Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Liberal "Primaries"

The best thing about floating new ideas, it generates debate, pumps some life into the process, gives a sense of "where the action" resides. I note quite a lot of conversation regarding a possible Liberal primary system as a leadership selection method. I've actually played devil's advocate on both sides, ever since Rob Silver first put the idea out there, now reaching a crescendo with Bob Rae musing, the Liberals set to formally put the concept into the debate.

The whole key to a primary idea, does it strike the right balance, does it achieve what is intended without sacrificing notions of fairness and commitment? I'd like to wait and see any proposal truly fleshed out before jumping on board, but at the very least I now find the general concept attractive. Anything that opens up the process has advantages, particularly for a party desperate to reconnect, present a new face that operates in the open, for all to see and weigh in on.

Some of the valid criticisms I'm hearing revolve around this idea of "instant Liberals", people with little real commitment to the party having influence that cheapens the role of the devoted membership. As well, any primary system runs the risk of shenanigans from other partisans, particularly if the process itself doesn't result in a large turnout (a very real concern, given the apathy that exists). There is potential for unseemly outcomes, which is why any proposal must exclude active members of other political parties, this stipulation a bear minimum if logistically possible.

Right now, it is quite easy to join the Liberal Party, the financial commitment minuscule and not a barrier in any practical sense. However, that logic also speaks to a certain openness, you can join anytime, a couple bucks and you have a voice, that's all that is required. Given the current flimsy nature of membership, there is something to be said for taking the process one step further and allowing anyone who bothers to come out and vote a say. The very act of casting a vote indicates a certain commitment to an idea proposed, pro or con, someone or something has MOTIVATED said individual to take time out of their day to participate. Rather than cheapening membership (which still has "advantages" in other matters, leadership isn't the only expression of influence within a party), the line between partisan and simply political is blurred, tribalism replaced by a more general call to participate. For whatever reason, many people with strong political views stay outside of partisanship, they don't like the labels, the designations. A primary allows almost anyone to participate, while still maintaining an independence, it casts a wider net of interest.

Under the current rules, it is almost impossible for a true "insurgent" to win the Liberal leadership. Party systems reward things like loyalty, networks, factions and self interests. Elites within parties can handpick potential leadership candidates, throw their organizational weight behind and immediately become a force, without going through any paces, without establishing a rapport with Canadians, WITHOUT ideas being the true impetus. In a general sense, any "advance" which opens up the process to a more grassroots potential immediately should be debated. In addition, given the well established history of the Liberal Party, some fresh air that eliminates the backroom machinations, ends the ass kissing esoteric culture, has some appeal in a general sense.

I actually don't care if a committed Liberal or a "outsider" ends up leading the Liberal Party. I care about what ideas, philosophy is put forth, a vision that speaks to modern "liberalism", something I can get behind. At present, the system favours "paid their dues" people, or at the very least a person who has the backing of powerful insiders. In this sense, the idea of a truly egalitarian system, that REACHES out to everyone and says lend your voice, the concept has potential to change how Canadians view this damaged party brand.

I'm not quite ready to wave the "primaries now" flag, but nor am I ready to reject the idea out of hand... If anything, the underlying concept of open participation- a debate wider than tribal considerations- sounds very much like an evolution, and for that reason, a serious deliberation warranted.


Jeff said...

Under the current rules, it is almost impossible for a true "insurgent" to win the Liberal leadership.

You could have made that argument fairly and persuasively against the delegated system. In fact, I and many others did when we argued in favour of adopting weighted one member, one vote. Which I was very happy to see us do at the Vancouver convention in 2008, and which I was very proud to vote in favour of.

The "current rules" are now OMOV, and the objections about backroom influence, etc. no longer hold water.

Steve V said...

That was a move in the right direction, but you still have internal organization and undue backroom influence. I don't think OMOV eliminates that at all. I would submit recent decisions as evidence that practice trumps ideal in this regard.

Jeff said...

Could you outline for me what undue influence can be affected under OMOV, and how it's eliminated by an open primary system? Because I don't see any noticeable difference.

Under OMOC and primary, rules such as requirements to stand for the leadership, dates and timing, and so on would still be set by party executive. And that's where any influence is going to be applied.

The major difference between the two systems would be in who can vote, either just party members or anyone that wants to. And since all you need to become a member is a $10 membership you can buy online, there's no backroom influence there.

Steve V said...

You still have the hierarchy and it's naive to suggest it doesn't have influence beyond the spirit of OMOV. We all voted on leadership date options, hardly surprising the backroom preference won in a landslide, despite the supposed equality of it all.

