Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Quick now, while no one's watching...

They're becoming just like us!

“Today's budget will be the final act in a long transformation of Mr. Harper's Conservative party from a policy-driven, principled voice for conservatism to a process-driven electoral machine, intent only on surviving the coming budget vote and winning the next election.”
Let's pull a switcheroo and become just like (Ivison says) they are.
"Today's budget will be the first act in a swift transformation of ILMI's Liberal Party from a process-driven electoral machine, intent only on surviving the coming budget vote and winning the next election, to a policy-driven, principled voice for liberalism."

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Liberal. Principles. Discuss.

The Liberal Party of Canada is committed to the view that the dignity of each individual man and woman is the cardinal principle of democratic society and the primary purpose of all political organization and activity in such a society.

The Liberal Party of Canada is dedicated to the principles that have historically
sustained the Party: individual freedom, responsibility and human dignity in the framework of a just society, and political freedom in the framework of meaningful participation by all persons. The Liberal Party is bound by the constitution of Canada and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and is committed to the pursuit of equality of opportunity for all persons, to the enhancement of our unique and diverse cultural community, to the recognition that English and French are the official languages of Canada, and to the preservation of the Canadian identity in a global society.

In accordance with this philosophy, the Liberal Party of Canada subscribes to the fundamental rights and freedoms of persons under the rule of law and commits itself to the protection of these essential values and their constant adaptation to the changing needs of modern Canadian society.

The Liberal Party of Canada recognizes that human dignity in a democratic system requires that all citizens have access to full information concerning the policies and leadership of the Party; the opportunity to participate in open and public assessment of such means, and such modifications of policies and leadership as they deem desirable to promote the political, economic, social, cultural and general well-being of Canadians.

To realize this objective, the Liberal Party of Canada strives to provide a flexible and democratic structure whereby all Canadians can obtain such information, participate in such assessment and militate for such reform through open communications, free dialogue and participatory action both electoral and non-electoral. This Constitution sets forth the institutions, systems and procedures by which the Liberal Party of Canada, in co-operation with its provincial and territorial associations and electoral district associations, works to implement these ideas on behalf of all its members.

Friday, January 23, 2009

“Important principles may and must be inflexible.”

Okay, so not Cervantes, but Abraham Lincoln.

We all seem to agree that the Party needs to change, and also that the Party needs to renew and rebuild. But what is the basis, the starting point? Should we not agree on that first?

The Change Commission will seek the opinions of party members on 9 broad but ultimately process questions and the Renewal Committee will examine some specific structural but also process areas. The two processes to examine processes are to be "linked", but how are they to be linked substantively? Some might say that they are linked through their discussions of the grassroots and encouraging grassroots engagement, and while that is a good thing, it is still much more about the how and the what, rather than the why. In both cases, even the questions related to policy are about the process of policy development; there is no question related to on what those policies should be based.

What is it that Liberals believe in? Are we/should be not be bound by some fundamental beliefs and core values? Is it not those beliefs and values that should encourage Canadians to engage with us; to place their faith in us through their votes because they will know instinctively what we stand for? Is it not those beliefs and values that should be examined in the context of both change and renewal? Should not those beliefs and values have themselves a common basis in principle? Perhaps it is that we must change to be more reflective of our principles and renew to get back to them.

It is such set of simple, clear principles that should guide both our presentation to the public (policy, platform and legislation) and our deportment (governance and process).

When a prospective member signs up online,
they are asked to tick a box declaring that they support Liberal philosophies and principles
, but they would be hard bound to find a statement of exactly what it is they are declaring to support.

There is one. And I for one happen to believe that it is a pretty good one. It is contained in the Preamble to the LPC Constitution. But I am not sure that much of the rest of the document is very reflective of the principles outlined, and I think that this should be the key question asked in every other examination: how is your suggestion, proposal or recommendation in keeping with the principles to which the Liberal Party of Canada is dedicated?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Building castles in the air...

For those of you as familiar as Quixotique with Cervantes' most famous passages, you will understand why I do not, yet, and hope to never have to, provide the complete, relevant quotation today. But this proverbial phrase which has come to describe something that is no more than illusory, or a futile flight of fancy, no matter what effort spent in building it, is quite apt in describing reform and renewal efforts in the Liberal Party, certainly over the last 30 years.

