Steelcitygrit [in exile]

Ruminating on all things Canadian and political.


Monday, March 06, 2006

why a convention?

When the Liberal exec meet on the 18th, they will have an opportunity to demonstrate just how committed they are to a rejuvenation process. My hope is that it results in something beyond a convention date.

We all seen resigned to a convention, and I'm not entirely sure why (other than that the Liberal party has a rep for hanging behind the curve). It's a hell of a fun weekend (or so I've been told *sniff - I haven't been for reasons soon to be discussed). But it is an imperfect institution for a number of reasons.

The federal parties have persisted with this restricted-access model for the most part, but the tide is beginning to change. How is it restrictive?

- priced out of the range of many (including students, retirees, and others that form that voluntary backbone of the party). Entry fees, accomodation, travel - we're talking a month of Steelcitygrit's rent.

- A single geographic location (or two, or three) is obviously limiting. Extra travelling onus falls on those that already feel removed from the process (Northerners, Maritimers possibly, Westerners possibly). The last thing Canada needs is its federal parties exaggerating regional cleavages.

- need to be elected as a delegate - not the expression of representative democracy it purports to be. It would work, if delegate candidates ran on the basis of who they will support. But we find that this is often not the case. According to Carty et al in Rebuilding Canadian Party Politics: "2/5ths of 1993 Conservative delegates [did not declare who they were supporting] to their riding associations... Data from most recent leadership contests in the federal Liberal and Conservative parties indicate that a substantial majority of convention delegates are chosen for reasons other than their preferred leadership campaign." The most common admitted reason for electing a delegate? "how active a delegate candidate has been in party affairs" (Read: how long have I known him.)

What is the result of all this? An unrepresentative and slanted few deciding for all. This isn't just theory. Carty et al find that "delecates have typically been disproportionately male, well educated, financially well-off, and young."

The process is quietly anti-democratic. This stands alone as reason to re-evaluate conventions.

But it isn't the only reason, in this Liberal case particularly. A new process would serve both to bolster flagging morale and heal over riffs. Firstly, it seems obvious to me that a more direct process is one of the best possible ways to revitalize the party membership. The on-the-ground types are given something to get excited about. Secondly, the convention can skew results in such a way that sows ill will. Given the intense, face-to-face nature of the convention, delegates may be less willing to commit to an outside shot. The delegate is a legitimate personality, and thus has to pay a personal price for commiting herself to a losing candidate (or commiting himself against a winning candidate). While nominally a secret ballot, nothing is truly secret on the convention floor. As a result, one witnesses the Paul Martin leviathan at the last convention eviscerate all competition in a way that doesn't fully reflect the feelings of the absent rank and file. People leave feeling less than satisfied - and we've seen what that can become.

So what are our options? I'll leave that to the exec. I will say that there are no shortage of models to draw from. A US style primary is problematic, but offers some inspiration. The provinces have forged a path such that we may comfortably break from history without risking catastrophe. Perhaps a primary to determine who appears on the convention ballot? Perhaps a pure exercise in direct democracy?

This is a worthy debate, regardless of what emerges. As US political scientist (or something) Herbert Kitschelt reminds us, "the way parties conduct their internal life sends a message to voters about what kind of society its activists and leaders aspire to."


Blogger Steve said...

Well thought-out post.
If I wasn't swamped I'd say more. Expect more soon and no offense at not replying in full to your email. These take less time that's why I've had time for them.

12:07 AM  
Blogger SteelCityGrit said...

Cheers. I understand sir - No apologies necessary. I'm getting crazy busy myself

11:07 AM  

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