Thursday, June 14, 2012

An honest man's word is as good as his bond.

Here's a piece I penned that appears in tomorrow's Ottawa Citizen.

The Liberal party sure likes things complicated

There’s an earworm and an allegory snaking their way around my head as I ponder the most recent drama in the Liberal Party of Canada. The earworm comes courtesy of Avril Lavigne: Why’d you have to go and make things so complicated? And the allegory? Why, it comes from The Scorpion and the Frog: “It’s my nature ...”

Having been involved with the Liberal party in the lowest and the highest organizational capacities over a really long period of time, I can attest to the endless machinations of reforming and democratizing, with an outcome that almost always disappoints or gets reversed when it no longer suits. It always seems to be one step forward two steps back. With luck, this time will finally be different.

In the early ’80s a group of Young Liberals pushed for a lengthy reform process that saw among other things a diminution of the weight of party elites in party decision making. For example, senators and members of the appointed revenue committee were no longer to be delegates to conventions. At the first convention where the delegation would have been thusly composed, the 1990 leadership, the party took the highly democratically questionable step of reinstating those delegates through a retroactive constitutional amendment. The day before the voting began, these people were not delegates. The day of the vote, they were.

Who this was fair to, or unfair to, didn’t really seem to matter. Average party members had made a decision that didn’t work for the elites and vested interests, and that just wouldn’t do.

After two extremely long and divisive leadership races in 1989-’90 and 2006, and another aborted one in 2008-’09, party members decided that future leadership contests would be reasonably short, and so when Michael Ignatieff decided two days after the election last year to step down, I and others thought: Finally! We know exactly what’s up, and everyone will be on an equal footing. We will have a leadership vote no later than October and then get down to the brass tacks of rebuilding, unfettered by leadership sniping and with a good four years to heal and strengthen.

But some didn’t think that was the right way to go, and constitutions hadn’t stood in the way before. It’s just that this time, according those in charge (the infamous “National Board”) the party wanted and deserved an “unprecedented” national consultation because the last democratic decision made by the party, well, just didn’t suit the current circumstances.

An “extraordinary” convention was called and held to change the timing of the leadership contest. But this is only part of the story.

It’s true that there were people calling for consultations on the leadership process and timing. But some were also calling for those consultations to include the appointment of an interim leader. It only made sense, if you are going to democratize major decisions beyond the constitution due to circumstance, this one should be democratized too.

Clearly, after the circumstances surrounding the appointment of the previous interim leader, Michael Ignatieff, which many felt had contributed to the tainting (or solidifying depending on your point of view) of the Liberal “brand,” this was the one area where a greater say from the party’s proletariat was called for. But here, the board chose not to consult, and to keep the process and decision to themselves, as was their entitlement.

And they did so with the inclusion of the famous “conditions,” two of which many believed were directed at excluding, specifically, the candidacy of one individual, Bob Rae: those of non-complicity with the NDP and agreement not to seek the permanent leadership.

At the time, when these two decisions were coinciding, Rae implored the party, saying that if he was to accept the interim leadership under the proposed conditions, he would need time to rebuild the party and basically make it leader-worthy. According to one report at the time, “Rae laid down a condition of his own. He said he’s only interested in being interim leader if the vote for permanent leader is put off for 18 to 24 months.”

And so Bob Rae became interim leader and the leadership was put off for gee — 22 months from the decision and 18 from when the leadership would have been. But circumstances changed. Jack Layton’s passing resulted in a leadership race of its own and increased focus on the NDP. People said the leadership was too far away. Bob Rae did such a superb job that the party brass were under intense pressure to change the process again. Media focus increased and the party became increasingly fragile and divided. And, then finally, someone decided for once to do the right thing and stick with the program.

Here another earworm invades. This time it’s Alanis. Ironic, isn’t it?

Sheila Gervais is former national director of the Liberal Party of Canada. She blogs at

© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen


Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Too much sanity may be madness. And maddest of all, to see life as it is and not as it should be!

