The Liberal convention’s undeclared star attraction

Watching Michael Ignatieff make his walk into the gleaming new Vancouver Convention Centre this afternoon—the sun shining abundantly on the water and the mountains that formed the perfect backdrop—he looked very much the man of the hour.

Every few strides, he and his wife, Zsuzsanna Zohar, had to pause to shake hands and embrace another clutch of beaming Liberals. They seemed so at ease. And why not? The polls are going his way and in two days he’ll be anointed Liberal leader  without an opponent left standing.

But now, only a few hours later, I wonder if I was right in thinking this was so definitively Ignatieff’s convention. Another name keeps coming up in the corridors: Mark Sullivan.

Never heard of him? Well, the Liberals would just as soon you never did, at least not much. He’s the co-founder of Voter Activation Network, known to the cognoscenti as VAN—the Sommerville, Mass.-based company that designed the key voter database system used U.S. Democratic party. The Liberals have bought the system, and brought Sullivan to Vancouver.

They are far from embarrassed about having bought the software package that helped propel Barack Obama to the presidency. But they sure don’t want the acquisition to turn into the story of the weekend. It might well be, though. With no leadership to decide, and not all that much policy or platform to debate, the core subject of this convention is clearly organization and fundraising.

And the key to gaining ground on the Tories on those closely related fronts is the system Sullivan is here to explain. Except not to the media. His name doesn’t appear in the media convention program, although it does in the one handed out to delegates. He’s not being offered up for interviews.

And his sessions explaining how to use the new system, along with a lot of other training being offered here to Liberal delegates on how to make it work, is the only significant part of the convention that’s entirely closed to reporters.

Not that that’s at all surprising. The system and the strategy it’s meant to support are party secrets, or sort of, and anything they can do to keep the Conservatives in the dark about it is just sensible. Sullivan is an American consultant, not a Canadian politician, so it would be a mistake to make him a star attraction. Still, it’s worth noting that the real action here is not on prominent display.

Yet the nuts and bolts rebuilding of the party, represented by the VAN system, should not  be a matter of intense interest only for the likes of the riding president who just told me in gushing terms about the closed session he attended with Sullivan.

Unless the VAN upgrade works, Liberals will fail. In his rousing address to Liberal riding presidents this afternoon, Ignatieff said: “We are not an election machine, we are a national institution.” He might better have put it a little differently: “Unless we are an election machine, we can’t be a national institution.”

They haven’t been much of a machine in recent campaigns. And it’s unhealthy for Canadian democracy not to have the Conservative and Liberal parties capable of competing on reasonably equal terms across most of the country. It’s bad for voters in the biggest cities to see so little they like in the  Tories, and bad for voters in the rural ridings, especially in the West, to find the Liberals so alien.

A big part of the solution is for the parties to find political personalities and policy planks that appeal outside their strongholds. But another part is for the parties to exploit communications and database technology to let them reach out more efficiently to voters and activists where they are weakest, and figure out why they aren’t  clicking in there.

No wonder they’re talking about Sullivan in the corridors.




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The Liberal convention’s undeclared star attraction

  1. And his sessions explaining how to use the new system, along with a lot of other training being offered here to Liberal delegates on how to make it work, is the only significant part of the convention that’s entirely closed to reporters.

    Fear not, inquiring minds. The Liberal leak-fest appears to continue to be alive and well.

  2. This may be the worst example of the media pretending to wonder about itself in the history of, like, ever.

    And aren’t they supposed to be announcing that they’ve got rid of their debt during the convention, before the new product can go into effect?

  3. The Liberals keep thinking that all they have to do to get elected is use some gimmick.

    The way for them to get elected is to provide some sound policy directions.

    • Gimmicks worked for the Conservatives. There was never a more poll-driven, narrowly targetted voter demographic driven election in our history. Ian Brodie even confessed to that fact, that policies were derived from polling, not research or principle. Andrew Coyne called their “policies” little gimmicky “policiettes” for that reason.

      This is not a gimmick though. It is just a tool to help them.

  4. Trouble is these days that so many people polled are closet non-voters or openly non-voters. Any data collected from these people is moot since they won’t vote anyways and in many ways will cease to matter whether they like it or not. Getting people to get off their buts and strut to a polling station to exercise their democratic right as a matter of necessity is of the importance; not more ways to read polling data.

  5. The only thing I remember about the VAN system that it was remarkably easy for fake people to donate money to Obama. It was all too easy for people who wanted to remain anon while donating, like foreigners or shady domestic characters, and the Libs really don’t need help in the embezzlement or money laundering area of fund-raising.

    Geddes second mention of the VAN system makes me thing the Libs are far too enamoured of a software system. It was not the system that led to Obama’s success, it was the man.

    • I thought conbots were required to attribute all his success to teleprompters. You’re off your game, report to the PMO for reprogramming immediately.

      • A little less less smarmy ( new word ? ) retorts from you and a little more substantial analysis would make you more relevant.
        By the way, where are the actual policy talks in Vancouver ?
        What the heck does the Liberal party mean anymore ?
        Are we supposed to vote Liberal because John Turner manages to say democracy and liberal in the same sentence ?
        Because Chretien says —better go to an election soon ?
        Because Justin has just finished another vacuous, platitude-laden speech in front of naivety ?
        Or because Iggy thinks it`s a good time in his life to be PM——and he will say anything anywhere to get there.

  6. Nice to see the PMO talking pointers still in residence – while many Liberals are offline – lining up for free beer and popcorn!
    Grassroots and senior Liberals have been talking about this since the late fall. Much of the Obama software was built from Open Source code. Some of us were beginning to pull it together ourselves. The purchase may have cost serious bucks put shortened the time lines considerably.
    JWL and Jarrid – best run back to mummy and hide under her apron – its gonna get pretty hot in the kitchen very soon.

  7. The Liberals have nothing to worry about – it doesn’t matter what happens at the coronation as nobody is paying any attention what with the Hockey game last night Swine Flu today and god knows what tomorrow. Only the LPC would consider the purchase of a toy to be important news – Being in the IT Biz for 32 years now (started mainframing in 77) I will freely offer them a little advice – Has everyone heard of gigingigout = garbage in garbage out -> well having started coding in COBOL. FORTRAN, PL1 2 Assembler (various) Java bla bla bla – the reality is garbage In and then Garbage Grows! Organic computing is what I have named it. I can see it all now a room of data entry clerks and an occasional dbase programmer all thorougly enjoying themselves measuring ther success by how many emails they can send via a distribution list ROFL LMAO – a little hint folks it wasn’t the software that helped Obama it was the people using it … Kerplunk ….

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