Saturday, January 3, 2009

The Reformation of the Liberal Party of Canada

I'm going to wish my friend Tom Axworthy luck with his proposal in The Star today. You see Tom, many of us were under the assumption the party was going to take those Task Force recommendations as gospel after the Montreal Convention.

Remember how we told the entire MSM that we had now become the party of renewal and that the leader was not from the old boys club and that the grassroots had spoken and their voice were heard? Well so much for that.

I remember lots and lot of Liberals that sat out the 2004 and 2006 election because of the bitterness of the Martinites during their quest for power. Hell, some of them have now become big activists in the Ignatieff camp. But, what it took the Martinites 12 long years to do, Team Ignatieff acomplished in less than two months (remember, the team claoms they stopped campaigning after the 2006 leadership). Likewise, a whole lot of Iggy nation sat out the 2008 campaign.

Naturally, many of us are up to helping out in offering many more hours of our time on party renewal if we were asked to. My guess is we won't be. C'est la vie!

Anyway, here is Tom's suggestions for the new leader:


A party recast for tough times

By reforming his party, leader Michael Ignatieff would show he's ready to govern the country

Jan 03, 2009 04:30 AM
Thomas Axworthy

Given the extraordinary turmoil in Ottawa with the near-defeat of the Harper government, a potential Liberal-NDP coalition, a hasty prorogation of Parliament, and the possibility of another showdown when Parliament returns in late January, one of the crucial questions Canadians will be asking in 2009 is whether the Liberal party is ready to govern. One clue for answering that question will be to examine how the Liberal party governs itself.

By promoting a new way of governing – transparent, inclusive and welcoming of debate – Michael Ignatieff, the new Liberal leader, can align himself with the values of a new political generation, while contrasting his approach with the barely concealed perpetual anger of the Harper governmental style.

How Ignatieff performs as leader of the Liberal party will show Canadians how he intends to govern as prime minister. Democratic renewal of the party will be a test case and precedent for the needed democratic renewal of Parliament and the executive. Ignatieff has already called for a "thinkers' conference" and his team has been adept at using the Internet for policy ideas – these welcome initiatives should be fleshed out into a full program for democratic renewal.

Edmund Burke, the great 18th-century British parliamentarian, was the first theorist to champion the role of party, and his standards still apply today. Burke defined a party as "a body of men united for promoting by their joint endeavours the national interest upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed."

Following its defeat in 2006, the Liberals created a renewal commission that followed Burke's injunction to examine both policy and structure. Volunteers in 32 task forces developed a raft of proposals, of which six are highlighted below.

The leader of the party and the caucus continue to play the Ottawa game with gusto, but they are the visible apex of a Liberal iceberg that is rapidly melting. Reversing this decline will require the party elite to make, in the words of the Internet task force, "a profound commitment to the principle of open access and active engagement."

What does the Liberal party stand for in 2009? And if the answer is not readily apparent, what is the process that will democratically create a platform?

Before outlining ideas to achieve this, however, credit should be paid to Stéphane Dion, who at least tried to answer the question. Dion tried to make environmental sustainability a core value of 21st-century liberalism. Environmental stewardship to achieve a balance between the planet's resources and human desires requires a fundamental rethinking of traditional approaches. Dion pushed the party in that direction and began to lay the foundations of a Liberal-Green alliance. Lester Pearson was given three chances before he finally became prime minister. Dion had only one. His career proves that in today's bare-knuckled politics, no good deed goes unpunished.

Three ideas should animate the Liberal policy process in 2009:

1) The party membership must be invited to participate substantially instead of pro-forma in policy development. An online, open-access Liberal "university" or think-tank should be created to disseminate policy ideas, begin a debate and organize collaborative policy development. To start this process, the reports of the 32 renewal task forces should be published and made available to riding associations, as should other think pieces by party members.

2) A thinkers' conference should be held as soon as possible to encourage deep, sustained thought. The 1960 Kingston Conference set the expansionist agenda for the Pearson government and the 1991 Aylmer Conference repositioned the Chrétien Liberals as a centrist party, ready to meet the challenges of that era's recession. The economic tsunami shredding the world's economy today requires a willingness to re-examine old assumptions and come up with new strategies.

