Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Closed Nominations, Closed Democracy

I’ve spent a lot of time on this blog talking about democracy issues in Canada. I am clearly not alone in my concerns that Canadian democracy is not exactly cresting at the height of excellence. Increasingly I am convinced that as we look at the tree of Canadian democracy we fret over the shriveled, dying leaves that is our House of Commons and miss the much more serious rot in the trunk that is our political parties, or decay in the roots of activism and riding associations. This overly metaphorical introduction is by way to bring up the topic of nomination contests and how open they should be.

As I write this I understand there may be a development in the story, but the federal Liberal Party is under fire for apparently blocking a potential candidate, Christine Innes, for running in Trinity-Spadina, left vacant by Olivia Chow’s resignation to run for mayor of Toronto. Zach Paikin, long-time Liberal Party activist, withdrew his name as a potential nominee in a new Hamilton-area riding in protest. 

One of the ways political parties control MPs is through the threat that will not sign their nomination papers confirming them as the party’s candidate. This also has the added benefit of keeping party activists in line who one day may aspire to become politicians themselves. If legislation such as the Reform Act were ever to become law the parties seem poised to ensure only loyalists to the leader ever have the opportunity to enter the House of Commons to begin with.  

During every election parties are embarrassed by at least one of their candidates. The Parti Quebecois recently had to confront two different candidates for anti-Islamic and anti-Jewish rhetoric. Thought perhaps not the case in this instance, parties with candidates in long-shot ridings are hung with their baggage and forced to explain on their behalf. This hurts the party, distracts from the campaign and ruins the party’s chances in that riding at least. With this in mind a certain amount of vetting should be required before a potential candidate can stand for nomination.

How thorough should the screening be? In my ideal, fantasy democracy the filtering should be minimal. If the candidate has no obvious skeletons, legal problems, or public embarrassments they should be allowed to stand. Determining a candidate’s worth should be left to the riding association, and they should take the responsibility seriously. I appreciate why parties tighten the controls more than that, but it is the manipulation of the system that bothers me.

Through personal experience, and well-documented news stories, there are examples of the central party, leader, or other bigwigs in a political party parachuting in a candidate. I would not be opposed to the central party/leader declaring a preference for a particular candidate, it’s when institutional barriers are erected to prevent other potential candidates from running that things become problematic.

Parties are confronted with the reality of being judged by every error, and every disagreement is an open rebellion or challenge to leadership. In the current media-political environment dissent must be minimal. But big parties covering a range of views is important to a healthy democracy. As participation in political parties declines it seems like the central party will only become more dominant over the riding association. Choosing candidates is perhaps the most important duties of a riding association, take that away, and what is left? What is their purpose except to be local cheerleaders for a handpicked candidate and unaccountable leader?

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