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Stefan Klietsch grew up in the Ottawa Valley outside the town of Renfrew. He later studied Political Science at the University of Ottawa, with a Minor in Religious Studies. He ran as a candidate for Member of Parliament for Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke three times from 2015 to 2021. He is currently a Master of Arts student in Political Science at the University of Carleton.
Can Yasir Naqvi ensure the Ontario Liberal Policy Conventions return if he becomes leader?
Image taken from Yasir Naqvi's Twitter account
Return of long-missing policy conferences on the horizon?
The Ontario Liberal Party Constitution contains no less than 6 references to the words, “Annual Policy Development Conference”. Yet the last ever of these “Annual” conferences was either in the year 2010 or 2011 (it is difficult to verify which year from any online searches), an observation that exposes the strange mockery of a supposedly ready-to-govern political party for its own Constitution. Interestingly, it appears that it was during precisely the second half of leadership candidate Yasir Naqvi’s then OLP Presidential tenure (2009–2013) that annual policy conferences came to an end. Though, a former OLP staffer from that era has suggested to me that the circumstance of minority parliament may have been a factor.
Fast forward to the Ontario Liberal Leadership Debate this year in Thunder Bay on September 14th, where four of the candidates expressed explicit support for restoring policy conventions. More recently on September 28th, Yasir put out a more specific pledge in a campaign infographic, promising to “Set a date for the first policy convention within 90 days & host standalone Northern and Rural policy summits.” (Note that although I choose to identify that candidate on a first-name basis as he recognizes my face, we have only conversed directly in two instances.)
There was no similar explicit candidate consensus in the 2020 Ontario Liberal leadership contest, and then elected Leader Steven Del Ducca apparently never promised to return policy conventions to the party. So, surely, the OLP is now at the turning point of coming to its senses, right? Surely the OLP is set to respect and listen to its own membership and move itself past the decade of self-neglect? Not likely.
Whoever becomes Leader cannot unilaterally bring back policy conferences
Under the OLP Constitution, the OLP Leader has no authority to schedule or declare a policy conference. The Constitution specifies that it is the Executive Council that must declare a policy conference (to coincide with a meeting of the Executive Council), and on said Council the Leader’s Office is merely one vote.
The infographic of Yasir’s campaign comes across as firm in promising policy conventions, but the fine print on the campaign’s press release is more cautious and tentative. To quote at length from the campaign website:
Policy Conventions: Losing touch with party members and cutting them out of the policy process is one of the key reasons we lost our way in the lead-up to the 2018 election… To make sure we are in touch with Liberals and Ontarians across the province, Yasir will:
Uphold the requirement in the party constitution for an annual policy development conference. Within 90 days of becoming leader, Yasir will ask the Executive Council to set a date for the first policy conference to start the platform development process for the next election, and further ask that prior to that, we have dedicated conferences for Northern and Rural policy.
In procedural terms, Yasir’s campaign is promising that the candidate will do all that is formally possible to bring about policy conventions. But the pledge is meaningless to whatever extent the Executive Council may choose to decline the request. What does the evidence suggest that the Executive Council would do, when faced with such a request?
Many different Executives across different Councils across a full decade have failed to uphold their constitutional duties. I cannot prove what has caused the consistent inertia on the part of the Council, though I will speculate why further below. But whatever is the reason for Executives’ obstinance on this file, there is little reason to naively expect that the Council would suddenly become more responsive to its obligations the exact moment that a Leader asks nicely.
And speaking of asking nicely, I have already done some asking of my own. I have emailed 8 members of the Executive Council and Tweeted a further 5 Executives, three times each, putting to them the simple question: if or when you are asked by the incoming Leader to schedule an Annual Policy Development Conference, will you comply with the request without stonewalling or delay? The response from all involved has been silence. You can email the President with the same question at email@example.com, where you will surely receive the same non-response. (There are another 7 Executive Councillors whom I could not contact, as contact information beyond names is not publicly available for many of them.)
