remains.

Also, Harper may have won, but participation is ABSYMAL, so there is terrific opportunity to engage and connect.

Steve V said...


That's a good point for sure! With the next election, not a problem, but you're right, we can't count on fixed dates. I will say, I support having a candidate in place right after the last election, so this person can connect with the riding all through the process, rather than just a last minute name. I don't like turning democracy on and off, any standard bearer should be in place WELL before an election IMHO.

bigcitylib said...

How DO you logistically insure that, say, M. Murphhy hasn't donated to the NDP or Tories? And do you want to? There are Tories who may be unhappy with the direction of the party and think getting in on the ground floor of the new libs might be the way to go.

Steve V said...

I sort of addressed that in the post, people who donated or are members of another party are probably the least likely to jump aboard. Sure, maybe a few, but if we want to eliminate monkey business, excluding this small subset is a good compromise. Also, for engaged partisans, signing a Lib membership to participate wouldn't be a giant hurdle. I'm not sure it would work, maybe a declaration from the "voter", as well as a mechanism to check. Just throwing it out there, not sure if it's logistically "on" or not.

Jerry Prager said...

Apparently the comprehensive democratic reform package that the right wing nixed from the platform was created at Baddeck. It should be made public immediately. And the circumstances surrounding th nixing made public.

Kirk said...

The list of party donors on the EC site is only for those donating more than $200 in a year I believe (can't find the page on the EC site).

And are party membership lists public?

Finally, how much would it cost the Liberal Party to hold an election open to almost all of the country's electorate?

The US system is made to hold primaries. It isn't just something parties are doing off on their own.

We need one member, one vote online voting. Each riding office can have a internet connected computer available for those who don't have internet access or those members who have internet access can open their homes to those that don't. The costs of satellite internet services for a few dozen remote locations and renting the servers from a provider for the event would be nothing compared to the costs of a national primary.

Kirk said...

Also, to have a primary open to all Canadians requires candidates campaigning to all Canadians. $$$$$$ and $$$.

Instead of replacing a Canadian horse and buggy delegate system with an American horse and buggy primary system we should look to the connectivity the internet provides and how that technology allows a relatively flat organizational structure where all can participate freely. Relatively flat organizational structures are what allow organizations to be innovative and responsive in business and elsewhere. For a organization spread thinly across the country the internet provides both the inter connectivity and the openness we need to make such a flattened structure work. Let's not overlook the obvious late 20th century solution now that we're already in the 21st century.

Joined En Famille a few days ago and I've seen more active web sites dedicated to obsolete gaming systems.

Steve V said...

Who said we can't incorporate the internet, was discussing that earlier today with someone? Takes care of cost, among other things.

As for En Famille, it doesn't cut it, agree completely.

Jeff said...

I really don't see how one party can feasibly adopt such a system in isolation and make it work.

It works in the US (not that there's not gaming) because both parties use the system. You register as either Democrat, Republican or independent and you vote in the primary of your choice.

If the Liberals open up ours completely, there's nothing to stop our opponents from flooding the vote to elect the least attractive option. And there's no feasible way to police that or prevent it from happening. And it will happen.

I agree with opening up the process, but there are many other reforms we could consider. Besides completely open nominations (no leader appointees or protection for sitting MPs) you could consider $0 or $1 memberships. Frankly, though, I prefer to keep the fee cost recovery and I don't think $10 is really a barrier to someone who wants to get involved.

There are intriguing aspects to a primary system. But I think it would need to be a system-wide reform for all political parties as it is in the U.S. to be feasible.

Steve V said...


Fair points, I'd like to see a more fleshed out proposal. One point, in the States not every state has same rules for both parties. One might have an open primary, while the other has a closed caucus, in the same state. I take your point though.

BCL has some good historical context in response to my post.

Kirk said...

A national, open to all online vote for next Liberal Leader? Hmmm... not sure how you'd qualify the voters but interesting.

We have the information for Liberal Party members to qualify them but all Canadians? Same issue as with a paper ballot ie. the US system is part of their larger electoral system and Liberals would be going about this on their own. These are technical issues that need to be addressed beyond the issue of the wisdom of primaries themselves.

Still there is the issue of campaigning to all Canadians and the expense.

I was going to say people would vote based on superficial knowledge of the leadership candidates but then I remembered that that's normal...

D said...

I am caught between loving the idea and being horrified by it.

On the one hand, I am an Anabaptist and I love things to get more radical and innovative and I think the LPC is on the precipice of losing relevance if the same old, same old, continues.

On the other hand, I am an Anabaptist and I love tradition and often yearn for the good old days. That is all.

