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.