Life in Our Parties

Foreword to Sheila Gervais' The Democratic Deficit in the Liberal Party of Canada - a prescription for reform, Centre for the Study of Democracy at Queen‘s University, February 2005 revised April 2005

Life in Our Parties
by Thomas Axworthy

To paraphrase George Washington Plunkitt, the Liberal Party of Canada —ain‘t
dead, though it‘s been givin‘ a life-like imitation of a corpse for several years.“
Plunkitt, a leader of the Tammany Hall Democrats, was a believer in strong
parties, though not strong party democracy. Ms. Sheila Gervais is a believer in

Ms. Gervais‘ study on —((The Democratic Deficit in the Liberal Party of Canada - a
prescription for reform)),“ is a first-hand account of the modern vicissitudes of
being a candidate for a party nomination: this experience is refracted through
Ms. Gervais‘ long involvement in party activism, most notably as a former
National Director of the Liberal Party of Canada. Ms. Gervais did not succeed in
being nominated as the Liberal Party candidate in the riding of Ottawa South in 2004, but her story on why this occurred goes beyond the personal and raises fundamental questions about how the Liberal Party governs itself, especially on the vital questions of candidate and leader selection. It is not a pretty picture.

The mission of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Queen‘s University is to
study the basic institutions of government and political systems to see how the
mechanics of democracy are working and how they can be improved. The
mandate of the Centre is both domestic and international Å“ the state of
democracy within Canada and how democratic practice can be promoted abroad.

The issue of democratic practice within our parties is of central concern because
parties are still the essential organizers of democracy. Their job is to take theory
and turn it into reality. But they are private organizations accountable only to
themselves. It is a valid question to ask how the public interest is being
promoted by these private interests.

The great American political scientist, E.E. Schattschneider, has written that
—political parties created democracy and that modern democracy is unthinkable
save in terms of the parties.“ George Perlin, a distinguished Canadian political
scientist, makes the same point as Schattschneider that, —parties are at the very
core of the democratic process in Canada.“ Yet, we take parties for granted.

It was not always so. As Britain evolved in the 18th century from a Monarch-led
executive to parliamentary government, Edmund Burke, right from the start,
championed the role of party. Burke defined a party as —a body of men united for
promotion of their joint endeavors and national interest, upon some particular
principle in which they are all agreed.“ Burke‘s was a normative definition;
parties were to have principles and their task was to educate, defend, and
persuade citizens that their principles were worthy of support. In Burke‘s original
definition, parties were not about place, they were about ideas.

Ms. Gervais relates her personal experience in the organizational history of the
Liberal Party. I have had a similar engagement in the policy work of the Liberal Party. I was lucky enough to begin my partisan involvement in the golden age of
Liberal Party policy, from 1960 to 1968. Under Mr. Pearson, Liberals like ((Mitchell
Sharp)), Walter Gordon, and Tom Kent organized the 1960 Kingston Thinkers‘ Conference and the 1961 National Policy Rally. New principles were enunciated.

The party platform outlined policy directions in detail, and after winning the 1963 elections, the Pearson Liberals actually implemented the party platform. As a
young liberal I became close to Walter Gordon and was an active participant in
the famous 1966 rally conference which was a show-down between Mr. Gordon‘s ideas on social policy and foreign ownership, and Mr. Sharp‘s countering
position. The key point is that the show-down occurred in a Liberal Party rally
event, in open debate in the ballroom of the Chateau Laurier, not behind closed
doors with a Deputy Minister, or decided unilaterally by Mr. Pearson‘s Prime Minister‘s Office. The Pearson Liberals had used the party as a vehicle to debate and decide upon a new policy direction for government and they returned to the party as a forum to debate major policy decisions in 1966. The
Conservative Party in 1966 similarly used a party convention to decide the fate of
Mr. Diefenbaker and a few years later, the New Democratic Party had a great
internal debate over the challenge of the new left-Waffle group. In Canada in the 1960‘s, if you were interested in policy, the place to be was on the floor of a party convention. This critical role of policy formation, debate, communication, and resolution by the volunteer base of our parties has now been totally usurped by
paid consultants in polling and marketing, advising the inner circle of the leader‘s office. We have replaced party democracy with party oligarchy.

Burke had a positive vision of party as a body made up of people active not just
for personal power, but also because of their belief in their ideas. Unlike
Monarchs, party politicians ruled not by divine right, but only as —temporary
possessors“ of power, appointed to serve the nation. Burke also had a fear
about party that Ms. Gervais‘ study highlights. Burke‘s fear was that opportunists
and mercenaries might take over parties for personal advantage. —The whole
chain and continuity of the Common Wealth would be broken. No one
generation would be able to link with the other. Men would behave little better
than flies of a summer.“ Ms. Gervais‘ study describes how the flies of summer
have come to infect the very structure of the Liberal Party.

Her policy prescription is very sensible. The party volunteers who decide on
nominations and party leadership content should actually be members of the
party who join of their own volition, and have been a member of good standing
for at least one year. John Manley, a former Deputy Prime Minister and
candidate for the Liberal Party leadership, has made a further suggestion that
party nomination contests are in such shambles and subject to such abuse, and
Elections Canada should be mandated to supervise the process. I have a further
suggestion on the policy development function of parties. Thanks to Jean Chrétien‘s Bill C-24, parties now receive the vast proportion of their finances from taxpayers. Voters have the right to ask how their money is being used. German parties, for example, also receive a public subsidy, but a portion of this is mandated to independent think tanks and education foundations. German
parties are more than election machines. As part of the subsidy authorized by C-
24, at least 10 percent of the total should be allocated to public education
through the institution and party research foundations, independent of the
National Executive and the Leader‘s Office. Our parties should develop cadres
of policy trained individuals, who have thought through how to apply Liberal,
Conservative, and Socialist principles to the nitty-gritty of real life. Canadian
democracy needs parties that think.

Ms. Gervais‘ study focuses on party as an organization. My focus is on party as
educator. The Liberal Party, and probably the other parties as well, are failing to
provide Burke‘s normative purpose. They are prey to Burke‘s fears about
manipulators and personal place-seekers. It is time to restore our parties as the
critical mechanisms in our political system. The future of Canadian democracy
will depend on how party establishments respond to reformers like Ms. Gervais.

Thomas S. Axworthy is Chairman of the Centre for the Study of Democracy,
Queen‘s University