[Welcome, National Newswatch readers!]
Today as the nation's capital focuses on the first in a series of votes on the government's budgetary, economic, and kitchen sink policy, another set of votes will be taken on the future of one of the historic players in Canada's political party system.
It's the day the leadership of the Liberal Party sets down the rules by which the new Leader will be selected.
The Ottawa bubble is focused on two major storylines in that regard – whether Bob Rae can run, and whether Justin Trudeau will (or should) – but many other issues must be decided, any of which could have an impact on the party's chances of rebuilding and moving forward.
The Liberals arrive at the point of choosing a Leader in a very different set of circumstances than the NDP, and somewhat different from the Bloc Québécois. Like the Bloc, their leader resigned in the immediate wake of a surprisingly poor showing in the May 2011 election, though had both their fortunes unfolded differently, Michael Ignatieff probably had a little more shelf-life as leader than did Gilles Duceppe.
This means that several potential Bloc leadership candidates had already been testing the waters, building a platform and team, and getting ready for a possible leadership run by the time of Duceppe's exit, and that party had a fairly clear process for picking his replacement. Though a minority preferred a longer renewal and decision-making timeline, the Bloc's braintrust settled on a quick leadership race, which featured a smaller subset of the original likely candidates, but a set of them ready to go, regardless. A caucus elder was the obvious choice for interim leader, he led in the interim which was mercifully short, and once the decision was made everyone just got on with it.
The Liberals, by contrast, opted to try and cure themselves of repetitive leaderitis, and thus took a longer period of reflection (which would have also afforded any potential candidates sufficient time to assess the competitive landscape and do the necessary prep work to help them make a good decision when the time came).
Either way, both of those parties will have arrived at leadership launch day with some pretty well-formed leadership campaigns ready to go.
That was not the case for the NDP, many of whose potential leadership candidates were expecting a race as many as four years down the road, and who were thus still assembling their campaigns on the fly behind the scenes after the campaign officially launched. While the media called the race long and tedious, much of the groundwork usually laid months and years in advance was now taking place in real time, and the obvious deficiencies of each candidate were often left unremedied for lack of time to fully address them. In reality, the NDP didn't have much choice in the matter, as they needed to move to a race fairly quickly given the other circumstances, but it did lead to a campaign somewhat lacking in full-on policy development in a number of cases, and candidates who needed some more experience in a number of key skills.
This, I believe, leads to the first lesson the Liberals should learn from the recent NDP Leadership Race:
1. Take the time truly required to ensure that a good number of potential candidates are ready to put their best foot forward in a leadership campaign.
In fact, there are a number of Liberal leadership candidates who have already been travelling to party events across the country, and have campaign teams in various states of readiness. They aren't always the names you hear in Ottawa, but if I was one of those candidates, the Hy's summer patio would be one of my last campaign stops, not one of the early ones, at this stage of the game.
A related issue is getting the incentives right for the appropriate balance between facilitating new blood to run, and not hampering substantive debate between the candidates. Just ask the NDP how difficult it was to get the 9-candidate debate formats right in order to please multiple interests (party members, the media, live broadcasters, leadership candidates, local organizers, etc.). A fully regionally, generationally, linguistically, and visibly diverse group of candidates is also a large group of candidates. And there's only so much you can say of substance in 30-second answers. Hence the next lesson:
2. Make sure the entry rules enable a true and fulsome debate between a set of viable and well-prepared candidates.
Part of what many NDP members pushed the party executive to do was set the rules so as to give them a wide range of choices. In particular, they wanted Mr. Mulcair's candidacy to be viable, which meant giving the party's Quebec section time to catch up in membership work with the rest of the country. In the end, it's not clear the extra time did accomplish that to the extent they hoped for in Quebec, I've argued elsewhere. Perhaps human nature needing a deadline would have accomplished the same work in less time, who knows. But this emphasizes another lesson.
3. Design the process in a way that will help build the party on a long-term basis.
I wonder if the new Supporter category is going to do this for the Liberals. To me, you want people with at least some stake in the outcome making the decisions if they're going to be good ones, and no membership fee = potentially no stake. Of course, all Canadians have a stake in the outcome of electios, but picking the person who will make all the key strategic and resource allocation decisions of a political party in order to help that party win actual seats entails a very different set of intermediate stakes – the kind that riding activists and party election volunteers are much more attuned to.
