Next week about 1,500 Liberals will gather in Ottawa to debate the future of their party at its biennial convention. The outcome could decide whether John McCallum gets to keep his seat.
The Grits are feeling much better about themselves than they did after their thrashing last May. Interim Leader Bob Rae has performed effectively; fundraising has been going relatively well; the NDP’s uncertain performance under their interim leader, Nycole Turmel, has opened vistas of gains in Quebec next time out.
But this is superficial progress. The party remains dangerously weak: estranged from voters in most regions of the country and devoid of policies or long-term leadership to counter Stephen Harper and his Conservative government.
Will the delegates take the risks needed to fundamentally renew a gravely damaged political brand? Or will the old guard undermine reform in the interests of protecting what little turf is still left to them?
Based on conversations with party insiders, the news for Liberals is mostly encouraging.
The key issue is over the selection of the next leader, who will be chosen sometime in 2013. The outgoing executive is proposing a high-risk/high-reward road to reform.
If adopted by the convention, the party will allow anyone to declare themselves a Liberal supporter. Supporters will pay no fee and will not be party members, though they must sign a declaration of Liberal principles. By signing up they will qualify to cast a vote for the next party leader – either through a series of primary contests similar to the ones now underway in the United States or all together on a single day.
The risk is that the Conservatives and NDP will try to rig the choice of leader by having their own partisans sign up as supporters. The reward is the possibility that hundreds of thousands of Canadians could get involved, creating a buzz around the next leader that would vault the Grits back into contention. The word is that the delegates like the proposal and will adopt it.
Other proposed reforms are meeting more resistance. Allowing supporters to vote for nominees at the riding level, an idea the executive is also proposing, has some delegates worried that special interests could game the system by, say, foisting an anti-abortion or pro-marijuana candidate on the party. This would be easier to achieve at the riding level than in a national leadership campaign.
Some Liberal MPs are grumbling about a resolution that would strip incumbents of any protection from nomination challenges. And a move to eviscerate the provincial wings of the national party, so that head office can centralize riding renewal efforts, is also under attack, especially from the party’s Quebec wing. The turf-protectors may prevail on these counts.
Then there are the specific policy proposals generated by the various wings of the party. Most of them are motherhood: fighting poverty, protecting the environment, supporting post-secondary education.
Others are exotic: One resolution, if adopted, would eliminate the Queen as Canada’s head of state. Another would legalize marijuana. A third would scrap the penny.
In all their deliberations, the delegates should ask themselves one simple question: Will this resolution, if adopted, help save John McCallum’s hide in 2015?
Mr. McCallum is the MP for Markham-Unionville, a suburban riding in what used to be the Liberal bastion of Greater Toronto. Last May, the former cabinet minister, who used to win by a margin of 20,000, clung to his seat by a mere 1,700 votes. The riding is now virtually surrounded by Tory constituencies. Unless the trend reverses, Mr. McCallum will be defeated next time out.
Reversing that trend – in urban Ontario, in Quebec and in the West – is the do-or-die proposition that Liberals face.
Opening the party to millions of potential new supporters could be the essential first step. As for legalizing marijuana and turfing the Queen – well, that’s for the delegates to decide.