The case against Liberal primaries -

The case against Liberal primaries

Interim leader Bob Rae says he would support U.S.-style primaries to select his replacement. Here’s why it’s a bad idea.


As desperate as Liberal party of Canada members may be for reform and renewal, we shouldn’t just jump into bed with the first pretty reform proposal that happens by. This should be a slow and deliberate process. As a Liberal, I fear we’re jumping into bed with open primaries too quickly, and risk regretting it the next morning.

On Thursday, the Liberal party’s national executive released a list of proposals for reforming and restructuring the party, after leaking it to select media days earlier. (The leak is a major problem in itself, but one for another day.) The idea generating the most attention would see the Liberals adopt an open primary system for selecting the party’s leader and riding nomination candidates.

The proposal involves creating two classes of Liberals: full-fledged party members, who can stand for party office, vote in internal party elections, and be delegates to a convention; and “supporters,” who would sign a “Declaration of Liberal Principles” confirming non-membership in any other party. Both classes would be able to vote in a primary-style process to select the next party leader, with results weighted by riding. The primary campaign would take place in different regions over a few months to maximize media attention. A similar process is envisioned for riding nominations.

I have two serious areas of disagreement with this proposal: the timing and primary process itself.

First, the timing. The party executive wants to amend the constitution so the new leadership selection process can be adopted at the biennial convention in Ottawa January 13-15, 2012, barely two months from now. Meetings to elect delegates to that convention are happening now, and many are being cancelled and the delegates acclaimed due to a lack of people willing to fill all the available spots. It’s not as if this concept has been debated in Liberal circles for months. We’re just getting this now. We’re talking about fundamentally changing the most important thing we do—selecting a leader—and we’re rushing into it.

This summer, during the party’s Extraordinary Convention teleconference, I submitted a proposal to speed up the selection of a leader so that he or she would be in place by the fall of 2012. I was told there was no hurry, that we need a lengthy reform process first, that we need to take our time. A counter-proposal to delay the leadership race to spring/summer 2013 was approved. Now, the same people that argued for that lengthened period for reform want us to rush into fundamental reform in just two months, with just days until delegate selection.

Process matters. And whether you agree with the primary proposal or not, this process is flawed. There isn’t nearly enough time to properly consider all the options and have a full debate within the party. However broad their consultations may have been, this is still a lame duck party executive trying to force a rushed decision from the top-down. This isn’t the way to build a consensus.

The second problem is the primaries themselves. Let me first say I was glad to see the process would be weighted equally by riding, so that each riding has an equal voice and vote, regardless of the number of people that vote. An unweighted system would see population-rich regions such as Toronto dominate the process and pick a leader without national support, and without requiring candidates to campaign across Canada. Unfortunately, that’s my only positive comment.

One concern is the potential for shenanigans; supporters of another party signing up as Liberal “supporters” to vote in the primary and negatively influence the process, such as voting for the least-favoured candidate. The effectiveness of any such campaign would be dependent on turnout, but the primary proposal acknowledges this risk by requiring “supporters” to sign a “Declaration of Liberal Principles” and affirming they’re not a member of another party. Unfortunately, it’s toothless. Party membership lists are private so there’s no way of knowing, and such a declaration is hardly a roadblock to partisan rabble-rousers.

That aside, my concerns about the primaries go deeper. We should give value to being a Liberal member, and this approach goes in the opposite direction. One of the key incentives for joining a political party is the opportunity to vote in leadership and nomination races. This proposal devalues membership. Already, during each successive election, it has become harder to get Liberals to volunteer to knock on doors, stuff envelopes, and get out the vote. We need committed members, and more of them, to successfully rebuild this party.

In the past, the barriers to entry have been significant and an argument about the nefarious influence of backroom operators could be made. But that was when we had a delegated system for leadership selection. We don’t have that anymore. At the last convention we adopted a one member, one vote (OMOV) system. No longer do you need to be elected a delegate and spend upwards of $1,000 on fees, travel and accommodation to have a say in electing the party leader. All you need to do is take out a $10 membership and you have a vote. It’s that simple.

I’m not entirely clear why some are eager to dump OMOV without even giving it a run. I think OMOV gives us all the benefits of a primary system without any of the flaws. It’s a low barrier to entry; all you need is five minutes and $10 to sign up online. Granted, some people may not be willing to take out a membership, but I think that’s a small commitment to make. And given the negatives as I’ve outlined, I think it strikes the right balance.

I want to broaden the Liberal tent and make it more relevant to Canadians too. But open primaries are gimmicky and unlikely to build a lasting connection between the Liberal party and Canadians at large. I just don’t forsee a groundswell of Canadians rushing to get involved to pick the next leader of the third party. Gimmicks aren’t the way to engage people. I’d rather build a democratized party where membership matters, and encourage Canadians to join and support us for our ideas.

A journalist covering the technology sector for a trade magazine by day, Jeff Jedras is a life-long Liberal supporter and activist from British Columbia who now calls Toronto home. He blogs as A BCer in Toronto.


