Reforms signal Liberal party ready for comeback

Over the last few months, some of the best YouTube moments have come from the cast of characters that are contesting the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. From washed-up former congressmen and senators to ambitious governors, their sometimes cringe-worthy and sometimes praise-worthy performances have shifted Americans’ attention away from the typical array of mindless reality shows and other pointless babble.

It is this type of theatrical political production that Canada’s interim Liberal leader is proposing the party implement for its upcoming leadership contest: a grassroots approaching to electing the next leader using a regional primary approach where Canadians would have a direct say in selecting their preferred candidate. I don’t think there is any greater strategy to secure a transformational comeback for the Liberals.

The crushing Liberal defeat last May was due in no small part to the perception that the party was commanded by a set of arrogant operatives who believed that Canadians would naturally find their way back to the “big red tent” in the political middle.

But, how mistaken they were. The Liberal party now stands on the precipice of death, or at least that’s what political author Peter C. Newman claims in his new book When the Gods Changed: The Death of Liberal Canada. While Newman is likely writing a premature obituary for a party committed on capturing the hearts and minds of Canadians once again, the point is well-taken that the party needs to do something game-changing if it hopes to be a credible alternative to the New Democrats and Conservatives in 2015.

A primary-style system will reinvigorate the tired party membership. No longer will the leader be selected by a bunch of diehard party members who were willing to shelve out the hefty delegate fee to buy their place among the lucky few convention delegates, as was the case in 2006. Anyone willing to pledge support for the Liberal party will be able to cast a vote for leader in a series of regional primary elections held over the course of several months.

Instead of letting the opposition define the leader before they even hit primetime during the general election, the Liberal party will be parading their potential prime ministers for voters to see firsthand. If the party does it correctly, the leader will be defined and well-known to Canadians before the other parties have had their chance to disparage his or her image.

According to Newman, Liberals have only been able to muster a measly 15,000 memberships since the election. No party can have a serious chance of attaining power when so few are truly committed to the cause. In a regional primary system, voters will have a chance to play a role in the leadership process, feel greater affinity for their leader and attach greater legitimacy to a democratically selected candidate.

Perhaps most importantly, the Liberals need something to define their existence. In a political environment where the left and right hold power, the Liberals need something more than a claim to the “mushy centre” to keep them in contention.

A populist approach to selecting a leader can serve as a starting point for rebuilding. With a commitment to grassroots democracy, the party can use the Canadian people to figure out where it wants to go instead of making policy decisions at party headquarters with endless political calculation. Instead, the Liberals can inspire young people to take part in the process from the beginning; to build the Liberal party they want to see, starting with the person at the helm.

Critics claim that the process will be open to manipulation; that other parties will try to infiltrate the primaries and skew the vote. While there are definitely institutional ways to get around this, I think critics are too scared of the attention that will be paid to the process. Attention is good, especially for a party wallowing in third place. Worrying that you’re going to make a spectacle of yourself when you’re sitting in the last row of the bleachers is somewhat irrelevant. Liberals need to make some noise.

A primary process where potential leadership candidates make their case to different parts of the country will bring the kind of attention this party needs. A grassroots discussion of ideas, complete with debates and town-halls, is exactly the thing Liberals need to regain their momentum.

Rae has a winning plan in this primary system. He shouldn’t let it go for fear of backlash from party elders. They’re not the party anymore. They’re the old party and it’s time for some new blood.

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