Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Water Under the Bridge

It was a strange scene on Calgary’s Electric Avenue: gangs of Liberals, mostly young and virtually all inebriated, more Liberals at one time than Calgary had seen before or likely since, and most of them happily oblivious to the black arm bands they sported. Twenty years ago, on the eve of St-Jean Baptiste Day, in Quebec City’s twin city, the Liberal Party of Canada elected Jean Chrétien as its new Leader and the Meech Lake Accord was laid to rest.

I was National Director of the Liberal Party at the time and had been the chief convention organizer. Truth is the logistical organization of the Convention and process itself was a lot easier to post-mortem than the politics and its long-term impacts. To be frank, I’m not sure that the “lessons learned” from that period have been overly positive ones for the Party, or the country, or democracy in general for that matter.

A little more than a year before this, John Turner had signalled his intention to resign as Party Leader having weathered two electoral defeats, a fractious and contentious leadership “review”, public scuffles over his leadership with Party President Michel Robert, an attempted mid-election “coup” and divisions amongst his caucus and between his caucus and party grassroots over the principle-based issues of free trade and the Meech Lake Accord.

As the Party Executive prepared to meet on June 16, 1989 to consider how to proceed, much of the die had already been cast. The Party already had a constitutionally-overdue Biennial (policy) Convention slated for that fall in Calgary at which, incidentally another leadership review was required. Years later, following more and equally contentious “reviews” the Party changed its process to allow for “Leader endorsement votes” to be held only after a losing election. Calgary was deemed a strategically important venue in the Party’s efforts to increase its presence in an increasingly influential, resource-, economically-, and vote-rich province. With the country’s attention fixed on Quebec and tensions surrounding the Accord, a Liberal Convention in the heart of the West would send a positive message to the rest of the country. Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin Jr., the main putative contenders, were both seen as supportive of maintaining Calgary as the venue for these and obviously other political reasons.

Much like the scene on Electric Avenue, the meeting had a surreal element to it. Staff scrambled to find seats for the full house of voting members in attendance, many of whom had not previously either attended or voted; the balance tipped in favour of supporters of Mr. Martin (and Mr. Turner). It was obvious to a blind man that a Leadership Convention in Calgary would cost the Party, which was already in financial difficulty, candidates, and delegates alike significantly more. Never mind, it was strategically important. It was also prevailing wisdom was that a shorter leadership campaign would favour the perceived frontrunner, and that (any) other candidates would benefit by more time to become known and to sign-up supporters and delegates. Holding one Convention only and putting the timing off further would be a further breach of the Party’s Constitution and give short shrift to policy development. Never mind, the public didn’t care about such things and a new Leader would deliver a policy agenda.

The only logistically feasible available dates in Calgary for the mounting of a Convention of this size were June 18-25, 1990 and when Quebec Party President and known Martin supporter, Francis Fox vehemently pointed out the folly in securing a date that could see the actual vote occur on the exact deadline for the approval of the Meech Lake Accord – June 23, 1990 – there was understanding, but, never mind, it was inconceivable that the process would run the full course, and we’ll create a “Meech Lake Strategy” Committee to deal with it just in case. It was far from as cavalier as that, and in the end the decision was made without a recorded resolution; we just sent out a little puff of consensual smoke.

Shortly after the decision to put off the Convention, we began to hear rumours that Mr. Turner, having expecting that the originally planned October Convention would be turned into a Leadership would resign in November. This would place the Party in a bit of a pickle according to the Party’s legal advisors. The Party Constitution did not contemplate such circumstances and had no provisions for the selection of an interim Leader and the law required we have one. Only the Party assembled in Convention could make such a choice. The Caucus however, was free to choose whomever they wished to lead them in the House. The caucus chose Herb Grey to assume the legislative responsibilities of Leader and Mr. Turner retained responsibility with respect to Party, legal and electoral matters. It was in this capacity that Turner let it be known that he considered the appointment of Party President, Michel Robert as Convention Co-Chair, an unnecessary “slap in the face”.

There were several other issues for the Executive to decide, many which presaged further and ongoing debate and discussion in both party and nation. We decided to allow leadership candidates the use of the “tax credit” for donations under certain circumstances; and instituted some basic transparency through limited disclosure of donations and donors. We made attempts to standardize procedures and regulations in an effort to clean up the notoriously hideous process of signing up “instant members” and the obscene amounts of money circulating “outside of the system”. It would not be until 2003 when then outgoing Leader Chrétien would make changes to the Canada Elections Act to govern both leadership and nomination races and recognize in law the concept of party membership. In 2009 the Party finally instituted a national membership.

