Since the election on 2 May, there has been no end of calls to reform, rebuild and/or renew the Liberal Party of Canada, often with associated references to better fundraising and more engagement of the grassroots. Unfortunately, most of these articles and blogs suffer from a severe case of vagueness. What exactly are we talking about when we talk about reform?
It is worth reading the Change Commission report (and other important party documents). The Change Commission has already identified a number of things that we need to improve. While we have made some progress on some of these issues, more work remains to be done.
The party is a complex organization, so an outline will help clarify what we are try to talk about.
Within the extra-parliamentary organization:
- There are roughly 60,000 members (or 195 per riding association)
- There are 308 volunteer-driven electoral district associations with varying levels of human and financial resources.
- There are ten provincial organizations, plus the territorial organizations (PTAs). In the larger provinces, there are layers of volunteer area directors, regional presidents, etc. And of course there are permanent, paid staff in the provincial organizations.
- There is the national party, governed by the national board of directors, and its various commissions (Aboriginal, Women, Youth, Seniors) plus the full-time staff in the national office, starting with the national director (Ian McKay).
- There are four major committees (composition described from pages 22-29 of the Constitution):
- The National Management Committee
- The National Revenue Committee
- The National Election Readiness Committee
- The National Policy and Platform Committee
- The National Liberal Fund, the fundraising organization for the party (created just last year) under the management of Adam Smith
Within the parliamentary organization:
- 34 Members of the House of Commons, plus their full-time staff (3-4 people per MP or roughly 120 people) in Ottawa and the local ridings.
- 54 Senators, plus their full-time staff
And then there is the Leader's Office:
- The Leader plus a bunch of full-time staff
And then there is the campaign organization, which springs into being for each election.
- 308 candidates, nominated by local riding associations or appointed by the Leader, plus their volunteer campaign teams
- Various co-chairs, policy/platform people, etc, many of whom are appointed by the Leader
There are organizational improvements that we should make, and I am in favour of many of the Change Commission recommendations. We certainly do need to improve at the local riding level, especially in areas where we have lost many elections. We need to do these things but we can't stop there.
The Leader, the caucus and especially the actions of Members of Parliament between elections, the resources we have at our disposal to wage the campaign, the platform, and the candidates we have nominated in the ridings are very important electoral factors that are under our control.
We need to reconsider conventional wisdom on some of these things:
- Conventional wisdom: we should announce the platform during the election and no sooner than necessary in order to prevent our opponents from 1) stealing the ideas they like and implementing them and 2) launching attacks against ideas they aren't inclined to implement.
- Unconventional: as soon as we come up with a policy that would benefit Canadians, let's advocate for that policy. If our opponents adopt the idea, great! If they attack and resist it, let's use those attacks to refine and sharpen the idea for presentation during the election campaign.
- Conventional wisdom: we should wait (12, 18, 24 months) to select a Leader because a leadership race would distract from the rebuilding we need to do (a nearly unanimous sentiment, according to Alf Apps).
- Unconventional?: we need the Leader engaged in the process of rebuilding and the more time he or she has to do so, the better. More time as Leader also means more time for Canadians to get to know him or her. Both Dion and Ignatieff had been leader for roughly two years when the election was called. Why repeat that scenario again against Harper and Layton, both of whom will have been leader for at least 11 years by then?
- Conventional wisdom: we should use Question Period to embarrass and draw media attention government misdeeds or mistakes in order to erode support for the government, and these questions should be formulated according to recent events in order to maximize negative media coverage of the government. We should respond in kind to heckling, non-answers, etc, in the House of Commons.
- Unconventional: we should use Question Period to ask legitimate, fair questions of the government. We should formulate a coherent, medium-term strategy that focuses on policy areas that matter to Canadians. For example, we could focus for a week or two on health and fiscal policy, then defence and foreign affairs, then immigration and human resources, then agriculture and fisheries, etc. We should not let events of the day dictate our questions. We can let the media cover the bad news while we advance our policy agenda.
- Conventional wisdom: we should wait a few years before nominating candidates for 42nd General Election.
- Unconventional: we should nominate candidates as soon as possible and local ridings should keep engaging with citizens throughout the four years leading up to the election. It's a permanent campaign, not once every four years.
- Conventional wisdom: we must advocate for the per vote subsidy to maintain our existing party infrastructure and ability to contest the next election.
- Unconventional: we should agree to get rid of the per vote subsidy as long as the limits on donations are increased to $5,000 per person per year from $1,100. There are already substantial public supports for political parties through the spending rebates (60% of local campaign spending during elections) and generous tax credits for donors (up to 75%). The per vote subsidy is a crutch that impedes the development of successful party fundraising.
These are just a few suggestions. What do you mean when you say let's reform the Liberal Party?