Interim Liberal leader Bob Rae's proposal to hold open primaries for the party's next leader is a terrific idea, novel, forward-thinking and guaranteed to strengthen the Liberal brand. There is no reason not to like it -- whether you're a Liberal or not.
To understand why, just look at the Republican primary race south of the border, where the major players, and their values and antics, are daily fodder for TV, print and online news and pundits. The Republican primary race is the biggest thing going in the U.S. -- bigger than the recession, unemployment and the Kardashians -- and we're still a full year away from the presidential election.
Granted, many of those names occupy negative space in the collective American consciousness, but so what? At least Americans are thinking about the leadership race, which makes it more likely that they'll voice support for their candidate of choice and vote in the primaries. If people are this interested in the election before the election, just think about how hyped up they'll be for the main event next November.
There's absolutely no reason to think the same wouldn't hold true here in Canada. Were the Liberals to hold a protracted leadership primary (there is talk of stretching the process over three months), complete with multiple leaders' debates, the Liberal party would be in the media spotlight well before the next federal election. That's exactly what the Liberals need right now -- a boost in popular awareness.
The Liberals would be the first party to offer open primaries. That means they'd have to work out the inevitable kinks that come with inviting an entire country to voice opinions on party leadership. But more importantly, they'd get credit for being early adopters, and for opening up their party to the entire country. Many Canadians, and more significantly, many Canadians not currently affiliated with the Liberal party in any official way, would sign up for the chance to pick the party's next leader. That would surely translate into more Liberal votes in the next federal election.
An open primary would also be a service to Canada in general. It would open the political system to the general public, who would be encouraged to get involved. And by injecting politics into the popular consciousness, the primary would likely influence more Canadians to vote. Every election cycle we hear complaints about how many Canadians are staying away from the polls -- here's a surefire way to reverse the trend.
Some Liberals -- notably, Jeff Jedras writing on Macleans.ca -- fear that an open primary would invite "shenanigans ... supporters of another party signing up as Liberal 'supporters' to vote in the primary and negatively influence the process, such as voting for the least-favoured candidate." Could that happen, even with the inclusion of a mandatory loyalty agreement? Sure, but it's highly unlikely. And regardless, that kind of insular thinking -- that the forces of evil are ever-plotting to take out the natural governing party of Canada -- is what got the Liberals in such dire straits in the first place. Opening up the party might invite a few bad seeds, but closing the door ensures that young voters and the Liberally-curious will never join the party.
Jedras also argues that the primary system is "gimmicky" -- he seems to think that's a bad thing, when it's quite the opposite. Party politics is a staid, boring business, controlled and manipulated by party bigwigs behind closed doors, excluding the average voter. Canadian politics could use a gimmick or two, something to get people interested again.
Instituting an open primary might not win the next election for the Liberals. But it's guaranteed to get Canadians interested in politics, and that's an even bigger win.