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Survival at stake, Liberals throw open party doors to all Canadians

The podium awaits Michael Ignatieff at the Liberal leader's election-night headquarters in Toronto on May 2, 2011.

Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Faced with the threat of extinction, the Liberal Party formally undertook the most radical reforms to a political party in Canada's history Thursday by proposing an American-style primary system for choosing its next leader.

According to background documents, all Canadians will be eligible to vote for the next Liberal leader, scuttling the power of the party's elite to broker back-room deals.

That it is this very elite, the National Board of the Liberal Party of Canada, that is proposing such monumental changes speaks to the desperate straits in which the party finds itself.

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Liberals estimate that approximately 80 of their 308 riding associations across the country are now dormant: with only a handful of party members in the riding, a non-functioning or dysfunctional riding executive and little or no ability to raise funds. Some party leaders believe the number is closer to 100.

"The very survival of the Liberal Party of Canada may now be at stake," party president Alfred Apps writes.

The only consolation is that the party is now so small that it can also become nimble, and to that end the national board is proposing a massive overhaul of the organization, diminishing the power of the provincial associations and concentrating much of the fundraising and voter mobilization effort at the national level.

But by far the most potent, and no doubt controversial, reform involves the proposed move to primary contests for leader.

If adopted at the party's convention in January, the Liberals would launch a year-long voter registration drive, with the aim of signing up tens or even hundreds of thousands of new "Liberal supporters."

Supporters would not be party members. There would be no fee. Anyone could become a supporter by phoning or signing up online. They would be required to provide their name, email address and phone number. They would have to sign and affirm a Liberal Declaration of Principles. (This is how the party hopes to keep other political parties from hijacking the system by having their own supporters join en masse and then vote for the worst possible candidate.)

In spring 2013, the party will hold a series of primary contests across the country. On one day, for example, Liberal supporters as well as full party members in ridings in, say, Victoria, Saskatchewan, Southwestern Ontario, Quebec City and Newfoundland might vote for their choice for party leader, using a preferential ballot. There might also be a second, run-off vote if no candidate obtained majority support. The next week another clutch of ridings might vote, and so on, perhaps culminating in a "Super Sunday" where much of the country has its say.

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Once a candidate received the majority of votes from the majority of ridings, that candidate would be the new leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.

Liberal supporters would also be eligible to vote for candidates in riding nomination battles. The party's 34 incumbent MPs would not be protected from a nomination fight.

What isn't certain yet is whether the delegates to the Liberal Party's biennial convention on Jan. 13 and 14 will endorse the proposals. Resistance could come from riding association presidents who would lose influence over choosing the party leader and who, under the new rules, could be turfed if they fail to meet organizational and fundraising targets.

Officials in the provincial wings of the national party could also object to losing influence, as could MPs who would no longer be protected from nomination challenges.

There is risk: An outsider who doesn't truly represent the progressive-centrist values of the Liberal Party could capture the leadership by signing up supporters across the country.

But with the national leadership of the party, including Interim Leader Bob Rae, unanimous in its support, and with the convention only two months away, organizing resistance to the reforms –much less proposing an alternative that party delegates could get behind – will be a formidable challenge.

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And with the Liberals still testing the limits of rock bottom, only reforms this bold may have any hope of restoring the party to health.

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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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