3 min

The road to meaningful engagement with parties

The other day, I interviewed Liberal Party
president hopeful Ron Hartling, who is currently the riding president in
Kingston and the Isles. While we were talking about engaging the queer
community, I wasn’t able to use everything
he talked about in the article, but he did say some things that I felt should
be given some due attention.

Hartling explained that when he took over
as riding president, Kingston and the Isles was a pretty sleepy riding association of
about 350 members, but it grew to more than 2,000 members – the second-largest riding
association in the country before the new year, with more youth members than
some ridings have members, period. Kingston was also one of only two ridings in
the country that elected a new Liberal MP, and it was the first time in 104
years that Kingston elected a Liberal to succeed a Liberal.

Now, I will give a bit of context and say
that part of why the riding had so many members was in part because of the prison
farm issue, where a lot of high-profile Liberals were in the
riding to keep driving that point home. But that doesn’t discount at all what
Hartling went on to say:

Getting involved with the community and with issues –
let me just elaborate on that a bit. It’s not just for show – they have to be
issues that have a federal connection that resonate with Liberal values – I
call it “Liberal values in action.” You identify issues, hopefully where
there’s a non-partisan community group already working on it, and you don’t try
and come in and say “We’re the Liberals; we’re the answer to your fondest
dreams.” You start coming out, providing support, making connections to the
responsible Liberal critic, becoming the conduit to Parliament for the issue
that concerns people, and you don’t try to do it in an exploitative way. If
you’re involved with issues that matter to your members, then they see the
value of being a Liberal and contributing to the Liberal Party.

This is exactly what every party should be
doing in every riding across the country, because this is how our democratic
system is supposed to work. Just as nomination races are the most important
and most unspoken part of the way our system works, engaging the party at the
riding level to become that conduit to Parliament is one of the foundational
blocks of our system – not that most people realize this in our era of civic

It also echoes what former senator Lowell
Murray was talking about in his interview with CBC’s The Current on why instant party memberships for leadership
contests are antithetical to how our system operates.

“Where’s the cohesion in that?” Murray asked.
“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.”

As Hartling points out, it is incumbent
upon the party at the riding level to get out and be involved in these issues
so that people have an access point of saying “Hey, I’m interested in this
issue, too. How can I get involved?” And as Hartling said in the interview,
the riding association has to be prepared to give meaningful volunteer
opportunities so that people can feel that they're engaged and their participation is
making a difference. This is how we engage people in the political process.

It also points to why the Liberals’
proposal to sign up “supporters” who aren’t party members to vote in a
leadership primary may sound exciting and new but won’t actually draw
people into the party in a meaningful way (not to mention the very real issue
that primaries would entrench already existing problems where leaders cease
being accountable to their caucus and membership).

Engagement in the process counts, and
having those access points for people to engage with the parties on issues they
care about matters. If we want our democracy to survive, all parties would be
wise to heed Hartling’s advice.

This is a vacation post. Normal blogging resumes on Tuesday, Jan 17.

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