I think that when we consider our "enemies" as saboteurs we are committing a grave error. Consider when the BC Liberals and Alberta PCs lost their premier and a leadership race ensued - people who voted Liberal and New Democrat and others, joined up to cast a PRAGMATIC vote. Ordinary people where overwhelmingly concerned with choosing the BEST of the lot for pragmatic reasons. I think that element would be the only reason for a Dipper to lie about their membership and join up -- because they get the chance to possibly choose the PM after Harper, because for most ordinary New Democrats or Conservatives that vote accordingly but are not party members; they know a Harper dynasty will probably not rule over the country for the next 30 years and that it would be better to have a shot at voting for who they would LIKE to see as an alternative than be TOLD who the alternative is. Moreover, considering that whilst door knocking many committed Conservative voters didn't want to hear, see, speak to Michael Ignatieff while he was in town because they hated his guts and wouldn't even take the time to go to a town hall and yell at him; I agree with Steve that only the most nefarious Cons would try and plot an infiltration only to find that the rank and file every members, let alone non-party member voters, would (in my opinion) be more or less uninterested in the process entirely (probably all the while calling it ultimately a failure).

Pragmatism is at the heart of the primary model for me: it's honest, open, and asks citizens to imagine what they want out of the Liberal party. It forces candidates to listen to places like the prairies where the party is branded as being uninvolved and uncaring.

Would left-wing soft-NDP and LPC-leaning citizens join? Sure. Would soft-CPC voters concerned with a withering away of the centre join and support a more 'conservative' candidate? Sure. But that's what makes the centrist party good for Canada -- it engages both sides of the aisle in debate and puts the BEST ideas first.

Would we get another Dion-esque leader? Or perhaps a Stelmach spoiler? Will those who vote in the convention follow up and vote LPC in the next election? Maybe, maybe not.

My question to the party is this: what will shake off the myth, or stench, of "entitlement" that so many Canadians believe is indicative of the LPC? Once we locate that, we should do whatever we need to do to get rid of it and never look back.

Jerry Prager said...

This man was the real leader of liberalism in the House: he kept faith with parliament's truths, and gave hope to a meta-majority. The greatest Liberal of his age, in fact.

Jerry Prager said...

Subject at hand,
Dylan: 'pragmatic' rather than strategic voting is a shift in nuance worth making.
I'd just assume not go off down the path towards republicanism, or American methodology.
Fair share cabinet government breaks party power, includes voters not represented in the house, simplest best practice change of custom: get elected to do it, do it, and it won't go back.

Cabinet in the old days WAS the government, friendly gesture to commonwealth conservatives, allies in a liberal democratic Canada against take over by corporatists.

Four year terms, in which cabinets and PM's together or separately can be replaced through confidence motions from within the House, as required, until the end of the term.

Primaries could be a short term online means of helping local liberal democrats (greens and red Tories) come to a pragmatic understanding of who to elect in order to defeat the local corporatist at the polls, primaries could be used by voters, not parties, to enable them to vote in enough numbers in the election in order to form a government and then alter corporate crown charters forever. We'll even ask the Queen to come and sign it.

Jerry Prager said...

Canadian liberal democrats must reclaim the radical centre, find solutions that have eluded all other liberal parties around the world. Solve the problem of corporatism by altering their charters, apply best practices to create the greatest equal liberty: by creating a liberal, democratic political economy.

That is what I see as being Primary.

Steve V said...

"My question to the party is this: what will shake off the myth, or stench, of "entitlement" that so many Canadians believe is indicative of the LPC? Once we locate that, we should do whatever we need to do to get rid of it and never look back."

Even now, I can still sense elements of that mentality. That is amazing, in and of itself. From the grassroots though, I really do sense an energy that understands the task ahead.

bigcitylib said...

So a bit of clarification. On the one hand I'm told the LPoC leadership vote will be:

"Equal points for each riding assigned on a % of the total direct vote of all members of the riding association."

On the the other hand, the latest party document reads:

"The Leadership Vote is a vote by all party members – One Member, One Vote"

So what's going on? I can see how these statements need not conflict, but do they or don't they?

Steve V said...

I think they put in that stipulation so we would have regional, riding representation. One member one vote, but weighted so every region, riding has an equal say. I'm okay with this caveat, because otherwise you would Toronto dominating the national leadership, people in other regions little say. It's a compromise.

Kirk said...

Was John Kerry seen as less aloof because he was chosen through a primary process? Was Dukakis seen as a man of the people because of winning the primaries?

