The most exciting leadership race in the history of our party is over. Let’s get ready for the next election.

Stéphane Dion, December 2, 2006

These words, coming on the heels of a stunning upset victory at Montreal’s Palais des Congrès, were the first words uttered in public by the new leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. They must have been carefully considered, as Stéphane Dion had made several requests, via his advisers, for extra time to prepare his acceptance speech, even as Liberal delegates and Canadians watching on television eagerly awaited the announcement of fourth-ballot results.

Yet getting “ready for the next election” seemed to be the last of Dion’s concerns in the weeks and months that followed.

Liberals had, in the space of three years, held their third national convention (including two leadership conventions) and fought two federal election campaigns. Those events, coming in rapid succession, had tested the party’s mettle and kept open old wounds born of past and present leadership battles.

The Liberal Party under Dion was ill prepared to face the Canadian electorate. Despite the glow of a successful convention, and the attendant “bounce” in public opinion polling, Dion faced a caucus that had largely spurned his leadership campaign, and a small base of personal support in the party, with precious few adherents in his home province of Quebec.

The Liberal Party under Dion was ill prepared to face the Canadian electorate.

Yet Dion decided to do things the hard way. Despite the encouraging initiative of gathering his leadership rivals for a post-convention luncheon, Dion never seriously considered any of their campaigns as sources of fresh talent for his office or the campaign structure. Long-standing members of Parliament became painfully aware that their contributions would no longer be solicited or required, and began making plans to step down, opening up Liberal ridings to by-elections, such as Outremont in September 2007, where the party (and the leader) had everything to lose. Former leadership candidates were grudgingly given vague assignments and little authority to carry them out. Most importantly, and fatefully, the new leader ignored (or was persuaded to ignore) the work of a transition group appointed by interim leader Bill Graham and party president Michael Eizenga.

For months, this small group of volunteers had gone about its business, quietly gathering “nuts and bolts” information about things like budgets for the Office of the Leader of the Opposition and party finances and fundraising plans, while preparing rules for candidate nominations and soliciting volunteers to help run provincial campaigns. Contracts to conclude vital database work were executed, and new professional fundraising staff had been hired after national searches. The work of the transition group was completed prior to the convention, and the party was prepared to welcome its new leader with a clear agenda for rebuilding without, of course, knowing his or her identity.

Included in the materials generated by this process was a recommendation from the party’s advertising group that the new leader, as a first step on the road to election readiness, undertake an immediate advertising campaign to “introduce” himself or herself to Canadian voters, define his or her priorities and contrast his or her record with that of the governing Conservatives. This recommendation prophetically predicted that the new leader would face a “race to the frame” against an anticipated Conservative onslaught of negative advertising designed to hobble him or her as Parliament returned after the New Year.

Funds had been identified for this purpose. Despite having recently fought two expensive national elections, the party finished 2006 firmly in the black. Due partly to a successful convention, the party’s war chest was in the vicinity of $5 million, even after the elimination of long-standing debts incurred in the party’s provincial wings.

The rest is well-known political history. The Conservatives launched a large-scale advertising campaign, with the devastatingly simple tag line of “Dion: Not a leader,” showing Dion in debates throwing up his hands, exclaiming, “Do you think it’s easy to make priorities?” Dion’s Liberal Party opted not to respond in kind.

Fast-forward almost two years: “Canadians have seen the propaganda of the Conservatives and that’s the way they saw me,” Dion said on October 20, 2008, at a news conference announcing his post-election resignation. “The Conservatives will never be able to do to another leader what they did to me,” he vowed. Had he chosen to listen to his party’s advertising experts in December 2006, the Conservatives would not have had an unfettered opportunity to “do” it to him, either.

In this, as in so many things, Dion retreated into himself, making his plans known only to a small coterie of loyal staff. He did so rather than seeking the advice, wisdom and experience of the Liberals from across Canada who had made him their consensus choice for leader, in part because they did not want “establishments” running the party.

Counter-intuitively, this “outsider” choice for leader, along with his eventual ally, Gerard Kennedy, had not shown much interest in party reform. In fact, their campaigns made clear that, while they would not actively oppose efforts aimed at reforming the Liberal Party and its unwieldy constitutional structure, they had little interest in its success. The rest of the field, including Michael Ignatieff, Bob Rae and the other candidates, were vocal in their support. Eventually, the efforts of reform-minded Liberals were rewarded with the adoption of a new party constitution at the 2006 convention.

Eventually, the efforts of reform-minded Liberals were rewarded with the adoption of a new party constitution at the 2006 convention.

The centrepiece of this reform was the creation of a central party membership, eliminating the patchwork of requirements, fees and databases that had served to hobble the party’s efforts at recruitment, engagement and fundraising. A policy “super-committee” charged with grassroots policy renewal was vested with huge power. A new structure, the national Council of Presidents, designed as an annual opportunity for the party to engage directly with its grassroots, was heartily embraced. The new constitution, even while needing two-thirds’ support from delegates, passed easily.

