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