Liberals propose new leadership selection system

The Liberals are looking to give grassroots party members greater influence in selecting the party's next leader, according to a commission report released on Thursday.

Renewal commission proposes 31 reforms to open up the Liberal party

Former Liberal MP Brian Murphy, right, Liberal MLA Roger Melanson and potential leadership candidate Brian Gallant attend the party's renewal commission meeting on Thursday. (CBC)

The Liberals are looking to give grassroots party members greater influence in selecting the party's next leader, according to a commission report released on Thursday.

The New Brunswick Liberal Association launched its internal renewal commission shortly after the party was turfed from office last September.

The commission came up with 31 recommendations that are designed to reinvigorate the party after becoming the first one-term government in the province’s history. The recommendations were released on Thursday and Liberals will vote on the proposals at a special membership meeting on Nov. 26 in Fredericton.

Jane Fritz, who was one of the commissioners, said on Thursday there was significant tension within the party about whether to stick with the traditional delegate system or move to a one-member, one-vote model.

"It was a very divided thought process amongst the members we talked to right across the province, about what they liked and didn't like. A few areas much preferred the delegate system; more didn't," Fritz said.

The traditional delegate system tends to benefit well-organized candidates, particularly those who are long-time, established members. Under the delegate model, every riding sends the same number of voters at a leadership convention and so a candidate who can quickly lock up the key organizers in ridings can often win a leadership contest.

The commission’s report found, "this process often leads to too much power being concentrated in the hands of too few party members."

There was a concern that a full one-member, one-vote system would benefit areas of the province where the party is very strong. The commission said it worried, while arguably more inclusive, the one-member, one-vote system could lead to "alienating smaller ridings" or it could cause "the unintentional regionalization of the party."

Instead, the commission is recommending that the party membership adopt a weighted one-member, one-vote system that uses a preferential ballot.

In this system, every riding will be assigned a specific number of points and a preferential ballot.

When the ballots are first cast, leadership candidates will get the percentage share of the points based on the number of votes they get. If no candidate gets 50 per cent of the ballots, the candidate who had the fewest votes is dropped off the list.

Then that candidate's votes are gone over again and the votes for the second choice are reassigned. The process continues until one candidate has 50 per cent of the vote.

The Liberal Party of Canada, Liberal Party of B.C. and the Conservative Party of Canada use this method of leadership selection, according to the report.

Former Liberal cabinet minister Michael Murphy, who is already openly campaigning for the party’s leadership, said he found many people were against the idea of completely reforming the voting system.

"I didn't find that many people wanted pure one-member, one-vote [system], which can be really be a dangerous thing," Murphy said.

"The one member and one vote preferential ballot is certainly a very democratic thing and I'm very pleased with that."

Other recommendations

While the leadership selection method was the most time-sensitive issue in the commission’s report, there were 31 different recommendations that were aimed at improving the way the party operates.

Many Liberals were disenchanted with how the party was run in the past. If the changes are accepted, party members would have more control over MLAs and their leader.

The party would also have stronger rules to make sure that policy platforms are decided by members and not individuals in the party's back rooms.

Joel Reed, a Saint John lawyer and long-time volunteer, said he’s hoping the rule changes will allow party members to feel like their voices are being heard.

Reed said he hopes a renewed emphasis on the party’s grassroots will rebuild confidence that was shaken in recent years.

"The way the party has taken positions on issues has not always been … reflective of the grassroots of the party and the way the members are feeling," Reed said.

"So I feel the steps towards implementing a formal policy process, having a convention devoted to finding out what the members want and how they see the party putting forward its vision for the province, will be a great improvement."

Several Liberals who are considering leadership bids were also at the commission’s release.

Brian Gallant, a lawyer in southeastern New Brunswick, said he believes the proposed changes would "give more power to the membership."

Meanwhile, Roger Melanson, who was elected in the riding of Dieppe Centre-Lewsville in the 2010 election, said the proposals will mean party members will see that "their ideas will matter more in the future."

The Liberals were stung by a series of unpopular decisions made by the Shawn Graham government, including failed plans to sell NB Power, reforms to the French immersion system and an overhaul of the post-secondary education system.

Murphy, who quit the government in January 2010 in the middle of the NB Power crisis, said many of those contentious decisions would not have been made if the party membership had a greater say in policy decisions.

"This creates the foundation for the upheaval that we need," he said.