Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Amateur Politics, Penashue and Canadian Democracy

Over the weekend Evan Solomon of CBC’s radio program The House interviewed Reg Bowers, link. The vast majority of Canadians have never heard of Reg Bowers, and until very recently for good reason. Mr. Bowers is a 68-year-old businessman from Labrador who has played a role in local Conservative politics in Newfoundland and Labrador for decades as a member of his riding association. In the 2011 election he was the campaign manager and agent to Conservative candidate Peter Penashue (CPC – Labrador, NL). Penashue narrowly won the election with 79 votes over the Liberal candidate. Being the only Conservative MP from Newfoundland he found himself in cabinet as Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs.

The Labrador MP’s tenure has been marred by questions about his election. As revealed in the CBC interview and covered extensively by the media Penashue and his campaign accepted tens of thousands of dollars in illegal contributions. He also had sweetheart deals with a local airline which allowed him to visit remote communities and stir up those 80 critical votes.

After months of investigation Penashue announced last week that he had resigned from cabinet and as a MP and seek validation by running in a by-election. The former-minister and Conservative Party blamed the errors on Reg Bowers calling him an “inexperienced volunteer”. Interestingly Bowers was later appointed to an important board position in relation to Newfoundland’s energy sector by the Harper government. Either Bowers is an unfortunate man in over his head and the government appointed a complete neophyte or crony to an important board or, a capable man who ran a campaign broke the Elections Act and was rewarded for his service and skills as a businessman (and political ties) for a plum appointment.

The Conservative Labrador campaign appears to have been rife with law-breaking errors. One must applaud Penashue for at least standing up to his criticism and facing the will of his constituents. The interview with Mr. Bowers raised some interesting questions in my mind. The attack on Bowers, that he was an inexperienced volunteer, simply did not fit with what I was hearing. While his experience in politics was limited he understood he definitely articulated Canada’s election laws well, even if he didn’t follow them. In fact, in the interview he discusses how more suspect money likely slipped through the cracks.

Politics in Canada is a very strange beast. I think shows like The West Wing or more recently Netflix’s House of Cards gives the impression that everyone involved in politics is well-connected, rich, brilliant, cynical, cunning, and savvy. This definitely describes an element of those political activists, but only a minority. Across the country and province political parties are run by volunteers. The head offices of the political parties have very small staffs and the vast majority of the work of politics is done on a volunteer basis.

From my observations the work of politics in this country is carried out by a small group of partisans, idealists, political junkies, and community-minded individuals. They volunteer their time and money to help try to build their parties, but I assume most on non-election, non-leadership race years are not too involved. There are other more activist types who travel to the conventions and sit on the local executives, but that is a small group. There are hundreds of New Democrats in my riding, but only a dozen or so ever attend a monthly meeting. These are sometimes derided as “the usual suspects” who come to every community event and every fundraiser, but they are critical to the function of our democracy, believe it or not.

While political parties do the best they can to train and help candidates and campaign managers (also normally volunteers) they can only go so far. Canada is not the United States and we do not know when our next election will be. Trying to get ready for the unknown next provincial election has many riding associations in Ontario tied in knots. There is no time, and perhaps no resources, for extensive training and support.

Politics does not need, and should not be, professionalized, but more training and support is definitely required. In my work with Samara, and reading their blog posts one of the important themes is that political parties should be conduits for our democracy. By training activists to better be able to reach out to their communities, encourage participation and help candidates put their best foot forward the public and politics in generally could only benefit.

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