Ontario Liberals should tackle the issue of ex officio status

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Earlier this month, I examined the debate going on within the Ontario Liberal Party between the current system of a leadership convention where every member gets a vote to pick the delegates versus a weighted, one-member, one-vote system.  I concluded, “Neither system is perfect, and frankly… the right leader should be able to win, regardless of the system.”

Notwithstanding this broader debate, Ontario Liberals can consider more targeted reforms to the process.

The most obvious area to consider amending is the massive potential list of “ex officio delegates”, that is those party executives, insiders and past caucus members who are automatically chosen as delegates and who can vote for whomever they wish, without having to win a vote at a local delegate election meeting.

By my math, there are potentially some 700 such ex officio delegates, or roughly 30% of the total delegates at the 2013 leadership convention.  For comparison, the Democratic Party has roughly 700 “super delegates”—for the entire United States!

These super delegates played a decisive role in the 2013 leadership convention.  Sandra Pupatello, the straight-talking former Windsor MPP, was a clear frontrunner and was perceived to be the establishment’s choice; she’d sewn up the support of most of the caucus, themselves ex officio delegates.  Kathleen Wynne, the caucus’s liberal lioness, signed up the most new members (a reported 8000), and was thus seen as running a strong second.

At delegate election meetings, Pupatello won the support of 504 delegates; Wynne won 463 — in other words, Pupatello was in the lead, with Wynne a relatively close second.  The Pupatello camp unveiled well over 100 ex officio endorsements, cementing her appearance of a first-ballot lead.

But then, Wynne gave a stirring speech — Steve Paikin called it one of the “great political milestone speeches of all time” — and the remaining ex officio delegates swung behind her.  In the end, Pupatello had 599 delegates, only two delegates ahead of Wynne’s 597, a virtual tie.

The point of explaining this, though, is not to rehash the convention machinations.  It’s to get to the broader point: Pupatello was +95 and Wynne was +134 versus the delegate election meetings, almost entirely thanks to people who got their position by virtue of their standing in the party, not through a membership vote.

Section 9.15 of the Ontario Liberal Party constitution confers this ex officio status on all past and current Liberal MPPs, the most recent past candidates, all past leaders and party presidents, the party executive and other officials, including leadership of the youth and women’s commissions — but also on all Liberal Members of Parliament from Ontario and various Ontario members with leadership positions in the Liberal Party of Canada.

Eliminating the ex officio spots for federal Liberals would immediately reduce the potential ex officio delegate count by nearly 90 individuals.  Such a move would also dovetail with the fact that the Liberal Party of Canada passed a new constitution in 2016 that severs formal integration between the federal party and its provincial sister parties.  The Ontario Liberal Party could quite rightly consider matching this move.

Further, the party could debate eliminating ex officio status for former Liberal MPPs, either entirely or past a certain “expiry” date.  This is a debate worth having; I recall the awkwardness in 2013 of calls being made to former MPPs from the 1970s and 1980s who were now quite advanced in years and had to sheepishly say they simply were not up to coming to a convention in the middle of February.  Similar arguments could be used for past presidents of the party as well.  Such moves could remove upwards of another 200 individuals.

There is precedent for such changes: the Democrats recently reduced their “super delegates” down to roughly 15% of the total delegates, a far more reasonable percentage: enough to empower the leadership of the party without sacrificing the voice of the grassroots.  The above-mentioned potential changes would do much the same for the Ontario Liberal Party.

The Democrats also went one step further: super delegates may not vote on the first ballot.  That vote is entirely shaped by the vote of the delegates the party elected in state primaries and caucuses.  Perhaps this might be considered as well, so that the first ballot, at least, would indeed entirely be shaped by a one-member, one-vote process, but then allow for delegates, including a reduced pool of ex officio delegates, to hammer out a consensus pick on a convention floor.

At the very least, such tweaks to the system should be considered by the party membership.

Photo Credit: National Post

More from Jonathan Scott.   @J_Scott_

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