The case against Liberal primaries

  1. My suggestion in my blog CuriosityCat does address the concerns about a potential  hikacking of the primary process by those who wish the party ill – it is to hold a Two-Tier selection of leader process. The first Tier is reserved to card carrying members of the Party and lets them choose by preferential voting the top three candidates who will then go on to the Second Tier – the primary system the report recommends (with voting by a wider group of supporters and party members).

    This Two-Tier proposal reduces potential harm by illwishers because it let’s Liberal members choose the slate of 3 or 4 candidates, but allows the wider group to choose the one to become leader.

    The two-tier system was used in 2009 by the UK Tory party for an MP seat – only then the riding association chose 3 candidates to run and these 3 then were voted on by all the voters in that riding. The results were specactular: a resounding victory for the chosen Tory, in the general election, with a substantially higher majority. Part of the reason was the involvement of a large number of non-members of the Tory party in the selection of the Tory candidate – they felt they had an ownership share in that Tory candidate.

    Ibbitson has referred to the startling fact that in France the Presidential candidate was chosen by a primary system which was thrown open to all voters: a stunning 3 million French voters took part. He mentioned in a TV interview on Power Play that this would translate to almost a MILLION Canadian voters being involved in the selection of a party leader: an unheard of participation rate, it if happened!

    With a few tweaks here and there, we can get the best of both systems – our current OMOV and the primary involvement of a wider group including supporters, and – if we adopt my Two-Tier system, without dangers of Tory or Dipper or Separists hijacking of the process.

    So let us be bold, and trust Canadians to work with party members.

    • Members will be asked to sign a Liberal declaration of principles. I think this will certainly keep the process from being hijacked.

  2. “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” Charles Darwin.Dinosaurs once ruled the earth…I’m sure they thought they always would too.

  3. I doubt this would lead to a hijacking – it didn’t in Alberta when the Alberta Liberals tried this approach (despite attempts).

    No prominent CPC member is going to risk getting caught, and I doubt passive CPC supporters would care enough to sign the supporter declaration and take the time to vote.

  4. An open primary is an interesting concept for a federal Liberal leadership election.  It might work in the local ridings.  I don’t think an opposing party would be able to influence the nomination toward some undeserving candidate in Liberal stronghold ridings.  One thing about the open primary system is if the party leader would be willing to give up his/her power to appoint riding candidates. As for the voters, what is the point in having a membership or trying to participate in a local riding election if the leader will just end up appointing his/her preferred choice?

    • Congrats to you, Jeff, on your new role with Maclean’s.

  5. I’m in agreement with Jeff; this is not a very good solution to leadership selection. It devalue membership even more; and makes our political process even more leader-centric than it already is. I am not much in favour of OMOV and this only extends and enhances its flaws. The US Primary system is designed to nominate a candidate for office in a manner aligned with the election; a President is elected by the population at large, and so the nomination process is similar. But a Prime Minister has power in a parliament not because he is directly elected, but because he commands the support of the house.  He is not elected by the people at large and applying such a system will not work in the favour of democracy; but create the environment for a host of conflicts that will make the LPC look completely dysfunctional.  What happens when a leader is elected with this mandate and is at odds with the candidates/MP’s also elected in that process? 

    Now, at the local constituency level – especially the way CuriosityCat described it –  I see a lot of merits in that; then the electorate for the election and the nomination are properly aligned…and it will create stronger candidates and stronger EDA’s – and that will tie members in more with the party, when they have a direct connection.  

  6. I’ll take CuriosityCat’s suggestion as a backup plan, but why don’t we just make the first year’s membership in the Liberal Party of Canada free?  Maybe some will vote and then not renew–but maybe some will stick around for a while, particularly if their candidate wins, to help at the next election.  Since I gather that the votes would be done in person at an EDA gathering, the process for the voting system will be the same either way.  I do like the concept of opening the party–not a closed secret handshake club after all–but as a Liberal member, and combined with the other proposals on ‘enforced deliverables’ I’m already (in spite of myself) feeling the resentment of cutting the wheat, making the flour, kneading the dough, baking the bread only to have other people come along and eat it.  And you’re right Jeff; part of that resentment is in how it was leaked to the press first, (and only, in detail) then to us clearly patronized members by a National Council that will then immediately cease to be the National Council, basically tying the hands of those coming in.  Can we get more votes for the Democratic Renewal resolution? 

  7. I’m still agnostic on the whole idea, but I honestly can’t see hijacking being an issue. After all, there’s nothing really stopping supporters of other parties from voting in the Liberal leadership contest under the current system except the ten bucks.

  8. Might I suggest that being of the mind that the most important thing you do is select a leader is part of the problem Liberals are having?  The most important thing you do is DEVELOP POLICY and listen to people in the riding.

    The leader is, or at least should be, a simple figurehead for presenting that policy.  Because if you have a leader who is otherwise — that is, who is the one deciding the policy — then why bother having the membership anyway? Just rename the leader S. Harper and go do something more productive with your time than be part of a party.

    So in that respect, the leader should be the one that the most people like, period. Not just the most liberal members, because in case you haven’t noticed, the number of people who are Liberal party members has been dropping for  a decade or more now.

