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 quixoterules.blogspot.com.
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