We need to understand the problem: On the White Paper Called “A Roadmap to Renewal”

 “A riding with ten members has just as much influence in the process as a riding with one thousand members, which encourages manipulation and outright corruption in the ‘rotten boroughs’. Where memberships are very small, candidates are tempted to use tactics such as buying memberships, busing in ‘instant members’ with no long-term interest in the party, striking real members off the list, and moving the voting site to a location that favours one side (like the living room of a riding organizer).”

  • Harper’s Team: Behind the Scenes in the Conservative Rise to Power, by Tom Flanagan, Second Edition, p. 100

“ A ‘Supporter” will be include al Party members an any person who is prepared to register as a supporter of the Part by affirming a Declaration of Liberal Principles, confirming non-membership in any other federal political party and accepting such other regulations or criteria as may be set out by the Board”

  • Section 5 of the White Paper called “A Roadmap to Renewal”

There has been much conversation about the “White Paper”. Called  “A Roadmap to Renewal”, the White Paper has been called a start. For the record, it is not all bad. I downloaded the Roadmap with an open mind and I must say that I was very impressed by some of the ideas. For example, let us look at the Major Themes and Priorities (section 1.1).  I cannot disagree with the idea of modernizing the party through making PTAs more efficient. Most people who have been involved in the executive functions of a riding association or a PTA knows that there is very little communication within the party.  Therefore, looking at the health of Electoral District Associations and providing a framework for organizational trust is important and key.

Even looking at the use of Liberalist, in the last election, shows us that we need to improve our use of technology. So the paper has many good ideas. For the most part, I will not talk about the good parts of the paper for they will shine on their own. My concerns are over the flaws. Given that I missed an opportunity to address these concerns at a recent public meeting held by Senator Grant Mitchell and Ted Hsu M.P., Kingston, Ontario, I will address my concerns here.

So let us begin. To understand what reforms to implement, one needs to understand the problem. In my opinion, our historic defeat was not due to being out of touch with Canadians and there is much evidence to support that claim. At the beginning of the election, for example, the Liberal Party had the support of more than 25% of Canadians. Much better than the 18%, or so, that the NDP was polling. Furthermore, with two less than popular leaders, since 2008, the Liberal Party held the attention of between ¼ to 1/3 of all Canadians. In fact, in 2009 and 2010, there were periods of time where we were the most federal popular party in the country.

Lastly, unlike the Tories, we have room to grow. The Ekos Polling tells us that between April 21 2010 and April 30, 2011, the Liberal Party and the NDP were the second choice for about 20% of Canadians. To be specific, it ranges from 14% to 21% for the Liberal Party and 17% to 25% for the NDP. This cannot be said of the Tories. They consistently poll between 7 and 11%.  If one does the math, one will find that about 50% of Canadians listen to the Tories, Liberals and NDP at any given time. So someone who is inclined to vote NDP is likely also listening to the Liberals. A Tory supporter could be moved to the Liberal camp. Or, in some parts of the West, a Tory may become a NDP voter and vice versa.

Unlike the United States, only about 30% of Canadians do not have a second choice. So the issue is not that Liberals are not relevant. The issue is simpler than that: most of our ridings cannot run a campaign. With this being said, section 1.1 will not achieve the desired outcomes. The issue is not about “Engaging Liberals and Rebuilding the Base”. Our success will not come from implementing proposals 5 and 7 through 10. Canadians are very receptive to the Liberal Message. The problem is that the key unit of our  political party, the Riding Association, has been allowed to fade. Policy is no longer created at a grass roots level, ridings do not know how to effectively campaign and ridings have trouble fundraising. So because our Riding Associations/Electoral District Associations cannot communicate to their local ridings, we cannot say who we are. Until, we fix our Riding Associations we will continue to lose elections.

The first time I learned that lesson was when I was involved in the 1993 election. At the time, the riding was help by Hon. Barbara MacDougall. She was an outgoing Progressive Conservative Minister. It was a swing riding and many people felt it would go the way of the country. However, the volunteers on the campaign felt that they could move mountains. In case, the Rt. Hon. Kim Campbell won her expected majority, we would ensure that it did not include our riding.