Arguably, the Executive Council is an institution that is of shaky legitimacy. Unlike the Leader’s Office, Executive Councillors are elected only by delegates to Annual General Meetings, not by the general membership. I cannot speak to the experiences of PLA Presidents with Executives in Provincial Council Meetings, but at any rate members other than PLA Presidents lack continuous forums with which to challenge Executives between General Meetings. More concerning is that the ballot counts for Executive elections appear to be secret — I have reached out to OLP staff three times via firstname.lastname@example.org to query for Executive election results, a request which has likewise been met with silence.
Might Executive Council be obstinate on this file specifically to please the incoming Leader?
There is no reason to believe that any of the leadership candidates have been lying in their stated policy preferences, especially since all the candidates have comfortably made eye contact with me as I have asked them about their stance on policy conventions. (In Yasir’s case, I had the opportunity to ask him when he pleasantly approached me on his own initiative.) However, the candidates on offer are still human and therefore potentially vulnerable to the psychological bias of short-sightedness, even if at an abstract level they still understand the harm that an absence of policy conventions causes to the party. And when you become a party Leader, there is inevitably going to be some sense of self-relief if you can rest assured that your preferred policy messaging is not going to be meaningfully challenged in any way by your party membership anytime soon.
Canadian politics is overly dominated by the will of party leaders compared to other advanced democracies, and as such it is easy to imagine how circumstances might play out to the detriment of the membership. The new Leader will plausibly come into office, make some token effort at appealing to the Executive Council for policy conventions, receive a tempered behind-the-scenes Executive response in favour of delay or stonewalling of convention commitments, and then the Leader will shrug off and forget about their pledges. I suspect that some of the Executives will be engaging in such behaviour not in genuine rebellion against the Leader, but rather with the expectation of the Leader being privately pleased and dishing out an economic or political reward accordingly. (In my past experiences with the Green Parties of Canada and of Ontario, there was no shortage of groveling by governing authorities, in the form of doing dirty work that the Leader would never ask for but would happily welcome as a gift regardless.)
But there are ways that the leadership candidates could prove that they are firmly committed to change. Firstly, any one of the candidates could indicate that they are prepared for a public fight against Executive Councillors on the policy convention issue — none of the candidates have done this. Secondly, the candidates could consent to adding their signature to a constitutional amendment proposal of mine that would guarantee policy conventions to occur (none of the campaigns have done this since being invited by me via email).
Why single out Yasir Naqvi, then, for scrutiny and special doubt?
At the 2020 OLP leadership convention I, as a delegate, did not vote Steven Del Ducca for Leader. But when Del Ducca won the contest I did express a cautious optimism for the OLP’s future, positively citing in a blog his longtime experience with the party that he campaigned to lead. (He did slightly grow his party more than any other party leader did in 2022, aside from the party newly included in televised leadership debates.) However, after the 2022 OLP electoral disappointment it has become clearer that it is important not merely that a Leader have longtime experience with their party prior to becoming Leader, but that they should have such experience with their party from a position of open dissent. Del Ducca had a long history of various experiences with his party but not much visible history of open dissent, and Yasir seems to have the same flaw as a candidate.
Framed in positive terms, Yasir seems to be a candidate who lacks a distinct history of conflict with any other members of the OLP (despite what some would consider to be cheap shots he took at Crombie in the Stratford debate). But in the context of a political party where the authorities are potentially abusing their power with obstinance, Yasir seems like the candidate least likely to call them out. Set aside the observation that the illicit termination of annual policy conferences appears to have occurred in the second half of his own Presidential term — he still lacks history of protesting the absence of such conventions when in a position to do so. From 2013 to 2018 he was a Cabinet Minister in Kathleen Wynne’s government, and therefore already in a high-profile position in which he could protest the lack of policy conventions — but he did not do so.