3) Party ratification and consensus is as necessary as policy innovation. What is usually forgotten about the famous Kingston Conference is that Pearson also initiated a 1961 "national rally" to sift through the Kingston proposals, adapt them and turn them into a platform. The Internet enables online resolution development; the mass membership could even vote online on policy proposals and the broad outline of a platform. If the Liberal party invited every member to have a say, either in person or through the Internet, it would make a compelling case on why the party was worth joining.

Burke called for principles, but he equally emphasized that parties could only succeed by "joint endeavours." Parties are the transmission belt between citizens and government; the machinery has to be modern and efficient. With only 36,000 financial donors, compared with 159,000 for the Conservatives, financing is the most obvious weakness of the current Liberal party. To fix this, engagement was also the theme of the renewal commission's finance task force: "Focus on the donor, not the donation" was its advice.

Party structure needs reform in the following three areas:

1) The party must adopt the fundamental principle of one member, one vote in selecting party leaders. There is an obvious disconnect here. When only 77 Liberal MPs and 58 senators recommended Ignatieff, the caucus was reaching back to 1887, the last occasion in which the caucus alone chose the leader. One silver lining to this unusual decision-making process, however, is that when Ignatieff is proclaimed at the May Liberal convention, he will not be beholden to any particular party interest. He has a golden opportunity to use the convention to democratize the party structure.

2) Each of the 308 riding associations must commit to organizing at least one riding event per quarter. Gerard Kennedy's Parkdale-High Park Liberal Association, for example, has organized environmental cleanups. Ridings should organize events around fundraising, voter contact, community outreach and policy development. The Liberal party should organize an annual "day of deliberation" during which every riding is linked electronically to discuss particular themes or issues. Renewal begins at the riding level.

3) Power in the party should reside in the riding associations, as much as in the leader's office or the parliamentary caucus. Tom Kent, a key thinker at the 1960 Kingston Conference, points out that in today's parties, "power is where the money is."

Public funding of our political parties, which Stephen Harper tried to take away, is a great Liberal reform. But, as Kent has written, all of that money goes to the central party. A portion of that taxpayer assistance should be paid directly to riding associations in proportion to their membership. Ridings would have a tremendous incentive to increase their membership, and a riding president with thousands of dollars in the bank would have the status and power to meet with the caucus and leader's office on more equal terms. As Kent advises, making riding associations the points of funding and power is the surest way to democratize the party.

Most "public business," Burke wrote, is "dependent on some great, leading, general principles." For the Liberal party seeking to contrast itself with the Harper Conservatives, that great, general principle must be "Democracy First."

Thomas S. Axworthy is chair of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Queen's University.


Woman at Mile 0 said...

Great ideas! I like it.

Chrystal Ocean said...

Gawd. He's awfully windy, isn't he? He consumed more than half the article with fluff before getting to get to the point. Which included some good suggestions for those who stuck around to read them.

Frankly Canadian said...

I thought it was good article with very valid suggestions. The Liberal party needs to first show Canadians they can organize and define themselves better then they have shown since the Martin/Chrétien era. An increase in involvement by each of the ridings and better unity through a democratic consensus, as suggested, would be in my opinion a good way to increase membership and fundraising at a grass routes level. Once they have established that, then they can move on to the more important issues of showing Canadians that they are indeed ready to run the country with extremely experienced people in each of the various portfolios, Dion did this to some degree, however he was not specific enough defining the potential cabinet minister. Also I hope that when we see Mr. Ignatief on television offering the public an alternative method, policy, procedure, ect. than the Conservatives, he also be accompanied by the respective potential minister in charge of that portfolio (when ever possible), this I believe would show unity and strength and offer an alternative to constant bickering. Anyways these are the issues Liberals need to discuss in open forum like we have here rather than solely reporting and complaining about facts and fiction.

S.K. said...

Count Priggy the Usurper doesn't believe in democracy in the Liberal Party or he wouldn't be leader right now. He would have respected the elected leader of the Liberal Party, who is still Stephane Dion.

btw; Ontario seems none too thrilled with his annointing himself leader if polls are correct, not impressed at all.