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Liberal Convention 2012: Fierce Debate Over Adopting U.S.-Style Primaries

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The Liberal brass' idea of adopting a U.S.-style primary system met stiff resistance from members Friday, the first official day of the party's biennial convention in Ottawa.
The Liberal brass' idea of adopting a U.S.-style primary system met stiff resistance from members Friday, the first official day of the party's biennial convention in Ottawa.

UPDATE: The resolution to establish a supporter system passed at the Liberal convention on Saturday night.

OTTAWA — The Liberal brass' idea of adopting a U.S.-style primary system met stiff resistance from members Friday, the first official day of the party's biennial convention in Ottawa.

Liberals lined up in large numbers during two feedback sessions to speak out against the idea of establishing party supporters who could pick future leaders and riding candidates without becoming members of the Liberal Party. There is also some reluctance to embrace the idea of holding a series of regional leadership votes, similar to the primary system used in the United States.

PHOTOS: HOT TOPICS AT LIBERAL CONVENTION

Former Liberal MP Maria Minna told a packed room studying the proposed amendments to the party constitution that she opposes the idea of letting those willing to register as supporters help elect candidates.

It sounds to me like supporters would have the right to select candidates and leaders, and members would “have the right to do all the work,” she said. “This is completely unacceptable,” she added, as many Liberals nodded their heads and cheered in agreement.

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“Why would anyone pay $10 to become a member if they could have the same benefits of membership by being a supporter?” asked another Liberal.

The Liberals’ executive spent seven months developing a "roadmap to renewal," which sets out new ways of growing Liberal support, by identifying potential allies and future fundraising pools.

They’ve come up with the idea of establishing a second class of membership, registered supporters who could help guide the future of the party but wouldn’t have to pay any membership fee. These individuals would have to sign a document saying they were not members of any federal political party in Canada.

One speaker at the microphone told concerned Liberals that the party would only grow if it opened the doors to everybody and attracted non-members like himself.

But many Liberals Friday raised concerns that the supporter system could easily lead to the hijacking of their party.

‎"What would hijacking this party look like? Because I'm afraid that I might be doing it," another questioner at the microphone said. He was a new Liberal donor, but until recently wasn’t a member of the party at all, he said.

Outgoing national president Alfred Apps, the chief salesman of the plan, told Liberals they needed to have “courage.”

One delegate shot back, insisting supporters could swarm riding association meetings and elect candidates that the members might oppose but for whom they would still have to work.

Apps told the crowd that the issue already exists with the current membership framework.

Proponents of the new plan suggested $10 wouldn’t stop anyone from hijacking anything.

Former Liberal MP Bonnie Brown said she agreed with the concerns raised Friday and believes the plan is a bit too “premature” right now.

“The members get to make the cake and the supporters get to eat it, and there is some level of unfairness with that,” she told The Huffington Post.

“I haven’t figured out in my head how to get around that, but I will not be voting in favour of supporters to have the right to vote in these elections right away. I think down the road it may be feasible, but it will take a great deal of fine tuning by the next executive.”

Ken Halliday, the president of the West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country riding association, told HuffPost that delegates resisting the changes were not thinking strategically and were discounting the value of full membership.

Being a member of the Liberal Party allows individuals to take part in the policy process, something supporters would not be allowed to do, he noted.

Creating supporters would get new people, those who seem to have a resistance to becoming a member, inside the Liberal fold, Holliday said. Evidence also suggests that it doesn’t take long before supporters become members, he added.

“I think the supporter idea is a way we grow the Liberal Party, because if we don’t grow it, we are going to wither away,” Halliday said.

Liberal delegates will vote on the constitutional changes on Saturday. The measure will need a two-thirds majority to pass.

Like Huffington Post Canada's Ottawa Bureau Chief Althia Raj's reporter page on Facebook and follow her onTwitter for all the latest news from Parliament Hill.

althia.raj@huffingtonpost.com

With files from The Canadian Press

PHOTOS: HOT TOPICS AT LIBERAL CONVENTION

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