All local is politics

Trinity-Spadina and the Reform Act

To Trinity-Spadina, where the Liberal nomination for an impending by-election is  the subject of bitter acrimony. Last week, the party told Christine Innes, the Liberal candidate in 2011 and 2008, that she won’t be allowed to seek the party’s candidacy there or anywhere because of allegations her campaign team was participating in “intimidation and bullying.” The party had also asked her to promise that for 2015, when redistribution will change the riding map in downtown Toronto, she wouldn’t seek the party nomination in University-Rosedale, where Liberal MP Chrystia Freeland apparently intends to run. Ms. Innes says the allegations of bad behaviour are baseless and were never brought to her attention and that she could not “in good conscience” agree in writing to not run in University-Rosedale. The Globe reports that Ms. Innes’ supporters and Ms. Freeland’s supporters were fighting for control of the riding association in that new riding and that Ms. Innes’ supporters think they were winning that fight.

You might file this alongside the Liberal party’s warning about potential candidates with leadership debts, the general intrigue that surrounds Conservative party nominations , the fuss in Brandon-Souris last year and the current fuss in Calgary-Signal Hill and you might add some of those situations, either tangentially or directly, to the debate around the Reform Act. At the very least, the timing is handy as Michael Chong’s bill shifts some focus to the mechanics of riding associations and the processes by which someone’s name ends up beside a party name on the ballot.

The situation of Ms. Innes presents an interesting hypothetical—if the Reform Act, in its current form, was already the law, would parties still be able to block candidates? Current law gives the party (at least) two things it can hold over the head of any riding association or potential candidate: the requirement of the leader’s signature for a candidate to appear on the ballot alongside the party name and the ability to deregister a riding association (under the Elections Act, a party can effectively dissolve and reconstitute an electoral district association). The Reform Act would eliminate the latter and give the former power to a nomination officer chosen by the riding association. (Riding associations would also be given the power to set the rules and timing of nomination contests.)  So, in the most dramatic circumstances, you might imagine a riding association deciding to ignore the party’s vetting and choosing a candidate with whom the party did not want to be associated.

What is the likelihood that a riding association would ever go so far astray? I confess I don’t feel qualified to speculate.

What else could the various parties do to enforce their vetting procedures? The Brits have their own candidate vetting processes we might try to emulate and amending the Reform Act to require the endorsement of a provincial nomination officer—perhaps elected by a vote of riding association presidents—might be sufficient to preserve or enforce some sort of higher-level vetting.

The situation in Trinity-Spadina is particularly messy, with the circumstances still in dispute. You might object that there weren’t sufficient grounds to block a candidate, but without a full airing of the details it is difficult to make that judgement. You could object to the very idea of national party leaders or officials attempting to manage riding nominations, but  would that have its own detrimental effects? Does a certain amount of centralization possibly produce a better array of candidates?

Devolving all power to the local riding association might seem like the right thing to do, but Jeff Jedras has suggested that it would be “trading one set of problems for another.”

All parties have a range of riding associations across the country, from the non-existent and dormant, to the open and inclusive, to the ones ran as closed-shops, tightly controlled by an incumbent MP or a past MP or other prospective future nomination candidate.

By and large, his proposal would merely shift the tinkering and jury-rigging of the nomination process from the hands of the leader and his or her appointees to the MP or one prospective candidate that controls the riding association.

Conservative MP Deepak Obhrai has expressed similar concerns about the nomination process.

Samara, somewhat relatedly, recently published an analysis of the information provided by riding association websites. Samara previously talked to MPs about the nomination process.

Even within this group of MPs – all of whom were their party’s nominees –nearly all found the process to be perplexing and uncomfortable. Many struggled at times to articulate how it functioned, citing a lack of clarity in timelines, sources of decision making, and the application of the rules. Descriptions varied widely from riding to riding and the process appeared subject to a host of idiosyncrasies.  

So there are practical matters here about how the political sausage is made and there are philosophical matters here about how to balance some of the tensions of the system: between the idea of one national campaign and the idea of 338 local campaigns, between the party as a public institution and the party as a private organization (note the Conservative party’s insistence that nominations constitute “internal party matters”). The idea of “open” nominations is attractive on a certain philosophical level, but would it be practical to cast off all centralized overview of candidate selection? Some degree of centralized oversight might make sense of the purposes of maintaing a national organization, but at what point does that have a detrimental impact on the political system?

After all that you can probably make an argument that the current system works basically fine (and that, if the Liberal party erred in its handling of Ms. Innes’ situation it will properly suffer for that mistake). But the Reform Act at least makes change a live possibility.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.