01/13/2012 01:50 EST | Updated 03/14/2012 05:12 EDT

Liberal Convention 2012: Bob Rae Tells Party Faithful The Liberals Are Down But Not Out


OTTAWA - The "road map to renewal" proposed by Liberal party brass is running into roadblocks set up by rank and file members.

Proposals to throw open the doors of the party and adopt a U.S.-style primary system to choose future leaders and candidates are running into stiff resistance at a national convention, aimed at reviving the party after its near-death experience in last May's election.

Despite exhortations from interim leader Bob Rae to transform the party from an exclusive club into an inclusive movement, many convention delegates aren't convinced they need the kind of radical change proposed by the Liberal national executive.

The executive is proposing to create a system in which leaders and candidates would be elected by anyone willing to declare themselves Liberal "supporters" — not just by card-carrying party members.

"It seems to me these are people who will have all the privileges of membership and none of the responsibilities," groused a delegate from Oakville, Ont., during one of two, testy information sessions Friday about the so-called road map.

Another suggested opening up the party to non-paying supporters "essentially allows the Liberal party to be flash-mobbed — which I think is a real possibility."

Others complained about creating two tiers of Liberals.

"As far as I'm concerned, a Liberal is a Liberal is a Liberal and going down the supporter route is an error," said one delegate.

Former Toronto MP Maria Minna circulated a lengthy letter to Liberal colleagues, arguing that such an open leadership or nomination process could be hijacked by rival parties or special interest groups.

Moreover, she said, it devalues the meaning of membership.

Minna also slammed the executive's proposal for conducting future leadership votes in stages across the country, similar to regional primaries in the United States. She argued it would be expensive and could skew the outcome if results were known in one region before another region has voted.

When it came to reining in the leader's power to appoint candidates and protect incumbents from challenges, delegates slammed the executive for not going far enough. The road map asks the convention to approve the principle that all nominations should be open, other than specified exceptions approved by the executive.

Outgoing party president Alf Apps said the idea was to leave a bit of flexibility so that the leader could appoint a star candidate or ensure more female candidates.

"If you are a star candidate, you should be able to win a nomination," shot back Toronto delegate Rob Silver, maintaining the proposal essentially maintains the status quo.

Rae, who has enthusiastically endorsed the proposed road map, seemed to anticipate that some of its key elements will not be approved by the required two-thirds of voting delegates.

"The great thing about parties, they have a mind of their own," he told reporters.

"The point is for the party to have these discussions, to say that not all the wisdom is necessarily on one side or the other and we'll live with whatever the party decides to do."

Rae urged Liberals to debate their future vigorously and openly and not to be afraid of disagreeing with one another. But he warned them to keep it respectful and not to make it personal.

"Those debates should never be cause for personal antagonism," he told the party's youth commission.

Delegates didn't always heed his advice. There were occasional recriminations about Apps and the national board, which some Liberals blame for manipulating the rules to crown the party's last leader, Michael Ignatieff, without one vote being cast.

Why are we wasting time on amendments coming from this disgraced national board?" a Montreal woman loudly demanded during one session on the road map, accusing Apps of "betraying the party."

Apps appeared to grow exasperated with delegates who complained grassroots Liberals had not been sufficiently consulted about the road map.

"The idea isn't that we're here to tell you it's this way or the highway," he said during one testy exchange.

"If the Liberal party doesn't stand up and get engaged and take ownership of this whole damn challenge we've got ... if you aren't in on it, what's the point of us "even being here?"

Nevertheless, Apps later said he was "encouraged" by the mood on the convention's opening day, that there's less resistance than he'd expected to the proposals, including the notion of opening up voting in leadership and nomination contests to Liberal supporters.

"There's no doubt there's a strain of that in the Liberal party and people nationally and locally would like to control their little fiefdoms," he said.

"There's no question about that. But there's also this huge feeling coming out where people are saying, 'That's what killed us, this kind of closed-shop, clubby, we-might-give-you-a-membership form, we-might-not approach to politics.'"

The party, which had long considered itself Canada's natural governing party, was reduced to a third-party rump on May 2, capturing only 34 seats and less than 20 per cent of the popular vote.

Despite the drubbing, or perhaps because of it, more than 3,000 delegates have registered for the three-day convention. At one session with several hundred delegates Friday, about half raised their hands when the moderator asked who was attending a Liberal convention for the first time.

New Liberals seemed more receptive to opening up the party.

One new participant from Toronto said he came with several friends "because we were interested in the renewal of this party."

"Without being snide about it, what would hijacking this party look like? Because I'm afraid I might be doing it. And if I am, do you guys mind?" he added to laughter and applause.

Another delegate raised the spectre of public fallout if the proposed road map falls apart this weekend.

"What do you think will be the public perception and the media portrayal if this party fails to take this step at this time, and instead reports: 'The Liberals decide to keep on doing things just the same'?"

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