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Liberals take first step to revival with younger face Add to ...

The Liberal Party is inviting the whole electorate to help choose its next leader, after a weekend conference pried the levers of power from the party elite, picking a young, denim-clad entrepreneur as president and calling for legalization of marijuana.

Interim leader Bob Rae dominated the gathering, championing the push to open up the party and adding fuel to a bonfire of speculation about whether he wants the permanent job.

The future of the party remains unsettled. President Mike Crawley’s victory over Chrétien-era cabinet minister Sheila Copps, who was backed by the Liberal establishment, was paper-cut thin. And Conservatives are bound to claim delegates were more concerned with keeping potheads out of jail than with rescuing the middle class from its economic doldrums.

But the boldest decision was a move that takes Canadian politics even closer to the American model, as more than two-thirds of voting delegates supported the idea of creating a new category known as Liberal “supporters.” Those individuals will not have to become card-carrying members of the party. Simply by signing up, they will be eligible to vote for the next party leader, as registered voters do during the primary contests now under way in the United States.

“When it comes to political parties [people]want to date, not marry,” one delegate explained during the debate. Party officials hope that as many as a million Canadians will hook up with the Liberals to choose the next leader in the spring of 2013.

It took courage for party members, and especially for the elites within the party who influence the rank-and-file, to surrender control over leadership selection. Many fear that Conservatives or NDPers will sign up to rig the vote. Anti-abortionists, extreme environmentalists and would-be Svengalis of all sorts could all take a shot at capturing the leadership.

But hijacking a national party is no easy thing. No one has yet won the Democratic or Republican nomination who was not a Democrat or a Republican.

A proposal to move to a system of regional primary contests, which would have further mirrored the American model, failed to garner the two-thirds majority required to pass. It was, in the end, a reform too far.

Mr. Rae embraced the delegates’ decision to advocate not just decriminalizing marijuana – as the party started to do when it was last in government, before backing off – but legalizing and regulating it.

“If you want to be part of a group of free-thinking, innovative, thoughtful, pragmatic, hopeful, positive, happy people, come and join the Liberal party,” Mr. Rae exhorted during his closing speech, adding: “And after the resolution on marijuana today, it’s going to be a group of even happier people.”

In another display of free thinking, delegates chose Mr. Crawley as national party president over Ms. Copps, the former deputy prime minister. Mr. Crawley is a lanky 42-year-old long-time Liberal activist who started up his own wind-and-solar power company. He was the emphatic choice of the youth wing of the party.

But he defeated Ms. Copps by only 26 votes. And the old rivalries were there in the corridors: the Chrétien wing of the party supporting Ms. Copps for president and Mr. Rae as permanent rather than just interim leader; the Paul Martin wing endorsing Mr. Crawley, who is rumoured to be less than enamoured with the idea of letting Mr. Rae convert his temporary job into a permanent one.

No one should think for a minute that Liberals have banished their ghosts. The divisions and the feuds remain. And though the party put in place new mechanisms for improving fundraising and reviving the 100 ridings across the country where it is effectively moribund, the actual business of accomplishing these goals still lies ahead.

Beyond that, the Liberal Party still has yet to tell Canadians what it is, other than not right or left wing. It has yet to tell us what it would do if it were given power.

That, along with continuing to heal, represents its biggest challenge. But there will be more than a year for leadership contestants to define what, for them, Liberalism should be about.

And everyone who wants to can now have a say in the outcome.

Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

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