What flagged Yasir to me personally as a candidate worthy of special scrutiny is the associations of his campaign. He is arguably the candidate most tied to the traditional OLP establishment, even accounting for the couple of Executive Councillors who openly endorsed Bonnie Crombie for Leader. His Campaign Director Milton Chan was also a Campaign Manager for the Del Ducca leadership campaign, before being appointed Constitution Committee Chair by Del Ducca, and Yasir has received an endorsement from another member of the same Constitution Committee that prioritized decreasing constitutional amendment submissions for future AGMs. Notably, Yasir previously worked in Cabinet alongside the same OLP President who is currently inaccessible for my policy conventions questions, although the President has stayed officially neutral in the race. (The same Constitution Committee with two members endorsing Yasir also has a member currently serving as the Chief Returning Officer.) If there were a candidate whom party insiders would have the most experience with and know how to grovel to appropriately, that candidate would be Yasir Naqvi.
Earlier in this blog I offered reasons why any candidate for Leader should be treated with some suspicion with respect to policy convention statements. But we do have a candidate in the race who has at least some history of publicly and openly disagreeing with Liberal authority figures, that being Nate Erskine-Smith. Bonnie Crombie is widely perceived as industry pro-establishment and I do not perceive her to be as good at listening to the policy expert community as Yasir, but like Nate she came into the race without prior major positions within the OLP. Ted Hsu is widely understood to be the candidate in the race least like a career politician, and therefore obviously lacking in insider connections. And only Yasir has given his policy convention pledge a specific caveat, in the form of the ask that we can expect be rejected.
And here I again did some asking of my own. I reached out to Yasir’s campaign via email@example.com three times with the question, “What would Yasir do if the Executive Council declined his policy convention ask?” The response so far has been — you guessed it — silence. (Yasir’s campaign was more responsive when earlier in September I previewed a different incarnation of this blog that would have mistakenly suggested that the Yasir campaign had a lack of concrete policy convention promises.)
What you, the reader, can do to make policy conventions happen
For all the reasons explained above, anyone hoping that voting for Yasir Naqvi or even other candidates in the leadership contest will be enough to settle the return of Ontario Liberal policy conventions, is likely to be in for a years-long disappointment. More work needs to be done by democracy devotees within the party. But I have a plan for how to proceed:
1. If you as a member are willing to have your name publicly displayed in an OLP Constitution Committee Report, reach out to me via firstname.lastname@example.org or on other social media to confirm your willingness to be a signatory for my “Guaranteeing overdue Annual Policy Conferences” proposal. To be eligible for submission for the next OLP AGM, this amendment will need the endorsement of either 20 members or of 3 Provincial Liberal Associations.
2. Further reach out to me to endorse some of my other draft constitutional amendments, which are listed in this Google doc. If it seems strange to suggest that piling up additional proposals for the next AGM would help to pass the policy convention amendment specifically, consider that a higher quantity of amendment submissions would be more likely to increase the delegate turnout for the constitutional plenaries, like we saw for the prior convention. Higher delegate attendance would increase the number of open-minded and non-prejudiced delegates voting upon the amendment.
3. If you are a member and can make it to the convention, be prepared to vote for the amendment, speak in favour of the amendment in plenary, and most importantly raise your card in plenary when the plenary chairs test the floor for desire for debate. (At the 2023 OLP AGM multiple of my amendments were defeated without debate, even without a likely would-be opposing speaker, because a large portion of delegates received misinformation about my proposals and my supporters and I did not realize the imperative to raise our cards.)
If there are to be multiple OLP policy conventions prior to the next Ontario Election, my amendment needs to be specifically passed at the 2024 OLP AGM. If Yasir is elected as Leader with his specific pledges, we will not likely know whether his pledge is of consequence until after the deadline has already passed for amendment submissions for the 2024 AGM. And then the window of opportunity will rapidly shrink for us members to force policy conventions on the party’s agenda before the 2026 Ontario Election.
Although I suspect that it amounts to bad faith baiting with false expectations, Yasir’s campaign does properly hint that without policy conventions the OLP can only expect to repeat the results of the 2018 and 2022 elections. Ideally, one would vote for the leadership candidates purely based on policy and on personality, in which case I might vote Yasir ahead of Bonnie Crombie. Unfortunately, the insiders have given Liberal Leaders unnecessary governance control, both implicit and explicit. Regardless of the Leader chosen, there is work yet to be done to democratize this party.