Hear that sound? It's the sound rushing out of the Liberal balloon as it flutters around bouncing off of walls and falling to the ground, deflated. 
Do the young bucks and other sideswipe practitioners in the party (hmmph!, some party, ed.) really think that we have the luxury of turning away anyone, anyone at all in this stage of our history?  For it is history we surely shall be, if we keep this up. You think we're the big prize?
Somewhere, someone on TV, probably a political show host, commentator or pundit is going to talk about Bobs Rae's declining a run for the permanent leadership as a game changer.  Well the problem isn't game changing. It's game playing.  This isn't a game. It's not about the smartest person in the room or control anymore.
It's like there's a big gong banging away out there every time someone warns us to not get so wrapped up in leadership before building something relevant enough for someone to want to lead, so we are deaf to the warnings.  The Party's got to do that itself.   The Party's got to build something that is Leader-worthy frankly. No Leader is going to be able to drag it along - not in today's political climate.
We don't need these game player types anymore, regardless of their youth, their novelty, their opportunism.  They are not good philosophical Liberals and these are the people who should be shunned.
Ultimately, we will need to choose a leader, not a character set.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

"Fair and softly goes far. "

That seems so true for any conversation.

Do you know - appropriately I guess - that there are very few quixotic quotations or headers of a positive nature? Surprisingly, I think this one actually works for the subject at hand.

Today, fellow Liberal Party of Canada member Paul Summerville and I made a submission to the  Party which we think would help rebuild the Party by strengthening the relationships between the Party’s membership and its Leadership, and onward to all Canadians by enabling a constant conversation through the Liberal Party of Canada.  We have submitted this proposal to the Party, as members of the Party and hope that its specific proposals will be put forward by the National Board on our behalf as proposed amendments to the Party’s constitution.  Let's at least have the conversation.  

In our proposal you will see a call to, as Paul puts it: Kill the veto!, meaning get rid of the Leader’s little-known veto over the Party Platform, and other proposals that would see relationships redefined and representation enhanced in the development of the Party’s key public positions.

Here it is. In full. Pulleese wade in:

Relationships and Representation – Proposals to Improve Policy Development in the Liberal Party of Canada

For a political movement there can ultimately be no greater activity than the proposition of a governing program.  A program effectively articulated by leadership and embodied by the proponents.  For pragmatists then a political party, to be an effective political movement, requires layers of supporting structures, facilities, and supplies – an organization.  Or, as we often prefer to characterize it in the Liberal Party, an institution. In a pure sense, that organization is there to enable and develop the capacity of the proponents (members, voters and representatives (Leaders, candidates, MPs and Senators)) to effectively communicate its policies, positions and platform and win influence and governance over the affairs of the country.  And to do that effectively it needs to manage these relationships. 

In short, political parties are about relationships and representation. This is what we think of when we hear the term “engagement”.

Roadmap to Renewal purports to reform the party’s structure and processes and modernize its operations.  While it correctly, in our view, states that organizational trust must be re-established in all activities of the Party and “includes” policy development in that,  it focuses most of its proposals for better engagement on its representative selection activities (Leadership contests and local candidate nominations).  It is not so much about what we think as a party or movement defined by its common values and sets of values.  While we agree that these processes are at the heart of directly engaging the Party and electorate and forging a stronger relationship, we are concerned about the scant attention given to strengthening the party’s ability to act, react and feel like a movement and to properly provide for the increased trust, transparency and accountability that would come from an overdue rebalancing of the political relationships within the Party’s various entities and actors themselves.

The one specific proposal in the Roadmap related to policy development, Recommendation #10, is part practical process (using technology for ongoing policy development) and part management of the process.  We can’t argue with the first, but have concerns that the second is ultimately the opposite of broader engagement and involvement and in fact moves in a contrary direction to the enhancement of relationship within the party by giving that management over to the Caucus instead of being rooted in a dynamic, constant conversation between members and elected representatives while taking advantage of leading edge and readily available technologies. 

Managed this way, our Caucus – instead of being the gatekeepers of our political expression – would  become the advocates of policies and programs championed by the membership.

