Why Justin Trudeau “dismembered” the Liberal Party

The reporter poses with protesters outside the convention centre.

How he and his inner circle did it with a hard sell

EDITOR’S NOTE: Former journalist, senior civil servant, and in his retirement Liberal Party insider, Perry Anglin of Mindemoya attended last week’s Liberal Party of Canada biennial convention in Winnipeg, duly accredited as a reporter for The Manitoulin Expositor. What follows is his view of the proceedings and the event’s primary topic.

by Perry Anglin

Thursday

On the plane to Winnipeg I remind myself why I am going again to a Liberal convention, though not as a delegate this time.

I want to learn why Prime Minister Trudeau and the super-smart people around him claim that the Liberal Party is a “movement” and want to jettison party memberships.

Will that affect the party system fundamental to how our democracy works?

Will members of a “movement” be less tolerant of the left and right wings of a big tent party that mediates between special interests? Will all this be openly and thoughtfully discussed?

My aim is to write about the convention as fairly as I as covered the 1968 convention that chose Pierre Trudeau to be the Liberal leader. The way I was taught to write when getting my Master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University in New York.

The plane lands at the James Armstrong Richardson International Airport.

Toronto and Montreal have airports named after famous Liberal prime ministers. This one is named after a wealthy right wing cabinet minister who is well remembered by some people in some parts of Winnipeg. He quit Pierre Trudeau’s cabinet to protest official bilingualism, started a new party that failed, and ended up a Tory. So the airport’s name is sort of non-partisan.

The lobby of my downtown hotel is awash with the bonhomie customary at conventions. Across the street I grab a sandwich at a student hangout named for Stella, a cat. Stella has a litter of coffee shops across Winnipeg. Stella’s bread pudding is almost as good as Greg Niven’s at the School House in Providence Bay.

Back at the hotel lobby, an elderly couple is waiting for the elevator. They are either a little spiffy after a Liberal welcome party or else just giddy from being up after ten. They agree with Mr. Trudeau’s plan to abolish party membership. Why?

“Because it is 2016,” the man says. His wife giggles. I don’t get it.

Friday

There are Young Liberal members from Nova Scotia having breakfast in the coffee shop. One studies political science at Dalhousie University in Halifax. They say they are happy to give up membership in the party, but can’t tell why. Neither can I.

At the convention centre, officials can’t find a record of the form I emailed for media credentials. Convinced at last by a letter from my editor, a young media handler takes great care to tell me that reporters are barred from workshops. We can cover only the plenary sessions where delegates can vote. “That’s new,” I say, based on the many Liberal conventions I’ve been been at. “Is it?” he says.

Unable to cover the policy workshops going on, I catch up on convention news.

Toronto Star columnist Tim Harper was kicked out of the Liberal Women’s Commission meeting. This came right after Wendy Robbins, who chairs the Liberal Women’s Commission’s policy committee, moved a resolution urging amendment to the government’s controversial bill on assisted dying. It is still before the House of Commons.

The high-regarded Ms. Robbins had the 10 signatures necessary for her “emergency” resolution calling for the bill to be more permissive and to bring it into line with a Supreme Court decision and the Canadian Constitution.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett scoffed at the resolution and was later overheard making snide remarks about Wendy Robbins, who left the room in tears. Among other factors, Ms. Robbins had seen her aged mother desperately want to end her pain. Rules in the current bill wouldn’t have let her.

The National Policy Vice President, Maryanne Kampouris, later killed the resolution with a 4 am email to Ms. Robbins. Dr. Bennett apologized by email for being overheard, but not for what she said.

Maryanne Kampouris and Dr. Bennett have a record of suppressing grass roots debate that the Liberal caucus doesn’t want to hear.

I eat a free lunch of excellent Caesar salad and gourmet pizza in the media room. Oddly, huge TV screens here are showing a live feed from a workshop at the Conservative Party convention in Vancouver. It is thrashing out changes to the constitution of the Conservative Party, which doesn’t affect to be a “movement.”

The mostly unwatched TV screens in the media room are microscopic compared with a screen about a hundred feet wide behind speakers onstage in the Winnipeg convention hall. The speakers, barely visible from the back of the hall, appear live and close up on both sides of the vast screen.

Before a “keynote” speech by organizational superstar Katie Telford, the screen is filled with a stunning propaganda video that almost deafens me.

“Wow,” says Katie Telford, about the video. She is one of eight keynote speakers in the convention’s octave, including her boss, who’ll give his on the last afternoon.

Ms. Telford vividly describes how the election campaign she co-chaired last year used enormous amount of data about voters to get out the vote and shift campaign workers away from secure ridings and into ridings where data said they had a chance to win. It worked in 39 out of 40 such ridings. She rattles off other happy statistics.

Tom Pitfield, the campaign’s chief digital strategist, describes how its data bank on almost a million voters can be used to reach the many young voters who watch little or no TV and can’t be reached on their cellphones. They can be reached only at their door, through social media or other ways on other Internet.

Badge checkers and uniformed security men make sure that journalists don’t get into a contentious closed session on Mr. Trudeau’s plan for the party structure. It abolishes party memberships. It lets anyone register as Liberal supporters. It lets all registered supporters attend conventions and vote at them. They can also vote to select local candidates for parliament.

Hundreds of delegates in the session were unhappy with the plan, according to those coming out, including the thoughtful Dalhousie political science student I met at breakfast. They were not convinced by an onslaught of propaganda from party headquarters. It had come via emails and on the official convention website. There handouts were given out at the convention and endorsements from dozens of MPs and party officials.

No counter-propaganda is visible, but some delegates are wearing protest buttons.