This weekend, those of us who are members will begin discussions on yet another reform effort through En Famille, (certainly one of the better efforts at soliciting grassroots participation that the Party has seen, so regardless of your motivation or wariness, you should be encouraged to participate), however this will be a discussion with the Change Commission, which will feed to the Renewal Committee, who will develop recommended constitutional amendments to the National Executive who can (will) amend, reject or put forward amendments/proposals to the Convention. Dizzy yet?

You will be asked (by the Renewal Committee, not the Change Commission, which has a similar but disparate set of parameters to examine) to review certain processes in light of changes made at the 2006 Convention and to better help the party implement them - I guess you can't disagree - just help implement . Isn't that what we elected you to do? Isn't that what we trusted staff you hired to do?

That aside, were the "reforms" enacted in 2006 as "real" as they could have been? History (look down, look waaay down) in our Party shows us that the exact time to make reforms is NOT when we are making major leadership or other significant changes. Prospective "leaders" are too shy, or too fearful of participating in motivating and participating in changes that might anger or alienate groups (read delegates) that they will need on one day, and then forever forward during their terms, regardless of their views of democratic principles and an understanding of the nature of "party".

Further, but sooo related, the interests that we have allowed to become vested in our governing documents, but more importantly in our psyche, will never give up those interests in the greater interests of democracy. But for the youth wing of the party, we would have achieved some form of OMOV in 2006. The resolution was sunk by under 20 votes - but more importantly, it was sunk by the whipping of the youth vote; less than 15% of eligible delegates voted on that resolution in the Constitutional session. Quixotique can't help but wonder, if this is yet another example of "teach your children well".

There were also calls and recommendations (coming again to a theatre near you) to examine the federated nature of our party and the vested interests represented by the Commissions; all in Quixotique's humble opinon, massive impediments to the party's ability to connect to the bottom of it's pyramid; to truly be representative. I bet you think I refer to the membership of the party (and of course I do), but I am really referring to the electorate.

So reform; renewal; change; growth - whatever. Been there, done that; seen that movie (read that classic) before.

How so? What follows is a very lengthy (and admitedly biased) discussion of previous reforms endeavours in our party. If you can get through all of that (and I won't hold you to it), let me know if you think I am the only one looking at yet another renewal and reform process with the proverbial grain of salt...


Resolution of the National ExecutiveResolution of the National Executive

A wealth of information has been produced on the topic of party reform in Canada. A series of articles, news stories and commentary from the early 1980s consistently through to the present bemoan the Liberal Party’s internal disorganization. There have been Liberal Party internal reform discussion papers and proposed constitutional amendments and three special “constitutional conventions” between 1981 and 1992. Party reform has also been advocated in academic treatises too numerous to count, in the four-volume Royal Commission examination into Electoral Reform and Party Financing, in a number of statutory reports to Parliament by Canada’s Chief Electoral Officer, and through several bills amending the Canada Elections Act since 1980.

Despite all of this, the body politic that is the Liberal Party of Canada has turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to virtually all of it, and paid lip service to the rest.

It may be useful, at this juncture, to review “recent” history of reform and reform initiatives in the Liberal Party of Canada. This history, related to the power or force of individual membership begins in 1919 with the “election” of Mackenzie King as a leader selected by delegated convention, as opposed to parliamentary caucus. And, at a 1966 Policy Conference, the Liberals amended their Constitution to include a resolution establishing a process for a future Leadership Convention – a review of current leadership (more on this in other posts). In support of this resolution, a delegate at the conference argued, “it is very easy for a Party to have democracy when the Party is out of office. The real test of democracy in the Party is when the Party is in office.”

While the Liberals were the first party to adopt such a measure, the first action on this front began with the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada. In 1966, propelled by a desire to remove John Diefenbaker as Leader, the party instituted a review of the leadership by party members for the first time. Following that, as Andrew Coyne reminisces in a 2002 column, “[t]he ensuing years could be said to be the nearest thing to a golden age of party democracy. The conventions that chose Pierre Trudeau in 1968 and Joe Clark in 1976 were relatively open, unpredictable affairs; in both, the winner was the “outsider”, rather than the candidate of the party establishment. Yet both were clean races, at least by present day standards.”