There had also been some unfortunate long-standing delays regarding the formal recognition of Aboriginal People’s within the structures of the Party formally and the Liberal family informally. This was an area of both personal and political concern of long-standing for candidate Chrétien. The putting off of the convention would once again thwart such efforts which included an intricate proposal for equitable involvement in what was deemed to be the most important decision possible – the choice of a Leader.

Problem was the proposal, out of desperate necessity, would involve the consideration in the opening sessions of the Convention itself of what would be in effect, “retroactive” amendments to the Party’s constitution. According to a complicated formula, based on relative Aboriginal populations by province, territory and riding, delegates of statutorily-defined Aboriginal heritage would be elected as “contingent” delegates. If the Convention voted to amend the constitution at its opening plenary (as it eventually did) these delegates (200) would be upgraded to full delegate status.

Already aggrieved on the issue of convention timing, the Co-Chairs of the Party’s Constitutional and Legal Affairs Committee, resigned. The Party executive promptly decided to include another set of “contingent delegate” – the non-elected, appointed members of the Party Executive, its Revenue Committee and Senators, all of whom had been stripped of their automatic delegate status at the previous convention.

Given the length of time before the Convention, the Party wisely decided to hold six “Leadership Forums” across the land beginning in January in Toronto, moving through Yellowknife, Halifax, Winnipeg and Vancouver before delegate selection closed and to Montreal, the largest venue at 3000 participants in early June. These for-the-most-part highly successful, full-day deliberative forums arrived on the scene as Canada launched its first 24-hour cable news channel, CBC Newsworld, and as a result these debates, and the Convention itself later in the year, were for the first carried live, gavel-to-gavel. Leadership candidate and former Quebec Environment Minister Clifford Lincoln, withdrew from the race shortly after the first Forum so that he could run in a recently called by-election in Chambly. A rally was being organized for early February. I was informed by a party organizer that Martin and fellow leadership candidate Sheila Copps, both “Meech supporters” were welcome to attend. Mr. Chrétien, however was not.

While the country was watching this unfold, Chrétien, not so quietly, was sewing the Leadership up, Meech or no Meech, debates or not. Historical connections and the advantages accorded those with years of service and notoriety in Government and the Party, combined with access to formidable funding and a lame Canada Elections Act, helped as much as Chrétien’s popular nature. By the time delegate selection began in March, it was well known that according to (unverifiable) membership sales, Chrétien would likely have a first ballot victory in June. The Party was preparing to unite behind a new Leader, but the Meech Lake Accord would continue to divide.

Francis Fox proved prescient. Not only did the Convention vote ultimately coincide with the Meech deadline, but the last Leadership Forum held in Montreal occurred, in a rather dramatic fashion on June 10, during the same weekend as last-minute and mammoth negotiations to save the Accord, involving three new Premiers, including Newfoundland Liberal, Clyde Wells a former constitutional lawyer viewed as an Accord opponent who had quickly assumed iconic status with respect to this national debate. Scads of Martin’s supporters, many from out of province, joined with Quebec MP, Jean Lapierre in pillorying Chrétien for being out of touch with Québecers with shouts of “vendu” (sellout). It was a nasty scene and a furious Robert had to intervene a scant 8 days before the commencement of the Convention. The shouting squad moved on to Ottawa and Clyde Wells, the next day.

Each morning and each evening during the convention my staff and I would meet with the representatives of the candidates, Mr. Turner and other party notables. On the morning of June 22, with the rest of the nation fixated on the Accord’s pending demise that very day, Turner’s representatives began to express concerns about how the denouement on stage would unfold the following day, particularly with respect to who might be joining him as outgoing Leader and what that would say to the Party and the nation.

That evening, as the Leadership candidates’ speeches took place on stage, some of Mr. Martin’s supporters solemnly sported black arm bands to mark The Accord’s passing. Clyde Wells, arriving after the close of registration, greeted Chrétien with a widely publicized smile and embrace.

At the morning meeting the following day, June 23, the day of the leadership vote, we continued our negotiations with Mr. Turner. A bit later in the day, but before the balloting and results of Leadership vote itself, the Party was ready to announce its new executive. Don Johnston, a former Trudeau and Turner cabinet minister, who had resigned from the caucus to sit as an “independent Liberal” in 1988 over free trade and the Meech Lake Accord had just been elected Party President. I’m not a large person and cell-phone technology at the time was not designed for convenience. My phone, about as large as me, rang immediately. As we met for the first time, behind the stage in the centre of the Saddledome, Mr. Johnston asked me how the announcement of the Leadership vote would proceed. “Well, Mr. Johnston”, I said, “we’re not sure about that. Perhaps you could bear with me for a bit.”

