Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Opening Up Political Parties

Given the two major political events occurred for federal political parties this week I thought it might be valuable to consider the role of parties in Canada. Over the weekend New Democrats gathered to meet at their first policy convention since Tom Mulcair (NDP – Outremont, QC) was selected as leader. While plenty of the fiery left-wing rhetoric and policies were on display the overall tone of the party has shifted towards the centre and moderation. Members of the socialist caucus within the NDP were clearly frustrated by the shift in priorities, but time and time again delegates opted in big numbers for the new direction.

Meanwhile, the federal Liberals wrapped up their leadership convention and anointed Justin Trudeau (LPC – Papineau, QC) as the new leader of the party. As has been well-stated, Trudeau was the heavy favourite to win and did so handily. The Liberals did not end their leadership race with a big final convention. It was a smaller affair in Ottawa where after a week of voting the winner was announced.

I had friends that attended the NDP convention in Montreal. I considered attending briefly but taking time off work, and the expense of a hotel and travel ruled the idea out for me. I lamented these choices on Twitter when a follower of mine reminded me that things would get much worse once I stopped being a “youth”. For those who may be familiar, younger members of political parties receive heavy discounts to attend events. In about a year I’ll be too old to claim that moniker and my participation in big political events will become all the more expensive.

A couple of months ago I authored a piece for Samara on how unresponsive and opaque political parties turned off participation. Related to that initial theme I want to expand on the costliness of participation in Canada. My experience is limited to the NDP/ONDP but I feel there are patterns that must apply to other parties.

First, and most obviously, Canada is a giant country and it is quite expensive to travel. I am fortunate to live in the GTA; many political events occur in the country’s largest city. However, parties try to be fair and move conventions around the country. I would love to visit Vancouver, but the cost to run out there for a three-day convention and spending hundreds of dollars seems unwise.

Second, the actual price of admission/registration to these events is often quite high, at least in my opinion. Paying to be one of hundreds of people voting on issues is a privilege, but given that it is so central to our democratic system one would hope it could be more open.

While I hesitate to praise the Liberal Party the way they orchestrated the conclusion of their leadership event made a lot of sense. Is it logical to hold a big, expensive convention to name a leader when tens of thousands of members will vote and actually being at the convention has no tangible benefit to the participants? In the days of delegated convention, like the last Ontario Liberal leadership convention, attendance is critical. Now that members can vote by mail, electronically or over the phone it seems silly. Therefore, why don’t we extend this idea to the policy conventions. A central event could still be held, but Skype and Google Hangouts could replace convention speeches. Panel discussions could better educate members. Policies could be read in depth and active forum posts could be made to debate the topics.

I am not necessarily suggesting that all party members should be allowed to participate in these matters. Delegates could be given passwords to access the information and participate. From what I understand there are hundreds of resolutions submitted at each convention that do not get discussed. If all are valid then it is only fair all get at least some consideration.

If political parties are going to facilitate Canadians’ participation in their democracy barriers to access need to come down.

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