Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics

Bye, Bye, Buy

Posted by JJ in Strategic Planning (Thursday April 6, 2006 at 4:16 pm)

Passing up an opportunity? That’s not the Belinda who ran for the conservative leadership, having already played a pivotal role in the party’s emergence from its two progenitors. That’s not the Belinda who crossed the floor for a Ministerial post. That’s not even the Belinda who played a reporter in a low-budget made-for-TV movie.

So what’s the deal? What’s made this ambitious, young multi-millionaire daughter of a Billionaire choose her pocket borough of Newmarket-Aurora over the prospect of a glittering career as Leader of the Opposition and (dare she dream) Prime Minister of Canada?

Seasoned observers might point to her track record. Ms Stronach is still regarded as an inexperienced politician, whose dealings with the media have a tense, scripted quality. Her French, as has been noted, is less than satisfactory for a party with national aspirations, and, truth be told, it may be too soon for her to overcome whatever bias may arise from her privileged past.

Good enough reason for Liberals to fail to get behind her, but there’s a very clear sign that she’s not giving up for good; and that sign is a worrying omen.

Rather than running, Belinda says, she intends to devote her efforts to changing the leadership selection process:

. . .she would like to see an “even more open and democratic” process that would see more people encouraged to join the party at affordable prices and with an opportunity to participate directly in the selection of a leader rather through a delegated process.

Not scared yet? You should be.

Once upon a time, party leaders were selected by the party’s sitting MPs. While it’s true that this was less democratic, that process had some advantages to it. Since the potential number of voters was fixed by elections (something beyond the leadership candidates’ control), it wasn’t possible to “stack” the votes by adding additional voters, and it was very hard to control the voters without already being leader or having the support of one’s predecessor. This system isn’t without its political side — most members are keenly interested in keeping their seats, and are likely to consider a candidate’s ability to help them do just that. In that way, the ability of the candidates to win votes in every constituency is built into the system (though its efficacy depends on the political astuteness of the sitting MPs).

What the Liberals have now is a broader vote — a delegate process. Every association of the party can elect a certain number of delegates to represent them at a national convention, where a series of votes ensue until a single candidate has a majority of all delegates selected. But associations include both the associations in each riding (whose number is, therefore, determined by Elections Canada), and a number of other kinds of associations which may or may not exist: youth clubs, women’s clubs, seniors’ clubs, aboriginal clubs, and university or college clubs. These other associations can be established by calling together a sufficient number of members who meet the qualifications: youths, women, etc. Calling members together takes only one thing: money; and that’s the problem with this system.

By recruiting people (often done with promises of booze or after-parties) and paying their memberships (”It won’t cost you a thing!”), a candidate can add enough members to the register of a given organization to elect delegates supporting him or her. Only a few things obstruct this: diligent association executives and other candidates. If you’re planning far enough in advance, you use the same method in earlier years to elect a sympathetic slate of executives.

This was how Paul Martin took the party over from Jean Chretien — it’s not that the man had no support, simply that he used what support he had with this technique to squeeze out a leader when there was no reason to. And without long-term, strong opposition, he was able to do precisely that. The Liberals claim that they will clamp down on the process of “buying” memberships, but the reality is that it’s nearly impossible to prove that the money coming in with a membership form came from someone other than the prospective member.

Stronach was up against serious opposition, and without the timeframe in which the considerable resources at her personal disposal could lay the groundwork for a dominant position (Martin was spending for years before the actual campaign and its spending limit began). Given that the party is still reeling from the aftershocks of Martin’s reign, it may be some time before it’s willing to tolerate that approach again.

Which is why Belinda wants a one-member, one-vote system. There’s no fighting with other candidates for control of meetings, just a massive recruitment drive, where massive spending, unlike spending limits, can really count. Limits go out the window because of the fact that membership fees come from the members (whether or not that’s actually true, it’s the way it is) — only the candidate’s spending is limited, not that of members. So her proposed fight for a “more democratic” mechanism is really an effort to install a system that’s easier to buy.

But what about the political value of the system? Isn’t a candidate’s ability to recruit new members a solid indication of their ability to garner votes? It didn’t work that well for Stockwell Day.

The problem is simple: you can’t bribe voters as easily, because people take elections far more seriously than the ability to vote in party leadership contests. Which is also why Paul Martin’s ability to conquer his own party didn’t translate into the ability to win the public’s heart.

And that’s why Liberals and the public alike should be concerned about Belinda’s quest to “improve” the process. It will do nothing to ensure strong or politically viable leadership, and much to make money a more effective political weapon. Make no mistake, then. Ms Stronach’s not saying “bye” — it just sounds an awful lot like it.

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