Primary election
3 min

Open primaries and the entrenchment of problems

It seems that during the big Liberal
telephone town hall on Sunday, interim leader Bob Rae was talking about the
possibility of moving the party toward implementing a kind of “open primary”
system when it comes to choosing the next leader. On the surface, it sounds
laudable – get tens or hundreds of thousands of Canadians to have their say in
who the Liberal leader will be. But scratch just below the surface and this
starts to look like the very bad idea that it really is.

First of all, the idea of a primary is
another attempt at importing an Americanism into Canadian politics, which is a
fraught proposition to begin with. Our systems are very different, and we can’t
readily import aspects from their system, graft them onto ours and expect
the results to be either pretty or effective. Ways in which we’re choosing
party leaders are already drifting away from their functional roots, and we’ve
seen ways in which this has eroded our system by giving too much power to those
leaders without any reasonable means of accountability. Installing a primary
system will only worsen this problem.

As it stands, parties have been slowly but
surely broadening the base from which leaders are chosen, moving from its
origins in which caucus would choose the leader, to allowing party members at
delegated conventions to have their say, to more recent “one member, one vote”
systems, where anyone who pays the $5 membership fee and signs up can vote
for the leader. But this has been a boon to democracy within parties, right?
The more people that have a say, the better the leader reflects the will of the
membership?

The problem with this mentality has been
that leaders no longer feel beholden to their caucus. Starting with the
Liberals in 1919, when Mackenzie King was chosen in a delegated convention, he
began to hold power over his caucus, reminding them that they did not choose him
and therefore they could not remove him. And thus began the centralization of
power within the office of the leader. Leaders claim their own separate
“democratic mandate” that grants them additional authority and becomes a blunt
hammer. A primary system only entrenches this abuse of power and “democratic
mandate,” because by ensuring that a leader is elected by tens or hundreds of
thousands serves to make that hammer bigger. “I was chosen by a hundred
thousand people,” a prospective leader might say to his caucus after such an
open primary. “I have a democratic mandate to do what I like.” And the problems
of top-down party management not only continue, but are given the added veneer
of “legitimacy.”

There is also the problem of what the
“member for a day” mentality of those voting in primaries does for the party –
and it’s actually the opposite of what Rae and others seem to claim will
happen. Former Progressive Conservative Senator Lowell Murray addressed this
very fact in his recent interview on CBC’s The
Current
.

“Between the first and the second ballots, they
were out signing up new members to the PC Party,” Murray notes of the recent PC
leadership in Alberta. “Where’s the cohesion in that? Where is the commitment?
If the membership of a political party at the constituency level is so fluid
and so amorphous, how can that party play its essential role of acting as an
interlocutor of the people of that constituency and the caucus and government
in Ottawa or Edmonton, or Toronto or wherever? The short answer is that it
can’t, and then the constituency party is just a sitting duck – it’s completely
at the mercy of the well-financed and permanent apparatchiks in the nation’s or
the provincial capital.”

And that is the most basic and fundamental
flaw of the open primary. It won’t actually draw people into the party fold
and becomes part of the problem, where leadership campaigns will have to be
so big and well organized that, while fundraising restrictions may keep a cap
on the money involved, it becomes the place where party workers begin staking
out lines of influence to a greater degree than happens now.

The value of an open primary becomes that
of a “shock and awe” numbers game. Sure, it sounds impressive that your leader
got the votes of tens or hundreds of thousands of Canadians, but that support
is the proverbial kilometre wide and millimetre deep. The engagement with the
grassroots is superficial, and there is no back-and-forth or relationship built
at the riding level, while the organizers who worked that primary campaign
insulate themselves in the leader’s inner circle. And that will solve none of the problems of the
Liberal Party, as Rae hopes it will, nor any party as we look at the
problems of voter apathy and the public’s slow-but-sure continual disengagement
from the political process.

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