In every corner of the Liberal Party structure, Liberals with a view to modernizing their party had dusted off the cobwebs, eliminating the “rotten boroughs” and creating powerful new roles for grassroots riding associations in the areas of organization and policy development. In intent if not yet in practice, Liberals had achieved, in nine short months in opposition, a framework for a modern political organization.

Sadly, the new structures were given short shrift. In fairness to Dion and his team, the perpetual threat of an election in a minority parliament offers a convenient and sometimes convincing excuse for postponing the heavy lifting of party renewal. But postponed it was. As a result, the inaugural meeting of the flagship Council of Presidents turned into an expensive rally, rather than the locus of training and organization that was its intent. The policy outreach of the party was virtually non-existent, and platform development was restricted to the leader’s office. The national membership platform has yet to be made fully functional, and fundraising, predictably, sagged. The party has mostly remained immune to the Web 2.0 revolution that has swept into democracies everywhere, particularly in the United States.

It can, in fact, be argued that the Liberal Party was not the beneficiary of Dion’s most successful effort at party building.

It can, in fact, be argued that the Liberal Party was not the beneficiary of Dion’s most successful effort at party building. In an unprecedented act of generosity toward, it must be said, a far-left political enemy, Dion vowed not to run a Liberal candidate against Green Party leader Elizabeth May. Their pact of mutual admiration served to legitimize a heretofore marginal political option, and ultimately, to secure May a place in the televised leaders’ debates. Liberals were left to ask themselves how the viability of the Green Party and its admittedly endearing leader was consistent with the long-term interests of the Liberal Party.

For that matter, most Liberals genuinely believe that ours is the better environmental perspective, and that we ought not to outsource our platform to other political parties. Regardless, despite the “greenest” Liberal leader and platform in history, the Green popular vote increased by more than 50 percent, going from 4.48 percent to 6.80 percent. Dozens of Liberal candidates and their supporters, including several prominent incumbents who lost by smaller margins than the vote of the “legitimized” Green Party, will doubtless question the logic of this unprecedented alliance for years to come.

Notwithstanding the disastrous election results and the partie remise of party renewal, Dion’s tenure as leader will have served to bring into better relief the challenges the party faces, even as it prepares to enter Canada’s third straight minority Parliament, and its second as official opposition.

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Dion was, and is, a serious, earnest and devoted politician. He held to the view that good policy lets the politics look after itself. Political organization and fundraising held little interest for him, even less than the daily ritual of personal pettiness that is Question Period in the House of Commons.

Yet, just as the most gifted race-car drivers must learn the dreadful art of the pit stop, political leaders — especially those in opposition — must carefully attend to the details of party building. Liberals, as they prepare to elect a new leader, will resolutely add “politics” to the job description of Dion’s successor.

Despite Dion’s vows to help prevent a repeat, it will fall to his successor to pick up the mantle of party renewal. The next leader will inherit a direr financial situation, fewer members of Parliament and an equally tenuous parliamentary situation. The temptation to postpone renewal will once again be strong. The pressures engendered by every Commons confidence vote will be no less severe.

The next leader will inherit a direr financial situation, fewer members of Parliament and an equally tenuous parliamentary situation.

The future of the Liberal Party depends on its new leader eschewing a short-term theory of political organization. More to the point, the future of the party depends on the leader having a theory of political organization.

It has become cliché, in the wake of the achievements of Barack Obama in the United States, to look to his successes for nuggets of political inspiration. Clearly, there is much to be inspired by. However, Obama was himself inspired in his efforts by the unsuccessful run for the presidency, four years earlier, of the then-mocked Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont and current chair of the Democratic National Committee. Dean’s theory of political organization was artfully simple:

● Make politics accessible to citizens through extensive use of Internet technologies.

● Use those technologies to encourage exchange, debate and discussion, thereby stimulating engagement (and fundraising).

● Take the fight to your opponents everywhere. Cede no ground.

No one is mocking Dean now. However, many Liberals who thought our path back to power was surer (and shorter) than it is likely to be were indeed mocking the party’s invitation of Howard Dean to deliver the keynote address to the 2006 Liberal convention, where he said:

I believe there are two main lessons from our success. Lessons for progressive parties everywhere. Simply put, they have to do with the place of power and how it’s practised. By the place of power, I mean where it resides. And that is with the people. It does not work its way from the top down. It grows from the grassroots up. It grows not just in the areas that have traditionally supported you. Whether it is the Liberal Party or the Democratic Party, we should never cede a single region or province. Nor should we ever cede a single voter. Not a single one. It is a mark of respect for the voters that we ask each one for their vote regardless of the likelihood of getting it. This is what we call the 50-state strategy. We shouldn’t just court big donors; we must include small contributors. We have had to transform ourselves into a Party that could communicate with its supporters and with all of our citizens…in the traditional ways…but also in new ways. By using the power and potential of technology as part of an aggressive outreach to meet and include voters and to get our message out. But at the end of the day — whether we’re talking 50 states or 13 provinces and territories — it’s pretty simple. It’s just this: Show up everywhere. And work hard everywhere. Knock on doors everywhere. Make the calls everywhere. Shake hands everywhere. Do the hard work everywhere.

