Why the Liberal Party Took a Chance on the Supporter System

The boldest and most surprising outcome of this weekend’s Liberal Renewalfest in Ottawa was the party’s decision to open its doors to all Canadians by adopting a supporter system. As a result, any voter who supports the Liberal Party will be able to vote for its next leader – no need for a membership card or membership fees. I’ve blogged ad nauseaum about why I like this system, but I never expected it to pass – and neither did a single person I talked to at the convention.

So what caused Liberals to support the supporter system? How did this come about?


Systems like this are hardly new. The Americans have been using variations of it since the 1952 New Hampshire primary, but the rules and mechanisms have varied from state to state and from year to year. Currently, Americans register as Democrats, Republicans, or Independents on their taxes, and vote for their party’s candidate – though rules on who specifically is allowed to vote vary from state to state.

The French socialists opened their leader-selection process to the public in 2011 and 2.7 million voted – this to choose the leader of a party with 200,000 members. The British Conservatives mailed an entire riding ballots to pick their candidate in Totness in 2009, and about a quarter of eligible voters participated. Despite these largely successful case studies, the idea of the Liberal Party trying this wasn’t on anyone’s radar until 8 months ago, when two events softened the ground enough to made it a distinct possibility.

The first you’re all familiar with. On May 2nd, the Liberal Party was obliterated. After making excuses for years (“we lost because of Adscam“, “we lost because of the income trust investigation“, “we lost because of the Green Shift“), Liberals realized the party needed to change and try something new. Many of the speakers in support of the supporter resolution on Saturday gave variations of “we have nothing to lose but our third party status” – when you’re down, you’re a lot more willing to take a risk and try something new.

With the Liberals down, it didn’t take long for them to start considering an open primary – I heard Alf Apps float the idea at an Edward Blake Society gathering in Toronto just two weeks after the election.

The Alberta Trial

Also in May, the first Canadian case study of the supporter system was launched, when a room full of Alberta Liberals voted overwhelmingly to give Liberal supporters a vote in the party’s upcoming leadership contest. The party’s young executive and executive director Corey Hogan had drafted the resolutions and run an aggressive “Yes” campaign with buttons and pamphlets, but even the party’s 83 year old former leader Nick Taylor spoke in favour of the move. Like the federal grits, the Alberta Liberals were down and out, and were willing to take a chance.

In effect, it was that feeling they had little to lose that got the ball rolling on the supporter system in Alberta several months earlier. On February 1st, Hogan and party president Erick Ambtman held a press conference to discuss ALP leader David Swann’s resignation, and fielded question after question along the lines of “Does this mean the Alberta Liberal Party is dead?”. Hell, most reporters weren’t nice enough to include the “does this mean” part.

According to Hogan, that’s when he began seriously floating the idea of allowing all Albertans to vote for the party’s next leader. Having flirted with the idea of free memberships and registered supporters for some time, Hogan and Ambtman decided to go all in. Within a week, resolutions were approved by the party’s Executive Committee. Within two weeks, they were approved by the Board of Directors.

Despite this enthusiasm, many party officials described themselves as “blown away” when 95% of Liberal members not only voted in favour of the supporter system, but voted to use it in the current leadership race. They needed to draft rules, iron out logistics, and administer this new system in a matter of days.

The results of this rushed and messy experiment in democracy were mostly positive. Twice as many Albertans voted in this leadership race than in the 2008 contest that had elected David Swann, and the party added the contact information of 27,000 voters to its database. Removing the $10 fee and the stigma of being a Liberal in Alberta certainly helped, but the big catalyst in this supporter drive was the ability to sign Albertans up over the phone – a technique used to great success by the contest’s winner, Raj Sherman.

That’s not to say there weren’t problems. Runner-up Hugh MacDonald complained about the lists, but since they were cross-checked with the Elections Alberta voter list, they were arguably more accurate than party membership lists – no cats or corpses allowed. There was a takeover attempt by Craig Chandler’s right wing PGIB group, but it failed spectacularly with their candidate finishing fourth with just 7% of the vote.

The impact of the Alberta “case study” cannot be understated – it was mentioned by Sheila Copps repeatedly during her presidential campaign, and pointed to several times during the floor debate on the LPC constitutional amendment as a reason to embrace or avoid this system. Liberals are always wary of following the Americans and few had heard of experiments with this system overseas – I think it was reassuring to many that the system had been tried successfully by their fellow Liberals in Alberta.

The System Goes Federal

But it was still far from certain to go federal. After the outgoing national executive floated the idea over the summer and formalized it in November, Liberals were still mixed. I called in to a telephone debate among Presidential candidates in December and a push button straw poll showed attendees split – 40% in favour, 40% opposed, and 20% on the fence. Three of the four candidates for Party President were against the idea, and even Sheila Copps had begun muting her language around the concept as the convention approached.

The pundits were split. The blogs were split. Twitter was split. There didn’t seem to be a large “vote yes” campaign in the lead-up to the convention beyond a modest “Liberals for Open Leadership” website. The atmosphere at a Friday discussion on the proposed changes was downright toxic, with former MP Maria Minna leading the charge against the ammendment.

Despite a strong Saturday push by the Young Liberals, and words of support by author Don Tapscott and a pair of Obama organizers, I fully expected a 50/50 vote, far short of the two thirds majority needed to pass this resolution.

Then on a Saturday night, with 2000 delegates watching in the convention hall (and dozens of Canadians watching on TV), Bob Rae stood up to argue passionately in favour of the supporter amendment. A murmur went up around the room – even though Rae had previously voiced support for the resolution, I never got the sense he was fighting for it. I turned to my friend and said “This could be a game changer – I was wrong, this thing could pass“.

Rae was followed by a young girl…then by Justin Trudeau. Suddenly, we had a ballgame. Supporters of the supporter system spoke of “renewal”, “openness”, and “historic change”, playing off the mood of the convention. Opponents focused on logistics and warned of outsiders hijacking the party. Then a Liberal delegate got up and said how he’d supported the Liberals for years but this was his first convention – he was here to “hijack” the party and he hoped millions of Canadians joined him in hijacking the party. Game over.

It’s not often that high profile constitutional resolutions are won and lost on the the convention floor, but I truly think the speeches from the floor – especially Rae and Trudeau’s intervention – tipped the scales.

And just like that, a resolution that looked dead a week earlier, and which no one would have contemplated a year earlier had passed. As the great philosopher Bob Dylan said “when you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose”. The Liberals took a chance on change – who knows what the repercussions will be, but we’ll soon find out.

Posted on by CalgaryGrit in 2012 Liberal Bienial

About CalgaryGrit

A former Calgary Liberal, now living in Toronto. My writings on politics can be found at www.calgarygrit.ca and online at the National Post.

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