An important party for the weekend

The Liberal convention could change Canadian politics forever. Or not.

Let’s make one thing clear: the Liberal party is not meeting in Ottawa this weekend.

Yes, there is Liberal convention taking place in our nation’s capital, and yes, many Liberals will be there. But the vast majority of party members—to say nothing of the nearly three million people who voted Liberal in May’s federal election—will be staying home.

Many don’t know it’s happening. Some weren’t interested. Most weren’t invited. But for the next few days, a few thousand delegates will cast votes on their behalf that could change the face of Canadian politics forever. Or so we’re told.

I’m not sold. Don’t get me wrong; this is an important weekend for the party. But it’s also an important party for the weekend, a chance for Liberal stalwarts to buy each other a drink and take part in various Grit rituals that matter to partisans, but not to anyone else.

Except for journalists. Poor souls, they’ll be giving up their weekend to write about ours. You’ll find them wandering the halls of the convention centre, looking for Liberals with axes to grind, hatchets to bury, and metaphors to mix. Or else they’ll just sit at the bar, wait for some delegates to stumble in, and then ask them what they think of Bob Rae. In either case, the media matters: how they describe the convention will shape the narrative beyond. If next week’s headline is, “Liberals Divided On Rae’s Future,” then the weekend will have been an opportunity lost.

If there’s one thing to watch, it’s the proposal to change the voting system for the next Liberal leadership election. Not because it will necessarily affect the outcome—if Rae runs, after two years of staff, speeches, and publicity at the party’s expense, he’ll be the prohibitive frontrunner, no matter how the voting takes place. But if this weekend’s delegates choose to use an open primary system to pick the party’s next leader, they might very well end up changing the way that Canadians relate to our politics, for better or worse.

By allowing “Liberal supporters”—non-members who pinkie-swear that they support the Liberals, and no other political party—to vote in the next leadership contest, the party will be putting its future in the hands of the public, not just the true believers who dish out the ten bucks for a Liberal membership card. Ever since the first Liberal leadership convention, in 1919, electing the leader has been a central privilege of membership in every Canadian political party. Take that away, and what remains? More importantly, does it matter?

Whether or not a steeplechase of U.S.-style primaries actually improves the Liberals’ electoral fortunes is, frankly, beside the point. The hard shell of party membership will have been breached, perhaps permanently. Canadian political parties—or one of them, at least—will cease to be a club with a cover charge.

In other words, if this weekend’s delegates play their cards right, they might just change next week’s headline: “Liberals Will Use Primaries To Pick Next Leader—But Will It Be Bob Rae?”

The answer: Who knows? Right now, no one does. And by the end of this weekend, that won’t have changed. So if you’re keen to know whether the Liberal party will survive, and you’re not willing to believe my word that it will—or Peter C. Newman’s word that it won’t—then I’m afraid you’re in for a disappointing convention. Come back in 2015, and we’ll have some answers for you. Until then, enjoy the scuttlebutt.

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