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The Globe and Mail

Changing everything can't look the same for Liberals

Editorial cartoon by Brian Gable

Brian Gable/The Globe and Mail

Of the roughly 4,000 columns (give or take) that have been written in the last 10 days on where the Liberal Party of Canada goes from here, John Ibbitson's in today's Globe is one of the best.

In it he proposes a radical change for the Liberal Party - an open primary system to choose our next leader. Every Canadian could have a say. As he writes, there is no doubt it would change the party in profound ways.

Think that's a bridge too far? At the very least, the Liberals should be making two related changes, in my very humble opinion:

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1. The era of protected nominations for sitting Liberal MPs is dead and will never return. Ever. Every riding will have an open, contested nomination every single time. We will never allow the undemocratic atrophy that enveloped our caucus to return.

2. We will experiment with open primaries at the riding level just as David Cameron did in Britain. Instead of only card-carrying Liberals choosing the candidate, any voter can get a say. There will be by-elections at some point over the next four years; why not try an open primary when the first ones occur? Really, what do we have to lose?

Some Liberals have reacted very negatively to Ibbitson's idea and likely will to my narrower notion of open primaries at the riding level. What about the grassroots of the party? This is just too much, they say.

That's fine and valid. Let me reiterate my four categories of Liberals that I set out in a piece the day after the election

1. The NDP merger/cooperation/coalition group. I have made my views on this option pretty clear in the past. Nothing in this campaign has changed those views - in fact, quite the opposite. The Liberal Party of Canada is not a "left-wing party". Not when we are at our best. The Liberals and NDP have radically different cultures and visions for the country - at least they should have different visions. Unlike the PCs and Alliance/Reform, we were never one party that had a divorce. But the party may decide to pursue this option. That's the party's right, of course. I won't be a part of the new, merged party but it's a democracy and is certainly a legitimate option.

2. Reform everything about the Liberal Party. Top-to-bottom. New blood, new voting coalition - there's not much that stays the same in this new Liberal Party. This is obviously my preferred option and I will discuss it in more detail in the days and weeks to come.

3. Put a fresh coat of paint on the party. Nobody will say they are in this camp but I will have no doubt that there will be some Liberals who think we just need to "run a better campaign" or "get a better leader" and everything turns around. You will know people in this camp if they start speeches by talking about our glorious history, refer to the Liberal Party as a "family" rather than a political party and claim that "Canada needs the Liberal Party." I would put it at more than 50 per cent that this group wins the day, which really worries me because this option dooms the party to more of the same in terms of results.

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4. The fourth group will be Liberals who reject the NDP merger talk, think the radical reforms in option No. 2 are impossible to achieve based on the "old guard" (for lack of a better term) who still control most of the current party and have no interest in remaining in the same old, same old Liberal Party. These people will seriously consider starting a new party or just stop being a part of partisan politics for a while. Hopefully this group remains (as it is today) miniscule because if it grows, it is very bad news for the future of the Liberal Party.

Luckily (from my perspective), Group 1 appears to have little support amongst Liberals.

When I wrote the piece, the response was overwhelmingly "I'm in Group 2." Nobody claims that they are in Group 3 - thinking that we just need to have a new coat of paint on the party. That's understandable but doesn't reflect reality. Certainly lots of people have been acting exactly the same way that Liberals have acted over the last two decades since the election and in so many ways, those actions speak louder than words.

Liberals cannot face voters again looking anything like how we looked in the past few elections. That means changing an awful lot of how we do things and what we believe in. There is no single idea, no single change that solves all of our problems.

I think open primaries would be a positive step in the right direction. Disagree? That's ok, there will be lots of other options in the weeks ahead.

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