The Métropolitain

The Liberals and the primary option: Open nominations, open society

By James Morton on January 8, 2012

I first heard the idea of using a primary type system to choose the next Liberal leader in April, 2011. By then it was pretty clear we were not going to form the next government; indeed it was apparent we were in danger of losing our spot as official Opposition.

The usual panic was occurring, as last week’s supporters jumped ship and new political geniuses told us that they knew exactly what we should have done to get a Liberal majority. It was not a good time for reasoned analysis of long-term structural options to rebuild the Liberal party.

Nevertheless, several questions and ideas began to converge into a discussion about how the party chooses its leaders and candidates and whether a more open process might be better. Many wondered whether the party and its leader had lost its engagement with Canadians. Others wondered how a leader with the kind of resume parents pray their children will build could be positioned so badly with Canadians. The questions were myriad but they all seemed to focus on how we, as a party, communicated with the country and how well we know the voters.

I admit that my first reaction to the idea was negative. It is a significant structural change, moving from a relatively small group — party members at a convention — choosing the Liberal leader to allowing any citizen the opportunity to make that choice. How could this help us, I wondered? Would this not diminish the value of party membership? Would our political opponents use this opportunity to sabotage the process, to elect the worst possible leader? Could primaries work? Should we even try?

I try to avoid kneejerk reactions, so I considered the questions in consultation with many people I respect, gaining the benefit of their insight. There were some powerful discussions as I weighed the concepts. Now, I am ready to explain why I think the Liberal party should try the primary concept in choosing the next party leader.

My main reasons stem from needed changes to the way political parties communicate with Canadians. The time is now to move away from controlled democracy and shift the apex of power.

1. Our current methods are strictly internal. Even with the policy of One Person, One Vote, only members of the party are entitled to elect the leader. Within the party, this is an exciting time, filled with strategy and debate, with teams dedicated to the certainty that their chosen candidate is the one who will lead the party to success.

As well as this might have worked in the past, our present has changed. Canadian membership in political parties has declined precipitously, reflecting the trend to increasingly smaller voter turnout for elections. I don’t believe that people don’t care. I have learned that people believe there is no real difference between the parties and what they do if in power. They have no personal connection with the leader, who they might only see on television or from the back row of a staged rally.

The primary system will force candidates to build a connection not just within the insular party environment but with as many Canadians as they can. Leaders must present a compelling, coherent vision not just for the party, but for the country.

2. The need for communication changes everything. A primary campaign extending over months gives the party an exponentially larger opportunity to listen to Canadians, better understanding concerns and goals at multiple levels, from the single individual to the larger groups.

We are no longer in the era where we communicate with our constituents with quarterly newsletters and occasional mail. This is the era of social media, 24 hour news and highly targeted interest groups that can form in minutes. The information we can exchange during the primaries will allow us to better focus communications with each Canadian. We can understand our fellow citizens at the individual level, rather than as broad brushed categories, be it business person, ethnic, soccer mom or any other caricature.

We can use this new structure to better communicate our core philosophies and policies. I am confident that when voters know these better, they will realize that the Liberal Party reflects their goals and are not just pandering for votes.

3. The Liberal brand itself has been damaged. I have watched over the years as ‘liberal’ has been changed from a positive political philosophy to a cringe-inducing term. I have read articles and comments in media and been shocked at the vehemence of the writing, where liberals are described as everything from parasitic, to disloyal to idiotic. Somehow, the supposedly conservative practitioners of wasteful spending and corporate welfare have positioned themselves as the stewards of our economy. They have convinced the middle class that liberals are a danger, that they will drive our country to destruction. They do this even as they enact strategies which gut the programs that bolster our middle class.

The primaries will force our party to turn outward and explain why a Liberal party is the right choice to combine prudent fiscal leadership with a progressive vision of a Canada where middle class incomes can escape their current stagnation and begin to rise again.

We have the opportunity, using all the media channels which will be available during a primary, to begin redefining the Liberal brand, reconnecting a history of accomplishments for Canadians and a future leading Canada back to fairness and progress.

I have talked with Canadians across the country during my campaign in Oshawa, my practice in both Ontario and Nunavut and my current candidacy for VP English of the LPC. I was less saddened by those who did not like the past leader than the many who told me, in no uncertain terms, that all the parties and their leaders are the same — “they don’t care about me at all.”

I believe that by opening up our leadership decision we will share engagement and ownership with Canadians. From this will flow the donations, both financial and of volunteer time, that will rebuild the Liberal Party and brand. Then the harder work begins, living up to this responsibility.