The Liberal Party’s “Roadmap to Renewal” Leads To Closed Primaries

The Liberal Party of Canada has elaborated on its plans to hold something akin to an open primary in the selection of its next leader in the Roadmap to Renewal. I mentioned the proposal in an earlier entry before the Liberals had formally released this document. The Liberals made the leadership primary the centerpiece of their Roadmap, but they’ve also devised the basis of a plan for the democratization of the nomination process at the local level. The local level will ultimately provide the most fertile ground for new party activists, so the Liberals should really concentrate their efforts on their constituency associations and only then proceed to the level of national leadership – if they seek a genuine bottom-up, democratic renewal. In other words, the Liberals need to cultivate their grass roots and a powerbase before making any pretence of forming government again.

These three paragraphs describe the Liberals’ conception of primaries. This kind of primary sounds more like what our American friends call “closed primaries”, in which only the party membership vote; in contrast, all registered electors can vote in an open primary. But the introduction of two tiers of involvement (members and “supporters”) could complicate matters.

7.  That the Constitution be amended to extend the right to participate in the  selection of the next permanent Leader of LPC to all Members and Supporters as defined in section 5, permitting electronic, online and mail-in voting, utilizing either a preferential or run-off ballot system, in the context of an appropriately secured, national voting process that:
(i)  is staged and phased regionally over a period of no less than 10 and no more than 16 weeks between March 1, 2013 and June 30, 2013;
(ii) is weighted equally by electoral district;
(iii)  is confirmed by a vote of the Council of Presidents (“CoP”) at an in-person meeting of the CoP in the manner of an electoral college vote; 

8.  That the Constitution be amended to extend the right to participate in the nomination of LPC candidates for the House of Commons in any election or by-election to all Members and Supporters living in the electoral district, permitting electronic, online and mail-in voting, using a preferential system and a single-vote selection process that is appropriately secured;

9.  That the Convention affirm the principle of requiring all LPC candidates for the House of Commons in any election or by-election to face an open nomination contest in their electoral districts in order to stand  for election as an LPC Candidate in any election or by-election, subject to the Board’s right to approve specified exceptions to the rule at the request of and on the recommendation of the Leader.

The Liberals would introduce a preferential ballot to both the national and local levels and aim to attract new members and “supporters” in the hope of creating a new electoral base of support. But if the Liberals weigh each electoral district equally, then they’ll entrench the same mistake as the Conservatives and punish the more populous and active riding associations. So what is their incentive to recruit new members and supporters? As I speculated in the earlier post, the Liberals aim to hold their primary contest in phases “regionally” (which presumably means Atlantic, Quebec, Ontario, West, though alternatively, it could also involve dividing the larger provinces into regions like GTA, Northern Ontario, etc. We’ll have to wait and see). Then the third point adds another bizarre layer of bureaucracy and codifies precisely the internal party’s power struggles that caused the Liberals to become so detached from their base and lose electoral support: the presidents of all the Liberal riding associations would gather and “confirm” the votes of the Liberal members and supporters “in the manner of an electoral college vote.” What exactly does this process entail? I can only presume that the document is alluding to the American electoral college used in presidential elections – but under that system, a state’s population ultimately determines its number of votes in the electoral college. But if the Liberals intend to weigh all riding associations equally, then the “Council of Presidents” would not really function like the electoral college; rather, it would function as some kind of aristocratic counter-weight to the popular election of the leader. In turn, this process of confirmation implies that the candidates win electoral districts as a whole in a winner-takes-all format, rather than a proportional division of votes within each electoral district added for a country-wide score. In short, a leader elected under such a system would be beholden both to Liberal activists and the internal machination of the Liberal Party – but not to the parliamentary party, the Liberal caucus. This “Leader” could easily become an omnipotent figure that caucus cannot remove and against whom the parliamentary party would be virtually powerless.

The third paragraphs sets out a procedure whereby any Liberal MP would face an open nomination in the manner of the closed primary described above – but “subject to the Board’s right to approve specified exceptions to the rule at the request of and on the recommendation of the Leader.” This caveat means that the “Leader” (notice the unnecessary capitalization?) could ultimately determine which MPs face challenges and those who don’t. This system practically begs for some corruption and nepotism.

The contradictions between the good democratic proposals and the entrenchment of the powerful anti-democratic power of the party executive may undermine this new process in the long term. I do, however, welcome the prospect of any political party implementing closed primaries.

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About J.W.J. Bowden

My area of academic expertise lies in Canadian political institutions, especially the Crown, political executive, and conventions of Responsible Government; since 2011, I have made a valuable contribution to the scholarship by having been published and cited extensively. I’m also a contributing editor to the Dorchester Review and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law.
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