Youth wing wrong

June 8th, 2011
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I was going to post a blog today where I actually agree with Tasha Kheiriddin, but that will have to wait for another day. As someone who established the “Reform tradition” of youth politics – and I won’t say which other prominent Conservative was instrumental in this – I must argue as strongly as ever for the continued equality of members in the Conservative Party of Canada.

Unlike Ms. Kheiriddin, I have few fond memories of PC youth politics. It was a pit of petty bickering and rivalries-over-nothing that I have rarely if ever seen equalled. It also rarely featured any debate about policy – what some of us thought politics should be about. All was position and status.

But that was the good part. The truly pernicious aspect of youth, or identity politics, was the fact that the various splinter groups – whether based on age, sex or geography – became personal fiefdoms for problematic individuals and, worse yet, were used to distort the democratic process within the party.

How was this done? Very simple. It was mandated that a third of all delegates elected from each constituency had to be under 30. Another third had to be women.

Officially recognized clubs from “institutes of higher learning” also elected delegates. Some old timers may recall the 1983 federal leadership race, in which the PC party executive had to rule whether dog grooming schools in Newfoundland could send delegates to the convention. Potemkin clubs at various colleges would routinely be set up precisely to elect delegates to leadership and other conventions.  Of course the broader membership was expected to subsidize the attendance of such delegates. National youth organizers were paid by leadership hopefuls to organize such fake clubs, and these routinely folded after the convention was over.  To my knowledge this practice continued up to and including the federal PC leadership race in 2003.

So let me correct Ms Kheiriddin on a very important point. The changes in treatment of youth members by Reform had noting to do with a distaste for the mere concept of “special status”. No. The changes were made to correct obvious structural flaws and specific deficiencies in the structure of the old PC Party – a structure many of us were very familiar with.

In short, our experience showed that youth wings are an anti-democratic, organizational  accident waiting to happen. The opportunity and temptation for manipulation and stifling of democracy is too great.

Contrast that with the other experience after 1987. The Prime Minister was Chief Policy Officer of the Reform Party at the age of 29. I was a riding president at the age of 28. One of the youngest group of MPs ever elected emerged in the late 1990s. These included Jason Kenney, James Rajotte, Scott Reid and James Moore. The party routinely elected more than 30% youth delegates from many constituencies. All this was achieved without any officially sanctioned splinter groups within the party.

Unfortunately, my understanding is that a form of special status has already been brought into the new Conservative Party through the back door. Apparently, there is currently a requirement that a fixed number of delegates from each riding be “youth”.

Had I known that, yet again, the issue of a youth wing would make it to the convention floor, I would have run to be a delegate – to speak against it as I did in 2005. With all due respect to Ms Kheirridin and those who agree with her, I can only hope that the wisdom of the convention floor again rejects this wrong-headed proposal so ripe for abuse and manipulation.  And if my words are at all persuasive, I invite voting delegates to consider them in the seriousness with which they are written.

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By John Weissenberger