WINNIPEG – Justin Trudeau put his leadership on the line Saturday with a direct appeal to grassroots Liberals to accept his controversial proposal aimed at transforming the ruling party from an exclusive club into a wide-open political movement.
The prime minister appealed to delegates at the Liberal national convention to put aside their qualms and support a proposed new, streamlined constitution for the party which would, among other things, do away entirely with the concept of membership.
Trudeau has been the driving force behind the proposal, which has sparked widespread suspicion among rank and file Liberals that the leader and his cronies on the party’s national executive are really engaged in an unprecedented power grab.
Delegates to the Liberals’ first national convention since taking power last fall are to vote on the proposal later Sunday. It needs support from two-thirds of the delegates to pass.
In a speech to the convention a couple of hours before the vote, Trudeau sought to calm fears.
“If I believed for a second that the new constitution was about taking power away from the grassroots, I would be right there with you, shoulder to shoulder, speaking out against it,” he said.
“But it isn’t and it doesn’t.”
Indeed, Trudeau argued, the new constitution is all about “closing the distance between the leader and every single contributor to this movement we’ve built.”
Under the proposal, anyone willing to register for free as a Liberal would in future be entitled to vote in leadership and nomination contests, attend conventions and take part in policy development.
While the proposal is being touted as a way to throw open the doors of the party, it has raised hackles among rank and file Liberals who suspect it will actually turn the party into a different kind of exclusive club, one in which the leader and his cronies run the party as they see fit.
Grassroots Liberals complain that they weren’t consulted and many have said they feel intimidated by the heavy-handed tactics used to rally support, with Liberal MPs and party staffers lobbying hard among the delegates.
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That manifested itself Friday in an attempt to change the rules to allow a secret ballot vote on the proposed constitution, where delegates wouldn’t feel “pressured one way or the other,” as one Liberal put it. That idea was overwhelmingly rejected.
Trudeau directly addressed complaints of intimidation, telling opponents of the proposal: “It takes courage to speak out against something your party leadership believes in and I want you to know I admire and thank you for doing it.”
Trudeau’s intervention comes after a special question-and-answer session Friday left advocates of the proposal unsure that it will pass. The session attracted hundreds of delegates, none of them happy about it.
“It should pass but that’s a sizable group of concerned people,” Toronto MP Adam Vaughan said outside the closed-door session.
According to Liberals who attended, the main complaints were about the lack of consultation, the heavy-handed tactics used to sell it and the amount of discretion the proposed constitution would give to the leader and the party’s national board to devise bylaws governing all manner of party operations, including registration of Liberals, policy development, riding associations and the party’s provincial wings and various commissions.
Trudeau argued that the current, cumbersome constitution “is a product of the era we worked so hard, together, to put behind us: the era of factional battles and hyphenated Liberals, of regional chieftains and behind-the-scenes power-brokers, of the closed, insular thinking that almost killed this party.”
He called it a “hodge-podge” of 18 different constitutions, including those governing the party’s various commissions and provincial and territorial wings.
“It empowers a bureaucracy that creates conflict and distance between us. Most important for me, and for any future leader of this party, it creates distance between the leader and the grassroots.”
Proponents contend the new constitution is intended to provide the flexibility needed to enable the leader and party executive to act more nimbly.
While there don’t seem to be widespread objections to the concept of doing away with paid memberships, delegates are concerned that the proposed constitution includes no mention of the principles or values that would supposedly bind registered Liberals together.
Trudeau was in Japan for the G7 summit during the first two days of the convention. He has showed up in time to make an eleventh-hour pitch for the proposed constitution.
He is planning to attend – and possibly even participate in – the debate on the proposal later Saturday.
If the proposal is rejected, Brenda Kurczak, former president of the party’s Ontario wing, said that shouldn’t be seen as a “slap in the face to the leader or the party executive.”
“I just think it might be the result of the feeling that this is happening too quick.”