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Gordon GibsonChristopher Grabowski

The federal Liberal convention, which arrives in Ottawa on Jan. 13, will be a seminal event. Does it matter if the party survives? Few would say so with much passion, but I think it does matter. Failing that, we'll be left with ideologues of the left and right. Liberals, by contrast, have few principles beyond survival and power, which at least makes for a keen attention to the public good.

A significant part of the Liberal future will be decided at the convention. This has nothing to do with policy. These proposals are the usual mix of motherhood and political correctness (save a call for legalized marijuana), tax-and-spend big government, and a country run out of Ottawa. No, the big question, going to the survival of the party, is a constitutional one: How will the next leader be chosen?

Why should this matter? Because the party establishment proposal is for a new system looking a whole lot like the American primaries that crowd our TV screens these days.

To get a feel for it, one need only look south. Just about anyone could sign up, for free and at the last minute, to get a vote for the new Liberal leader. Regional primaries would be held over a period of weeks (as in the U.S., even culminating in a Super Saturday) to generate a sense of drama and regional identity.

National Liberal president Alfred Apps says this would "reconnect Liberalism with millions of disaffected and disengaged Canadians," and be an opportunity for more unknown candidates.

Well, maybe. It's a nice dream. But it's not without its shadows. One need only look at the current Republican primary circus to see some of them.

An obvious problem is that this system calls for the party leader to be chosen mostly by those who know very little about the person. And one need not believe that these newbies would linger to help the new person. The party is famous for the thousands of "instant Liberals" who show up to support this or that ethnic or religious candidate, never to be seen again.

A second worrying possibility is turnout. A maxim of politics is that one books a smaller hall for a meeting than the numbers expected to give a sense of crowd and excitement. But this primary "hall" is in the millions. What if no one showed up or cared enough about the leadership to take part? Or what if mainly special interests showed up?

There's also the matter of knowledge. Proper assessment of candidates takes time and experience. Indeed, that's why we've had political parties until now.

And forgive a political science thing: The primary process would bring a party leader even closer to the stature of the U.S. president, beholden only to the people (which means to no one) and not to the party, a potential prime minister all-powerful. At least the president has to deal with Congress rather than a supine parliamentary majority.

I think the Liberals would be better off looking at Resolution 18 submitted by the Ontario Liberal Party. This calls for a Renewal Commission (like the Reform Commission of 1985) that would take a thoughtful look at this primary concept and other ideas. This is too important for the precipitous action now proposed.

There's no hurry on this. The next election will not be until 2015. Study the possibilities (including the old, delegated convention) throughout 2012, adopt a system in 2013, choose a leader in 2014 and go into the election with momentum. Makes more sense.