As the results of the first and only ballot were read confirming Jean Chrétien as the Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, two Quebec Liberal MPs, Jean Lapierre and Gilles Rocheleau, sporting their black arm bands announced they were leaving the Party. The other candidates, Pierre Trudeau, Herb Gray, Michel Robert and Don Johnston joined Mr. Turner on stage in welcoming the Party’s new Leader.

Calgary’s Electric Avenue is now known as the Red Mile. Coincidence? I think so.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

"Those who'll play with cats must expect to be scratched."

I'm getting very sick and tired of unelected, unaccountable people in the Liberal Party of Canada purporting to speak for me.  Just as tired as I am with the Party leadership refusing to discuss things with me. I'm not saying that every member of the Party isn't entitled to their own opinion and to express it - and I do think we shouldn't be shy of discussion, even difficult discussion - but I don't recall anyone (serious people!) being given a mandate by anyone, let alone the Party membership to go off and have serious discussions about anything. 

For those musing about dating, living together, shot-gun weddings and birthing babies I gotta say - you are missing the point.  It's the changing nature and role of political parties that we should be examining.  Shouldn't technically, parties have some semblance of being movements of political thought?  Shouldn't technically we govern ourselves in a manner indicative of  how we would govern the country? In an interview in the Hill Times about his new book, Power: Where is it?, Donald Savoie articulates my thoughts exactly.
"Part of the overall problem, as well, Prof. Savoie said, is that political parties "have lost their soul" and politics has been taken over by professional politicians. He said there was once a time when the core values of political parties never changed, but now, all parties are the products of their leaders and not based on public policy ideas and values for which Canadians can vote for.

"They've been captured by the election day, the need to organize around elections. They've been captured by cronies and lobbyists and in the process they've lost their soul," he said. "If you've lost your way, if you've lost your soul, you've lost what the party's all about, then personalism takes over. The Liberal Party of today is Michael Ignatieff's party, tomorrow it will be someone else's party. The Conservative party today is Stephen Harper's party. In a few years it will be someone else's party and the core values will not matter all that much."

Prof. Savoie noted that parties today have focused more on gaining power than about offering ideas, something that has been made easier by the MPs who come to Parliament with no experience in anything other than politics. "They're there to gain power without really spelling out what set of core values drives them to gain power. Power becomes an end in itself. The goal of the game is to secure political power so that your gang of lobbyists and your gang of cronies will do well," he said. "They don't bring a knowledge of other sectors to bear. They bring a knowledge of politics and they play politics. And it's not a process of ideas, it's a process of tactics.""
I hate to say it, but I think it so I may as well, but it is the embrace of this "process of tactics" by Leader Ignatieff and those who trained him that may now do him and if they have their way - ??  - our Party in. 
Concerned Party members should be writing and petitioning their elected (or acclaimed or appointed, because that's most likely what they've got) representatives from EDA Presidents on up to the top, requesting if not demanding an extraordinary meeting to have a big, long discussion about values, principles, ideas, programs, platforms and democracy and to consensually and democratically decide the path the Party should take in its quest to better serve the nation, not itself or its personalities.  We shouldn't be relegating our own responsibility to "party insiders".  We should be doing this work ourselves.
Otherwise, I'm not interested in joining the Kicking Ass Party.  If the smartest people in the room think that's the way to go, fine.  I'll go my own way.  The way of the increasing hoards of people who just don't vote, because if you don't know what you're voting for, how the heck can you know why you should.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

"Plain as the nose on a man's face."

Or is it?  Avid readers (sic) of Tilting at Windmills will know that the blog found its genesis mostly in the post-2008-election discussions about minorities, coalitions and such. To be more precise: minority governments, coalition governments, and such. There is lots and lots of evidence to this effect if anyone has the stamina to peruse the archives (I suggest copious quantities of caffeine prior to the attempt).

Liberal friend Rob Silver tweeted yesterday something to the effect that the word "coalition" has come (rather quickly, I add) to have at least 6 different meanings. Somehow, over the past little while, the word (and concept of) "coalition" in the political context has become synonymous with "collaboration", "merger", "cooperation", "discussion", "arrangements", and "accords", to name a few (I'm kind of chuffed that I actually came up with six!).

This morning I was tagged in an earnest Facebook note by another Liberal friend, whom I am sure, means the best and cares deeply about his party, its electoral prospects, its Leader and so on, basically the whole nine yards, but was riddled with confusion about just what people are, and likely should, be discussing.  And then I read a piece by David Mader (Tory alert!) in The Mark, which I have come to enjoy, largely because the pieces are just out there and no one, other than the commenters editorializes much.  On the other hand they don't correct the record either.

