By John Ibbitson, Globe and Mail, July 9, 2011
Right now, the Liberal leader (in Canada) is directly chosen by party members. But it costs money to join and who would want to? People who belong to political parties aren’t entirely normal.
In the United States, you have to register to vote. Everyone who registers as a Democrat or a Republican has a say in that party’s leadership contest through the primaries and caucuses.
This weakens the party elite because outsiders such as Barack Obama (or Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan or Jimmy Carter) can do an end run around the establishment by appealing directly to voters. Because the weaker a party gets, the more powerful its few surviving poobahs become; a strong party will have a broad base and a weak elite, the very opposite of today’s Liberal Party.
Renewal could come for the Liberals if a leadership contest galvanized hundreds of thousands of people to, say, take out a free one-day party membership so they could vote in the New Brunswick primary, which everyone would be watching because the Northern Ontario primary the week before had vaulted an unknown but charismatic minority candidate into the front ranks of the contest.
Mr. Ibbitson, while ruefully disdaining the Liberal Party's current near-death condition, does suggest it would be a good thing for the party to survive. However, the suggestion of a primary type of election of a new leader, while opening the door to an "end-run" around the party establishment, in itself not a bad thing, would have to come after real hand-wringing of the party that would be more likely to risk radical, and in this case American, models of change, if it were feeling strong, creative and open to risk.
That is the real danger, at this moment, for the Liberal Party, that it is not open to change, to creative ideas either in policy content or in process, and to a significant shift in the locus of control.
In individual human terms, when one's locus of control resides with others, one loses one's sense of what is important, and sacrifices control to the opinions, suggestions and potential seduction of the 'other.'
In organizational terms, at this time, for the whole population of the country to have a vote on just who might become the next Liberal leader, after a series of regional/provincial/urban primaries could well open the country as well as the party up to a giant breath of fresh air. Tying such a dramatic (for both Canada and the Liberal Party) change to a monumental need for cash to bring the party out of debt, and to provide the cash for a respectable campaign in 2015 would take some servious finesse in both strategy and tactics by those in charge of the transition.
Clearly, the Liberal Party's history, tradition and legacy will not will the day, either in terms of electing the next leader or in terms of winning the next election. Brand loyalty has effectively died, although there is considerable evidence that this has been an excruciatingly slow and painful and meandering path to the final gasps. Reading Brooke Jeffrey's Divided Loyalties- The Liberal Party of Canada,1984-2008 illustrates several similar if not identical internal conflicts over uprising ego's, bruised ego's, policy tensions between business and social liberals, and between 'hard' nationalists strongly opposed to the Quebec separatists and the 'soft' nationalists who sought to reduce the tension with the Quebec separatists. However, throughout it all, with brief interludes, one constant theme emerges: the need for more money to wage effective campaigns, and hence the usually unsuccessful attempts to "reach" and to "connect" with various segments of the population, whether those segments were identified geographically or demographically.
One thing is especially note-worthy: successful experiments dedicated to forming long-lasting, authentic and inter-dependent relationships did not gain enough support to find long enough legs to survive whatever exigencies popped up.
So Ibbitson's other suggestion that tells the Liberal party executive to remove itself, and to turn the party over to the masses, for the purposes of a series of primary elections for leadership candidates is not only highly unlikely to occur; such a recommendation is more likely to be seen by Liberals as a grenade from the conservative right, desirous of putting the party out of its misery, through a full death experience, without having to own the blood of an act of terrorism that resembles those advertising campaigns waged by Harper against both Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, for both of which the conservative party and leader ought to have permanent blood stains up to their collective elbows.
Nevertheless, because there is some reason to think the party has not yet reached the stage commonly known as Cheyne-Stokes breathing (those rapid breaths following by longer period of no breathing at all) and that sincere there is still breath there is still hope, it is still possible to vocalize new ideas, new directions, new policies and new processes, even though at this time the patient may seem to be in a certified coma.
All such patients are deemed to "know that someone is still there and still caring" and by the signs of the most recent fund-raising campaign, and the new website, there is still an observable pulse. Calling for the "last rites" for the patient is, at this time, clearly premature.
And so is calling for the party to give full consideration to primary elections for the new leader.
Nevertheless, after a period of Canadian Liberal Party reflection, including the full entry into the grieving process, after a trauma on May 2 (let's not kid ourselves, May 2 inflicted a trauma on the Liberal Party of Canada), as the party begins to pick itself up, shake itself off, start once again to examine not only what went wrong but what significant changes in culture are needed. Such changes would have to more adequately parallel the Canadian cultural realities of the twenty-first century, including new provincial realities of have and have-not provinces, ethnic and demographic shifts, literacy and numeracy levels, technological and ethical questions, global and geopolitical issues, and the state of federal-provincial relations...bringing together a plethora of perspectives in order to see the complexities, before any process of analysis, synthesis or policy formation.
And then, and only then, would an idea like Ibbitson's primaries be ever worth considering.
Don't hold your breath, John!