OTTAWA - Federal Liberal brass are being accused of subverting a leadership process that was supposed to transform the party from an elitist club into the country's most open political vehicle.
That's the claim of two leadership hopefuls in the first real dust-up of the contest.
Party officials are under fire for allowing candidates to treat their lists of supporters as private property.
The new "supporter" category was supposed to give anyone willing to affirm support for Liberal principles — not just dues-paying, card-carrying members — an equal say in choosing the next Liberal leader.
Grassroots Liberals adopted creation of the supporter category at a convention a year ago to throw open the party's doors and engage and empower average folks in the leadership contest.
But now two candidates — Vancouver MP Joyce Murray and Toronto lawyer Deborah Coyne — maintain the party has effectively turned thousands of new supporters into the unwitting private property of individual leadership contenders.
"After intense debate at last year's biennial convention, the party's grassroots decided to throw its doors wide open by creating the new supporter category," Murray said Friday in a written statement.
"Now we find out that the doors are not so wide open after all and that not all supporters will be treated equally."
At issue is the party's interpretation of the rules regarding supporters.
Officials have decided that leadership camps can keep to themselves the names and contact information of supporters who sign up through their websites — at least until the March 3 deadline for signing up new supporters and members, after which a list of all eligible voters will be made available to all candidates.
A supporter who signs up through, for instance, front-runner Justin Trudeau's website will be known only to the Trudeau camp and will be contacted only by that camp until the final month of the contest.
The party's stance appears to most benefit the front-running contenders — such as Trudeau — who are best equipped to sign up large numbers of supporters.
"I think that would be a logical interpretation," agreed Jeff Jedras, Coyne's campaign manager.
Sources say both the Trudeau camp and that of Marc Garneau, widely considered his most serious challenger, opposed any relaxation of the party's interpretation of the rules.
While the names and even the number of candidate-recruited supporters are being kept under wraps, all candidates have access to the identities of some 55,000 supporters who signed up before the contest officially started on Nov. 14 or who have signed up thus far during the contest through the party's neutral website.
"We should not be returning to the old ways of hiding information that led to the disastrous division and in-fighting inside the party," Murray said.
"All supporters should be treated equally and welcomed to the whole party."
Murray's camp formally objected last month to the party's interpretation of the rules, arguing that it creates different classes of supporters and is antithetical to the openness, transparency and equal treatment grassroots Liberals intended when they voted a year ago to create the supporter category.
In a written argument, obtained by The Canadian Press, Murray's campaign chair Jamie Carroll, a former national director of the party, said most supporters expect to be "wooed" by all the candidates and are likely unaware that won't happen if they sign up through a candidate's website.
He argued that an individual who signs up through a candidate's website may want simply to get involved in the leadership process, without having decided whom to support.
And since supporters and members will be casting preferential ballots in April, in which they must number their first-through-ninth choices for leader, he maintained they need to hear equally from all contenders.
The Coyne camp backed the Murray camp's objection.
Regardless of what mechanism people use to sign up as supporters, Jedras said in an interview, "they're signing up as a supporter of the Liberal Party of Canada, first and foremost. No campaign owns these people."
However, the Murray camp's arguments were rejected this week in an interpretation bulletin issued by the party's national membership secretary, Matt Certosimo.
Certosimo pointed out that each contender had to accept the rules, including those regarding contestants' "proprietary" rights to information about candidate-recruited supporters, members and donors, before the party would authorize their candidacy.
He indicated that party officials decided on a "staged approach" to access to such information in a bid to "avoid a last-minute 'drop' into the system of candidate-recruited supporters."
Murray called on the party Friday to change its decision and urged rival candidates to voluntarily disclose the names of their supporters. Carroll said the Murray camp is exploring its options and "intends to pursue this further."
Canadians who are disengaged from politics will be "immensely turned off by this sort of behaviour, by the folks who treat politics as a sort of personal fiefdom or exclusive club," Carroll said in an interview.
"It shouldn't be. It should be a very public forum, a transparent forum and a place where anyone who wants to participate can participate."
Jedras said the dispute reflects "a conflict between the new philosophy (behind creation of the supporter category) and the more old-school style of campaigning in politics where you build your list, you guard your list, the access to (membership) forms is controlled and you would gather all your forms and drop them at the last minute to secure your data."
"It does run up against what the party members in large numbers voted to do a year ago now, which was to open up the party and make it much easier to get involved."