Daniel D. Veniez Headshot

How to Fix the Liberal Leadership Crisis

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In 2009, as a new member and candidate for the Liberal Party of Canada, it didn't take me long to figure out that one of the most debilitating and corrosive aspects of the party has been the never-ending leadership wars. I discovered that it was unofficially segmented into camps from not only the last leadership contest, but the Chrétien-Martin slugfest, and before that, the Turner-Chrétien bout.

Since 1983, as they reached for the brass ring, leadership contenders pillaged the very party they sought to lead. They did not intend for that to happen, but it did. And the aftershocks linger to this day. Liberal leaders have consistently called for party unity -- only after they inflicted enormous damage on it.

All that mattered to Liberals and the parliamentary caucus was returning to power. If throwing Dion overboard was what had to be done to get there, that's what would be done, just like undermining John Turner and dumping Jean Chrétien didn't matter to them.

This pathology began shortly after Pierre Trudeau resigned and has been a pervasive force for 30 years since. Leaders are treated with the same subtle finesse as throwing out yesterday's garbage.

Much responsibility for the leadership wars of the past 30 years is appropriately assigned to the naked and shallow ambition of principals themselves. Yet casting blame on leadership aspirants alone is far too easy. Their actions and that of their surrogates was aided and abetted by the same so-called "grassroots" members that populate riding associations, provincial executives, and commissions that today call for "bottom-up" change.

A tenure system for an insecure caucus has also been a major systemic problem. Caucus and party "grassroots" must reflect upon their role as enablers and facilitators in our decline. They were, in fact, absolutely critical to it.

The culture of the Liberal Party not only allowed for this self-destructive behavior to persist and culture that fueled it to thrive, it actively -- and always surreptitiously -- encouraged it. Just think how protracted the Trudeau-Turner-Chrétien-Martin wars were and how toxic they became. This prolonged period of internecine conflict resulted in factionalism and organizational decay that fed widespread suspicion and distrust. From the late 1970s, the party's only discernible sense of shared purpose was power.

The first task of renewal is facing the truth about what the problems are and being straight with each other about what should be done about it. There are encouraging signs that this is beginning to happen. The national executive has advanced some interesting and serious proposals on reforming internal organization and governance.

One proposal is to select the leader by a "primary system." I hope that the party will not jump into this project too quickly. Members have not even begun to consider the implications of such a move. It is certainly worthy of discussion and wider consultation and reflection, and has the potential of revolutionizing the way we conduct politics in this country.

Another proposal for change is party organization. There, I believe we must go much further.

The party is an even looser confederation than Confederation itself. Reporting lines go to multiple places, management accountability is entirely absent, and funds are allocated inefficiently. The better solution would be to close every single office, consolidate their activities in Ottawa, and give some real responsibility to regional vice presidents elected by members.

And what would I do with all those commissions and fancy officer titles that mean nothing and do even less? They would be toast -- every last one of them.

I want a boundary-less organization, not fenced-in ghettos. I want effectiveness, not internal warfare and jurisdictional resentments. I want every dollar we raise to be properly and strategic invested, not spent to prop up an arcane bureaucracy designed for nothing more than to fuel the egos of a perma-class of apparatchiks.

Culturally and organizationally what we lack most is the key missing ingredient: Unity of purpose. Our core reason for being is the advancement of a set of ideas and goals for Canada and our place in the world. That is where it all begins.

As a candidate, there was nothing that perplexed and infuriated me more than Liberals asking me: "Dan, what do we stand for?" That question would never cease to stop me dead in my tracks. Why in the world, I thought, would anyone join a political party if they had absolutely no clue what their membership even represents?

Liberals must rediscover our roots as the original party of reform. We must dare to be bold again in policy innovation that is firmly anchored around a reform agenda for the 21st century. Economic growth and productivity must necessarily be the centerpiece of our action. For without them, everything else we want to achieve to create a more united, tolerant, caring and just society will be just a cruel pipe dream.

We must lead the restoration of trust in our democratic institutions and resolve to modernize them. For me, that means Constitutional renewal on a fundamental level. That includes reforming the House of Commons and Senate, bringing Quebec back into the fold, modernizing federal-provincial arrangements for the 21st century to strengthen our economic and social union, and deciding whether the hereditary monarchy has a place in the modern democracy of a proud and independent nation like ours.

We must forge our place in the world as constructive internationalists and be part of building global institutions that can serve as vehicles for constructive dialogue and peaceful co-existence. I believe it also means questioning whether it makes sense for Canada to remain in the military alliances of the Cold War era, or whether our capabilities have a greater impact elsewhere.

Liberals must work to get our voice back. As Andrew Cohen wrote of Lester B. Pearson: "Making a bigger Canada became the mantra of his public life."

So too must it become ours.

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