Wednesday, June 8, 2011

A PARTY OF IDEAS - Liberal Renewal Document

We've gotten some requests for the draft renewal plan "A Party Of Ideas", that our riding is circulating. I thought I'd post it here. If our party is going to rebound, we have to connect to liberal ideas and invest in having clear values we fight for before, during, and after elections. All of us working on this would love your comments.

Permanent Renewal of the New Brunswick Liberal Party

Submitted to the Fredericton Fort Nashwaak Liberal Association
Kelly Lamrock and Ben Sullivan
June 7, 2011

Making Renewal Count

Clearly, Liberals want to renew their party. In defeat, a party often learns who its true believers are. Without any of the perks of power, hundreds of Liberals have shown up at meetings of the Renewal Commission to offer ideas, take the chance to be heard, or even just hear their fellow Liberals offering ideas for how we make our party more democratic, open and principled.

Here in the riding of Fredericton Fort Nashwaak, we are supportive of the direction of the interim report of the Commission. We believe that the party's grassroots have offered solid suggestions to make the party more accountable to the Liberals who raise money, volunteer for campaigns and work hard to elect Liberal governments. In particular, we believe these particular directions are deserving of support.....

We fully support the regular updating of party membership lists and renewal of individual memberships, because to make membership meaningful there must be an efficient way for the party to both inform and consult its members. This cannot be done with the added expense and difficulty of sending information to lapsed or inactive members.

We urge the Commission to follow up upon recommendations to make party officers more accountable to the membership. In particular, we would support the creation of requirements for open meetings and regular membership contact on the part of regional representatives, whose roles should be clarified. Under the current system, once elected to the executive, representatives actually have very few incentives to support a more open, visible, accountable party, for the simple reasons that more debate, profile and new members make re-election challengers more likely. The party's interest in renewal must trump its individual directors' interest in continuity.

We support the Commission's interest in developing a full set of options for changes in how the party selects its leader. We are confident that a number of models and voting mechanisms can work, but the "One Member, One Vote" principle needs to be a bottom line for reform. If we are to attract new members and non-traditional supporters into the Liberal tent, they must have the ability to cast a ballot directly for the candidate which has inspired them to join. To buy into the old delegate system would be to put in place a system which encourages candidates to battle over dividing g up the status quo, rather than encouraging candidates who can grow the party and reach out to new members -- which by definition a party needs if it didn't have enough votes to win the last election.

We support the call, made by many Liberals, for a regular leadership review mechanism. Once in power, a party leader controls a great many levers over an elected caucus, including not only membership in cabinet, but membership in caucus and effectively, the party itself. If a leader pursues policies without input from elected caucus or party members, those wishing to dissent are often faced with an "all-or-nothing" decision where they walk away from all policies at great cost to the party, or remain silent. There should be checks and balances on leaders departing from the values and platform of their party, and regular reviews will do that. It is worth noting that the parliamentary system is premised on an elected caucus being able to choose and replace its leader, which makes leaders keenly aware of the need to be inclusive. While the more inclusive leadership convention has replaced this caucus power in Canadian politics, if those who elect have no effective power to unelected, we give our party and government over to an elected monarchy, which depends entirely on the instincts of the leader to be democratic. We support checks and balances.

It's (Mostly) About Policy

The party is speaking loud and clear through this renewal process -- the party's grassroots wants to be involved in developing policy and making sure that the party's values are reflected in the policies we pursue once elected.

Both the open meetings and the Commission's interim report paint a picture of a party's grassroots that felt left out by the sharp right turn in policy that occurred in the second half of the last government's mandate. The decisions to bring in deep tax cuts where most benefits went to the wealthy, to make cuts to areas of social spending that our party had funded very generously, and to begin selling a public utility with very little discussion all seemed in direct conflict with not only our party's platform but the first half of our party's mandate, where the Liberal government aggressively added funds and brought needed reforms to the health, education and social services departments.

There are lessons to be learned by the fact that when our party pursued the liberal goals we campaigned on, the party remained well ahead in the polls even through contentious reforms. And when we abandoned those principles and the purpose of reform was unclear to party members, the controversy proved fatal.

Certainly, people could learn from that experience that the Liberal government became too insular, with a small circle around the leader making decisions and working to minimize dissent, rather than welcome debate. We could also conclude, with enthusiasm, that Liberals joined the Liberal Party because they support liberal policies, and any attempt to govern as a second conservative party will likely result in the election of the genuine article and the defeat of our party.

The most important lesson, however, is that the modern political party has changed. Parties are not instruments of getting power, paving roads and rewarding supporters, and party members are not there to wave signs, raise money and leave policy decisions to unelected political machines, as long as they deliver power. Today, people want the decision to join a political party to be meaningful, and to express what they believe. They want to shape policies and debate ideas.

To lightheartedly borrow a line from Bill Clinton's campaign, it's about ideas, stupid.

