Liberals vote to add 'supporters' to membership

A majority of Liberals voted in favour Saturday night of changing the party's constitution to allow people to join as "supporters."
Liberals are voting on a series of policies and amendments to their constitution at this weekend's convention. (Patrick Doyle/Canadian Press)

Liberals agreed Saturday night to allow people to join their party as "supporters," a move interim leader Bob Rae implored delegates to take.

He said it would be a "historic" change for the party and, after some debate, the proposal got the two-thirds support it needed to pass.

Rae said creating the supporter category, which will allow Canadians to take part in future leadership votes without paying a membership fee, will help break down walls between the Liberal party and citizens.

"It's an extraordinary opportunity for this party," he said.

The proposal was made by the Liberals' national board in its "Roadmap to Renewal" plan for rebuilding the party and it required an amendment to the constitution.

About 3,000 Liberals have come to Ottawa for a biennial convention where the focus is on how to rebuild after last May's historic election defeat. The Liberals dropped to third party status in the House of Commons after winning only 34 seats.

People can now become a Liberal supporter by filling out an application. To qualify a person must declare they support the purposes of the Liberal party, they must be a qualified elector – meaning they must be 18 years old – and they must not be a member of any other political party.

Those who backed the idea said it is necessary to help grow the party, and that bold changes are needed to rebuild the party and encourage Canadians to join it.

Those against the idea said it would create a two-tiered system and would devalue the meaning of membership. Some suggested allowing people to join the party for free instead. Others said Liberals just need to work harder to grow membership.

Former speaker of the House of Commons Peter Milliken presided over the debate.

After voting to create the new category, two-thirds of delegates agreed to let supporters vote for the party leader. They did not, however, vote to allow supporters to choose candidates. Not all 3,000 delegates were in the room for the voting session.

Outgoing party president, Alf Apps, said the party had taken steps that "will transform Canadian politics."

The supporter idea created a lot of buzz at this weekend's convention, and so has the question of leadership.

Liberals mull leadership questions

MP David McGuinty says he is considering a run for the leadership of his party but that he will take several months to make his decision.

Liberal MP David McGuinty said Saturday he is considering a run for the leadership but will take a few months to decide.
Leadership isn't formally on the agenda at this weekend's policy convention but it's a hot topic and on Saturday McGuinty told reporters that he is giving serious thought to taking over from Rae.

"I'm not ruling out the leadership. I'm giving this serious consideration, I have an obligation to do this. If I'm going to stay in public life I've got to figure what is the best way to serve and that is what I'm considering," he said.

McGuinty said there is a lot of time between now and the next election and that the Liberals have time on their side.

On Friday night, his brother Dalton, the premier of Ontario, delivered a speech to delegates that had a lot of people buzzing and wondering if he might jump from provincial to federal politics.

David McGuinty said his brother's speech was "brilliant" and that he is working on a "big job" in Ontario, suggesting he has his hands full already.

There are former Liberal MPs at the convention who also say they would consider running for the leadership, but now is not the time to be talking about it.

"I'm not ruling anything out. My advice to anyone who talks to me about it in the party is we should not be talking about leadership right now. The traditional mistake we make is dividing the party," defeated MP Gerard Kennedy said in an interview.

He said the party needs a solid year of working on unification and learning good new habits before turning its attention to who is going to be the permanent leader.

"It would be harmful if all we did in the next year was fight a proxy leadership race," said Kennedy, who ran for the leadership in 2006.

'Pretty clear' signs Rae interested in leadership

If Rae changes his mind and breaks his pledge to the party not to seek the job permanently he would be among the most talented people who might put themselves forward, Kennedy said.

"It's pretty clear," he said when asked whether there are indications Rae is interested in the job. Kennedy, who lost his seat to the NDP's Peggy Nash in Toronto, has concerns about the interim leader mounting a campaign for permanent leader while still in the temporary position because he has access to party resources. He said Rae must ensure that the race is held on an even playing field. 

Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae says he is focused on his job as the temporary leader - and loves doing it. He has not ruled out running for the permanent job. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)
Rae has consistently said his only intention at this time is to do his job as interim leader. He has been asked repeatedly if he wants to keep the job and has never ruled it out. When he took the interim leadership job he agreed with a condition set by the party that he wouldn't seek the permanent job. There is no rule preventing Rae from running.

Former prime minister Paul Martin said he's on side with Rae's view that this convention should be about building the future, and not about talking about the leadership.

"That will come," he said on CBC News Network. He also said, however, that he sees "a lot of potential candidates here."

Liberals urged to embrace technology

Earlier in the day Saturday, the Liberal party was told it is at risk of being bypassed by a new generation unless it takes part in the technological revolution that is underway.

Author Don Tapscott, a keynote speaker at the party's convention, told delegates that political and democratic institutions born in the industrial age have run out of gas and need to be rebuilt.

He said the massive global network that the internet provides should be used as a tool not just by the Liberals but by all political parties. Young people are harnessing the internet's power and using it to engage in "active citizenship."

They are using it to organize themselves, outside of the boundaries of political parties, and Tapscott urged Liberals to use different citizenship engagement techniques in order to move toward a "new model of democracy."

Tapscott encouraged Liberals to open their party up or else they, like other parties, risk losing their legitimacy.

"The body politique is deeply broken," he said, describing this as a time of profound change for the Liberals and for political institutions generally.

"The stakes are very, very high," said Tapscott, author of Macrowikinomics.

The way the internet is being used has brought a "new age of transparency" that governments should welcome instead of oppose, said Tapscott. He told them that more open and transparent governments make better governments.

"If you're going to be naked, you better be buff," he said.

Delegates also heard Saturday morning from Canada's former chief statistician, Munir Sheikh. He resigned following the government's decision to scrap the long-form census. He talked about the importance of evidence-based decision-making.

Liberals are also electing a new party executive this weekend and the position of president is hotly contested. Sheila Copps, Mike Crawley, Ron Hartling and Alexandra Mendes are all after the title and campaigned hard in the hallways at the Ottawa Convention Centre.

Voting got underway at 2 p.m. for party positions and the winners will be announced Sunday.