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Liberals roll dice on U.S.-style primary to choose next leader

By proposing a series of primary contests to choose their next leader, the federal Liberals are gambling that they can convert a tired and increasingly marginalized party into a powerful new movement for social and political change.

What kind of movement? And what kind of change? Primaries may go some way to providing an answer – if, that is, the Liberals can keep the other parties from hijacking the process.

The party executive will unveil a series of proposed reforms in a report later this week, to be decided upon at the party's January convention. One of those proposals is for the Liberals to adapt the American system of political primaries to a Canadian setting when the party chooses a new leader in 2013.

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"We need to give an opportunity to Canadians to have a voice in choosing who our next leader is," Interim Leader Bob Rae said Monday in an interview. "We want to break the mould a little bit."

Under existing rules, the Liberal Party leader is chosen by a vote of all paid-up party members. But only a tiny fraction of the population actually belongs to a political party.

The Americans, in contrast, choose their presidential candidates by holding primaries or caucuses in each state over the course of several months, with all those who identify themselves as a Democratic or Republican party supporter able to cast a ballot.

Though chaotic, the primary system can mobilize large numbers of voters behind a candidate, generating political momentum, media buzz and a valuable database of potential supporters for the next election.

And it could transform the Liberals' image from that of a centrist party that brokers competing interests into a powerful movement for political change.

"If you're going to convince a whole new generation of people to get involved, then the party has to be about shaping history, shaping the society you live in," argues Richard Mahoney, a former adviser to Paul Martin. "The party has to be about ideas."

Holding primaries would also give those outside the party establishment a genuine shot at winning the leadership, just as Barack Obama overcame Hillary Clinton's firm control of the Democratic Party apparatus in 2008 by mobilizing millions of supporters and donors behind his campaign for the presidential nomination.

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The risk is that the Conservatives or NDP could flood the primaries with their own supporters, leading to a rigged result.

But Mr. Rae believes the upside of moving to a primary system outweighs the downside.

"When you're in third place, you need to be able to take more risks, and you need to be edgier," he maintained.

It could also do wonders for fundraising. The latest numbers show the Tories continue to out-fundraise the Liberals by more than 2 to 1.

Public subsidies will be phased out over the next two years, and the Conservatives have introduced legislation that would ban corporate and individual loans, leaving personal donations the sole source of revenue. A primary system could create a large pool of party supporters who could be tapped to contribute.

Voters in primaries tend to be more partisan than the general voter, which could leave the Liberals vulnerable to being pushed farther to the left than they have already gone.

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"A party that once reflected the view of corporate Canada, with a social-reform streak, has become a party of social reform," said Peter Graefe, a political scientist at McMaster University in Hamilton. He believes the Liberals have sacrificed too much of the political centre to the Conservatives.

But this too is worth the risk, in Mr. Rae's eyes, if it causes the Liberals "to regain the capacity to resonate emotionally with Canadians."

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About the Author

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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