As we now know, Kim Campbell did not win that election. It that was probably because of a horrible national campaign on the Tories end and three very strong local campaigns from the Bloc Quebecois, the Reform Party and the Liberal Party. What was interesting about that campaign was that each of the victorious parties had strong regional bases. In other words, the Liberals did not win a huge amount of ridings in the West. For, we did not have a huge party infrastructure there. In Ontario, Liberals are likely to join the federal and provincial party. So experience is shared. The same thing is true in much of Eastern Canada. So Liberals in the East know how to win campaigns at a local level.

The same is true with our competitors. It took the Reform Party sometime to figure out how to win elections. In 1987, the Reform Party was born. In 1988, the Reform Party ran 72 candidates. None of them won and they only collected 2% of the national vote.

However, this changed with a by-election in Beaver River. In the 1988 election, Deborah Grey finished fourth. Due to the unfortunate passing of the Progressive Conservative MP, Ms. Grey was given an opportunity. She was the only candidate to run again. She was able to hone her message and speak to her riding. Ms. Grey was able to find volunteers and create some infrastructure. That experience meant that she was able to win her riding.

This experience was passed on. Consequently, the Reform Party was able to win races in the next election. In 1993, The Reform Party ran 207 candidates and they won 52 seats. Over 90% of the Reform Parties seats were won in Western Canada. Why some might ask? Reform volunteers knew how to run campaigns. It is also indicative of why the Reform Party was not able to make the great leap into government. They were never able to build the riding infrastructure in Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes.

For further evidence, I would suggest that you read “Harper’s Team: Behind the Scenes in the Conservative Rise to Power”. Written by Tom Flanagan, it talks about some of the successes and the failures of the new Conservative Party. One of the many important lessons of this book is about ineffectual riding organizations. Through the convergence of the right wing into a single Canadian political entity, Professor Flanagan had to deal with ineffective riding associations. He called them the “rotten boroughs”. For often times, they are used for no good. In his analysis, the Conservative Movement needed to find a way to stem the control of those ridings. We, as Liberals, should do the same.

These “rotten boroughs”, he argues, are often used for control. For example, in a leadership race where votes are limited by delegate selection or weighting, smaller associations are easier to control. If you control the voting process, you control the outcome. If you do not believe me look at the 1996 Ontario Provincial Liberal Leadership race. If the race was left up to the party membership, Gerard Kennedy might have won. He was popular, young, energetic and charismatic.

However, Mr. Kennedy was not been a party member when he declared his desire to participate in the race. This did not rub a lot of prominent provincial Liberals the right way; so they declared that they would support anyone but Kennedy. Accordingly, it was not a surprise that when Castrilli, Cordiano and Gerretsen withdrew, their delegates were asked to support Dalton McGuinty. This is how someone who finished fourth on the first ballot won became the leader of the Liberal Provincial Party.

The “rotten boroughs” have been pawns in the Liberal Party since Trudeau’s time. The Rt. Hon. John Turner confirmed this in his recent interview the Peter Mansbridge on CBC’s “One on One” series.  For the former Prime Minister said that he had to rebuild the party. One can read book after book, to see the trouble that Chretien and Martin’s people gave to Mr. Turner. In turn, Mr. Chretien’s term was put in jeopardy by the games of the Martin Team.

For a number of years, Riding Associations in Western Canada have been used by various leadership contenders to control the party. Leadership contenders would, as Tom Flanagan noted, bus “in ‘instant members’ with no long-term interest in the party, striking real members off the list, and moving the voting site to a location that favours one side (like the living room of a riding organizer.” Consequently, many of these ridings are now zombie associations. Or put differently, they lack the knowledge required to be effective campaign machines. Coming from Ontario, many examples of effective riding operations were presented to me.

As a young lad, I became the President of the St. Pauls’ Federal Young Liberals. We were not special and we had to fight to get 10 members and our certification. However, it provided me with the opportunity to listen to how an effective riding association works. The first board meeting after their election win in 1993, the St. Pauls’ Riding Association called on a report from the Election Readiness Committee. While, I do not remember the details, I understood that that riding could fight an election tomorrow. They had a five or six figure bank account and they were fundraising to increase that number. They could fight an election tomorrow and win.

