In stepping down after 16 years as Ontario Liberal Party leader, Premier Dalton McGuinty spoke about renewal.
That was the title of his e-mail to party memberships. “I’ve concluded,” he said in an emotional speech to caucus, “that this is the right time for Ontario’s next Liberal premier and our next set of ideas to guide our province forward.”
Unfortunately, the Ontario Liberal Party’s constitution contains an odd section that could serve to limit renewal. It has to do with who’s eligible to vote for leader, and whether all party members are equal or if some are more equal than others.
Instead of one-person, one-vote like the federal Liberal Party, the Ontario Liberals still use a delegated-convention system. The federal party sought to open itself to the general public following the catastrophic defeat on May 2, 2011 and now allows for “supporters” to sign up online if they state they hold Liberal values.
These supporters – at last count over 30,000, including over 5,000 signed up on campuses across the country in September – can then vote for free for the federal leader, much like Americans can register as a Democrat or Republican to vote in primary contests.
This distinction between the two parties isn’t the threat to renewal, however. Delegated conventions can still be engaging democratic exercises that excite local activists and then allow for representatives to vote in a great free media event at the convention itself.
The issue is in how the delegates are selected.
It’s all very structured and simple. The leadership candidate who is best organized in your constituency wins, electing more delegates to support him or her at the convention. It’s the same process we use in representative democracy to pick our MPs and MPPs.
In practice, the party holds “delegate-selection meetings” for constituency associations, campus clubs and women’s clubs. No matter the number of members in a given association, each association across the province gets the same number of delegates, so Toronto Centre gets the same proportion of the convention vote as Nickel Belt, University of Western Ontario the same as Laurentian.
Just as the federal party has a 41-day cut off to sign up as a supporter (mostly to allow time the necessary time for clerical work), the Ontario Liberal party will have a cut-off date for membership to vote at their delegate-selection meetings.
But this is where the Ontario Liberals’ constitution is truly bizarre.
The cut-off date was almost a month ago.
The constitution states that the “qualifying date” to vote at a delegate-selection meeting is either “a) the ninetieth (90th) day preceding the date of the call of the convention” or “ b) the last day of the annual meeting of the Ontario Liberal Party next preceding the date of the call of the convention.” That could make the cut-off date Sept. 30, the last day of the Liberal AGM in Ottawa last month.
Now, the various leadership camps can still sign up new members who can still be selected as delegates and who can still vote at the leadership convention. These people just can’t vote for themselves as delegates at the selection meeting.
Put simply, this is bad. In order to be a full-fledged participant in the party’s renewal, in order to choose the successor to Premier McGuinty, you had to be a party member before a leadership race was even on the horizon. This Byzantine rule makes for an exclusionary system. Some members are more equal than others.
Party President Yasir Naqvi, the young MPP for Ottawa Centre, faces a number of decisions around this leadership race, the first in 16 years.
One of his first decisions should be finding a constitutional mechanism to fix this bizarre, unequal system.
Jonathan Scott is the president of the University of Toronto Liberals.