01/04/2012 05:42 EST | Updated 03/05/2012 05:12 EST

Federal Liberals Look To Rein In Party Leaders, Stripping Them Of Power To Impose Platform, Appoint Candidates

OTTAWA - Federal Liberals are being asked to dramatically redefine — and constrain — the role of party leader.

Party brass are proposing to strip the leader's power to unilaterally determine the contents of campaign platforms, to protect incumbent MPs from nomination challenges and to appoint candidates.

Rank-and-file party members would be given much more say in all those matters.

The proposals are among those to be voted on next week at a crucial Liberal convention, intended to kick start the process of rebuilding the self-styled natural governing party, which was reduced to rubble in last May's election.

Party honchos contend the changes would turn the party into the most open, democratic and citizen-engaged political vehicle in the country.

In an era of increasingly leader-driven politics, the proposals for reining in the leader's power to determine party policy are arguably the most significant, and potentially risky. And they're a particular departure for the traditionally top-down Liberals, who've tended to give their leaders carte blanche to determine what the party stands for.

"I think there is a real sense in the party that over the course of the last couple of decades actually, a broad understanding and identification with basic Liberal values and principles has been lost in a cult of leadership," party president Alf Apps said in an interview.

"(The party) did become a bit top-down and elitist in its approach."

If the proposals are accepted, Apps said, the party "will actually have to transform itself from essentially being a closed club into being a much more open, movement-style of political party."

The party's national board issued a "road map to renewal" in November, which included calls for a U.S.-style primary system to choose candidates in each riding and future leaders. Anyone willing to register as a Liberal "supporter" — not simply card-carrying party members — would be able to vote in leadership and nomination contests.

It also called for open nomination contests in all ridings, ending the long-standing practice of leaders protecting incumbent MPs from nomination challenges and ending the leader's power to appoint candidates, other than rare exceptions approved by the party's national board.

Just before Christmas, the board issued a fine tuned version of the road map, which goes further in proposing to engage members and limit the leader's powers.

Among other things, it asks Liberals to do away with the leader's line by line veto over campaign platforms. It proposes instead to make policy and platform development a continuous, collaborative process involving party members. While the leader would no longer be able to impose platform planks, he or she would be given the right to personally propose policy resolutions to the rank and file.

Interim leader Bob Rae said he's "fully supportive" of the proposals.

"Taking the party seriously means the leadership (including the leader) has to engage directly with the membership on policy and other issues," he said in an email.

"And I'm convinced that if we build a relationship of trust, (the) party will in turn listen with respect to the leadership. It's the only way to go and only way to empower the Liberal movement."

Removing the leader's veto over platform contents has been pushed by former party national director Sheila Gervais and Paul Summerville, who is running to become chairman of the party's policy and platform development committee.

Gervais said the idea is key to ending the Liberals' "Messiah complex" — their tendency to believe they need only choose the right leader in order to hang onto or regain power, a belief which has helped produce corrosive, internecine leadership wars for the better part of 40 years.

"It'll take some time but I think the party will end up seeking leaders who best articulate what they think, as opposed to ... choosing leaders who will tell them what to think. That's ended with this," Gervais said.

She argued that forcing the leader to be in "constant conversation" with party members about platform development would restore a sense of trust within the organization and would help avoid repeats of the last two election debacles.

In 2008, Stephane Dion imposed his complicated green shift as the centrepiece of the Liberal election platform, which proved unpopular with voters. At the 2009 convention which anointed Michael Ignatieff as Dion's successor, Liberals actually voted for a policy resolution calling for some form of carbon tax but Ignatieff unilaterally ruled it out, saying voters had already nixed the idea.

Apps said the party didn't have the ground troops needed to sell Dion's green shift, in large measure because the troops hadn't been involved in its development.

"In order to have the ground troops to sell it in the modern age, you've got to actually give them a role in building it."

Apps acknowledged the need to consult members could open a leader to criticism that he or she is indecisive, more a follower than a leader.

"How it will unfold and how practical it is, we'll see. We're pioneering here," he said.

"I think people are still looking for leaders to be leaders. They just want them to be listening, too."

Gervais said proposals would apply only to long-term policy and platform development. The leader and caucus would still determine how to respond to the day-to-day issues that arise.

However, when particularly sticky issues arise, she said having an established process for collaborating on policy development could help the leader navigate perilous waters.