Sure, we can pretend that OMOV allows for some organic manifestation, but it won't and doesn't and we can see how powerful interests still dicate here and with other parties. If we opened up the process to include everyone, there is more room for someone who hasn't paid their dues, built networks within the tribe, rose the ranks, have the organizers, all the stuff that has nothing to do with ideas. I still don't see the threat in opening up ideas to a wider audience.

I know SO many people who are passionate, engaged and yet aren't partisan, nor do they have any intention. It's easy to say 10 bucks, but I'll say again, anybody who bothers to show up and vote is making a commitment, it should be rewarded.

A wider perception question: do Canadians see the Liberal Party as a representative organization or a top heavy, backroom dominated institution? If you answered the latter, then people should be open to any initiative which looks to challenge old notions and presents an inclusive and open disposition. Wider audience for a diminishing party, something we must consider.

Jeff said...

I won't deny there are backroom influences. But I don't see how they would be lessened by moving from OMOV to Open Primary.

I think there was a big lessening going from delegated system to OMOV (which we haven't even tried yet, btw). And I think the level of backroom influence would be the same under OMOV or Open Primary.

I would counter it's naive to assume there wouldn't be evil backroom machinations around any open primary model, unless and until every party in Canada goes to open primaries and the whole system is managed not by political parties, but Elections Canada.

Unless and until that happens, the backroom influence will still be there in Open Primary, at the same levels you fear it under OMOV. Given that, and the objections I have to primaries around devaluing membership, I have to stand opposed.

CuriosityCat said...

Jeff, how about the requirement that any candidate for interim leadership not run for permanent leader? That was not a OMOV decision, even though it is clearly an attempt to amend the constitutional right of any member to stand for any office, without changing the constitution?

Steve V said...

You won't eliminate people manipulating any system, but the perception is far more attractive and it also allows for someone to come in and really challenge entrenched interests.

Jeff said...


There is a lot of confusion on that point, a lot of it I think deliberately spread by some of our backroom friends.

The "rule" as it was, was part of the criteria set by the party executive as part of the selection process for the interim leader. They said if you want us to consider you for interim leader, you need to be bilingual, you need to show a certain level of caucus support, and you need to declare you won't run for permanent leader.

So it wasn't a "rule" written down anywhere, it was just a screening criteria set by the executive. Now that they've picked the interim leader, the "rule" no longer exists.

When I read about the next executive maybe changing "the rule" I want to scream, because there is no rule to change. All it was, was a promise by Bob not to use the interim job as a springboard for a run for the permanent gig. I think that promise was asked for and given for very good reasons.

But if he wanted to run, nothing is stopping him. No rule needs to be changed. It was just a promise. Bob would have to explain why he's breaking his word, but that is the only obstacle.

Any "rule change" passed by a future executive would be a kabuki play of nonesense designed to give political cover for breaking that word; it's completely unnecessary constitutionaly or otherwise.

Jeff said...

Someone can challenge entrenched interests under either system, and I'm more interested in effect that perception. I think the idea thousands are going to flock to take part is unrealistic, and the negatives far outweigh any positives.

DL said...

Didn't the Alberta Liberals just pick a new leader in a process that was pretty similar to what is being bandied about by some federal Liberals - anyone who declared themself a Liberal supporter could vote and they didn't have to pay anything etc...I will leave it to any Alberta Liberals out there to tell you if the process works are hoped and if it led to the nest person winning the leadership etc...

Steve V said...

"I think the idea thousands are going to flock to take part is unrealistic, and the negatives far outweigh any positives."

Perhaps, but if someone or some idea caught fire, it is entirely possible. I would submit Layton in QC, the turnout to rallies, it just happened, something clicked and a wave came. I'm not that jaded to believe the right message can't catch fire, in fact that is exactly what is required for us to survive in any meaningful capacity.

Anyways, it's nice to have some debate started, that in and of itself is healthy.

Calivancouver said...

Does it favor people who've 'paid their dues?'

A great many people who've gone on to be leader of the party were not even active members a few short years before, much less in parliament or the party apparatus. I'm talking to you, Pearson, Trudeau, Dion, Iggy, Rae....

I'd certainly say that it favors the will of insiders though.

CuriosityCat said...

My two-tier suggestion overcomes the problem of "instant Liberals" and also gives Liberal members a significant say in selecting (via preferential vote) the three Liberals who will then run in the open-primary process where anyone can vote. A modified two-tier system was used in the Totnes byelection in the UK by the Tories, but they let the party riding brass select the 3 who would run in the open primaries.

My suggestion is much better because it lets Liberal members - the activists - do the pre-selection, using the democractic preferential vote system.