Rebuilding Liberals could adopt Conservative strategies: former adviser
OTTAWA – Coming out of next week’s convention, the Liberals could be seen taking a few pages from the Conservative party’s playbook, said a former adviser to Liberal prime minister Paul Martin.
“To run a national campaign in Canada today, you need almost a command-and-control military structure, which is what the Conservatives have,” said Errol Mendes, who now teaches law at the University of Ottawa. “The Liberals need to re-structure so there can be an ability to match what is almost becoming an invincible, centralized governance structure in the Conservative party.”
The Liberals may also adopt several Conservative fundraising tactics, he said, noting the Tory penchant for using issues such as the long-gun registry, wheat board and the tough-on-crime agenda as reasons to ask supporters for cash.
The Liberal Party of Canada, which calls itself country’s natural governing party, suffered an unprecedented loss in the May 2 election, when it was hacked down from Official Opposition to the third party in the House of Commons, holding only 34 seats.
“If the Liberals want to contest that the Conservatives are taking over their title as the natural governing party, they’re going to have to match the Conservatives,” Mendes said.
A common criticism against the current structure is that the Liberals have a fragmented party with each provincial, territorial and riding association forming fiefdoms peppered across the country.
Ideally, a re-structured Liberal party would be more streamlined and centralized, with provincial and territorial offices reporting to regional offices, which in turn would report to the central command in Ottawa, Mendes said, adding he doesn’t anticipate much resistance.
“After the party suffered such a huge defeat, no one’s going to come out and say there’s no need for reform. But they might ask how to take entrenched systems that exist and break them down for the interest of the party as a whole,” he said. “The Liberal party will have to, and they can, present a viable option to Canadians. They have to show they can represent not just the present, but the future … I would love that to be a rallying cry for the Liberal party: ‘A movement for the future.’”
In that vein, one of the more contentious items up for debate next week concerns changing the way the party’s leader is selected. One proposal would see the party adopt a system wherein any Canadian who identifies as a Liberal supporter would be able to cast a vote, similar to the ongoing American primaries. That process, Mendes said, is “almost in itself a revolution. It would open up the party and hand it back to the people.”
Long-time Liberal Penny Collenette said she sees eye to eye with her University of Ottawa colleague, in terms of the Liberals possibly adopting some Conservative fundraising strategies and tweaking their governance structure, which has long been a source of contention within the party’s ranks.
But whereas Mendes says next week’s convention will be the party’s main opportunity to change public opinion and, in turn, explain to Canadians why the party exits, Collenette stopped short of saying there wouldn’t be any perceivable differences in a week.
“This is going to be a major housekeeping convention,” she said. “When all is said and done next Sunday, little will be said and done. You won’t be able to say everything is wrapped up and tied neatly with a bow. We’re just beginning to untie the bow.”
One reason, she said, is the party’s first and most important order of business will be electing a new national executive, which won’t happen until Sunday, the last day of the convention.
The national executive—a branch of any political party normally seated comfortably behind the scenes, will be playing a significant role for the Liberals, as they try to figure out, for the first time, how to operate when they are neither government nor official Opposition.
“When we were in government, they didn’t hold a high profile,” she said. “But the executive becomes very important in this situation. They’re the ones who are going to be making the rules.”
Those rules include whether to allow the interim leader to run for permanent leader next year.
Only then, once it’s known whether current leader Bob Rae can run, will other members begin coming out of the woodwork, allowing Canadians to get a taste of what the future holds for the Liberals, Collenette said.
“Of course you want to communicate to Canadians as soon as possible that the party is alive and well, but I don’t think that’s the top priority no,” she said. “Fixing the administrative and organizational problems, watching a generational change… I would put those as a higher priority.”
Penny is a frequent public policy commentator on national television. During the 2011 federal election, Penny was a commentator for Global TV. Penny tweets @penottawa.
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