Just look at what Mader says in the first paragraph: 

The partisan reaction to whispers of a Liberal-NDP coalition, or even a formal merger, has been predictably predictable. Hopes of such an arrangement revived when the British Conservative and Liberal Democratic parties recently entered into a formal coalition, and Liberal MP Bob Rae – himself a former NDP premier of Ontario – further fanned the flames with his reminiscences of the 1985 Liberal-NDP coalition in that province. When the president of the Young Liberals of Canada added his voice to those calling for a proper coalition, pointing to a poll that suggested such a coalition would be at least competitive with the Harper Tories, an air of momentum seemed to develop.
 So he links "whispers" of a coalition (keep in mind my bolded word/clarification, government) to a "merger", incorrectly calls the Ontario Liberal/NDP accord of 1985 a coalition, and states that YLC President Sam Lavoie called for a "proper coalition". Frankly, Lavoie did no such thing.  Lavoie called for discussions on collaboration and cooperation in a pre-electoral context, hinting, but never stating that those could/might eventually to some sort of merger and most certainly not a coalition government.

For my part, I've become a tad (not a lot, but a tad) concerned that any little interventions I may have made are being viewed in this state of collective confusion.  So allow me to, er, um, clarify.

I would like my party to discuss and recognize the democratic nature of the possibility of a coalition government, in Canada, given our Westminster-styled parliamentary democracy.  I would like recognition that given an agreed upon set of circumstances that such an outcome - after an election - would be a legitimate consideration. (Aside -  I am not personally interested in pursuing other pre-electoral collaborative arrangements, unless I see that we have drifted so far from Liberal principles that a new movement might be palatable, but I surely see the need for my Party to not be afraid to sit in a room and discuss it).

I'm tired of this concept being demonized by PM Harper and his hoards, and sorry to say, by our Leader as well.  I do not think that his categorical statements reflect the nature of our democracy very well.  In constantly referring to "the" coalition, which I take to mean the attempt in 2008 by Messrs Dion and Layton, as opposed to "a potential coalition government", the Party falls into the same trap as M. Dion did back then.

It's rather obvious that a coalition government can only be entered into after an election given that pollsters aside, no one really has a crystal ball that can confirm what the final outcome will be.  I am in the camp that says there should be some conditions to legitimize the option should it come to that.  For me, a most important condition includes the fact that the possibility should be contemplated by the electorate, so that it can take it into consideration as it deliberates about its reasons for voting the way it does.  This is done in most European elections (where I might add the longevity, therefore stability of most governments is in excess of three years regardless of majority, minority or coalition status) and was most recently witnessed in the general elections in Germany and the UK.

This, for me, and for many academics and practitioners is the main reason I view the Dion/Layton attempt as, how to put this politely: not terribly legitimate.  That's because, during the 2008 election, M. Dion (and I believe Mr. Layton too - I'm just too lazy to search out a reference) categorically ruled out considering it.  In fact he used identical wording to current Leader Michael Ignatieff, just days ago: "Liberals will campaign to form a Liberal Government. We aren't interested in coalitions."

I don't think this is in keeping with democratic principles and I don't think it is particularly wise, and, I do not think that it serves Canadians very well. 

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

“Fear is sharp-sighted, and can see things under ground, and much more in the skies.”

Like I said here last week, I don't know why we fear a good and healthy discussion and debate in our party.

Yesterday there were reports that some members of the Party are interested in discussing possible collaborations between progressive parties, and others basically saying no discussion required, the position is clear.  Well, speaking as yet another member, I'm just not so sure this is true.


The entire last session of Parliament was defined by the tugs, tears and stretches of our democratic institutions, processes and conventions, written and unwritten, contorted and explained.  From prorogation to prorogation (well actually from breaking of a fixed election law …), the country was seized with discussion of about the state and functioning of our democracy – and the changing nature of politics and politic discourse.

But in our party, not so much.

These are no little issues.  These are big important things that people in the Party want to discuss, member to member, friend to friend.  Like MacLeans’ Paul Wells noted in a tweet yesterday by pointing to this post on independent site Punditsguide.ca, there’s certainly enough evidence out there pointing to the facts we should have been discussing for a very, very long time.  They indicate that this Party has been most successful when we reach out, when we seek like-minded citizens and voters.

From all of the op-eds, blog postings, discussion boards, Facebook groups, notes and links, tweets, roundtables and academic treatises out there over the past 18 months or so, many of them by Liberals and liberals known and not-so-known, people want to discuss this. And there are many opinions. Many, many opinions.  But a discernable consensus position?

Personally, I’m not so keen on paid officials and pundits inferring that any member of the Party and an elected officer to boot, can’t speak for the Party in those capacities and yet they do. 

Better that we not, as Cervantes says, see things under ground, but examine them in the light of day.