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American Politics, Canadiana, Federal Politics

Liberals opt to tread cautiously into the future

Stage in Canada Hall at the Liberal Biennial Convention.

Canada’s die-hard Liberals are wrapping up their Biennial Convention in Ottawa this afternoon. It has been an enthusiastic affair, despite the fact that it is not a leadership convention. (Although the Liberals have had enough of those in the past decade to last a generation.)

Turnout has been much larger than anticipated which everyone takes as a welcome sign of the party’s future prospects, especially when you factor in that by most accounts, over 1/3 of the delegates are likely under 26. So interim leader Bob Rae was not far off when he addressed the Young Liberals on Friday afternoon and told them that the future leaders of Canada were in that room.

They came mostly to elect a new party leader, primarily between front runners Mike Crawley and Sheila Copps. Crawley ended up taking the Presidency, winning by a nail-biting 26 votes after three recounts, signalling a definitive willingness on the part of the LPC to look progressively forward. Yet the momentum heading into the conference was the determine whether to adopt a U.S.-style regional primary system for electing the next leader of the party. Despite having very little idea of how creating that system would go, the Liberals invited two speakers from the U.S. Democratic Party to speak to their experiences of the primary system, ostensibly for guidance.

Tellingly, the vote garnered a majority of support at 57%, but failed to reach the 66% level needed for the resolution to be adopted. And so before the idea was ever really an idea, it was null.

The largest debate of the night seemed to centre around whether “supporters” should be allowed to vote for the party leader at future leadership conventions. Whereas now only party members can vote, the “supporter” system intends to cast a wider net in the search for members, and more importantly, votes. The idea is that “supporters” of the Liberal Party can attend a leadership convention and cast a vote, despite not being members. The hope is that if they care enough about the fortunes of the party to participate, they might just be cajoled into membership at a later date. The key here is getting people into the organizational database who can be hit up later for money and votes.

And despite fears that the leadership could be hijacked by special interest groups or outsiders, the Liberals voted to adopt the “supporter” system. So even without the U.S.-style primary system, some real change will be coming to the Liberals in the near future.

Other highlights include the decision to reject the Young Liberals resolution to abolish ties with the monarchy. Many questioned whether it would be worth a constitutional battle to achieve let, in addition to whether it was even legal – all questions we won’t have to find answers for.

The convention did approve of the other key Young Liberal resolution – the legalization of marijuana. With 77% approval, the Liberals opted to consider this in more detail at their 2014 Convention to determine if it should be part of their platform in the 2015 general election. The move to get the Liberals to legalize marijuana has been a decade or more in the making, and it’s passage now at the insistence of the Young Liberals led their President, Samuel Lavoie, to note it was a sign of the youth wing “flexing their muscles” within the party. It’s an early indicator of greater generational changes to come.

Oddly, the Liberals also opted to keep a policy veto in place for the leader of the party, regardless of whether they are the interim or permanent leader. Meaning that regardless of whether the members support a resolution, if the leader doesn’t, it’s dead. And Bob Rae has said in the past he is not in favour of legalizing marijuana, as an example.

Overall, the Biennial Convention was focused on renewal and rebirth, although that is a common theme. Olivia Chow told me that the Liberals have been promising this since John Turner was Prime Minister, and yet the debate continues. But it should be remembered that renewal is not a static thing – a healthy party never stops growing and entertaining new ideas and people. Or at least it shouldn’t.

Yet for the Liberals right now, renewal is the only thing.

About awreeves

Editor-in-chief at Alternatives Journal. Author of 'Overrun: Dispatches from the Asian carp Crisis'.


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