Reform that misses the Mark

 “If you’re going to convince a whole new generation of people to get involved, then the party has to be about shaping history, shaping the society you live in,” argues Richard Mahoney, a former adviser to Paul Martin. “The party has to be about ideas.”

  • Liberals roll dice on U.S.-style primary to choose next leader, John Ibbitson, OTTAWA— From Tuesday’s Globe and Mail, Monday, Nov. 07, 2011

There is an old saying which I love: “Even a broken clock can be right twice a day”. And today it can be applied to the idea of having a “U.S.-style primary to choose next leader”. For having a US style primary does not solve the problem of idea development in the Liberal Party. In fact, a US-style primary would make the problem worse.

If you have any questions, just look at the present Republican Presidential Primary Contest. At this point, Mitt Romney is one of the top five nominees. He has been a power-broker. Mitt has worked on Wall St and he has been the Governor of Massachusetts.  He is bright, eloquent and experienced. One would think that he is a shoe for the Republican nomination for President. But he isn’t. For his very experience is his biggest hurdle.

Republicans are upset with Governor Romney because he is not conservative enough. He has been seen to be a ‘flip-flopper’. He was never strong enough on abortion rights or taxation policy. As Governor, Mitt Romney pushed through reforms to the Massachusetts Health Care system which President Obama used as an example for changes to America’s National Insurance Programme. Republicans do not feel that Governor Romney is ideologically pure.

Consequently, Governor Romney is fighting against four competitors who are not as qualified as him. Just ask Republicans, they want to find someone who is not Romney. That is why the Governor of Texas, Gov. Perry, stepped into the race. It is also why the Governor of New Jersey, Gov. Christie, had to declare several times why he did not want to be in the race.

However, this is not the only example of the disaster that we, as the Liberal Party, could be courting. I should know; I live in Alberta. Alberta has an unusually open political system. For example, the Progressive Conservatives allowed Albertans to buy memberships to their party after their race had begun. So when progressive Albertans were scared by the possibility of a Gary Mar premiership, many of us bought PC memberships. This allowed us to vote for Alison Redford. While, I did not buy one, I was tempted and I know some Provincial or Federal Liberals who did the same.

On the other hand, Alberta Provincial Liberals show us that ‘opening up the party’ does not translate into support. Angus Reid’s most recent poll might show us that the Liberal Party is no further ahead. The poll seems to indicate that “44 per cent of decided voters and leaners say that would cast a ballot for the Progressive Conservative candidate in the next provincial election, while 22 per cent would back the Wildrose Party. The Liberal Party is third with 16 per cent, followed by the New Democratic Party (NDP) with 13 per cent, and the Alberta Party with two per cent”.

The Provincial PC’s and Liberals have both adopted the openness that comes from US primary style leadership selection systems. Yet, when one compares their present numbers to historical ones, one will see that the PC’s and the Liberals have either seen their support either stay flat or erode. Even though, both of them have recently have high public profiles from very visible leadership contests. Conversely, the NDP – a very “closed” party with very little public profile – has seen its numbers grow. Our openness did not translate into broad-based support.

Furthermore, if one wants to listen to the public, the real issue has not changed. On October 2009, CBC posted an article on their website called “Health Care No. 1 issue for Albertans: CBC Poll”. Here is a quote from it:

“Of 804 people from across the province polled by NRG Research, 56 per cent said health care is their greatest concern. That’s nearly 20 percentage points more than in 2006, when a poll suggested that 37 per cent of Albertans thought health care was the most important issue.”

Let us compare it against a quote from Angus Reid’s Press Release issued on October 22, 2011:

Health care (28%) is the most important issue facing the province for Albertans, followed by the economy (16%), government spending (11%), the environment (10%) and education (9%).

In other words, since 2006, the Provincial Liberals and the Provincial PC’s in Alberta have faced the exact same issue but no one has been able to solve it. No policy solution has worked and we are still arguing about the amount of privatization which is necessary in the system. Neither “traditional” party has been able to hold the mantle, even though, they have both tried. The Provincial Liberals have gone through a couple of leaders: Kevin Taft and David Swann. Our present leader, Raj Sherman, is a doctor like the last. While Ralph Klein left the leadership of the Tories in 2006, only to be replaced by Ed Stelmach. Newly selected Tory Premier Alison Redford is still in her early days, but she appears to be keeping the status quo. Therefore, it is easy to say that no Liberal or Conservative has presented new ideas to the province of Alberta.

This comes as a contrast to the parties with “new ideas”. Good or bad, the Angus Reid polls show that using the 2008 provincial election as a base, the Tories and Liberals have low retention rates (i.e. 70% and 56%, respectively). While, the Wildrose Party has a retention rate of 86% and the NDP has a retention rate of 83%. Furthermore, in Alberta, a fifth progressive party has emerged. Known as the Alberta Party, it has taken about 2% of the Alberta Electorate. Consequently, one can see that “new ideas” have avoided the “open” parties. It is the “closed parties” that have successfully pushed the policy envelope.

If we think about it we can see why. Closed parties like the Wildrose Party or the NDP do not have leader centred strategies because they have real ideas that they want to showcase. The leader turns into a presenter of an idea rather than a “charismatic” individual who brings you on board with excitement and very little substance. The public needs ideas. They long for them. However, in Alberta, the open system has not provided that. Just as, it is not have provided them in the United States. Only members who understand the reason for their participation can provide you with real ideas. Only a membership who have put in long hours in debates and putting up signs can understand why their ideas matter.

I agree that our party does need to develop an idea base. However, this is done through hard work. It is accomplished by having arguments over policy and writing about who we are. If we can learn anything from the destruction of the Progressive Conservative Party, it is that the road back to governance is paved with philosophical thought. We need to have real coffee klatch conversations in ridings, cities, regions, provinces and across the country. We need to have people to write essays and books. We need to do the hard work.

This is not being done right now.  In fact, the party has not had this type of policy development since the early 1960’s. For the last number of years, the Liberal Party has been lucky. We have had philosophers and statesman. Pearson, Trudeau, Turner and Chretien have allowed us to get along because they have had serious policy ideas or serious management skills. Unfortunately, we have not had this since.

I can propose a number of things are party needs to do. We need to think critically about ideas. We need to have science based alternatives for our future. We need to have a policy group like the Broadbent Institute or the Manning Centre for Building Democracy. We need to have institutions, writers and policy tools to win office again. A primary process will not do this.

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About 52ideas

Here are my 52 Ideas. What are yours?