Accordingly, we are not in favour of this proposed affirmation.

We would like to therefore propose three changes to the Party’s organization through constitutional amendments that we believe would strengthen the Party’s ability to be nimble, representative, transparent, accountable and respectful of relationships:

1.  Removal of the Leader’s veto over the Platform;

2.  Altering the mandatory review of the Leader from occurring only after losing            elections to occurring at each Biennial Convention of the Party; and,

3.  Ensure that the key principles of gender balance, respect for Canada’s official languages and balance between the key actors on policy development are maintained.

Collaborative policy development should not require a veto

The Party’s Constitution already gives heavy weight to the concepts of policy and platform development with respect to the overall work of the Party.  The relationships between the various entities of the Party with responsibility for policy in some way shape or form are well defined throughout article 33, and seem fairly well balanced between (generally) policy development (membership – accountable through National, PTA and EDA policy chairs – and the members-at-large appointed by the Leader); positions-of-the-day and extension of development to legislative proposals between elections (Caucus – accountable through the Vice-Chair and 4 Caucus members on the committee (one of whom is the caucus accountability officer)); and , Platform development (traditionally viewed as accountable through the Leader).

On this latter responsibility, the constitution clearly envisages a link between the membership’s role in proposing and developing policies and the Leader’s political role in ensuring that they are platform worthy through 33 (2) (b):

Coordinate the policy development process in all provinces and territories with a view to maintaining a current written statement of the policies of the Party (the “Party policies”) that will, together with the contributions from the Leader and the Caucus and subject to the approval of the Leader, form the basis for the platform of the Party for use in the next general election (the “Party platform”).

Its language invokes collaboration but this clause also clearly ensures the Leader’s imprint on “non-Platform-related” policies at the same time. To repeat, then, at this point the Leader must approve the policy’s entry into the platform at any rate. 

Further 33 (5) provides for a “Policy Approval Subcommittee”, indicating that no one (including Caucus members) may state that a policy is a Party policy or platform unless it has either been approved by the Subcommittee or by the Leader (after consulting with the Subcommittee). The Sub-Committee is a quartet made up of the President and the two National Presidents together with the National Policy Chair.  One can only assume that the two VPs are on this sub-committee to ensure appropriate consideration of official languages (more on this later).  It is unclear to us as members of the Party if in fact this process has ever been utilized on our behalf, but we assume it is intended as some sort of validation process when public policy pronouncements veer from the Party’s publicized “Party policies”.  Nonetheless, this gives much (and we believe appropriate) weight to the Leader vis à vis any Party policies that might find their way into the Platform.

Given all of this we are unsure as to the requirement for a full veto on every aspect of the Platform also being given to the Leader.  It does not seem to be in keeping with the Party’s basic democratic values as expressed elsewhere in this article or the full constitution.  Frankly, it is unlikely that most of the “membership” is even aware that the Leader has a veto, probably because they are under the errant opinion that the Leader has sole constitutional authority for its development as it is.

While 33(2) in all of its sub-clauses describes the full responsibilities of the NPPC, it is 33 (2) (e) which gives to the Committee the responsibility to draft and publish the Party platform:

Subject to veto in whole or in part (including a veto line by line) by the Leader, draft the Party platform and, upon its release during an election, publish the Party platform on the public website of the Party.

Perhaps the entire section was written to deal with some of the mistrust that has increasingly developed between the “membership” and the “leadership” on political matters generally, but we believe that it may have, since its inception, institutionalized the “we versus they”, or in other words non-collaborative view of Platform development in the Party’s ranks.  Of late, the Party platform has been held under guard – even from its own membership, the constitutionally assumed co-authors. 

Finally, in the current context of one-member-one-vote (even if extended through a voter registration process) one must assume that the Leader’s mandate on platform development is the same mandate given to the committee. For a Leader to veto the membership, the relationship would have to be soured indeed.