This is not the case in Southern Alberta. Unlike many Conservative Associations, my association – does not have – $80,000 to put forth to a campaign. Calgary Centre’s volunteer base is not sufficient to knock on every door once during a campaign and the institutional infrastructure at the regional or provincial level is weak at best. Consequently, in the 2011 campaign, it took two weeks for the Calgary Centre Liberal Campaign to get into full campaign mode. It seems to me that since we have not won a Calgary area riding since 1968, the party infrastructure has disintegrated in this part of the country. We have given up. And I would suspect that the same thing has happened in parts of Saskatchewan, Manitoba and BC. This means we are trying to form government with our “hands tied behind our backs”. Our issue is not trying to get more members, we need effective riding associations.

This gets me back to the point: successful parties are effective parties. Look at the NDP. ON November 15, 2011, Globe and Mail.com Reporter Gloria Galloway wrote:

“The Star says the federal New Democrats have tripled their membership numbers in Quebec since the leadership race began.

The party is expected to release its latest membership numbers on Wednesday and NDP sources have told the paper that the numbers in Quebec have climbed from 1,695 members in September to more than 5,000.

That could help Mr. Mulcair – through Brian Topp, another leading candidate, is also from Quebec.

But more than a third of the party members still reside in British Columbia.”

Or put differently, if we still have 100,000 members – as a Liberal Party press release noted – we have a lot more members than the NDP does. So having more members or supports will not help us when it counts: on Election Day.

If this last election has taught us anything, it is that our system of “rotten boroughs” has to end. The party executive should not concentrate on getting more members. We need to train the members that we have. We need to be effective at organizing events and getting our message out. Even more importantly, we need to know and have a message. While, I support the idea of more members, increasing our enrolment will not solve the main issue: our members are not trained to be effective political actors. Without changing that, we will never form government, no matter how many new members we have.

5 thoughts on “We need to understand the problem: On the White Paper Called “A Roadmap to Renewal”

  1. Is it impossible that we could recruit new members to help form strong riding associations? My riding association is fair sized for rural Ontario and incredibly efficient for what and where it is. Only one of the previous riding executive members ran for a position this year, the current president. We have both former Tories and Dippers alongside long-time Grits and many people, young and old, who are new to the political game. Yet somehow we’re the most successful riding executive in the district in years.

    I don’t see how attracting new members is mutually exclusive enough from everything you stated to warrant the focus of this post. If anything this should be about fixing the system to prevent ‘rotten boroughs’ tactics. Stopping the ‘rotten boroughs’ by curbing recruitment is like burning down the orchard to catch the apple thief.

    I can fairly earnestly agree with your other assertions, however.


    1. Eric, I don’t believe that they are mutually exclusive. I love the idea of getting members into the party. When I was in Ontario, I spent a bit of time going “door-to-door” to sign up memberships. My concern, though, has three parts. Firstly, as we are finding out in Alberta, non-member participation in the organs of a political party can be detrimental to the political party. This idea of “supporters” provides no incentive for people to stay in the party. They can make decisions which are not in the long term interest of the party and then leave without consequence. THe Provincial Liberals in Alberta have lots two members, on crossed the floor and the other resigned, after the election of our new leader, Raj Sherman (a former Tory MLA), through this system.

      Secondly, it seems to me that we lost this election – in part – because we lacked distinct voice. Or put differently, many of us could talk about the past, but we had no vision as to what we wanted to build. While the Tories had no vision, they could at least say that they had not done a bad job. So we need to talk together about policy and what our future should be.

      Lastly, a part of the problem in the West is that we just are not competitive. So Alberta Tories leave for competitive races. They go to BC and Manitoba;or out to Ontario and the Maritimes. If we, the Liberal Party, could rebuild 2/3 of our ridings – especially in the West- we could topple a number of weak Tory candidates. That type of action would change the landscape. Experience shows us that with three strong competitive national parties and a couple minor ones (i.e. the Greens and Bloc Quebecois) anything is possible.


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