In the Liberal Party, perhaps because of the lengthy tenure of Prime Minister Trudeau, perhaps because of the “champing-at-the-bit” ambitions of others, the next seminal reform-oriented event occurred at the 1982 National Convention, held at the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa. At that Convention, speaker after speaker - primarily from the youth wing of the party and primarily those employed on Parliament Hill – railed about the undue influence of caucus members and the Party elite in the affairs of the Party and government. According to journalist and author Susan Delacourt, this was Paul Martin Jr.’s coming out party. A young cabinet minister at the time, Lloyd Axworthy, was shouted down as he attempted to address a policy resolution at the mic. The key results of the Convention were twofold: the election of former MP and cabinet minister, Iona Campanolo, as the first (and only until, briefly, 2006-07) female President of the Party and the institution of the “Reform Commission.”

As the Reform Commission travelled coast-to-coast, examining the internal ails of the party, for three years or so, and before the Commission could report, two other, but just as seminal events occurred: the PC leadership in 1983 and that of the Liberal Party in 1984. Those who pour through newspaper archives – and those who simply lived it – will recall a deluge of stories about “drunks from the mission pouring off buses” and dead people showing up to vote at delegate selection meetings across the country. To paraphrase Andrew Coyne, the rot had set in.

The report of the Liberal Party’s Reform Commission at its special convention held in 1985 attempted to address, not only its mandated commission, but new exigencies imposed during this period related to the abuses reported in the intervening media stories.

The influence of “party elites” was removed from the governing document, the Party’s constitution. Unelected members of the Party’s National Executive were removed as “automatic” or ex-officio delegates to future conventions. The structure of the Party’s Executive was altered, discussion was held about the policy process, about national membership, in addition to many other related matters, but few truly substantive changes were made.

Many of the substantive changes that were made were, unfortunately, later undone. This process would repeat itself.

In 1987, as we approached an expected general election in 1988, concern set in. The need for, and pressure to find, candidates of high calibre, those who could present an alternate government to the electorate through their sheer impressiveness was great. Efforts to recruit such candidates across the country and had been quite successful, but in many instances the much sought after positive media coverage about the quality of the team being advanced was vastly overshadowed by the stories of huge meetings and shenanigans of the highest order in the effort for them to win their nominations. “Special interests” were beginning to understand the power of mass recruitment and instant membership in ensuring the selection of candidates that met their own, rather than the Party’s policy goals. Well organized “single issue” candidates such as Tom Wappel, who snatched the nomination from high profile social advocate Patrick Johnston (who beyond being recruited, had been groomed for candidacy) flattened the hopes of candidates like Johnston and the party alike. Tom Wappel would go on to contest the Party’s leadership barely a year later.

By 1989, following another electoral defeat and pressure from party militants and the media, the Party had once again determined that action was required to bolster the health of the party, and another special Constitutional Convention was called for that fall. High on the agenda for examination was the entire concept of membership in, and the nature of, the Federation that is the Liberal Party of Canada. John Turner’s resignation as Leader of the Party intervened and eventually the Constitutional Convention was postponed and held together with the Leadership Convention that elected Jean Chrétien in June of 1990.

As often happens with “intervening events”, with the attention of the Party organization, the public and the media on leadership and leadership processes, the focus for fixing the Party’s Constitution shifted to immediate concerns and once again, vested interest. In the lead-up process the Party held six “Leadership Forums” across the country, where workshops and debates amongst the leadership contenders were held on both policy and “Party issues”. Even at that time, the Party’s Forum Primer on party issues recognized the problems the party was facing:

“Hotly contested nomination meetings in recent years have, in many parts of the country, become controversial and often embarrassing for the Party. The current practise of the individual who is most able to sign up new members in a short period of time, generally winning a nomination, is fraught with problems. Is it truly democratic for large numbers of people to join a party only for one very specific purpose? Should more emphasis be placed on the member who has a proven commitment to the party? In a perfect world, a candidate would be chosen on the basis of ideas, ideology, societal representativeness, and organization; not purely organization.”

And yet, the most significant amendments adopted at the Constitutional Convention related to re-instating the ex-officio delegate status of unelected executive members such as the Financial Management Committee, and the creation of and provision of delegates to a new Aboriginal Commission. Both of these sets of amendments were in fact retroactive. In other words, the Constitution which did not recognize these individuals as delegates to the Convention when the convention commenced, did recognize them by the time they were ready to cast their Leadership ballots.

The first convention following the Jean Chrétien’s election as Leader was set for the winter of 1992. Another election was expected at any time. While complaints about the process which selected him as Leader and pleas for the Party to complete its unfinished business were important, the Leader, mindful of the one process that could impact his tenure the most, the nomination of candidates, created a third task force in 10 years to examine the Party’s Constitution. The task force was to make proposals to another Constitutional Convention to be, again, held in concert with the Biennial. From both a policy, and an organizational perspective, the convention was shaping up to be a battle between vested and special interests.

