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The Salon is ONW's weekly gathering place where three of Canada's brightest and most respected political strategists - Blair Mccreadie, Joe Cressy and Richard Mahoney - come together to analyze national issues affecting Ontario.


Should Justin Trudeau and other party leaders be bound by policies their members have voted to pass at conventions like the one the Liberals held recently?  


Joe Cressy:

There’s the old joke that Conservatives go to conventions to drink; Liberals go to conventions to have a relationship; and New Democrats go to conventions to debate policy.

Other than finding an excuse to tell that joke, I mention it because in the NDP we have a strong history of rigorous policy debates within the membership.

My experience and belief is that party leadership should be guided by policy decisions at conventions, but not bound by them.

The reason is simple. Circumstances change. If a policy convention passes a resolution stating that healthcare will be the #1 priority for an NDP government, the leader needs the flexibility to adapt if circumstances change.

For example, if an economic crisis arises like it did in 2008, the government of the day needs to be able to adapt.

Richard Mahoney:

In response to Joe's point about what Liberals, New Democrats and Conservatives do at conventions, I feel I need to clarify. First of all, I was at the convention and I admit, I did debate some policy. Secondly, I did drink, but I am no Conservative. Thirdly, and most importantly, I am happily married and intend to remain so!

I think Joe is right (sometimes I also admit that!) on the issue of whether policy resolutions should bind the leadership, with a few important qualifications.

Policy resolutions should be persuasive on leadership. Parties should be a source of ideas for party platforms and the main forum of debate for party policyAnd parties should hold leadership, and its parliamentary wing, accountable for the positions they take publicly.

Blair McCreadie:

Wait a minute. They serve alcohol at political conventions? I clearly need to stop volunteering for the Convention Organizing Committee...

I agree with both Joe and Richard. A political party's policy development process is an effective and important way to engage the grassroots membership and activist core. While a Leader should be strongly guided by that grassroots policy advice, it would not be practical to say that he or she should be bound to it 100% of the time.

In our political system, leaders have two roles: 1) party leader, and 2) leader of the Parliamentary caucus. Ideally, a leader will get valuable policy input from both the grassroots activists, and from his or her MPs or MPPs. A leader needs the flexibility to take input from both groups, without one dictating to the other.

Joe Cressy:

As a former activist within New Democrat circles, the importance of the membership is something I believe in deeply.

I remember the 2006 NDP Convention in Quebec City where the NDP youth caucus, myself included (this dates me, I know) led the move to pass a resolution calling for Canadian troops out of Afghanistan. A resolution – ‘support our troops, bring them home’ – that carried the day on the floor.

The leadership of any party must be guided by, and listen to, the membership. That’s a non-starter in my mind.

However, this discussion poses a bigger question, which is the role of political conventions in the 21st Century.  

Years ago, conventions were internal affairs. MPs, staff, and delegates would gather to hash out policy. The debates were often tough.

In recent years, conventions have become more oriented towards an external audience, with more high profile speeches and fewer policy debates. In some ways the focus has shifted too much towards the media and the non-attending public. Obviously we live in a digital and television era and conventions need to adapt, but a healthier balance between the internal and external objectives needs to be reached.

Richard Mahoney:

Good point. This discussion also raises the whole issue of the role of political parties in our democracy today. Political parties need to be more a mass forum for political involvement, rather than just an electoral get-out-the-vote operation.

It would restore confidence in our system if people who wanted to make their views known, or make a difference, chose political parties as their vehicle to achieve change.

That means political parties will have to connect more to the communities that make up our country. They will have to be more accessible to people in those communities. They need to be more of a virtual town hall where people come to debate ideas, and push the parliamentary wing. Party members now choose local candidates and vote for leaders. They need to become one of the key places where concerned citizens go to develop and express ideas, and hold leadership accountable.

We have become too much about show, and not enough about involvement.

Blair McCreadie:

Agreed. If anything, I think that improved technology and the rise of social media have given party volunteers and members more ability to give input into the policy development process, not less. People no longer rely on party conventions or local events to communicate with party leadership; it's a now a more organic process. The trends in local political organization are headed in the same direction.

The challenge for a party leader then becomes about how to manage and synthesize all of those inputs into a single policy book, or platform document, that will unify and motivate those volunteers to carry that message to doorsteps, community meetings, blogs, Twitter feeds, and so on.


About The Salon (Mahoney, Cressy and McCreadie)

Richard Mahoney is a former Liberal advisor to Rt. Hon. Paul Martin; Joe Cressy sits as on the NDP federal council and has chaired numerous NDP campaigns at all government levels; and Blair McCreadie is past president of the Ontario PC Party (2002-2008) and a partner with Dentons Canada LLP.
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