The Supporter category does have the benefits of (a) being something new, and (b) allowing the party to harvest email addresses of its universe of likely supporters in the next election, so it's not without some merit. On the other hand, I wonder if Liberal Party elders have fully absorbed how potentially disruptive it could be to their party's infrastructure to have a swarm of minimally committed social media denizens vote and run, leaving the party with a leader having little institutional mandate to undertake the reforms they know have to come next. And speaking of next steps …
4. Make sure the race itself doesn't hobble the party in what it needs to do afterwards.
So much money (not by their standards at the time, mind you, but in light of subsequent financial demands) was spent on the 2006 Liberal leadership race on things like salaries and hospitality suites and who knows what other luxuries, that the cupboard was bare amongst party donors by the time a major TV ad buy was needed to respond to the Conservatives. And some candidates are still struggling to pay off those debts.
The spending limit has to reflect the party's new circumstances. The Liberals need to find a leader who can maximize the value of every campaign dollar now, because that's the kind of leader they'll need in 2015.
Another aspect of this lesson is to ensure that all candidates and their teams believe they've been treated fairly, and that all eligible voters (members and "Supporters") feel they've had a fair opportunity to participate and cast their ballots. The contest has to be run by a group of party elders with no other interests than the long-term best interests of the whole organization. High penalties should be levied for hijinks and trying to skirt the rules, and some of the crazy membership rules (you can only get xx number of forms at a time, and only if you have a friend in the department and stand on your head while juggling, etc., etc.) need to be tossed in favour of a system where any Canadian who wants to can join up, and each of the leadeship contestants can have fair and equal access to that new voter. And create a culture that will reward collaboration after the race, rather than exacerbate divisions.
This leads me to the last lesson for the party:
5. Plan for the long-term, focus on what matters, and don't sweat the small stuff so much.
The amount of fuss about an interim leader having some advantage through extra Question Period profile or travel time is out of all proportion to the actual benefit, and overlooks the associated risks for that individual now having a record as well. Every candidate is going to have some inherent advantages and acquired shortcomings before this is all over. It doesn't matter. Also, as Interim Leader, that person was never supposed to make party policy, nor could they be expected to out-poll a honeymooning competitor, or move mountains either for that matter. The leadership process now is supposed to allow the party to pick the best leader for the next task at hand. Focus on that.
Equally, the next interim leader does not need to win every news cycle in Twitterdom. No-one will remember that in a year's time. And any party preference polls taken during the leadership race are purely hypothetical, as will be the ones that test various leadership candidates' names against the current Prime Minister or NDP Leader. Plus, if the GOP primaries were anything to go by, in a large slate, each contestant is going to go through a honeymoon followed by a brutal vetting, so don't count any chickens before they've fully hatched.
Whoever is elected leader will need to have and share a long-term vision for the party, and curb its tendency to manage only to the daily Ottawa news cycle. They will need the trust of the members and a mandate to take the difficult decisions. Twitter stardom may or may not help in all this, but gravitas or down-home common sense might do the job just as well.
As for some of the mechanical details, if the Liberals are going to use online voting, they will be at less risk of a serious Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack if it's used only for advanced voting, or is not constrained to short voting windows while on live TV. If it's high profile and time-limited on the other hand, it's an irresistable target for the parents' basement nerd disrupter squads.
While we're at it, it's not only the Liberals who have some lessons to learn, but the rest of us when following the race. Here are some of the pointers I've taken away;
- The Ottawa media will crown someone as a front-runner who they know and/or think their audiences already know.
- For this reason, carrying the mantle of the early "front-runner" is not always all it's cracked up to be.
- A good idea and a clear message about it can vault an underestimated candidate into the final consideration set, ahead of many other more familiar names.
- One member-one vote races require organization to win, but organization alone is not sufficient to win them.
- Regardless of how many other things a candidate does well, it will be One Big Thing that trips them up in the end, and that one big thing is usually knowable or guessable in the first week or so.
- It can be hard to tell the difference between a Game Changer and a Hail Mary Pass when you're in the thick of a campaign, but it's obvious to pretty much everyone else on the outside eventually.
Are there any other lessons you think can be drawn from recent experience?