With over 100 proposed amendments to virtually every article of the Constitution, and an entire day devoted to its discussion, while the Party did institute a national “registry” of members (a compromise solution to a long sought after national membership with standard requirements across the country) it failed to make significant changes to the nomination process. Instead of entrenching the principles under which candidates would fairly be nominated, the party chose to move virtually the entire setting of parameters for, and administration of nominations from the constitution to “rules” which would be developed under the auspices of National and Provincial/Territorial Campaign committees headed by individuals appointed by the Leader. Some read this move as giving a Leader the flexibility required to respond to rapidly changing political circumstances. Others viewed it as a retreat from democracy in the Party and the protection of an ability to manipulate processes to suit circumstances. Principle gave way to consideration:

Out of 9 in the Party’s 2004 Constitution provisions to guide the Campaign Committee in carrying out its responsibilities, only one (provisions relating to financial limits for expenditures by candidates) could only be viewed as a requirement. The others can only be interpreted as guidelines, given the language used: to consider the establishment of cut-off dates, appropriate to the provincial or territorial organization, to consider making membership lists available, to consider holding all-candidates’ debates, to consider gender equity and minority representation.

Check out the 2006 version. Let Quixotique know what you think. If you can’t do that, then, well, I’d better see you over at En Famille.

Monday, January 19, 2009

"For you must know that in newly conquered kingdoms and provinces the natives are never totally subdued..."

At a recent event, attended by the most "high profile" of Liberals, in the approving presence of ILMI, I heard Bob Rae tell the gathering that "there are no Bob Rae Liberals, there are no Leblanc Liberals, there are no Martin or Chrétien or Trudeau Liberals; we are Liberals." True too then, that there no Ignatieff Liberals either, as surely while we believe in the necessity for strong leadership and loyalty to (yes, the person in whom we've placed guidance of our party in trust, but more to the office of) the Leader, we should be bound more together in our belief(s) in something: some shared principles, some common values, than in someone.

I absolutely do say this to be provocative, and I say it too in the context of change and renewal the Party needs and craves and which the current party leadership has told us it recognizes. Whether of our own free will or whether as a result of blind loyalty and naiivité, our Party has come to a point where any dissension, either with respect to opinion or process, any difference of opinion, nuanced or substantial, and most ruefully any debate, significant or not, is viewed as undesireable and disloyal: a challenge to leadership.

Well, leaders - and parties - should be challenged. Challenges make you think, often skillfully and on your feet; thinking about a challenge can make you solidify your position, or lead you to change your mind. Challenge can make you more focused or cause you to reflect on the actual interests you are pursuing. It's how you react to challenges that marks your measure. I certainly recall many lessons learned through my own (very long ago now) youthful rebellion. And, as a parent, I also know the lessons I've learned from the rebellions (or lack of - my two are very different from each other) of my own children. On that example, the lesson learned is often that the more you try to stifle youthful rebellion rather than deal with it, the more rebellious it can get!

So, while I get and respect what Rae was saying ('get with the program, people'), I certainly hope that any "restless natives" amongst us are treated as respectfully as those of who choose to accept things holus bolus.

Challenged as we have been by ILMI to examine our practices, structures, and presentation to the public (and, allow me to add, resistant to allowing PMSH to continue to view us as his conquered kingdom) let's help him get on with it in an open, bold and unafraid manner; strengthening and growing our party will not only be in his best interests, but hopefully, soon, in the country's. As long as we do it with the latter objective rather than the former in mind.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Sancho, the realist, tells his master,

"I sometimes think that all you tell me of knighthood, kingdoms, empires and islands is all windy blather and lies"

So we see a flurry of announcements (and appointments) on the organizational side of the Party over the weekend related to themes that likely resonate with most active (and inactive) Liberals: renewal, change and preparedness.

On the face of it, these are smart and early moves by Interim Leader (IL), Michael Ignatieff in indicating to a Party frankly conflicted by the opportunities afforded by new and fresh (not-Dion) leadership and concerns over how we got here and perpetuation of the "same old, same old", that he's listened, and taken swift actions.

Unfortunately it seems to some (certainly this writer) that while ILMI has learned from the experience of the last leader who simply couldn't get the Party's act together on anything (2.5 National Directors, botched by-elections, election unreadiness, lackadaisical and indecisive candidate recutiment and no proposed reforms), he has also taken pages out of several books from the past: go with who you know, go with the flow, go with the status quo.

