THUNDER BAY – There is no magic wand for reversing the fortunes of a political party after a decade of decline. Liberals seeking an easy comeback through the adoption of “primaries” to select their next permanent leader should not delude themselves.
To many, the Liberal Party of Canada has become an aging and self-satisfied crowd of insiders preoccupied by long-faded glories and still-festering rivalries, rather than by the future of Canada. Canadians have understandably become estranged from an organization whose establishment long ago chose stifling administrative short-cuts over invigorating democratic process, pragmatic accommodation over bold inspiration, division over unity, blame and recrimination over transparency and accountability and operational fossilization over technological modernization.
The Liberal party has become the Lazy party. Top-down and bottom-up, Liberals have forgotten that politics, like nature, is fundamentally Darwinian, requiring constant adaptation and evolution in an ever-changing environment. Mere tinkering at the margins cannot possibly save it. If the Liberal party is to thrive once again in Canada, nothing short of a revolution is required.
Revolution is hard for a Lazy party to get its head around. A Lazy party looks for a political silver bullet: Perhaps a nifty gimmick like U.S.-style leadership primaries will recapture the public’s imagination. In fact, the revolution that Liberals need to embrace is a tough year of gruelling, hard work in the political trenches. Without an unprecedented effort to re-engage Canadians, the virtues of moving to an open primary process for selecting a leader and candidates in 2013 will be lost.
That is why proposals for a new direction for the party, tabled last week, went far beyond catchy notions. The most critical recommendation was a year-long national voter registration drive where Liberals would conduct an unprecedented outreach campaign in every riding across Canada. Popular participation in selection primaries could transform Canadian politics, but only if Liberals first sign up hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of ordinary voters who want to help the Liberal party select a new leader and new candidates for the next generation of Canadian politics.
Converting an ossified and shrinking institution into a dynamic and growing movement requires just one thing from Liberals: hard work. Without such advance organizational effort, the potential of popular primaries to permanently empower progressive politics in Canada will quickly fade away like any other fad.
The challenge is daunting. On the right is an opponent with three times the number of donors providing triple the amount of funds to support a sophisticated, modern communications apparatus capable of reaching out to identify and persuade millions of voters, and activate ever more donors. On the left is another opponent, already energized by a generational shift in the House of Commons and a new base in Quebec, now seeking to cement those gains with new leadership.
What conceivable strategy could enable Liberals to leap-frog them both? By going directly to the people.
By making a voter registration drive the opening move in its renewal process, the party will be able to gather the data required to maintain meaningful and modern communication, continually converting supporters into members and donors. By reaching out to Canadians personally and directly, one voter at a time, Liberals can build a culture of inclusion while reducing the spectre of an unwelcome takeover by hostile or extremist forces. Finally, by inviting Canadians to affirm basic Liberal principles when they sign up, Liberals will be promoting the resurgence of a balanced middle way in Canadian politics.
Despite what critics and pundits may say, the death of the Liberal party is not inevitable. We have faced such crises before. When Liberals were soundly routed by Progressive Conservative John Diefenbaker just over 50 years ago, a cadre of young Pearsonian idealists decided to defy the doomsayers of their day. The broken Liberal party they inherited was also widely seen as arrogant, tired and out of touch. The slogan they adopted for Liberals was a simple one: “Work or resign!” Within a few years, the Lazy party had become the Liberal party once again and Liberals went on to govern Canada for 20 of the next 21 years.
Similar success today will take a revolution precipitated by a new generation of Liberals — Canadians who understand that a more open and democratic framework for partisan politics is what Canadians demand and what the new Liberal party must find the courage to deliver. That’s the point of popular primaries open to all Canadians. But a little heart and a lot of hard work from Liberals — some “true grit” — must come first.