For a party that has grown accustomed, over the past few elections, to retreating to the left and its diminished coalition, this is revolutionary. However, I suspect that Liberals have grown weary of end-of-campaign appeals for strategic votes from New Democrats. Rather, Liberals are motivated by the idea of belonging to a moderate, centrist, truly national political organization, and they want the party to start acting that way once again.

This work will not occur in Ottawa. It can occur only in cities and towns across the country. It requires that the rules-based, traditional power structures of the party yield to the voices of engaged Canadians. It requires that the party reconnect with Liberals in the broad swaths of Canada where we do not currently compete for seats. The first opportunity for this engagement will occur in the looming leadership contest. While the last race clearly captivated Canadians, and stimulated an infusion of fresh energy to the party, what followed was a letdown. This time, candidates for leadership have an opportunity to set it right. They can do so by committing to an agenda for party renewal that will allow Liberals to capitalize on the momentum generated by the election of a new leader. Of necessity, the candidates will have collectively garnered support from every riding in the country, and as a result, will have identified a nucleus of Liberals willing to contribute on a local level to the rebuilding of the party. This time, that local energy must be harnessed and be immediately put to work in a 308-riding strategy, supported by organizational capability in every province. Harnessing that energy will also require a hard look at the party’s policies and, vitally, an examination of why they fail to appeal to a broad cross-section of Canadians.

Some Liberals wish that, this time, we could spend more time in an exercise of self-definition and policy development prior to the election of a new leader. This is a noble and constructive impulse. During the 2006 leadership race, however, such an exercise was initiated and involved the drafting of some 30 policy papers on all the great issues of the day. The process foundered. Like party renewal, the work (much of it useful) undertaken as part of this exercise was promptly and inexplicably shelved after the leadership convention.

The larger lesson is that only a new leader can set out the terms of policy renewal, just as Lester Pearson did with the Kingston Conference in 1960, and Jean Chrétien did in Aylmer in 1991.

The reality of today, as opposed to even the efforts of Chrétien, is that more and more Canadians will want “in.” A new leader must move to stimulate real discussions about policy, enabled by technology, and make this a permanent feature of an evergreen process of policy renewal. This is not to say that another thinkers’ conference, à la Kingston, cannot serve to underscore and inform the choices faced by the party, but the idea that a small group of people can retreat to a single location and emerge with a governing agenda is a relic of, well, 1960.

A new leader should also move to democratize the party by allowing free and open nomination contests in every riding in the country. While it is undeniably difficult to ask sitting MPs to fight nomination battles while being asked to remain constantly under the party’s whip in Ottawa during a minority Parliament, many ridings — with the largest and most active, engaged memberships in the country — have not had a legitimate nomination contest in more than a dozen years. Other, “winnable” ridings too often fall prey to the temptation for the party to set them aside for potential star candidates, who too often fail to materialize. To be sure, a limited amount of electoral districts must, after consultation with the riding executive, be available to facilitate the recruitment of men and women of singular talent. But as a general rule, the party’s constitution must be respected, as spelled out in sections 58 and 59:

Each [Electoral District Association] must hold a candidate selection meeting to select a candidate of the Party for election to the House of Commons at the time specified by, and in accordance with, the rules made by the National Election Readiness Committee …Every member of the Party has the right to attend a candidate selection meeting of their EDA and has the right to vote at that meeting.

A membership engaged by a compelling leadership race and encouraged to contribute their ideas and energies will look after the fundraising conundrum. As we have witnessed elsewhere, engagement is fundraising. They are inseparable. Canadians will be motivated to contribute to a revitalized Liberal Party where they feel a connection to, and a measure of ownership in, the success of the party. This comes about by returning to the basic democratic principles that have, inexorably, found their way back into parties on the path to renewal, notably grassroots policy development and free and open nominations.

To be sure, there is not much time. Harper’s minority government will face extraordinary economic challenges in the coming months, and Liberals must quickly develop compelling alternatives to Conservative policy.

A new leader will face the same temptations as did Dion. Some will attempt to persuade him or her that only incremental gains are possible, and that the party must focus its dwindling resources on areas where we can win. Others will seek to postpone, once again, the vital work of modernizing the party. Still others will resist opening up the party to broad-based, national policy dialogue. I hope we select a leader who will reject such advice. As Liberals, let us hope that we elect a leader with a truly national perspective of what the Liberal Party can be, a sense of what we have built in the past and a vision and resolve to get us there again.

Steven MacKinnon, a former national director of the Liberal Party of Canada and a candidate in Quebec in the 2011 election, is a principal in the Ottawa office of Hill and Knowlton Canada.

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