Liberals: Party of the Future

Liberals: Party of the Future
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The Liberal Party of Canada hosted a big national convention in Toronto last weekend, an event frequently cast as the beleaguered party’s final chance to renew public interest in their faltering brand.

And it seems they were successful.

In contrast to your typical Canadian party convention, which tends to be little more than a gigantic self-congratulatory love-in in which absolutely nothing of use or purpose is discussed or decided, Liberal Fest ‘012 was uniquely notable for raising and debating a number of genuinely interesting issues, many of which will now help redefine the party itself. Even more admirable, in fact, was the party’s willingness to cast a critical eye towards the future of a few of its own sacred cows — an act of enormous symbolic importance that seemed to signaled the party has, at least in some small sense, actually taken last May’s rebuke from voters to heart.

Along with their trademark do-anything, say-anything to win opportunism, in recent years the Liberals have been known mostly for being the most leader-centric of Canada’s three major parties and the one most consistently hostile to any sort of parliamentary reform. In contrast to both the new Conservatives and the NDP, which trace their roots to populist uprisings against politics as usual, the Liberals have always sought to give politics as usual a fair shake.

Historically, the Libs have been the most passionate defenders of the unelected status quo on Canada’s Senate, the most jealous guardians of the sweeping powers of the prime minister, and the most outspoken champions of a rigidly disciplined House of Commons entirely subordinate to the whims of the executive. Tellingly, the most famous indictment of the Canadian system of government, The Friendly Dictatorship by Jeffery Simpson, was written from the vantage point of the ten-year Chretien administration which, in Simpson’s mind, had raised the traditional Liberal preference for checks-and-balances free one-man-rule to a truly grotesque level of horned perfection.

Inspiring, then, that the Liberals were willing to entertain a number of motions last weekend to begin chipping away at the very authoritarian infrastructure they had so eagerly  help construct.

The party became the first in Canada to openly debate abolishing the monarchy and replacing the Crown with a democratically-elected president, for starters, something Liberals have long feared as a possible check on prime ministerial power. Then there was a motion on limiting the party leader’s ability to hand-pick candidates for federal ridings (he can currently override the local party association’s nomination process whenever he figures he’s found someone better) and another one on removing his ability to veto policy resolutions passed by the party rank-and-file. All three of these failed, but hey, admitting the problem is at least the first step, right?

A significant motion that was passed, however, expanded the definition of “registered Liberals” to anyone who merely self-identified with the party, and in doing so broke with the standard Canadian practice of limiting party membership to only those who register and pay dues to the party bureaucracy — currently 1-2% of the Canadian population. Once interim-leader-for-life Bob Rae shuffles off, the next Liberal boss will therefore be elected nationally by anyone who wants to vote in the election — a true Canadian first.

Though this brings the Liberals closer to the American system, where one’s identity as a Republican or Democrat rarely requires more than stating a preference, the party also explicitly rejected a few other US traditions that some hoped would follow. A province-by-province primary election was voted down, for one, which must disappoint anyone hoping that the Lib’s first “open-to-all” leadership race would be a multi-month attention-grabbing media event on par with the current battle for the GOP crown.

Likewise, in a concession to the old guard, the new self-identifying Liberals or (“supporters” as the Party now dubs them) will not enjoy all the same powers as formal fee-paying “members,” and will instead occupy  a lower tier of what is now an essentially layered party. “Supporters” will only elect the leader, not local candidates or the party executive, and will not be able to vote on resolutions at future conventions — a move which ensures the open-membership idea can be easily revisited at some future Liberal gathering without all the noobs stacking the deck.

All this many appear to be thin gruel in the larger context of Canadian democratic reform, which, as this cartoon hopefully illustrates, is a topic that frequently remains ossified in debates many other countries settled in the 19th century or earlier, but I’m still willing to give the Liberals two cheers for their efforts. Large-scale political reform often begins with subtle cultural shifts, and expanding the franchise in something as vital as Canadian party leadership elections is a shift almost without precedent. Indeed, it’s probably the most meaningful reform any party has made regarding its internal affairs since party conventions themselves were introduced in the late 1940s. Should their experiment prove successful, it’s entirely likely the “supporter” model will be emulated by the NDP, Conservatives, and various provincial parties as well, and in doing so help finally give millions of Canadians — rather than just a tiny, fee-paying elite of campaign staffers, family members, and donors — a genuine say in picking the men and women who exercise so much influence our political system.