They have not been persuaded by clever arguments that the party is now a “movement.” That it needs to more be agile than it was when when it won the last election. That the grass roots won’t lose their say, even after party brass decide how things will work on matters like the policy process.

I talk with a defeated candidate who is against the change. He says he got no help from a list of of registered supporters in his riding who were allowed to vote in choosing to make Mr. Trudeau to be the party leader two years ago. They didn’t donate and they voted NDP.

At another closed session, the party’s Women’s Commission votes to oppose Mr. Trudeau’s new structure because, says one woman, it is “top down.”

There is the scent of more rebellion at the start of an open plenary session on policy.

A reasonable-sounding delegate who knows the procedural rules makes a motion to have a secret ballot on the proposed new structure.

He agrees to hold his motion until experts have arrived and let some policy resolutions be dealt with while we wait.

That takes place in slow motion while Ms. Kampouris uses up time by repeatedly explaining how the session will work: there will be little time for debate and lots of time for counting the hands raised for even one-sided votes.

I wonder if there is some reason they haven’t used Mr. Pitfield’s digital wizardry too for some sort of instant voting that I have seen at other very large meetings.

A “priority” resolution urges federal cash for a new bridge across the Ottawa River to ease traffic for business, for tourism in the nation’s capital, and for civil servants getting to work. To no surprise, this is voted down after one delegate says that his city, Kingston, wants a new bridge just as much.

During resolution votes, the half-empty room fills up to standing room only.

Debate is spirited on whether to vote by secret ballot on the new party structure. There are complaints about pressure tactics, such as Young Liberals having been instructed to oppose a secret ballot.

Warm applause greets Jack Siegel, an incisive lawyer much admired for his expertise on party rules. He says delegates should vote publicly because they are accountable to the riding associations that delegates represent.

Someone tells the man who proposed a secret ballot that Jack Siegel’s riding association didn’t choose him to be a delegate because all delegate selection meetings in Ontario were cancelled. And that under the new structure, all “Liberal supporters” will be able to attend future conventions without representing anybody.

After more rhetoric, the room votes against a secret ballot. More than half of those who voted leave immediately. Escalators are reversed to handle the exodus.

Many Young Liberals who had been summoned to vote against the secret ballot hurry down wide staircases to do whatever Young Liberals like to do instead of attending tame policy plenaries.

As I walk back to Stellas for dinner, I wonder why the Young Liberals are happy to give up their party membership. At the coffee shop I find the answer.

It comes from a brilliant young social scientist sitting at the table next to mine. Brent Hardy is finishing up his doctoral dissertation on how organizations work.

Over the last 20 years, academics have traced ever-declining membership in organization such as churches, service clubs, home and school associations, and sports clubs like bowling leagues. It is said that every week another United Church closes in Canada.

Young people, Mr. Hardy explains, are particularly averse to joining any organization, but are are enthusiastic about belonging to a movement.

Like young supporters of the Bernie Sanders “revolution” in American presidential politics, I suggest. Could that be the real reason Mr. Trudeau says he leads a movement, not a political party?

“It is just marketing,” Mr. Hardy says.

What’s more, he adds, studies show that as young people get older they continue to vote for party they first supported.

I am grateful for his insights, and buy dinner for him and his companion. A good Catholic, she nevertheless agrees with Wendy Robbins that the assisted dying bill should be more permissive.

Mr. Hardy later emails me references to academic literature on social movements. He adds his conclusion on what the Liberals are doing: “In my opinion, the Liberal Party is not a movement, but they are attempting to brand themselves as one in order to tap into some of the social forces that could bring, especially amongst youth.”

Saturday

On my way into the convention centre I see a protest against the seal hunt. One protester wears a velvety seal costume, nice and warm on this cool day.

Other demonstrators hold placards in favour of making pot legal.

Inside, Mr. Trudeau’s “keynote” speech is masterful.

It wows the crowd and winds up with a hard sell for his new constitution. He makes no mention of any rebranding just to attract young people.

Mr. Trudeau does try to mollify dissenters. and gets lengthy applause for praising free expression of opinion. I see that Wendy Robbins doesn’t clap very long.

Mr. Trudeau vehemently that grass roots Liberals will lose anything. He doesn’t elaborate on that.

A few hours after his speech, Mr. Trudeau goes to a floor mic and, as I have never seen another party leader do, moves a convention resolution. It is to adopt his new party constitution.

The delegate who had criticized it vocally in the media follows Mr. Trudeau and publicly recants. He says he is satisfied with responses to his complaints.

A preamble has been added to the constitution to give the new “movement” some objectives. I am told that the preamble for the new movement is lifted straight from the constitution of the old “party.”

Debate is brief. A few critics hold their ground. The mic cuts out just as a supporter says that “if you don’t like it just shut up!”

Former interim leader Bob Rae gets fervent applause when he steps to the mic. Eloquent as ever, he says the party is “not a club.” News to me, murmurs one of his admirers.

Mr. Rae and former PM Paul Martin have not toed the party line on needing to hurry the assisted dying bill in order to meet a Supreme Court target date.

“DEADLINE, SHMEDLINE” reads a Huffington Post headline over a report on interviews they gave at the convention.

Mr. Trudeau’s new constitution for the party is overwhelmingly adopted.

Someone says he got it in a flash compared with the time it took his father to get a new constitution for Canada.

Later, at the James Armstrong Richardson Winnipeg International Airport, delegates going home have lost their pep. Two nice ladies from Ontario sit down beside me. One looks happy, the other looks glum.

The happy one asks me what I thought of the convention.

“Interesting,” I say.

“There really was lots of time to think about the new constitution,” she says defensively. “And only 66 people voted against it.”

Hundreds of delegates hadn’t voted, but I say nothing.

“There was a lot of strong arming,” says the glum one.

She goes back to her book.