What about primaries?

Bringing American-style politics to parliamentary democracy

To the New York Times, where the Liberal party of Canada is noted for its embrace of American-style politics the American idea of the primary.

Americans adopted primaries to keep party bosses from exerting too much of that control. Primaries were among a series of innovations by turn-of-the-century reformers looking to expand direct democracy, which culminated with the 1913 constitutional amendment to let a state’s voters, instead of state legislatures, elect its senators…

“Debates on the convention floor about these changes often referenced the experience south of the border,” said Katie Telford, the national campaign director of Canada’s Liberal Party, which in 2012 decided to select its new leader through a primary conducted mostly online. The opportunity for citizens to “kick the tires of the party,” according to Ms. Telford, led to unprecedented growth in its ranks of volunteers and small donors. “We were better off,” she said, “having that record-breaking number of volunteers ready to engage with the party.”

This sort of thing makes a lot of sense as an exercise in party and public politics, but, as Dale Smith has noted, this gets complicated in the context of a parliamentary system. Picking a presidential nominee via primaries is comparatively straightforward—the winning candidate does not then become the leader of the Senate or congressional caucuses of the same party, even if there might generally be some expectation that they might be amenable to working together. In the case of our leadership elections, the winning candidate is immediately made leader of the party’s parliamentary caucus, with some degree of power over the MPs (and, if applicable, senators) who belong to that caucus. The line of accountability is thus complicated when the leader derives his mandate not from the people he leads, but from a separate (and larger) body.

Whatever the merit of the arguments for reversing the trend in expanding leadership votes, it is probably too late to turn back now; once you’ve expanded the vote, I suspect it’s difficult to then rein it back. I’m also not entirely convinced that it’s an inherently bad thing for our parliamentary democracy—or, at least, what it achieves in engagement might outweigh what it complicates in accountability. A counterbalancing response might be limiting the amount of power a leader can exert over members of his or her parliamentary caucus.

The next frontier in this regard might involve both primaries and those MPs. The British Conservatives have experimented with primaries at the riding level, allowing a wider vote on the party’s candidates for a few safe seats. In his response to the Reform Act, Liberal blogger Jeff Jedras floated primaries as a better option for riding nominations.

If we want to think bigger, we could move to an Elections Canada-run primary system for nomination races, where every resident of the riding has the option to register as a supporter of a party and vote in only one nomination race, which could all happen at the same time on a pre-determined and known timeline similar to that outlined above, but ran by Elections Canada to ensure transparency and fairness. My concern with this scenario is the dilution of the privileges of party membership, similar to the concerns I expressed when the Liberals debated the issue in the leadership selection context in 2012.

There’s an argument here that such a system, in providing wider mandates, will empower the individual candidate and MP, or at least redirect the line of accountability so that the candidate or MP is less beholden to the party leader.

How could this be applied to the matter of Trinity-Spadina? I suppose you’re still confronted with the idea of candidate vetting, though perhaps an open primary would limit the ability of any riding association to influence the outcome.




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