Roadmap asserts that “[t]he future health of the Party requires it to re-establish a framework of organizational trust”.  We suggest that one way to accomplish this is to amend the Constitution through article 33 (2) (e) and propose:

Delete the words “subject to the veto in whole or in part (including a veto line by line) by the Leader,”

The Leader as the Speaker of the Party

The Leader’s position as the Party’s main political actor is clearly established in the Party’s Constitution, and in fact is heavily oriented towards policy- and platform-related responsibilities and powers, as opposed to operational ones.  In fact the first such responsibility given to the Leader through article 48 is to “speak for the Party concerning any political issue”.  Of the other 8 areas of the Leader’s responsibility and oversight over party matters, 5 are directly related to the policy and platform development and implementation, completely reminiscent of article 33 described above, further stating specifically that the Leader shall “be guided by the Party policies and the Party platform”.
We find this incongruous to the prevailing notion – one strongly enforced in Roadmap through its proposals on more broadly engaging the public in influencing the Party’s policy positions and directions through participation the selection of the Leader – that a Leader receives a mandate on policy and political matters through the Leadership selection process.  Regardless of what is written in the Constitution, this is clearly the reality.

However, Leaders are chosen from time-to-time and not on a regular policy development cycle – in fact Leadership selection in the Party is no longer attached to conventions or conferences of the party where policy and other political matters are contemplated.  It is through the very notion of the one-member-one-vote leadership selection that the membership and their chosen Leader are at the time of selection, clearly in sync on all matters political.  The question therefore is when does this mandate subside, or in other words deplete?  From the point of selection, the Constitution only contemplates a collaborative effort on these matters and we can only envisage the next check-up at the next – and subsequent – Biennial Convention(s) of the Party where this collaborative process culminates. 

Yet, however the Leader’s mandate is defined, it is not subject to any form of formal review unless the Leader has failed to become Prime Minister.  The assumption is that an unsuccessful platform is the Leader’s sole responsibility, and further that it is only at election time that a Leader’s political views should be in sync with the general party’s views.  We know that in this the Constitution does not agree.

We believe that a review of the Leader’s performance with respect to their ongoing role as Speaker for the Party should occur at the same time that the Party contemplates new policies and political directions.  We therefore propose that the “review” of the Leader occur at every Biennial Convention of the Party and propose that article 64 (1) which reads in part:

“… that a ballot (referred to throughout this Constitution s the “Leadership Endorsement Ballot”), … is voted on at the meeting of every EDA for the purpose of selecting delegates to attend the first biennial convention held after each general election in which the Leader does not become the Prime Minister.”

be amended by deleting “the first” and inserting in its place “each”, and further by inserting a period after “convention” and deleting the remainder of the sentence.

However we also believe that the Leader will require a commensurate and more direct ability to influence policy and even though the Constitution does not formally prescribe who may propose policy resolutions – just that it must consider them (61 (4) (d)) – believe that this power should be given specifically to the Leader.  We therefore propose that article 48 be amended to add:

(x) propose policy resolutions for consideration by the Party in accordance with Subsection 61 (4) (d).

Representation and relationships

It is our view that the Constitution through article 33 (1) which describes the composition  of the NPPC, quite correctly provides for an appropriate balance for input and influence between the various actors on policy and platform development, who are broadly, the membership, the Caucus and the Leader.  It also, specifically through 33 (1) (b), and 33 (1) (h), provides for adherence to the key Liberal principles of gender- and linguistic-balance; and through 33 (5) (1) infers adherence to linguistic-balance.

33 (1) (b) is particularly important because it inserts these notions (combined with the insinuation of the Leader’s views) into leadership of the NPPC itself, by ensuring that the Policy Chair and Vice-Chair (appointed by the Leader) complement each other by way of these characteristics, each of a different gender and language, one drawn from the House of Commons where the other is not. It is this latter requirement that concerns us, following the results of the last general election and given the current contingent of members running for the position of National Policy Chair.  Given that no member of the Senate is running for the position, and only one woman, it is conceivable that the provisions of this clause may not be able to be met as written or contemplated.  Should the Nationally elected Policy Chair be a man, there is no female, Francophone MP to assume the Vice-Chair position.  We are concerned that in interpreting how to fill the position that one of the key principles may take precedence over the other and that this could cause some organizational and representative conflict. 

