Monday, May 27, 2019

It's time to let all Ontario Liberal Party members vote on the final ballot for leader


The Ontario Liberal Party will hold its first Annual General Meeting since the 2018 election next week in Mississauga.  At that AGM, party members will be voting on a constitutional amendment to the party's bylaws that would allow a change in how the party elects leaders.

Currently, the OLP uses a delegated convention system to elect leaders, where members in ridings and other local associations vote for delegates to represent them at a leadership convention.  Those delegates - 16 from each riding association, and 8 from other local associations such as youth groups - are elected in proportion to the amount of support each leadership candidate receives from members at those local meetings.  Those meetings are held weeks in advance of the end of the leadership race, long before leadership candidates make their "final pitches".   Those delegates then go to the convention and are obliged, if they don't spoil their ballot, to vote for the leadership candidate on the first ballot they pledged to support at their local meetings.  But after the first ballot, they are free to change their vote or to not vote at all.  Furthermore, hundreds of unelected ex-officio delegates also attend the convention and water down the votes of those elected delegates.

It's not very inclusive and in 2013 only about 5% of party members participated in the final ballot that actually elected the leader.   No other parties in Canada still elect their leaders this way.  All others, even the Conservatives, have embraced systems that let all members participate in the final decision.  

The proposed constitutional amendment at the Ontario Liberal AGM would change the current system to One Member One Vote.   Under the proposed system, each riding would have 100 points, which would be awarded to leadership candidates in proportion to the amount of support they receive from members in the riding on voting day.  No one region would dominate the outcome as all ridings count equally.  If no leadership candidate wins over 50% of the points on the first ballot, subsequent choices are counted until a winner is elected.  This is identical to the system that elected Justin Trudeau as federal Liberal leader in 2013.   Supporters of the change launched their own website recently that hashes out the great arguments in favour of change.

I've been proud to support these efforts as I've advocated for this kind of change for years.  In 2013, I wrote about it in this opinion piece on Ontario Newswatch and on this blog. 

My main problem with the status quo: it's a system that's designed to maintain the control over the party and its leadership in the hands of backroom insiders, mainly the backroom types who run leadership campaigns as well as the losing candidates themselves.

If the leadership is decided at conventions between ballots, it gives losing candidates and powerful backroom types the time to forge secret deals, like promises of future cabinet positions or who knows what, in order to manipulate the outcome.  The pressure cooker of a convention, in which candidates falling off the ballot move across the floor to remaining candidates, creates artificial momentum in favour of those chosen candidates.  We've seen bad choices win this way (Stephane Dion in 2006), and we've seen good choices elected (Kathleen Wynne, Dalton McGuinty).  Obviously, it's subjective.  (Full disclosure: I was an elected delegate for Lyn McLeod in 1992, I supported Gerard Kennedy in 1996 but was not a delegate, same for Stephane Dion in 2006, and for Sandra Pupatello in 2013.)  

Good candidates will work within whatever leadership rules to win the prize.  That's politics.  This is a question about process.  And what values should underlie that process.

Do we want to be inclusive and allow as many people as possible to participate in the final decision for leader?  Or keep that final decision within the pressure cooker of a convention that only lets 5% of members take part?  

I've read all of the arguments being put forth by status quo supporters.  In my opinion, most of their arguments are smokescreens for their real reasons, which they aren't giving.

The main priority of status quo supporters seems to me to be simple: they want to maintain their power. 

They want to maintain their backroom control over the leadership of the party.  They simply don't trust individual members to make the final decision over who should be leader.  So poorly do they think of ordinary members that they're pleased to shut them out of the final, crucial decision.

Supporters of the status quo argue that weighted One Member One Vote could open the party up to a takeover of one-issue extremists.

Of course, the weighted points system of OMOV (100 points for every riding regardless of the number of votes) would make that very difficult.  In truth, one-issue extremists could take over the party now just as easily under the current delegated convention system.  Who can forget how anti-choice activists elected a massive number of delegates to the 1990 federal Liberal leadership convention? 

Another bogus argument: the current system allows for a minimum number of women and youth participation at conventions.  They, of course, forget that those quotas were put in place to address the fact that these groups were massively underrepresented in elected delegate spots in the past.  No doubt, if all members can vote under OMOV, the numbers of women or youth participating (which will be in the tens of thousands) will be much higher than the 25% of delegates (or around 500 lucky people in total) under the status quo. 

The most misleading argument of all put forth by supporters of the status quo?  "Every member of the Ontario Liberal Party has a direct vote for the leader under MDDV."  

In my opinion, that statement by status quo supporters is simply dishonest.  It reminds me of Doug Ford's attacks on the federal carbon levy without mentioning the rebates that all Ontarians are receiving because of it.  

Let's be clear.  As I explained above, party members currently only get a vote in local delegate selection meetings for leader held weeks before the end of the leadership race.  Those votes determine how many of that riding's 16 delegates - or that youth association's 8 delegates - get designated for each leadership candidate.   But not all of those votes count equally. 

For example, if 300 members vote in a riding meeting, and 9 of those members choose one leadership candidate, that translates into ZERO delegates because 9 votes only constitute 3% of the vote, not enough to elect anybody (0.48 out of 16 delegates would be rounded down to zero, after all).   So their votes don't count.  

Furthermore, all of those 300 votes only translate into 16 delegates per riding.  That's less powerful than the 100 points that will be awarded each riding under OMOV.  One member's vote has a bigger impact on the result under the new system.  

I also have to say that status quo supporters are being quite hypocritical when they argue that separate balloting at conventions is somehow better decision-making than voting all at once using a preferential ballot.   

The OLP, of course, uses the preferential ballot to elect all local riding candidates at nomination meetings.  If the OLP nomination rules for local candidates are valid, why can't we use the same system for leaders?  

Personally, I much prefer the sober vote of members listing out their choices in order in the privacy of their local ridings without the manipulations of a pressure cooker convention which, as I've already stated, are susceptible to backroom insider machinations.   

Status quo supporters say that conventions are "exciting" and give the party a boost in public support.  What superficial B.S.!  Kim Campbell got a nice boost after she won her delegated convention too.  So did Stephane Dion.  Enough said.  

The last argument being made by supporters of the status quo that really annoys me is that we should not change the rules of the leadership "in the middle of the race."  Most members will be surprised to hear that we are now "in the middle of the race."  Most would think the race really has barely begun.  

The leadership rules were last changed at the AGM in the spring of 1991, several months after the resignation announcement by David Peterson in September 1990 and while the party had an interim leader, as it does today.  They were changed less than a year before the eventual leadership convention took place in February 1992.  

The fact is that changing the leadership rules only really seems viable when the permanent leadership is otherwise vacant, as it is now.  The party has been reticent to revisit this topic when an incumbent leader, elected under the current system, remains in office. 


Thus, June's AGM represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the party to modernize itself. 

While the current system was innovative when it was adopted in 1991, it's now a bit archaic and looks elitist by today's standards.  

Voting to keep a delegated convention system, thus shutting out 95% of members from the final decision as to who should be leader, would send a grotesque signal to Ontarians that the Ontario Liberal Party isn't interested in modernizing.  

Let's pick someone strong who can appeal across the wide membership without the help of backroom deals at conventions.  Let's pick a strong new leader who can beat Doug Ford and Andrea Horwath.  Let's do it the right way.   

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