OTTAWA - Federal Liberal brass are hoping radical changes to their party's structure and operations will turn it into the most open, democratic and citizen-engaged political vehicle in the country.
The Liberal national executive has proposed the changes in a discussion paper entitled "A Roadmap to Renewal."
It aims to fuel debate as Liberals prepare for a crucial convention in mid-January they hope will ensure survival of the once-mighty party.
The self-styled natural governing party was devastated in the May 2 election, reduced to a third-party rump with only 34 seats.
In a bid to re-engage Canadians, the paper proposes that the Liberal party adopt a U.S.-style primary system for electing future leaders and candidates for election.
Anyone willing to register, free of charge, as a Liberal supporter — not just fee-paying, card-carrying party militants — would be eligible to vote in leadership and nomination contests.
The paper also proposes that open nomination contests be held in all ridings, severely limiting the leader's power to appoint candidates or protect incumbents.
In an accompanying background paper, party president Alf Apps offers a brutal assessment of the party's state since it was "reduced to rubble" in the last election.
He points out that the Liberal party has lost more than half its voter base across Canada — more than two-thirds in Quebec — over the past decade. It has run through five leaders in eight years.
It attracts less than 10 per cent of the vote in almost 100 ridings and its riding associations in some 80 constituencies are dormant. And the party's outdated fundraising techniques are pulling in less than half the donations raked in by the ruling Conservatives.
"LPC is at a historically low ebb. Liberals everywhere are wondering whether the decline of the party can be turned around," Apps says.
Still, he argues that May's historic defeat paves the way for the party to thoroughly modernize and reinvent itself.
"Because the slate has been wiped clean, the conditions required for a genuinely 'bloodless revolution' within (the party) may now exist," Apps says. "If there were ever a time for Liberals to be bold, it is now."
The central theme of the discussion and background papers is finding ways to engage the millions of Canadians still willing to identify themselves as Liberal supporters.
Apps argues that Liberals' "secret weapon should be the fact that no (other) Canadian political party ... can risk truly wide open, free expression from, or genuinely transparent engagement with, its members."
The objective, he says, should be converting the party from "a brokerage institution for Canadian elites" into "more of a progressive, mass political movement with which Canadians everywhere can more easily both identify and engage."
In that vein, the discussion paper proposes undertaking a year-long, national voter registration drive before choosing a new, permanent leader in 2013. All registered Liberals would then take part in choosing the next leader, voting in a series of regional primaries over a period of 10-16 weeks.
The paper also proposes permanently engaging members and supporters in policy development, through its website.
As well, it proposes abolition of the party's current fundraising committee, replacing it with a professionally managed, popular fundraising operation that uses a sophisticated voter identification database — similar to the Tories' successful money machine.
It also proposes setting aside a "strong start" fund, a special cash reserve aimed at promoting and defending the next permanent leader from the kind of Tory attacks which hobbled the Liberals' last two leaders, Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, before they got out of the gate.
And it recommends centralizing more of the party's operations, including fundraising, at national headquarters, reducing costly duplication by its provincial and territorial associations (PTAs). In his paper, Apps goes further, raising the possibility of eliminating the PTAs altogether.