We understand that the provision is likely as written to ensure that the elected representatives of the Party are equally represented as they are ones who have both run on the Party’s policies, and propose legislative initiatives, but believe in this instance that the principles of gender and linguistic balance are more important, and that the Party would be better served by the appointment of a member of the Senate only under such unfortunate circumstances.  After all, the Caucus itself can somewhat rectify that imbalance through the four members of Caucus it is to appoint under 33 (1) (h).

Article 33 (1) (b) (iii) currently reads:

if the National Policy Chair is not a member of the House of Commons, the National Policy Vice-Chair must be a member of the House of Commons

We propose that article 33 (1) (b) (iii) be amended, by adding:

“ and only in the instance where no such individual is a member of the House of Commons, a member of the Senate of Canada.”

While this change will go a long way to ensure the linguistic and gender-balance contemplated by the Constitution in the oversight of policy and platform development, the current makeup of the “Policy Approval Sub-Committee” as described in article 33 (5) could result in a linguistically- but non-gender balanced body.  The addition of the Policy Vice-Chair, in full understanding that the original concept was likely to provide a balance between members with a national elected mandate on policy with the Leader, would ensure a slightly better representation on a key and influential body of the Party. 
We therefore propose:

that article 33(5) (a) be amended by replacing the word “and” with a comma and adding the words “and the National Policy Vice-Chair” and the end.

We note that the current circumstances related to the position of National Policy Vice-Chair are the same for article 33 (3) which calls for the responsibility for the drafting of the Party platform to rest with whichever of the Chair or Vice-Chair is a member of the House of Commons.  We suggest that for all of the reasons noted immediately above, in addition to those related to the nature of the Party-Caucus-Leader relationship described extensively earlier, that responsibility be additionally given to the National Policy Chair.

We propose that article 33 (3) be deleted and replaced by:

The National Policy Chair and the National Policy Vice-Chair shall be jointly responsible to coordinate the drafting of the Party platform.

Finally, we understand and agree full well with the reasoning behind providing for the addition of up to 4 Party members-at-large to the NPPC by the Leader (33 (1) (g)), believing it to primarily revolve around the provision of specific expertise, but would like to ensure, in keeping with the forgoing that consideration is given to the key representative principles of the Party.  We believe that the Leader could use these additional members to correct (to a degree) any natural imbalances that occur through the constitutional makeup of the committee.  We therefore propose

that article 33 (1) (g) be amended by adding at the end “respecting the principle of equal participation of men and women and the recognition of English and French as the official languages of Canada”

We welcome the invitation of the National Board to individual members of the Party to directly propose alterations and enhancements to the governance of the Party at this seminal point in its history.

Respectfully submitted

Sheila Gervais and Paul Summerville
Member Ottawa South and Associate Member Ottawa West-Nepean, and, Member Victoria respectively

reach Paul Summerville at

Saturday, June 18, 2011

"Let every man look before he leaps."

At today's Extraordinary Convention, I will support a "2013 option".  

On May 3, after Michael Ignatieff informed us that he would be resigning, I thought: well at least we know the path we are on for once: we'll have a Leadership vote in 6 months.  Boy was I wrong.  I am still of the view that would have been the best path for the Party, a swift and surgical Leadership race (al la BC Liberal Party) combined and followed with a collaborative rebuilding effort. But once set on the path to this Extraordinary Convention, with some of the twists and turns it has taken along the way, I no longer feel that is a viable option, so one way or the other, I will be supporting the Board's Resolution to move the Leadership Vote to late 2012/early 2013.

However, I do have some opinions on the "one way or the other" now that we have proposals (sub-amendments) that would alter the timelines proposed by the Board. As I read them, the sub-amendment proposed by Guptill/Cameron (PEI/Yukon) would keep the earliest option for a Leadership Vote in the Fall of 2012 and move the latest to June 30, 2013; the Jedras/Klunder (Ontario/Ontario) option would ensure the Vote was held in the Fall of 2012, between September 1 and November 30; and the Noormohamed (BC/Quebec*) option would see the Leadership Vote held in 2013 only - between March and the end of June.

