Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Key Word Is "Open"

Ask Canadians which political party is least grassroots in orientation, more a backroom affair, more an organization of elites and insiders, most corrupt, least "street" in outreach, and I guarantee all day long the Liberal Party of Canada "wins" in a landslide. There is a readily apparent disconnect between how Liberals view themselves and how Canadians view Liberals. With this perspective in mind, the idea of a Liberal "OPEN" primary finds new appeal.

It is true that Liberals currently have a OMOV selection process, egalitarian and inclusive, no doubt about it. It is also true that membership fees are such they should provide NO barrier to active engagement, so minuscule to be inconsequential. However, when you factor in the very nature of partisanship, fully UNDERSTAND the wider perceptions, you can see how "joining" the Liberal Party can and IS a mental obstacle for many people. We all know people who are political, have strong opinions about issues, many right in the Liberal philosophical "pocket" and yet they shy away from partisan manifestations. This reality is all the more striking with younger Canadians, particularly with a party which so entrenched, with so much brand baggage, not only uncool, but downright offensive. If you accept the above, then you logically look for new ways to engage, reach out, OPEN up the political process and allow for gentle contributions, an appeal that appears wider than simply partisan ramblings. This is where the conversation about Liberal open primaries begins, in my estimation.

I keep hearing criticisms like "gimmicky", "hail mary pass" desperation, and while you can argue some merit in those viewpoints, the idea also looks more a 21st century progressive trend, that is proving to be of significant value in other jurisdictions. My initial reaction to open primaries was negative, for many of the reasons already articulated. However, the more I ponder the idea, the more attractive it becomes, the more I look elswhere, the more I see potential payoffs, the more I come to grips with how tarnished the Liberal brand, the more I favour measures which completely mix up the status quo. As well, when you factor in the core idea of GREATER participation, it's hard to see a downside, inclusivity is never a bad exercise.

I offer the two most recent experiments with "open" primaries, and you see very impressive results, real "sparks", lots of attention and focus, and new legitimatises with the electorate that go beyond normal "convention" flavour partisan decisions. In France, this example:

Successful primaries give French socialists momentum

Open primaries were initially suggested by a progressive think tank, Terra Nova, and encouraged by a few reformist leaders with a modernising agenda. Opening up the selection of the Party's candidate, they argued, meant fully embracing twenty-first century politics and would force the Parti Socialiste to go beyond its organisational structure and address the concerns of society as a whole...

Extensive media coverage, a high turnout of 2.7 million voters and a decisive result will give the socialist candidate greater democratic legitimacy and momentum. An incredible 6 million viewers watched the final TV debate on Sunday between Hollande and the runner-up, Martine Aubry...

In England, this example:
Tories hail high turnout in 'open primary' to select candidate

A doctor was today chosen as a Conservative parliamentary candidate after more than 16,000 voters – most of whom were not party members – took part in Britain's first full "open primary".

The Tories were delighted with the turnout of about 24%, which sets a record for the number of people involved in a parliamentary selection, and could lead to the procedure being used much more widely by the Conservatives – and possibly other parties...

After the result was announced Pickles said it had been "a great success for democracy".

He went on: "Today's turnout exceeded my wildest expectations and just shows that if you trust the people they embrace democracy.

"I hope Totnes represents a new type of politics, which rejects negative campaigning, and sees openness as a way to restore confidence in public life. I hope over time that the primary process becomes a permanent fixture in British Politics."

Real world examples, providing concrete evidence of turnout above expectations, massive attention and a sense of doing politics differently. In both instances, the general public reacted, and in so doing the eventual winner has a resonance beyond the tribe, they look much more the choice "of the people". I'm sorry, but this sounds exactly the kind of RECIPE for the Liberals, if ever a party needed mechanisms to make them appear more grassroots and democratic in nature, it is this institution.

Last week, I heard Craig Oliver make a comment about the Liberal open primary. Oliver said the media would eat up such a contest, it would receive a ton of attention. I share that viewpoint, just the novelty alone provides great intrigue, then factor in a more general appeal and coverage is all the more justified. An open primary is exciting, it's fresh, it has the potential to let a true outsider make a run, based on nothing but ideas that resonate. A open primary could provide a terrific opportunity to completely reintroduce the Liberal Party to Canadians, to say in stark terms, this is a new party, forward thinking and OPEN to all, come on in, have your say, this isn't a club but an outreach.

The more I think about open primaries, the more become a proponent. This looks the right remedy, for the right time, for all the right reasons. With "partisanship" on the decline, the party that first captures the changing dynamics stands to reap the most benefit.


A piece in the Huff Post arguing for Liberal Primaries.


CuriosityCat said...

Great post, F&W! Just the kind of discussion we sorely need in our democratically challenged party and country.

The French and UK experience are straws in the wind. Anyone want to bet that in 10 years' time we will see primaries amongst all major UK parties, and in France and perhaps in Germany?

The Liberal primary concept is a brilliant one (provide the People choose the Leader and not the CoP or other party brass).

And you bet that the media will salivate like some demented Pavlovian dog at the prospect of interviewing a dozen or so candidates for LPC leadership, over a long, long period, coupled with opinion polls of the various regions where primaries are, have been and will be held, discussions of the various debates (especially if these are well run and allow a meaningful discussion of meaty issues), and the sour reactions of one Stephen Harper who just could not afford to have a primary system in his tightly-controlled Leninique party.

Go, primaries, go!

And let's stare seriously looking at potential candidates from a much wider field than the current crop of less than 3 dozen Liberal MPs.

Steve V said...

Those are two real world examples, in jurisdictions that haven't experimented before. Overwhelming success, rather than a novelty, it looks cutting edge.

DL said...

The Socialist primary in France worked because first of all since Sarkozy is so unpopular and the Socialists are the clear opposition party in France - it was obvious that whoever won the primary between Hollande and Aubry had about a 90% chance of becoming President of France!

Also Hollande and Aubry and the others running were high powered household names in France and were each spending huge amounts of $$ on their campaigns.

I'm not sure if there would be the same level of interest in Canada if - say - Dominic Leblanc and Martha Hall Findlay are contesting the leadership of the third largest party in Canada.

I'm not saying open primaries are a bad idea - just that there are a lot of factors present in France that cannot be replicated here.

Steve V said...

Oh, the NDP hack DL is sceptical. How encouraging.

sharonapple88 said...

I'll admit that I lean towards Jeff Jedras's side in the debate, but I'm starting to wonder if I'm just being tribal. Anyway, I look forward to your posts in the future on the matter.

Greg said...

I think it is a positive idea, as long as spending limits are small and strictly enforced. Otherwise, they will be open in name only.

CuriosityCat said...

Good point, Greg - keep spending limits small.

And let's insist that half of all the money raised by leadership candidates be paid into the Victory Fund for use by the party ...