If we don't speak to the desire of many new, young, or disengaged voters to join parties because of ideas, we will not regain power soon. We will lose many bright, capable, progressive voters to parties like the NDP and Greens. Because these parties are small and have no spoils of power to fight over, they can offer new members a chance to be included in policy decisions and to focus on ideas.

It is clear that Liberal members have spent a great deal of the renewal process expressing a desire to get members more engaged in policy, which strongly suggests that we are lacking this now. Yet, the Renewal Commission's mandate is not to start a policy process or to write a platform, so how can we ensure that the biggest issue identified by Liberals is actually heard?

The Dangers of Life After Renewal

After the party's defeat in 1999, many of the same concerns around the need for principled policy and inclusive policy making were raised, and a renewal process was undertaken. Yet, after rising and falling electorally, the same concerns are there.

Once the renewal process is done, the party will turn its mind to the election of a leader, and that new leader will themselves be surrounded with advisors and supporters who will have every incentive to return to the "king and court" model that defines leader-driven parties. Even as the party has made it clear that we want renewal to take precedence over the drama of a leadership convention, there are very few ways to make sure that once a leader is in place the structure will protect the ideas expressed in the renewal process.

For members of our riding association, correcting the mistakes that cost us government is not about electing a new face, replacing old back room advisors with new ones, and waiting for the Conservatives to mess up. For Liberals in Fredericton Fort Nashwaak, it is essential that we change the culture of the Liberal Party.

Five Suggestions for an Ideas-Driven Party

Even if the renewal process doesn't launch policy debates, now is the time to look at changes that will turn a leader-driven party into an ideas-driven party. While the structural changes proposed in the interim report are a solid start, we would like to respectfully offer five suggestions that will make our party one which is built around ideas and inclusion.

Structure the Liberal Party around ideas and interests, instead of only geography.

Parties historically organize by riding association because these are effective political divisions. Ridings can organize for elections, riding presidents can structure communications of the party's message, and once in power they are effective ways by which local representatives can have an area in which they make decisions on local projects and decisions. Yet, these are proving to be out-of-date ways to organize in a world where people's interests may be broader than the neighborhood in which they happen to live.

One common complaint many Liberals have made is that when new people want to join the party, there is not always effective follow-up. Sometimes, this is because local riding associations are small and lack resources. Many riding executives have also expressed concern that the usual event in a riding, the riding association meeting, is a poor fit for a new member. One can imagine a young couple in, say, York joining the Liberal Party because they are concerned about the Tory record on the environment. If they even hear from the riding president, all a riding president can do is invite them to a riding meeting, where they will generally join a group of strangers who have known each other for years, and hear about an agenda of internal party issues such as local fundraising and provincial delegate selection. Even if they might qualify for groups because they are young or female, these groups have a mandate to first organize their constituency association, not address issues. How do we make new members feel like joining our party advances the issues they care about?

One way to do this is to reinforce the old region/riding hierarchy with organizations based upon common issues, that may unite a new member in Albert with a new member in Caraquet if both care about, say, education or seniors' issues.

The Liberal Party should create a number of issue-based constituencies, on issues such as Education, Health Care, The Environment, Social Justice, Economic Development, Community Development, Population Growth, and others. Members can join these groups when they join the party a be connected to Liberals who share their interests and passions.

Each of these groups can be headed by a Chair elected by the party's convention and responsible for organizing their interest group. This organization will involve establishing common social networks, launching policy debates, undertaking political action with elected caucus and at the grassroots level, liaising with NGOs who may share an interest in the issue, and reaching out to members who join the issue constituency. It is recommended that these Chairs attend executive and membership meetings but not have automatic voting status, so that this work does not become politicized by leadership or party politics.

Not only does this allow for an open party that values discussion, but it is a smart political organizing model. Campaigns such as the Obama presidential campaign have found the value of reaching out to groups based upon issues as well as regions, because it allows the party to assemble a coalition of people interested in a variety of issues, gives the party an interface with NGOs that are non-partisan but may help the party communicate its message, and to open up new avenues for members in regions where party organization is weak. It is not meant to replace riding and regional structures, but to add to them in a way that does things the old structure is not good at.

2. Give the Liberal Party grassroots an independent voice in policy making.
3. Define the platform development process, with grassroots involvement, in the party's constitution.

Certain points keep recurring in the renewal process, like the fact that the last election platform seemed to be a surprise to almost everybody, including elected caucus members. In an ideas-driven party, where members have a say beyond being an election machine, this should not be the case.

Traditionally, consultations and engagement around platforms are organized by the Leader's Office. Especially in government, the apparatus around the leader may have interests that compete with inclusion of the grassroots, including the need to avoid controversy on government policy and the desire to use the knowledge of the civil service. However, the platform cannot grow divorced from the issues that motivate our volunteers. Even though an elected premier and caucus will have responsibilities to a group larger and more diverse than their own party, there should be an ability of members to shape key policies and values in the platform we present to the electorate. Even if the leader must finally sign off, there should be a constitutionally-guaranteed role for the party grassroots.

