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Leader Michael Ignatieff and his wife Zsuzanna Zsohar arrive at the Liberal Party's biennial convention in Vancouver on April 30, 2009. (ANDY CLARK/Andy Clark/Reuters)
Leader Michael Ignatieff and his wife Zsuzanna Zsohar arrive at the Liberal Party's biennial convention in Vancouver on April 30, 2009. (ANDY CLARK/Andy Clark/Reuters)

Robert Silver

Over-hyping the Liberal convention Add to ...

I’m looking forward to next weekend’s biennial Liberal convention, I really am. It will be great to catch up with Liberal friends from across the country, I have no doubt there will be some great suites that will go late into the night (which is exactly what my liver needs right now) and the gossip in the hallways (all from named Liberals, no less) should entertain if nothing else.

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So I’m going, spending good money to attend and am actually excited about a trip to Ottawa in January – which is more than nothing.

But as of this morning, I think it’s fair to say the Liberal biennial is officially being overhyped. At least in certain political circles.

Which is different from saying nothing important is happening next weekend.

I think the election of the next president matters for the Liberal Party’s future, both for substantive as well as symbolic reasons. I will be casting my ballot for Mike Crawley and I strongly encourage any other Liberal delegate to do likewise. Mike’s message of bold change for the Liberal Party is exactly what is needed at this time. This has got to be about the future, not the past. I know Mike can make the bold changes the party needs happen.

I think electing Mike Crawley as president is important – in admittedly a very inside baseball kind of way.

But beyond that? First off the constitutional changes: Those massive, game-changey constitutional changes? Read Jeff Jedras’s wonderful summary of the proposed changes on his blog and tell me with a straight face these are worth hyperventilating over. Yes, there is the proposed leadership primary – I will get to that in a moment – but put that aside and what are you left with? It’s pronounced housekeeping.

Now, housekeeping is necessary. It’s good. Much debate will no doubt take place around the housekeeping. That’s what political parties do. The housekeeping items that pass will strengthen our party. But let’s not pretend it’s something else.

Ensuring every riding has an open nomination every election? That would have been a big change. No more appointments by the leader? Big change. That’s not what’s in the proposed constitutional changes in the end.

So ya, the primaries are getting lots of media hype. I’m mixed on them, which I know is a bit weird given that I was one of the first to publicly propose them. I want us to try out primaries in a riding or two. Do exactly what David Cameron did with the British Tories. I suggested starting with Toronto Danforth’s upcoming by-election. If it works – if it opens up the party and brings more people into the fold, and heck, maybe even helps win us a riding – then great, maybe then you elevate it to the leadership level. Or not.

But then the national executive jumped on the idea. Then the Interim Leader made it the showcase piece of how he’s “renewing” the party. Now we either support it for the selection of the next leader – untested, with hundreds of outstanding questions (where’s the “Iowa” of our primary? How much money will it cost the party to run this grand experiment? I could go on and on...) or the idea’s dead. Based on everything I’m hearing, it’s unlikely the proposal will get the requisite two-thirds of the vote to pass. I’m still very undecided how I will vote.

But even if the primary passes, it is far from as radical a change as people are making it out to be. Right now, it costs $10 or $20 to join the Liberal Party. In order to vote in a leadership vote, you need to sign up by a certain date. All of the voters in your riding vote for a candidate, each riding is weighted equally regardless of the number of votes cast, each candidate is given points in each riding based on the percentage of votes they got in that riding. The first candidate with 50% + 1 of the total points, wins.

Under the primary, it will be free to sign up as a “supporter” of the Liberal Party. In order to vote in a leadership vote, you need to sign up by a certain date. All of the voters in your riding vote for a candidate, each riding is weighted equally regardless of the number of votes cast, each candidate is given points in each riding based on the percentage of votes they got in that riding. The first candidate with 50% + 1 of the total points, wins. Oh, and voting will be spread out over a number of weeks with the order to be determined by a committee.

So what’s the difference? $10 or $20 a person and different voting days for different ridings. I will let others argue how significant those two changes really are but I think it’s safe to say the switch from a delegated convention to one-member, one-vote in Vancouver in 2008 was a far more significant change than a potential switch from one-member, one-vote to this “primary” would be.

So in sum, on the constitutional changes, I think most of them are housekeeping in nature. The primaries the executive and the Interim Leader are pushing for (a) should have been tried at the riding level first; but (b) represent far less radical a change than some people are making it out to be.

In terms of the policy resolutions that are being debated, well, if you were hoping for bold changes in policy from the party, this isn’t the policy convention for you. Ya, getting rid of the monarchy is there – top-of mind for most Canadians as it is. And the mandatory Young Liberal “legalize pot” motion is a good one, but otherwise? Lots of calls for national plans (as I’ve said before, there should be a law banning blanket calls for national plans or strategies on anything and everything if the person making said plea cannot say what they want in their called for plan. “We need a national cricket strategy.” “That’s great, why don’t you tell me what such a strategy might look like instead of telling me we should get one”). Lots of resuscitations of past Liberal policies and calls for world peace and human happiness.

So if you’re looking for the future of Liberal policy, this isn’t the convention for you. Or at least I hope that’s the case.

I know that all sounds really negative but it’s not intended as such. I just don’t think this is a really history in the making, this will change everything biennial. It’s great that there are still a couple of thousand Canadians who are willing to spend money to come out for a party convention. That’s something to celebrate in and of itself given what happened last May. In addition, those conversations in hallways amongst Liberals – where are we as a party, where do we want to go from here – those conversations are critically important.

We still need to develop a new, coherent policy proposal for Canadians that is very different from the one we have put forward in the past. We still need to decide what our new voter coalition looks like. We still need a new leader who’s economically literate, has a clear plan for the party and the country and can dedicate 15 years to the job. In other words, while small progress has been made since May, most of the really tough decisions and trade offs remain. None of that was ever going to happen at this biennial.

So let’s just enjoy the gossip and the suites without too much hype.

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