Sunday, March 24, 2013

Liberals Should Beware Emulating US Primaries

During the Liberal leadership debate over the weekend, several candidates, including Justin Trudeau and Joyce Murray came out in favour of what they're calling "open nominations."  The idea being that the Liberal candidate in each riding will be picked by the members of that riding association, and the national leader will not intervene.

This is an appealing idea for some obvious reasons and clearly popular among rank and file Liberal party members as a means to weaken the tight grip of the national leadership on the party.  I fear this takes the Liberal party toward US style party-primary elections.  I have two major problems with this, based on what I've seen watching US politics:

  • Small, local elections are the easiest ones to buy or rig.  They get almost zero media coverage, and in that environment, sheer name recognition will usually carry the day.  Rather than being meaningful representations of true voter desires, the person whose name they recognize from ads or direct mail will usually win.  
  • The people who win can be widely divergent from the National party's positions, and in particular the Leader's positions.  This sounds much better than it works in practice.  The US Parties, and the Democratic Party in particular are often incoherent and poorly coordinated affairs.  Voters frequently are confused over what the parties stand for, and the reason is at least partly because the Democratic party has elected officials who call themselves "conservative" and others "moderate" and a few that admit to being "liberal."  Some are pro-gun control, others against.  Some pro-choice, others pro-life. At some point a Big Tent becomes so big as to be just a circus, with the leader reduced to ringleader.
The fallout of this is that it has the perverse effect of decreasing democratic accountability by leaving voters without clear choices in government.  Right now the parties are fairly easy to distinguish, and to understand what they stand for.  The road the Liberals are going down leads to a leader unable to respond to members who openly flout the leader, and the loss of party discipline.  After, all if the leader can't deny a member the party's nomination in the next election, the biggest means of enforcing party discipline is lost.

I am all for giving ordinary members stronger input into the party's positions and ideology.  Having a set of Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson style gadflies who delight in spiting the leadership to side with other parties as splashy shows of independence is not an effective way to do that.  Parties need coherence in order to remain meaningful organizations that actually stand for something.  Reducing the Liberal Party to a 338 member confederacy may leave it an incoherent mess, and easy prey for the other parties that do not follow suit in immunizing their riding nominees from national control.


  1. The importance of political parties, sound bites, leaders and campaign contributors would decrease if the electoral quotient were to decrease to what it was in 1867 (approximately 19,000), which would also increase voter turnout amongst other benefits.

    1. I'm not opposed to increasing the number of MPs, but I don't see how that's a cure for the ills you list. Municipal politics is officially non-partisan and it is not short of these things, and frankly, people are even more ignorant of municipal political issues than federal ones, they also turn out at much lower rates.

      Parties help people keep track of who's on their side and who's not without having to have a masters in Poli Sci. Expecting people to dig up detailed issue voting scorecards and lobbying donations records isn't realistic. Give me a few teams to root for and let the colour of the jersey tell me enough about what they're for and about.