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Vancouver Sun, Friday, January 18, 2008

The dirty little undemocratic secret of political parties

by Barbara Yaffe

A growing battle over a federal Liberal candidate in a Saskatchewan riding is more than just an internal party affair.

It underscores a serious flaw in a political process most Canadians believe is fully democratic.

Some background:

Last fall Conservative-turned-Liberal David Orchard was encouraged by party brass to find himself a Saskatchewan riding in which to run.

He picked the northern riding of Desenthe-Missinippi-Churchill where a byelection is to be held March 17. Orchard owns a farm there and has been busy recuiting party members.

Suddenly, last week, the rug was pulled from under him by leader Stephane Dion who declared Orchard's candidacy null and void.

Dion decreed the riding would be contested by former NDP provincial politician, Joan Beatty.

The act of appointing candidates rather than having them voted in by a constituency's party members is within party rules.

Indeed, the Orchard kissoff is in keeping with Dion's pledge that Liberals will feature female candidates in a third of ridings in the next vote.

To be sure, Beatty is an attractive candidate. She's aboriginal and has a history of being electable in the largely aboriginal riding. So attractive, it's hard to see why she couldn't win a freely contested nomination contest.

Orchard and his supporters are fighting the Dion decision. They held an emergency meeting in Prince Albert last weekend to plan strategy.

Whatever the merits of the Liberal leader's decision, it's hard to argue with Orchard supporters who say his action was anti-democratic.

It was. And this is by no means exclusively a Liberal problem. Party constitutions give leaders the right to interfere in nomination races. And they do.

Stephen Harper in the spring of 2007 unceremoniously vetoed the candidacies Mark Warner in Toronto Centre and Brent Barr in Guelph. Harper offered no explanation but both men, who'd already won their nominations, reportedly were in favour of same-sex marriage.

An argument can be made that it's sometimes necessary to squelch certain candidacies. A leader, after all, must have control over his party and caucus.

For example, it would be logical to nix a candidacy if an individual demonstrated himself to be unethical or in trouble with the law. Or if the wannabe was a single-issue candidate representing only a narrow constituency within the riding or was a nuisance candidate, espousing beliefs totally in opposition to those of the party.

But rules should be clear and transparent to ensure accountability for those voters whose right to choose is being usurped.

And appointments should be rare, since picking a riding's MP is the closest Canadians ever get to exercising democracy; they do not get to directly choose party leaders or the prime minister.

Appointment of candidates is not the only flaw in the system. It remains possible for those vying for candidacies to capture a majority of votes in nomination races by recruiting instant members, loading them on buses and transporting them to meetings.

This is done quite frequently, as when a would-be politician rounds up a bunch of supporters from a single ethnic group or representing one side of a hot-button policy issue like abortion.

A way around this would be to require anyone voting at nomination gatherings to show proof they've been party members for a period of time.

These flaws in the nomination system aren't much discussed by the public. Most people develop interest in the process only come election day when they vote for whichever candidates are on offer.

But the democratic deficits within Canada's political system are well known to political insiders, who are loath to relinquish any control over the process.

It's interesting to note that Dion did not attempt to capitalize on the furore aroused last fall when Harper vetoed the two Ontario candidates. Nor is Harper trying to make hay over Dion's appointment of Beatty. They can hardly criticize the other for something they themselves have done.

Until the public objects, nothing will change.

So it's a good thing that Orchard, ever the pesky bee at a barbecue, is about to do his bit to put some sting into this issue.

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