The Globe and Mail reported today that the Liberal Party will elect its next leader by “US-style primary,” which conceals the different types of primaries that the various American states use: open, closed, jungle, etc. Judging by Ibbitson’s description, the Liberals’ idea sounds most like an open primary. I described the British Conservative Party’s experimentation with open primaries and Douglas Carswell’s Private Members’ Bill that would have buttressed the organization and holding of open primaries in law. But the British Conservatives have used primaries at the constituency level in order to elect local candidates who would become more responsive to their constituents and less beholden to party whips; no where did Douglas Carswell’s bill suggest that the leader of the party should be elected by primary.
In fact, I would argue that the election of the leader by primary will only succeed in creating an omnipotent party leader and potential prime minister emboldened by veritable popular election — a principle incompatible with true parliamentary government. If anything, I would prefer that we revert to the traditional system that the Australian Labor and Liberal Parties still follow today whereby the parliamentary caucus elects the party leader because this system actually enforces cabinet government. Coupled with open, or even closed, primaries at the constituency level, this system would best reinforce responsible government, true cabinet government, and create the expectation that parties adhere to their electoral platforms more closely when in government.
In any case, the Liberals suffered an historic loss in the election of 2011 and will try anything in order to increase their support. Or as New Democratic Liberal Interim Leader Bob Rae says, “When you’re in third place, you need to be able to take more risks, and you need to be edgier.” However, at the time of writing, the Liberal Party’s website does not list any news release regarding their open primary or how precisely their open primary will work. For instance, we don’t yet know whether the Liberals will organize their leadership primary province by province, sequentially, or whatever. The idea of electing a leader by open primary is probably unprecedented in a Westminster system, so the Liberal Party of Canada has entered uncharted territory; it would probably do well to create hundreds of groups of enthusiastic Liberal activists at the local level, and only then build up their overall organization. Frankly, this idea sounds like a new manifestation of the trite Liberal lament, “If only we had a better leader, Canadians would continue to vote for us.” I’ll devote more analyses to the Liberals’ proposals as they become available. Hopefully the Liberals will also see the virtue of organizing primaries at the local level.