We recommend that an independent position of Vice President (Policy) be created, elected by and accountable to the membership. This officer will be responsible for chairing the council of policy chairs, oversee the party's ongoing policy engagement mechanisms, and oversee accountability of the leader and caucus for party policy.

We further recommend that a platform development process be entrenched in the party's constitution, wherein the Vice President Policy and a member elected by caucus will co-chair the platform process with independent resources at their disposal, with the leader's approval of the final platform being required.

4. Give the party, not the Leader's Office, final say over how accountability sessions are organized at party meetings.

One advantage of having an open, democratic party is that they can warn a party's elected wing when they are heading for trouble. If a policy is unpopular, it is better to first hear that from those who are going to vote for you. At the same time, if a policy struggles to be accepted by those who are likely predisposed to support you, it can be a sign of trouble ahead.

Many Liberals felt that accountability sessions were stage managed to minimize debate rather than to give our elected caucus the full benefit of what the grassroots were hearing. The result was that we went in to the last election campaign with many Liberals still debating whether or not they felt inclined to support the party's candidate in their area. While no party will ever see all its members agree, a process that makes everyone feel heard can ensure more people feel included in the final decision and inclined to defend it.

We recommend that one half day at each biennial be organized by the Vice President (Policy) who can design accountability session formats and processes. We further recommend that the Vice President (Policy) and the policy chairs council be given the authority to designate certain parts of the platform as requiring regular updates from the leader and caucus to ensure that they are being followed.

5. A party of ideas must invest in ideas.

One lesson Liberals learned from the last federal election is that we cannot let our party become a bland, undefined option. The center isn't just the space between two beliefs, but instead liberalism is a unique and principled philosophy itself. We are the only party which stands for both individual freedom and equality, and believes that sometimes people are only fully and equally free if government stands up for the underdog on economic and social issues. Conservatives only defend liberty by refusing to act to guarantee equality, and New Democrats are quick to leave the individual aside by protecting their privileged groups such as labour. Liberals are the party of the underdog, and will take principled stands to defend the little guy.

Yet we have seen Conservatives and NDPers,and even the Green Party, become more defined brands in the minds of voters. In part, this is because they invest in ideas and are willing to stand for the same thing from election to election even if they have to work to take ideas from skepticism to acceptance. These parties all support foundations and research that advance ideas within their ideology. Liberals have shown remarkable skill at defending our past victories, from Equal Opportunity to the economic development tools of the McKenna era, but we haven't always invested in the ideas of the future that allow us to fight and win elections.

We recommend that the party set a goal of investing 10% of provincially-raised funds in a New Brunswick Liberal Policy Institute, which will support research and policy development papers from a liberal perspective from party members, NGOs and riding associations.

We further recommend that the party establish a permanent social media presence inviting ongoing debates, papers, videos and ideas on emerging issues. Both the Institute and its on-line presence should be overseen by the Vice President (Policy) and the issue chairs, and accountable to the party executive.

Renewal Is About Real Change

Here in Fredericton Fort Nashwaak, we are committed to rebuilding our party and returning Liberal values to government. However, to really show New Brunswickers that we have received their message, change must be based upon substance and ideas.

Some pundits from outside have framed our challenge in stylistic terms, arguing that new faces, or slogans, or brands will be enough to "break" from the past. We disagree with that. In fact, we think superficially running from the past is as futile as superficially embracing it. The goal is to be clear about what we embrace, and what we change, and to do so with wisdom and principle.

After all, the past Liberal government did good things, had good people, and left behind real achievements, from higher literacy scores to strong anti-poverty programs to more accessible universities and colleges to improved health care and a growing population. While we made mistakes that put these gains at risk, we should not run away from those things we did well. After all, as the Alward government slashes women's health services, cuts classroom education and cancels key poverty reduction planks designed to help poor families through tough times, the strong part of our past gives us strong, principled grounds to challenge the Conservative agenda in the future. Just wiping the slate clean and waiting for our turn won't work -- the absence of baggage is not the same as the presence of vision.

We can accept, though, that the way in which we brought in change, with too few people included, and with our principles either unclear or inconsistent, made many New Brunswickers uncomfortable with change. Mr. Alward has overread his mandate, too, returning us to the do-nothing days of the rejected Lord government. But we need to make change trustworthy again if we want to win.

We can start by making our party open and welcoming to all those who know that New Brunswick can't stand still; a place where we are more about developing ideas than protecting power. We start by showing the humility to learn from our mistakes even as we have the courage to defend our achievements. By making our party structure one that supports the politics of ideas, we change the perception and reality of what the New Brunswick Liberal Party is about.

We look forward to discussing these ideas as Liberals.