    The idea that some group might hi-jack a leader nomination is somewhere between asinine and insane.  If no “true” liberal leadership candidate can get the kind of support that a hi-jack candidate can, that suggests you’ve got bigger problems in the party than who the hell the leader is, because if a real candidate can’t get enough free supporters and “real members” to counteract a hi-jack candidate, I suggest that that’s a pretty good indication the real candidate shouldn’t have been in the running in the first place.

    And what you neglect in this equation is that the “supporter” idea is first contact. Where do you think your “committed members, and more of them” will come from? Hint: No “committed member” was born that way.   The “supporter” mechanism is a way of lowering the first hurdle.  “Costs nothing and I can have input? Ah what the hell” is a helluva lot closer to membership than “$10 bucks for a vote? No thanks..” Not to mention that you then have contact information and, just as important, a *reason* to contact the people, so it’s not just a cold-call anymore.

  9. This comment was deleted.

    • You are an illiterate

  10. I don’t think they’re rushing at all. The process has to be change in January because that is the only time, according to the constitution that they can do it until the next convention! I personally think that delaying the leadership selection until 2013 is quite long in itself, the party has been defeated and is headless until then, think about it, what the Liberals do until then, basically doesn’t count to the public until we have a democratically elected leader. 

    The point about others coming in to vote and sabotage the primaries is true, but won’t be enough to totally sway the decision in the favour of the opposition unless every other Liberal voting is voting to sabotage the party as well. It works in the U.S. and is far more democratic, why not here. 

    This to me is an admirable show of change, that the Liberals are in desperate need of, it’s a radical change, and something that the country, including myself have been asking for, and for once, they are listening. I agree that “membership matters” but right now there is barely a membership lol, the idea of all of this is to increase membership. As party membership across the board is not what it used to be. I would go one step further and remove the membership fees. I agree that getting to the convention is also expensive. It is way too much and unfair to charge someone that much (not counting travel from anywhere in the country) to vote for an amendment, this is stupid. 

    Other than that, I welcome the drastic changes that are being talked about, as long as we have strong leadership, a good leader and an executive that listens to riding associations, the party can become strong again and regain the trust of the public. 

  11. This comment was deleted.

    • If this is an example of what an open primary is i’m out!

    • Retracted.

  12. It’s a good thing you’re not in power, you’d drive the party further into the ground with your lack of guts for action, than it already is. 

  13. Some has to speak for the tradionalist standpoint so here goes:

    CC’s idea of a two tier primary sounds good to me, but only for individual candiates, particularly in places where the libs are in difficulty – the west. AB in particular and maybe even Quebec?  – What’s to lose?.
    As for the leader. No! Let the caucus choose. It is entirely democratic. The members and supporter will have just chosen it. It binds the leader to his/her mps and helps to empower mps, along with other measures, such as NOT permitting the leader to refuse to sign nomination papers or parachute in candidates…and it creates a bit of a firewall between the membership and the leader, which can be a good thing. We are still a representative democracy after all. It is enough for the primary and OMOV to have chosen caucus, they don’t need to choose a leader directly

    . Admittedly i can see that opening up the leadership will create a lot of buzz, maybe some sizzle. But sizzle/buzz while it might be fine is not in itself a panacea for what ails the LPC. Open, accountable, democratic reform is. The LPC may be taking a necessary radical step; alternately they may be opting for shadow over substance.

  14. Bob Rae exudes both irony and hypocrisy.  Formerly a top tier NDP, he jumps ship to the Liberals when he smelled a chance to be both Liberal leader and Prime Minister.  Principles be damned.  Now after spending years criticizing the Conservatives of using and coveting US style politics, he is proposing adoption of US style primaries.  Mind-boggling.

    Especially since I have always thought of the US primaries as one of the dumbest ways to choose a candidate.

  15. Primaries give too much power to the activist base of the party, and ensure extremist candidates. We may not like the principle of elite selection, but in Canada, we are the beneficiaries of it. The reality is that elites care more about winning than they do about ideals. As a result, they promote moderate candidates, who will be able to win the general election.

    Contrast the nature of politics in the US before and after 1972, when primaries became permanently entrenched. What you got was rising polarization and declining effectiveness. The Republicans were captured first by evangelicals and then by anti-government radicals. Democrats by unions and hippies. Only in rare circumstances have moderates been able to survive, mostly because there were enough nutjobs to split the primary vote (and even then they’ll have to appoint a sufficiently crazy VP).

  16. Jeff,

    The ‘Shenanigans’ issue assumes there are more people out there who are willing to outright lie and cheat in a concerted effort to screw the party than we can get interested in genuinely contributing to a leadership process. (i.e. this party’s zealous enemies outnumber it’s potential supporters).

    If you’re really concerned about that, I’d suggest that you may have already lost faith in this party’s ability to renew itself.

  17. A pan-Canadian party that has no provincial or regional base is never going to beat the Conservatives. The Liberal party needs to make itself the party of Ontario, and using that as a base to capture the other regions, just like the Conservatives used Alberta to secure its hold and then work on the other regions. Ontario and central Canada has no voice in the Conservative tent; the opportunity is there for the Liberal Party to be the federal voice of Ontario. It is time to whip up the cry ” Ontario pays the bills and demands a voice”