I am impressed by the rationale and planning for rebuilding proposed by Gregg Guptill and Kirk Cameron.  They clearly describe how the Party would benefit from a longer collaborative building process, while leaving two-and-a-half years (or more) with a new Leader before Election 42 in 2015.  I hope all delegates have an opportunity to read it before this afternoon's vote.

Conversely, I am concerned that Jeff's proposal, which by limiting the flexibility in timing to 2012 and moving up the first possible date for a convention would ensure that we would be plunged into a Leadership race right now.  Today.  I get that in some measure it's "on" now anyway, but the further the practical race is from now, the greater discipline the Party will be able to exercise on true rebuilding freer of the usual Leadership shenanigans.

In this morning's in box I found a memo prepared by Taleeb, which I gather he had hoped to send to all delegates, but doesn't know who they are!  I thought he was going to post it on his website, but it is still kind of early in BC, so I've decided to reproduce it here.  I do so because it very succinctly explains my concerns with the 2012-only option - and I think we need as much information and discussion as possible.

TO: Delegates to the Extraordinary Convention of the Liberal Party of Canada

RE:  Important Convention Update

DATE: Friday, June 17, 2011

Dear Liberal Friend,

While the rationale for my own sub-amendment is available here, I think it appropriate for me to explain why I decided to propose it.  As a long-time member and recent candidate, I thought that the best thing for the Party would be a lengthy period of calm and rebuilding before we satisfied ourselves that we had a developed into the type of movement worth offering to potential Leaders and the Canadian public.  The resolution offered by the National Board just met my parameters on timing. When the full process was revealed earlier this week I became aware of the general content of a sub-amendment since submitted to Party Headquarters that would force an early leadership vote and significantly restrict the Interim Leader's time in which to make progress with the task of rebuilding.

As a Liberal committed to the rebuilding of our party, I want you to know that I and others strongly oppose this sub-amendment and would urge you to vote against it during tomorrow's teleconference (which begins at 3:00 pm ET).

This sub-amendment, from Mr. Jedras (Scarborough Centre) was undoubtedly submitted with the best of intentions but unfortunately, in our view, has the worst of consequences.

The sub-amendment would require that a leadership vote be held as early as September 1, 2012 and no later than November 30, 2012. Because the notice required before the vote is at least five months, which could mean that a formal leadership campaign would be underway as early as April 1, 2012 (less than ten months from now). 

The picture worsens when you look at this sub-amendment’s impact on informal leadership activities, especially on membership drives. Because the Liberal Party’s National Membership Rules provide that a membership sold any time after September 1 remains current all through the following calendar year, the sub-amendment would be an incentive for leadership hopefuls to start selling memberships on September 1 this year (a bare ten weeks from now).

None of the other amendments or sub-amendments, including my own, create this problem, because they all contemplate the possibility of a leadership vote taking place in 2013, in which case there is no incentive for leadership organizers to start selling memberships now, only to have to renew them later (while there are multi-year membership options available, they are at least twice as expensive and therefore a tougher sell for the big membership drives that leadership involves, especially when you are talking about multiple members in any one family).

If there is one thing the recent federal election made clear, it's that we have a lot of work to do in terms of rebuilding our party and reconnecting with Canadians right across the country.  This means we should be focused on rebuilding and not allow ourselves to become consumed by leadership politics. Nor do any of us want to see various leadership organizers running campaign-related membership drives in our ridings within a few weeks time.

On the other hand, if you share THE belief that we need to take eighteen to twenty four months to focus on rebuilding our party, I urge you to join in voting down the sub-amendment in question and supporting the main amendment (even as amended by my proposal or that of members from PEI/Yukon) providing for a leadership vote no earlier than November 2012 and ideally in 2013.

Please make your voice heard on tomorrow's call!

It's too bad that we've got such a brief period to really chew all of this over, but we'll just have to make the best of it. And do look before you leap!