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Alberta Liberal Leader Raj Sherman believes the benefits of allowing non-members to vote in party leadership contests outweigh the risks. (John Ulan/The Canadian Press)
Alberta Liberal Leader Raj Sherman believes the benefits of allowing non-members to vote in party leadership contests outweigh the risks. (John Ulan/The Canadian Press)

Party Membership

Alberta's Liberals have a lesson for their federal cousins Add to ...

It was last year that Alberta Liberals waded into uncharted waters by opening their party to “supporters” – lukewarm party backers who could vote without buying a membership or getting roped into the insular world of political circles, constituency associations and boards.

It was a move championed by the Alberta Liberal executive – all its members roughly 30 years old – and meant to throw open the doors of a venerable party that has languished through 40 years of Tory rule. And as they made the move, their federal counterparts quietly looked on. One MP backed the notion on Twitter but a spokesman for Interim Leader Bob Rae declined to say at the time whether the party was considering a similar tactic.

Federal Liberals aren’t shying away from it any longer. Now they’re in the same boat, opening the slumping party’s leadership race to “supporters” over the weekend.

While they’ve been hesitant to point to the Alberta precedent (“My advice would be, ‘Give us some credit,’” said one Alberta Liberal), federal Liberals will be well-advised to observe its lessons. Be prepared for a rush of interest, particularly from young people, but know how to handle the surge and don’t swamp them with e-mail or donorship requests.

“I think we didn't quite understand it well enough and we have to fine-tune the process,” Alberta Liberal MLA and one-time leadership candidate Laurie Blakeman said. The party was overwhelmed with supporters and stumbled as it tried to coordinate the new lists, leading to a series of complaints and errors in the final days of the leadership race. They also had people signed up erroneously, including a dead woman, a former Conservative MP and a cat.

“We wanted water, we got a tidal wave,” Ms. Blakeman said.

“We ended up with so many people we didn't know quite how to get in touch with them and the whole point of this is to reach out to people on a regular basis and get your views across. … They want to be involved, they want to be consulted but they don’t want to sign up for a leadership dinner once a year, four fundraisers and go to board meetings.”

Alberta’s foray went further than the federal Liberals will, allowing supporters to vote in constituency nomination races. Alberta Liberals also allowed people to vote online, by mail or by phone.

The move did drum up interest. Alberta Liberals claim it grew their donor base (a “pleasant surprise,” one that will surely catch the eye of the federal party as it looks to compete with the fundraising machine of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives). The Alberta Liberals’ members and supporters list also had 28,985 confirmed names on it by the time of the Sept. 7 leadership vote – about 10 times the number the party started the year with. It helped former Progressive Conservative Raj Sherman win the leadership.

“I will be talking to Bob Rae and the new president congratulating them on a made-in-Alberta solution here,” Dr. Sherman said Monday, acknowledging he was skeptical of the “supporter” category when he first heard about it last year. “I came to understand that the benefits of this far outweighed the risk.”

The two men discussed the plan when Mr. Rae visited Edmonton in October. The real evaluation of the Alberta model, however, will come in a few months – the province will hold an election this spring. Polls and observers suggest the Liberals will be hard-pressed to hold onto the party’s eight seats and Official Opposition status, much less make gains. Some fear the party will be reduced to just a handful of seats.

“Where we'll find out is once an election is called,” one Liberal said. “Do we have more volunteers, a bigger base as it's called? Or do we have more e-mails?”

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