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 Chr├ętien 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 Chr├ętien’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.

1 comment:

  1. Great review of the Party's attempts to bring about reforms, albeit grudgingly. Sadly, history has a way of repeating itself and that tells me that we won't see REAL and LASTING reforms any time soon!