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Rae calls for end to Liberal turf wars, open membership

Bob Rae is calling on federal Liberals to end decades-old turf wars and leadership feuds and throw open the doors of their party to all comers.

The interim leader used blunt talk Saturday in a bid to spark an intense debate among grassroots Liberals as they prepare for a mid-January convention aimed at rebuilding their shattered party.

The self-styled natural governing party was reduced to a third party rump with only 34 seats in last May’s election.

Rae kicked off the debate with a frank assessment of the party’s failings. But he also had some suggestions about how Liberals can pick themselves up off the mat and become contenders for power once again, including allowing the “broader electorate,” not just party members, to choose the next leader and candidates for the next election.

“A successful political party is not a debating society or a social club,” Rae told Liberals at a convention of the party’s British Columbia wing in Victoria.

He reminded Liberals that the purpose of their party is to elect enough MPs to form a government.

“That might seem trite and obvious but there are still many people around who seem to be satisfied with a party that is small and comfortable or a group who seek some psychological urge to be in charge of a tiny project.”

In a text of his remarks, made available in Ottawa, Rae said Liberals have allowed “competing ambitions and warring factions” to erode the trust and confidence upon which successful organizations are built. He said some progress has been made on that front since May but urged Liberals to work at “reinforcing the good humour and personal respect that are the hallmarks of good health.”

Rae said the party must broaden its membership base, starting with taking membership forms out of the hands of riding presidents and the party’s provincial wings.

“Ridings should not be controlled by small cliques or by people who try to keep people out because they’re afraid of losing control.”

Rae’s speech is to be followed shortly by a discussion paper issued by the Liberal national executive, presenting some of the best ideas for rebuilding the party gleaned from months of grassroots consultations.

The paper is expected to include proposals for adopting a sort of U.S.-style primary system, wherein anyone who registers as a party supporter gets to vote in leadership and nomination contests.

Rae indicated his own support for allowing “all Canadians who have signalled some broad support for our party” — not just militant, card-carrying Liberals — to be able to choose future leaders and candidates.

“If we speak for a movement, we need to build a movement,” he said. “Other parties have chosen a more restrictive route. We have a chance to take a more exciting approach.”

Rae also called for simplification of the party’s lengthy, complicated constitution, which he said “seems to be based on a culture where mistrust is big so everything has to be written down.”

And he said the party’s dire financial straits requires simplification of its complicated structure — with riding associations, provincial and territorial associations (PTAs), various commissions and national headquarters all competing for donations — as well.

“I don’t want a war over the future of PTAs and commissions but I do want a recognition of the current financial reality and financial challenge,” he said.

“We have to become leaner and the turf wars have to stop. Every section of the party, from bottom to top … has to work together. Period.”

The Liberals have struggled to raise money since corporate donations were prohibited and individual donations severely restricted in 2004 and further tightened in 2006. The Harper government is in the process of phasing out the public per-vote subsidy, which will further tighten the financial screws on the Liberals, forcing them to rely solely on small individual donations.

So far this year, the Liberal party has pulled in $7.6 million in donations— less than half the $18.6 million raked in by the Conservatives, but ahead of the $5.9 million raised by the NDP.

Unless the party doubles its donations every year, Rae predicted: “We shall find it difficult to run a truly successful national campaign when the next election comes in 2015.” While the party has had some recent success with “email blasts,” he said Liberals still don’t have “full command of the best techniques and technologies” to identify potential donors and persuade them to give.

“We need to get them to allow us to level the playing field.”

Rae is to follow up his tough-talking speech with a teleconference townhall Sunday night, in which tens of thousands of Liberals have been invited to take part and offer their views about rebuilding the party.

Liberals are billing it as “the biggest ever virtual event in the history of Canadian politics.”