Of course, any mention of Liberal Con 2012 is not complete without at least some token mention of the party’s most controversial policy resolution of the weekend: a 77% endorsement of the complete legalization of marijuana. Though the idea is one the Liberals have flirted with for decades, 2012 marks the first time the party has ever endorsed it full-bore, going much further, in fact, than the mere “decriminalization” that’s usually discussed.

The  press, both at home and abroad, has offered much titillating coverage of the declaration for obvious reasons, though its actual long-term relevance to Canadian politics may be minimal — precisely because of the party reforms that did and didn’t get passed alongside it. As mentioned, the Liberals voted to retain the right of their leader to veto unpopular policy resolutions, meaning that come the time of the next federal election, no future Liberal candidate for prime minister will be automatically obligated to make pot legalization an official plank in his campaign platform. Mr. Rae, for his part, has expressed only cautious interest in the idea, in the typically measured fashion of a politician trying to square his own pragmatism with the idealism of his base. Should he ever try to run for permanent leader, however, one imagines he’ll have to come out of the closet far more solidly for one side or the other.

After all, there will be a lot more people listening now.


  1. Dan

    If only MPs would wear such costumes when debating in Commons.

  2. PTBO

    I was under the impression that the NDP had debated the monarchy question during the 2006 convention.

    Although it was a delegate convention for the NDP in 1995 they had some some form of regional (and union) 'primaries' at least that's what they called them. If the resulting leader had been more successful then prehaps this would have been replicated.

    Personally I'm not convinced that primaries are that great of an idea- admittedly this comes from watching the dysfunctional Republican races south of the border.

  3. @kfuchko

    In the US primaries system, the party squabbles out in the public, the people decide, the party accepts the will of the people, and present a relatively united front come election time.

    Under the old liberal party system, there was group hugging and talk of unity at convention time, which resulted in a decision made by a select few. Those who felt they would do better in an open election resented losing. The party entered two elections divided, with infighting between factions.

    I think more open selection is worth a shot.

  4. PTBO

    As for the marijuana issue- I heard one Liberal quote saying that the motion was aimed at regaining Liberal support in Western Canada. Which is I find a bit insulting. It is certainly true that marijuana farming is very important in BC from large urban centres to small rural hamlets but I think this policy will have to be fleshed out quite a bit.

    Legalization would probably crash the prices which would make to it tough for many smaller family operation (esp. that it would then be taxable income). This would lead to larger corporate entities controlling the growing and then they would probably pay less then current going rates in the industry (300-600 a day for trimming). The pro side of this it that the government would gain alot of tax money from the legalized trade and that tourism would pick up in several areas. And prices for the consumer would drop. Alternatively the government could just grow it and sell it themselves- they would make huge cash and create lots of good union jobs and have the economies of scale to beat out smaller dealers.

  5. PTBO

    Decriminalization may be preferable. Allowing people to growing it themselves (lets say up to 14 plants to model California) would help dampen the worse effects of probition and move marijuana further away from the criminal enterprise. People could give away for free to their friends. This could reduce possibility of Canada as purely a pot destination. But with an eye on supporting small rural businesses then they could be a licencing program to allow people to grow maybe 500-800 plants. And sell the product on a mail order basis. This would stop any corporatization of the idustry and provide the government with tax dollars. It would also get alot of seasonal forestry and fisheries workers off of EI.

    I just think you can't just legalize a 7 billion dollar industry without having a very well thought plan for devolpment of that industry. Hopefully, the debate can move from whether marijuana should remain criminalize towards how do we want to supprt and grow this vital industry.

  6. @kfuchko

    If I recall correctly, the government tried its hand at growing medicinal marijuana a number of years back and it resulted in a terrible crop.

  7. PTBO

    Yah they tried growing it in an abandoned mine shaft in Flin Flon, Manitoba for (I presume) security reasons. If there is legalization then they could obviously grow it in much better locales.

    But like I previously said government marijuana production is just an option and may not be the best one. I kinda like the idea of licencing existing family operations to grow 500-800 plants. This would create more rural cash flow and good jobs.

  8. JeremyT

    You do realize you misspelled "effectively" in the first panel, right?

  9. JeremyT

    Excuse me, "effectiveness".

  10. J.J. McCullough

    The ironing is delicious! I've changed it.

  11. Replicas Relojes

    The Liberal Party of Canada hosted a big national convention in Toronto last weekend, an event frequently cast as the beleaguered party’s final chance to renew public interest in their faltering brand.