This weekend, Liberals face some big choices about their party’s future. The debate over primaries is really just a sideshow.
What are the key questions? Will the Liberal Party remain a tightly controlled club or transform itself into a modern, mass political movement? Are Liberals ready to convert top-down control of party processes into bottom-up empowerment of their supporters? Will they vote for an open party, accessible to all Canadians? Or do they want a closed party, where membership has its privileges and insiders call the plays?
The Liberal Party sees itself as the party of progress and reform, the voice of the people. Too long preoccupied with internal battles and pointless insider games, it’s now estranged from its base. Voters have grown weary and disconnected, while Liberal insider elites, obsessively hoping for a saviour, have watched their vote fall for more than a decade.
More than ever, Liberals need to revisit the darkest moments of their history, when creativity and courage were all they had.
Canadians have sent Liberals to the political woodshed on three previous occasions – 1930, 1958 and 1984. Each time, the party was seen as arrogant, out of touch and out of date. Liberals bounced back from defeat by doing two things: reaching out to new people with new ideas, and modernizing their organization. Once modernized and renewed, the party earned its way back to governing Canada – for 22 consecutive years the first time, for 21 almost continuous years the second time, and for 13 years in a row the last time this happened.
In each generation, the party’s modernization proposals were first thought by some to be radical and fraught with risk. But Liberal reformers carried the day because, each and every time, they were inspired by the vision of a more open, democratic, transparent and accountable party and because Liberals had the courage to embrace change.
This weekend, Liberals will be considering a series of bold proposals to bring their party into the 21st century and vault it ahead of its opponents – including a much-mooted primary-style leadership selection process. But primaries make no sense unless three of the other “radical” proposals are adopted first:
1. A national riding-based fundraising appeal for a major investment in a National Call Centre to optimize the party’s technology backbone in support of the party’s outreach, organization and fundraising activities.
2. A national person-to-person organizational drive to register “supporters” so Liberals can overcome their “data” deficiency, rebuild the party’s relationships with the millions of Canadians who want to vote Liberal, and create a robust database of supporters from which to quickly expand membership, worker and donor lists.
3. Widening participation in selecting the next permanent leader and the next generation of Liberal candidates beyond the paid membership to all registered party “supporters.”
These proposals, if adopted, would revolutionize democratic engagement in Canada, changing the very nature of political power and how it’s exercised by our politicians. But will Liberals have the courage to lead? Will they vote to truly open up their party, by committing to building a data-driven political communications technology platform and by offering ordinary Canadians a say in choosing the faces and voices of the next Liberal generation?
Primaries could easily become just another gimmick. But if Liberals have courage to do first things first and do them well, Canadian-style leadership primaries will matter, the party will rise again and Canadian politics will be transformed for the better.
Alfred Apps is the outgoing president of the Liberal Party of Canada.