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A Liberal primary might prevent a Liberal demise

The federal Liberal Party's executive meets Saturday to plan next January's convention, which, in turn, will set up the leadership contest for 2013, which Bob Rae is favoured to win. And you so don't care.

None of us really cares about the travails of that infamous gaggle of chronic infighters whose narcissism and opportunism reached such depths that fewer than one voter in five now supports the party of Laurier, King and Trudeau.

How bad are things? Even though Mr. Rae, as interim leader, is supposed to be disqualified from running for the leadership, many Liberals believe the field of candidates willing to put themselves forward for certain defeat in the 2015 election will be so weak that the party will ask him to stay on.

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Which is another way of saying the Liberal Party is probably going to die.

But you shouldn't want it to die. People are eventually going to tire of voting Conservative, if not in 2015 then surely in 2019, and the NDP appears to be relentlessly determined not to grow up. Everyone who isn't a diehard on the left or right has a stake in the Liberal Party's renewal. And it's why the party needs to go to a primary system for choosing the next leader.

Mr. Rae is touring the country and consulting what political types like to call the grassroots, though Alykhan Velshi, a former aide to Conservative Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, astutely calls them the grasstops. The grasstops are the riding executives, policy wonks, activists and other need-to-get-a-life types who make up the infrastructure of a political party. They're not the grassroots. You're the grassroots, and you wouldn't be caught dead at a Liberal (or Conservative or NDP) barbecue.

Many grasstops belong to one or more of the special interests that weigh down the Liberal Party. The youth commission, the seniors commission, the aboriginal commission, the women's commission. You can't swing a dead cat in that party without hitting a commission.

Toss them all out, party executive, and toss yourselves out while you're at it. But before you go, put forward this proposal for the January convention. Have the next leader chosen through a series of primary contests across the country, in which any Canadian who wants to can cast a ballot.

Right now, the Liberal leader is directly chosen by party members. But it costs money to join and who would want to? People who belong to political parties aren't entirely normal.

In the United States, you have to register to vote. Everyone who registers as a Democrat or a Republican has a say in that party's leadership contest through the primaries and caucuses.

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This weakens the party elite because outsiders such as Barack Obama (or Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan or Jimmy Carter) can do an end run around the establishment by appealing directly to voters. Because the weaker a party gets, the more powerful its few surviving poobahs become; a strong party will have a broad base and a weak elite, the very opposite of today's Liberal Party.

Renewal could come for the Liberals if a leadership contest galvanized hundreds of thousands of people to, say, take out a free one-day party membership so they could vote in the New Brunswick primary, which everyone would be watching because the Northern Ontario primary the week before had vaulted an unknown but charismatic minority candidate into the front ranks of the contest.

Yes, fundraising would be an issue, given the campaign-contribution limits; yes, the Conservatives might try to fix the contest (although that's really not very likely). But think of the mailing list!

Or the Liberals could carry on with an old leader, a plethora of commissions and grasstops instead of grassroots. In which case, their party will die.

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About the Author

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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