January 13, 2012

Canadian Liberals weigh holding primary

PETER BLACK, Canadian Dispatch

---- — American politics is baffling to Canadians at the best of times, what with all those complicated checks and balances, states' rights and electoral colleges and all. Primaries, though, are pretty much a completely alien concept for a country whose political parties are traditionally closed shop.

Hence, when Canada's erstwhile "natural governing party," as the Liberals have been called, starts talking about adopting a primary system to pick a new leader, well, that's worth noting, particularly given that the Liberals have not been known as the most pro-American party. (A notable example: Jean Chretien rejecting George W. Bush's invitation to join the invasion of Iraq).

The Liberals are gathering this weekend in Ottawa for a national convention that is being described as a critical moment in the party's long and remarkable history. In the wake of the general election last May that relegated the Liberals to third place standing in the House of Commons with 34 seats, some observers have been quick to write them off as a spent force.

Though provincial cousins hold power in four provinces, including the three biggest — Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia — and the smallest, Prince Edward Island, the federal wing is in its most precarious position since 1984, when it took a serious thumping after nearly 20 years in power.

One of the proposals on the table on the weekend is a system of 10 regional primaries taking place during a five-month campaign in which party members and non-members alike would get to participate in the debate and vote for the candidates for the party leadership.

Supporters of the idea say such a wide-open process would draw attention to the ideas of individual candidates and offer Canadians an "edgy" race to get voters excited about the party.

One of those supporters is Bob Rae, the interim leader, who, depending on how things work out, may be a candidate himself when the race officially begins, sometime in 2013.

The Liberals' primary notion has itself stirred debate from commentators who see it as a form of democratic participation that is not well-adapted to the Canadian system of government. The most significant difference would be that Americans directly elect their president, whereas the Canadian prime minister is the leader of the party that commands the support of the House of Commons.

Whatever the pros and cons are of a primary system for choosing a federal party leader in Canada, it would be a radical shift from the traditional style of leadership convention. In the case of the Liberals, leadership conventions in the past have produced much drama — and division.

Forty-four years ago, Pierre-Elliott Trudeau, one of Canada's longest serving and most influential prime ministers, narrowly won the leadership in a frantically brokered, nail-biter of a convention.

Then, 38 years later, dark horse candidate Stephane Dion snuck up the middle in another convention featuring wild negotiations on the floor, beating favorites Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae. (Dion and Ignatieff would go on to join Edward Blake of the 1880s as the only federal Liberal leaders who never became prime minister.)

Other Liberal leadership contests left the party with feuding factions that now appear to have finally made peace in the wake of the epic defeat in May.

Although there are no official candidates yet, Liberals in favor of a primary-style leadership race argue that the wide-open process may encourage a wider pool of hopefuls — much like American primaries often start with a large and diverse field.

While the proposal for a primary system would align the Liberals closer to American electoral politics, another resolution on the floor this weekend would push the party towards a republican form of government. A youth-wing motion calls for a Liberal government to rid Canada of the monarchy.

As one veteran journalist put it, such a policy might be "the big idea" the Liberals need to distinguish themselves from the other federal parties — especially the increasingly royalist stance of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives. And there's no question it would bring the party the attention it craves as it attempts to become a contender for government once again.

Peter Black is a radio broadcaster and writer based in Quebec City. He has worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in Montreal as a newspaper reporter and editor, and as a translator and freelance writer. He can be reached at