Other than being better known before being chosen then I can't see little real benefit to wide open primaries. And this never stopped the Republicans from re-branding Democratic candidates in the same way the Cons branded Ignatieff. Being more widely known still requires lots of money. There is some novelty attraction to be a "Canadian" primary that will get you some free press coverage but how much more than a Leadership Convention?

Of course doing a Canadian version of an US practice opens you up for anti-Canadian attacks as well.

Game the system? That would require a lot of people and a lot of organization. Not a real worry.

Aren't there donation limits set by law to leadership candidacies? I really wonder how trying a very expensive practice will really produce any real gains.

You're banking solely on novelty factor here as primaries still produce candidates that get their asses kicked in the US. I don't think it represents a superior system that produces a superior result.

Steve V said...

"Game the system? That would require a lot of people and a lot of organization"

I would assume Lib primaries wouldn't exactly draw massive numbers, so I'm not sure I agree.

Also, you seem to be missing the point with the idea, we aren't the Democrats, we are a DYING party in desperate need of opening up the process to bring renewed interest. Not sure Dukakis is really relevant here.

I'm not sure of the final solution here, but Liberals DO need to open up the nomination process, to allow greater access, get away from riding associations dictating their chosen candidates, let some air into a stale process.

Steve V said...

I'd also add, if we are having an online vote to decide to amend the constitution, are we really that far away from online nomination votes?

Kirk said...

You seem to be drifting away from the idea of a primary system open to all Canadians and now see it being of little added interest to Canadians

"I would assume Lib primaries wouldn't exactly draw massive numbers..."

If your goal is to get new blood then the effort and expense of implementing a real primary would seem to be a measure taken "just for reforms sake".

Let's hope the whole leadership process is delayed so many reforms and ideas can be discussed that, I think, would do a lot more to attract fresh blood and invigorate the party then spending time and effort on primary votes.

Steve V said...

I agree about delaying the leadership, partially because those contenders need to bring ideas and solicite debate.

I'm not married to the idea of a primary, but opening up is a necessity. I'm not backing off anything really, more you unilaterally deciding that only massive turnout equates to success. I never saw this option as election level turnout, but anything that improves upon diehard Liberals, a couple thousand people, is a bonus. The idea that anyone can participate, you attract people interested in politics, then those people stick around and work for the party, in an ideal world. You build a donor base, you build an activist base, you bring in young people that will work for you, it's not change for change sake, it's an option to address a CHIEF flaw. I'm up for anything that encourages new people into the party, that breaks up the fiefdoms and projects an open party that people feel they can participate and influence. You achieve that, watch how quickly the fundraising gap narrows. Look at the Cons, it's 45000 hard core donors, that's it, that's all you need to compete. That's 150 committed people per riding, so a process that adds a few more activists here and there, equates to a big difference when added up. Anyways, I commented on Ibbitson's piece straight away, my initial reaction was a complete balk, but after thinking on it more, I think we should flesh it out.

xyz said...

Primaries are great. I find it depressing that a lot of people are rejecting the idea just for being "too american". The primary system is insanely superior to what we have. A US style primary system would have gotten rid of all those MPs from Scarborough and Mississauga who were a stain on the Liberal party. Primaries help build an organization, building an organization for the sake of building an organization is extremely hard, a primary like system incentives building an organization. Perhaps the greatest gift of a primary-like system is that it introduces a level of ideological clarity for the party. The candidates have to explain and justify their ideological positions to the public. That kind of thing will go a long way in curbing the "I don't know what the Liberals stand for" sentiment.

Was John Kerry seen as less aloof because he was chosen through a primary process? Was Dukakis seen as a man of the people because of winning the primaries?

No one is saying that primaries are some sort of guarantees to victory. Dukakis and to a lesser extent Kerry ran terrible presidential campaigns. Kerry still won 48% of the national vote, losing by just two points. Ignatieff lost by more than twice the margin of Dukakis's defeat. Primaries allow you to build a first impression on the public which is harder to change down the road. Imagine an election where the electorate's first introduction to Kerry was pictures of him speedboating. Those guys would have lost by bigger margins without primaries.

Exactly how a primary like system might work is up for debate. Having all mail-in ballots would be significantly cheaper. Perhaps just having a caucus instead of a full blown primary might be something to look at. A caucus would significantly reduce the risk of gaming by the supporters of the other parties just because it requires a higher a level of motivation to go to a caucus and the time spent just isn't worth it if you are going just to cause malice and the lack of anonymity is a strong social disincentive for those trying to game it. To be honest I'm not worried about gaming happening at national level for the Liberal leader, it might be a risk at the riding level where the turnouts for chosing an MP are going to much lower.