While I still can't totally wrap my mind around the need for both a renewal and a change process, and I do think that the National Campaign co-chairs are a group of respected, skilled adults, the make-up of the Renewal Committee leaves me scratching my head. I guess if you want to make sure that everyone knows that you are firmly in control you're going to make sure that the reforms people are craving are nonetheless not too risky and ultimately made in your own image.

For the most part the individuals named to the Renewal Committee share the common ground of either supporting ILMI in one or other of his leadership bids (so one assumes too support for the process that brought him victory) and/or are long-standing associates of the institutional party. To the extent that these people have status in the party it is because they have participated in the development of current processes (written, but also largely unwritten) and have benefitted from them: they are products of the status quo. Just like ILMI (PMPM too) was unchallenged, it is very likely that the "responsibility to protect" will ensure that the current command and control nature of the party remains so as well.

So the carrot of reform has been dangled in front us and knighthood, kingdoms and empires await those of us who clamber aboard the horse in its never-ending (and futile?) pursuit.

Lessons from Russell and Cervantes

The genesis of this weblog lies in the recent reading of two books (of which at first the connection might seem tenuous), and recent, yet somehow eternal internal political happenings at the Liberal Party of Canada. The first book recently devoured is Two cheers for minority government, by distinguished political scientist and Professor (Emeritus) at the University of Toronto, Peter H. Russell.

In Two cheers Russell deftly describes the benefits of minority governments in Parliamentary democracies for populations believing in the most democratic concept of all – real, or “true” majority will and direction. It is also a fascinating discussion of the factors that have lead Canada’s Parliamentary democracy down a different evolutionary path than most others in the world in its irrational support of and belief in the stability of majority governments (fuelled in part by first-past-the-post) and the resultant move away from Parliamentary Government to Prime-Ministerial Government. Russell discusses the drift towards a centralization of power in the office of the prime minister and states that “executive domination is a threat to parliamentary democracy”, made even greater when the “politicians who control parliament have been rejected by a majority of the electorate”.

And now we are getting to the crux of the matter for me. As I read Two cheers and while Russell does not directly go there, I have been struck by the parallels to governance trends (written and unwritten) in our parties, particularly the Liberal Party of Canada. This (rather lengthy) quote from the book might serve well to illustrate:

The parliamentary system places the direction of the executive side of government in the hands of the same leaders who have majority support in the legislature. In the modern era, a number of factors have combined to make this fusion of powers a real and present danger to the democratic capacity of parliamentary government.

First and foremost among these is the emergence of disciplined and well-financed political parties whose leaders employ the techniques of mass advertising to win and retain power. This development is aided and abetted by techniques of public management that downplay the deliberative role of elected representative and Parliament’s role in holding government responsible for its decisions. Between elections, the citizenry participates in parliamentary democracy primarily through brief exposure to sound bites and talking heads on the electronic media. On top of all this is a cult of celebrity that focuses political interest on the accomplishments, failures, and personalities of leaders.

This fairly accurately describes what I and I believe numerous other supporters of the institutional Liberal Party have been railing about for quite some time. We have little time, nor expend much energy and virtually no funds on the deliberative role we should all be playing to ensure the health of our Party and through that our country. We expend these resources instead on the pursuit of and exercising power, and on gaining that power through the cult of personality, as Russell puts it. We so rarely seem to have principles-based discussions or pursuits. That for this naive little cookie, is my ideal.

Which leads me to the second book I have recently been reading: Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s Don Quixote. While at times fun and farcical, Don Quixote is also a pretty tragic tale of deception (sometimes for one’s own good), self-deception and idealistic delusion. Illustrated through Quixote’s many adventures, and most famously his tussle with windmills he perceived to be giants; enemies to be slain in the interests of chivalry, the story told is really about the futility of idealism.

Coined from the title character of the book, quixotism has come to mean the tendency to take an overly romanticized view of life and engaging in the foolishly impractical especially in the pursuit of ideals.

And so I have come to see myself as quixotic in my pursuit of a Liberal Party Utopia, driven as I am by my own set of ideals to constantly continue to pursue.

So as the Liberal Party of Canada enters a new period and as discussions once again heat up on the state of the Party and the necessity for growth, and the opportunities afforded by fresh leadership, I'm hoping we can have some civil discussions about what's wrong, what's right and what our collective ideal for our party might really be.