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Federal Liberal adoption of Alberta Liberal leadership voting rule is sure to end badly

Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae

If he loses his seat in the next provincial election, will Alberta Liberal Leader Raj Sherman run for the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada?

He can if he wants, if the timing works out. And what the heck, he's even a Liberal now. It's said here that losing his seat is a virtual certainty.

At any rate, we are reliably informed that the federal Liberals yesterday adopted the same nutty leadership voting rule as their Alberta counterpart, the one that will allow any interested Canadian to vote for their next party leader.

According to a report in the Toronto Star yesterday, "Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae implored party members to back the move, calling it a 'historic change' to the party's makeup."

Oh, it'll be historic change, all right. But one suspects Rae will wake up this morning, shake his head and say, "what was I thinking?" If not this morning, eventually.

According to the Star's report of the federal Liberals' national convention Friday, yesterday and today in Ottawa, the rule will create a new class of party "supporters" who are not dues-paying, card-carrying members but who will get to vote in party elections anyway.

Anyone from Alberta who's been paying attention will be familiar with this scheme, as it's essentially the same one adopted by the Alberta Liberals last summer in the run-up to the provincial party's leadership vote.

But that innovation did not play out exactly as advertised. Sherman, an Emergency Room physician and mercurial former Conservative who had been fired by then-premier Ed Stelmach for going over the top criticizing his own party's health care policy, handily defeated a stalwart and effective Liberal MLA named Hugh MacDonald and several other candidates for the party leadership.

It was said in this blog immediately after the Sept. 10 Alberta Liberal vote that there were two schools of thought about Sherman's election:

"One is that the former Progressive Conservative Parliamentary Secretary for Health, who was fired from his post and kicked out of the Tory caucus last November by Premier Ed Stelmach is a remarkable politician who has the power to shake up Alberta politics and challenge the government from the centre. …

"The other is that the MLA for Edmonton-Meadowlark is a divisive and impulsive one-issue politician who will be the final stake driven through the heart of the moribund Alberta Liberal Party. As veteran NDP campaigner Lou Arab observed in a Tweet moments after the results were announced to a mostly empty gymnasium at the University of Alberta: 'Raj Sherman is built for speed, not distance. This will end badly for the Liberals.'"

Subsequent events suggest Arab got it right.

MacDonald, MLA for Edmonton-Gold Bar, pulled the plug later in September, disgusted at the outcome of the leadership race and the way it was conducted, announcing he would not run in the next election. At the end of November, Lethbridge-East MLA Bridget Pastoor crossed the floor and joined Premier Alison Redford's Conservatives.

Two other MLAs, former party leader Kevin Taft, Edmonton-Riverview, and Harry Chase, Calgary Varsity, had already announced they wouldn't run again. That means only four MLAs from the party's current eight-member caucus will even be running again, at least as Liberals. To date, the Alberta Liberals have nominated only 23 candidates for 87 provincial seats in an election that must take place in March, April or May.

Now, you can argue that the Alberta Liberals' problems stem from Sherman's leadership, or from external problems, but it's said here that an election process that allowed a high-profile outsider with extremely shallow roots in the party to seize the leadership is a significant part of the problem.

This is not to say the same thing will happen to the federal Liberals if their party administration, which is sure to be larger and more effective, can keep control of the process. But one thing is certain -- if the federal Liberals for any reason can't put forward a promising, high-profile candidate with deep roots in the party, anyone can get elected, and that anyone can turn out to be very bad for the party, as seems to have happened in Alberta.

The problem is not that members of other parties will put up candidates to make mischief, or even vote for candidates that they think are weak. This is unlikely. Rather that "supporters" without deep roots in a party will be swayed by a high-profile candidate who means well, but may not be the the best bet for success when all aspects of party leadership are considered.

This idea is often touted as being a little like the U.S. primary system in its ability to raise a party's profile and test potential leaders. That metaphor might work if Liberal Party elections were run by Elections Canada, but not in what is still seen as a private party election that will only attract a tiny portion of the electorate. Indeed, the small number likely to vote relative to the total population increases the potential for mischief.

If the federal Liberals hope to spread Alberta political culture to the rest of Canada, a strange idea for a party that has not exactly been a historical success here, it seems like it will be a hard sell in places where multiple party membership is not considered normal political behaviour.

As things stand -- and the Alberta experience illustrates -- if you are looking for proof the Liberal Party of Canada had lost faith in its own future and is grasping at straws to survive, the adoption of this rule is it.

Just as it seems to have for provincial Liberals in Alberta, this will end badly for the Liberal Party of Canada.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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