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Liberals stake their party's revival on leadership primaries

The Liberal Party's audacious proposal to choose its next leader through a series of American-style primary contests, formally unveiled Thursday, combines equal measures of inspiration and desperation.

No political party has ever been prepared to invite all Canadians to have a say in choosing the next leader, without having to join the party. If the Liberals were not, by their own admission, threatened with extinction, they might not have tried it either.

"I think the Liberal Party understands, it's do something or die," party president Alfred Apps told reporters who were briefed on the proposal.

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How bad are things for the Liberals?

Really bad. Less than half as many people voted for the Liberals last May as voted for them in 2000. Support in Quebec is down by more than two-thirds. In 91 out of 308 ridings, the Liberals garnered less than 10 per cent of the vote last time out. Up to 80 riding associations, perhaps more, are considered dormant.

How would primaries work?

You would register as a Liberal supporter. Not a card-carrying, dues-paying member; just a supporter. It'd be free. You'd have to give your name and address and you'd also have to sign an affirmation of Liberal Party principles.

During the Liberal leadership campaign in the spring of 2013, a series of primaries would be held across the country. One set of primaries might include, say, Victoria, Saskatchewan, Southwestern Ontario, Quebec City and Nova Scotia.

When your riding held its primary, you'd be asked to vote for your choice as leader using a preferential ballot. You could vote online. There might be a runoff if no candidate got 50 per cent on the first round.

What's the upside?

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The leadership campaign could galvanize hundreds of thousands of Canadians to join as supporters, who could then be targeted for donations and mobilized in the next election. New faces and new ideas could flood the party. The media love this kind of horse race, so there would be plenty of buzz.

Young people who engage in issues through social media but avoid political parties could throng to support a candidate who excited them.

Because they're starting from scratch, the Liberals would avoid the confusion of open and closed primaries, caucuses and fights over who gets to go first that plague the American system.

What's the downside?

The other parties could try to game the contest by having their supporters sign up as Liberals and then vote for the worst candidate. But those supporters would have to lie to do it, and it probably wouldn't work anyway.

A bigger danger is that somebody who isn't really a Liberal but who could recruit supporters across the country could hijack the party. Mr. Apps acknowledges the risk, but replies that the party is in such a fragile state that "the risks of the Liberal Party in its current shape being taken over are greater today under our current system than they will be under this."

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Is anyone else doing this?

The Americans, of course, but the idea is also catching on in Europe.

The French Socialist Party recently used a primary system much like the one the Liberals are proposing to choose their presidential candidate. The new method was seen as hugely successful: Nearly 2.9 million voters cast a ballot in the runoff round.

The British Conservatives have tried primaries at the riding level, and Greek and Italian parties have also used primaries, but let's not go there.

What could it mean for other parties?

If Liberal delegates approve the reform proposals in January, successfully rejuvenate their party and choose an effective new leader, the Conservatives and NDP will be under pressure to do the same. If so, Canadian politics could become more democratic, and more American.

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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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