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john ibbitson

Close to 300,000 Canadians have joined the Liberal Party as members or supporters, according to a senior Liberal source speaking on background. This is tremendous vindication of the new supporters category and of the courage that Liberals displayed in creating it. What a shame they only went half-way.

At a party conference early last year, delegates voted to make it possible for people to sign on as supporters of the party. They could vote for the next leader without having to formally join as dues-paying members. Critics considered it folly.

The identity of those supporters would be impossible to verify, they warned. Daffy Ducks and Child of the Norths would abound. Worse, Conservatives of ill intent – let's call them robosupporters – would join in droves in order to game the system by voting for the worst possible candidate.

Little or none of this happened. Instead, about 160,000 people signed up as supporters of Justin Trudeau through his website. A not-much-smaller number became supporters or members through the website or through the websites of other candidates.

Joyce Murray's campaign, though it refused to be more specific, claimed that "tens of thousands" of supporters had signed on, doubtless attracted to her message of the need to co-operate with other progressive parties.

Though the number of supporters actually eligible to vote will diminish as the lists are combed and supporters are asked to register to vote, something approaching one per cent of Canadians could be eligible to cast a ballot for the next Liberal leader. That is a tremendous beginning for a party seeking to rebuild from near-oblivion.

Now if only the conference delegates had endorsed primaries.

Democrats and Republicans – but mostly Democrats – have been able to build huge momentum through their state primaries and caucuses, engaging millions of Americans in the race for the party presidential nominee. The legions who came out in support of Barack Obama in the 2008 primaries were a major factor in both his presidential victories.

The original Liberal proposal also envisioned a series of regional primaries. By now, voters in the Maritimes, say, should be having their direct say in who they want to see as leader, followed by voters in British Columbia or Southern Ontario, or Northern Ontario and Manitoba, and so on.

Not only would Liberal primaries have accelerated the signing up of supporters and generated tremendous buzz, they would have thinned the herd, as early primaries revealed how little support some candidates could expect. By the end of the Canadian equivalent of Super Tuesday, the field could have been reduced to two or three candidates, with all eyes turned to the final primary in Quebec.

Unfortunately, although the idea of creating the supporters category drew the required two-thirds vote of delegates, the primaries proposal only secured 58-per cent-support. So the Liberals only gave themselves half a loaf.

Or a third. Or a quarter. A proposal to choose candidates for Members of Parliament by recruiting supporters at the riding level was also defeated.

And the party set a foolishly early cutoff of March 3. Imagine if we knew what we know about the supporters numbers today, but there were four more weeks for all camps to make a final push. Those supporting co-operation with the NDP might flood Joyce Murray's campaign, encouraged by the early momentum. Liberals fearful that Mr. Trudeau lacks the gravitas to become prime minister might sign up for Marc Garneau. Instead, six weeks before the leader is announced, applications are closed. What a buzz kill.

Still, a quarter of a loaf is still a lot of bread, and a figure approaching 300,000 supporters and members – as voters and as potential donors – is a large new base for the Liberal Party.

Though truth be told, I was really looking forward to the February primary in Saskatchewan.

John Ibbitson is The Globe's chief political writer in Ottawa.