Sunday, October 4, 2009

How Denis Coderre might just save the Liberal Party from itself

I generally try not to pay too much attention to the endless internecine warfare that is Quebec Liberal Party politics, but it's hard to ignore what's been going on this past week.

What is it they say... "every problem is an opportunity"?

The Coderre Affair has taken issues that most party members and riding associations have grumbled about privately for years and brought them out under the hot lights of public scrutiny. And lo and behold, what appears to be emerging from the smoking ruins is some sort of consensus that, while we certainly need more women in Parliament and while there continue to be issues with the local candidate selection process, having the party leader - directly or through a 'lieutenant' - arbitrarily foist his selection upon a riding is NOT the way to solve these problems.

These are hardly new issues. Democratic party reform has been discussed, debated, and defeated repeatedly within the Liberal Party for decades. Former Liberal national director Sheila Gervais actually wrote an extraordinary paper five years ago on the history of these failed attempts and laid out a prescription for real change entitled "The Democratic Deficit in the Liberal Party of Canada".

Since then, very little has changed. Despite all the lip service given to "grassroots participation" and the passage last spring of 'one member, one vote', candidates continue to be either arbitrarily appointed by the leader or elected by busloads of largely temporary 'insta-members' in highly manipulated contests.

Today, Gervais continues to speak out on democratic reform - only this time with the recent fiasco in Quebec serving to fully illustrate her point.

“What happened in Outremont is indicative of a much larger problem — that members of the party have once again had their right (to select their own candidates) taken away from them,” said former Liberal national director Sheila Gervais.

Gervais has also been busy pushing the cause of greater female representation in Parliament, which at first would seem a contradictory aim. After all, nominating more women is exactly why we're being told that it is essential for the party leader to maintain his (his!) prerogative to appoint candidates.

Rubbish. As Gervais points out, there are other methods that are at least as effective - and far more democratic - than meeting candidate quotas with appointments.

So what does any of this have to do with Denis Coderre? Well, as damaging as his public tantrum may or may not have been for our fortunes in Quebec, and as embarrassing as the whole sticky mess might be for the party in general, it does present an opportunity.

Just as the circumstances of Stephane Dion's election as party leader pointed out the flaws in the delegate system and led, finally, to the passage of One Member, One Vote, so too could the Coderre affair prove to be the final kick in the ass that moves the Liberal Party to do away with candidate nominations and make the other reforms needed to make it truly democratic and reflective of the values of those who comprise the membership.

That movement isn't likely to come from the top. But recent events may have softened the ground there just enough for pressure from the bottom to have some effect.

This might all sound very inside-baseball to those who simply want somebody they can feel good about voting for. But when you examine all the problems and complaints about the Liberal Party over the past decade or two - the lacklustre leadership, the factionalism, the petty regional dictatorships, the disconnect between party policy and the values of the membership - all of these are essentially symptoms of a system run from the top down.

Take the legendary Martin / Chr├ętien schism for example. How many average party members had or continue to have any interest in that particular feud? Not I. Not any of the people I know in our riding association. No - this is an issue solely amongst party old-timers and their elite advisors, and because they are the ones making all the decisions, their problems becomes our problems.

Imagine, instead, if decisions on policy and strategy were made by those legitimately and wholeheartedly supported by the grassroots of the party. Imagine if candidates and party leaders were chosen on the basis of their ideas and values instead of their perceived ability to win. Imagine if party membership meant something more than ten bucks a year into the party coffers.

I have been a member of the Liberal Party of Canada for three years now. I volunteered during the last campaign, I sit on the board of directors of our riding association, I have attended our national convention as a delegate, and not once - not once! - have I been permitted to vote for either the candidate or the party leader of my choice.

This has got to stop.

It won't be easy. Institutions are notoriously resistant to change, especially when the status quo is so beneficial to those in positions of power. But when the membership of the Liberal Party of Canada actually manages to draw a straight line between Outremont and the Party's current malaise in the polls, we might just have a revolution on our hands.

El pueblo unido, jamas sera vencido!

Who's with me?


  1. Andrew Coyne mentioned at the Maclean's forum on democracy about two weeks ago that not only are prime ministers appointing people to the Senate, party leaders are appointing people to safe seats in the House of Commons.  Even existing MPs can be protected in their ridings from internal party challengers.  According to Mr. Coyne, not only do we have appointed senators, we Canadians are now getting defacto appointed MPs.

  2. Nothing surprises me of what the Reform/Cons say or do. The have been getting away with it for the past 4 years so why would they now change.?Jennifer, as a delegate and a person that might have a direct line to the liberals, Could you please let the liberal leader know that the HST is not a policy that will buy them any votes.and if they squash this idea, it might gain them a few more supporters.

  3. That was a brilliant piece of television that deserved to be aired in prime time on every major Canadian network, instead of being relegated to CPAC for the wonks like us.

  4. Sadly, as a delegate and a Party member, I am as far removed from the ear of Michael Ignatieff as you are.  That's the problem.

    As far as the HST goes, the problem is that it's a done deal.  As long as the Ontario and BC governments say they want it, there is very little a federal Liberal government could do to kill it or repeal it without making an even bigger mess.

  5. Um. I, for one,  will hold your hand.

  6. Excellent!  Thank you, James.  Now, if we can recruit two or three MPs willing to put their political necks on the line by endorsing party democratic reform, we might just have the makings of a revolution!

  7. Naturally I'll help with that as well.