How the next leader of the Liberal Party of Canada is chosen matters almost as much as who that leader is. But the party appears to be retreating from a promising experiment in making that choice.
This is a strange decision. As last week's events further confirmed, the Liberals are suffering from continuing losses on all fronts. This is hardly the time for such retreats.
At the beginning of the year, delegates to the party's biennial convention voted to create a new category known as supporters, who would not need to join the party or pay a fee. A simple declaration of support for Liberal principles would suffice to allow them to cast a vote for the next leader.
The idea was to expand support for, and participation in, the leadership contest beyond the narrow base of Liberal partisans, potentially encompassing hundreds of thousands of previously uncommitted voters.
Last week, the party's national executive announced some of the details of the coming race. One of those details undermines the very notion of the supporter category.
Yes, it is possible to go to Liberal.ca and sign on as a supporter, and the party claims 20,000 people have done so.
But that privilege will end 41 days before the April 14 vote is announced. Mike Crawley, the party's president, explained Sunday that the party had decided to make the cutoff for both supporters and members that far in advance, so that lists could be finalized, checked for possible acts of fraud, and then shared with all candidates.
"If the list keeps changing and changing up until the final minute, it's difficult for the campaigns to get access to the supporters and the members in order to reach out to them and make their case," he explained.
Under the old assumptions, in which candidates wooed a small base of committed partisans, this makes sense. Under the new assumptions – that the supporter category could become a tool for mass mobilization – it makes no sense at all.
Anyone who has covered an election or a leadership campaign knows that the final weeks are crucial. These are the days in which campaigns are won or lost.
Cutting off memberships six weeks before the vote will make it virtually impossible for any candidate to galvanize support among an electorate that pays little attention to party leadership contests until almost literally the last minute.
Instead, only partisans and true believers are likely to be recruited. Wasn't the whole purpose of the supporter category supposed to be to reach past that base to the broader, disengaged public?
Whoever has the early lead and the best organization will now have a huge advantage. If the goal of creating the supporter class was to generate buzz, this is a major buzz kill.
Though influential Liberals insist that they understand how dire the situation has become for their party, and how important it is to break with the past, they continue to tussle among themselves, brokering compromises rather than striking hot irons.
The original intention of the supporter category was to recreate, to the extent possible, the excitement and voter outreach of an American-style primary campaign. But the concept has become so watered down that the only difference between supporter and full party member appears to be that the former gets in for free.
Perhaps the federal party leadership failed to notice that the Liberal Party was defeated in the Quebec provincial election last week even as the Liberal government in B.C. was pummelled by a string of cabinet ministers announcing they would not be running in the next election and the Ontario Liberals failed to win a by-election that would have given Dalton McGuinty a majority government. The Liberals are running out of things to run.
You might think this would be no time for the party to retreat from taking chances. But apparently not.