What would Michael Chong's Reform Act mean for riding nominations?

'It becomes a very different dynamic'

As a pro-life group targets Conservative nominations, Radical Centrist reviews how nominations are handled by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in Britain and suggests the same system could be applied here.

Would such a process work here in Canada? I don’t see why not. With regards to the Reform Act proposal, some concerns have been expressed regarding leaving the decision up to local party riding associations, since some of these local associations aren’t particularly healthy. Some parties may not have a very active membership in some parts of the country, which could make candidate selection problematic if decentralized. This is a legitimate concern, but I don’t see why our parties couldn’t set up Parliamentary Assessment Boards consisting of sitting MPs and long-time party volunteers who could assess candidates anywhere in the country via Skype, for example. The PAB could be supplemented by one or two local party members. Yes, the Canadian situation is different, but none of the problems or objections I’ve yet seen raised are insurmountable.

Do some oddball MPs get elected to the UK House of Commons? You bet they do! And that no doubt adds to the liveliness of the place (when compared to the Canadian House of Commons, for example). But here’s the thing – there are plenty of oddball MPs who get elected here in Canada even with the party leader signing off on nomination papers. The main difference here is that our party leaders can more easily keep their oddballs on a tight leash.

The concern raised by Tim Harper and Paul Wells is that, without the Elections Act requirement of the leader’s signature to run under a party banner, parties will find it hard to manage 338 nominations—some riding associations, for instance, will be more susceptible to being stacked by special interest groups.

I asked Michael Chong about those concerns yesterday. He thinks the argument that there are ridings without riding associations is a “thin argument.” When we spoke by phone, here is some of what he had to say.

First, it takes only four members for a riding association to be established. Second, if four members cannot be found, should a party run a candidate in that riding? Wasn’t that why we did away with the quote-unquote “rotten boroughs” of the time past?

There used to be these things called rotten boroughs, they were essentially client constituencies beholden to a particular person and we did away with those, for good reason. It’s not representative democracy.

… It only takes four members for a riding association to be established. A riding association that could then nominate a party candidate. What it forces parties to do is to ensure that their structures are very grassroots. And that’s the power of the bill. It reconnects political parties in a much stronger way to the grassroots membership of the party throughout the country.

… When people say it’s relatively easy to take over nominations or these people don’t fit with the party? What does that mean? Taken over by people who don’t look like us, or people who don’t pass the ideological smell test or taken over by people that are too young or too old?

My view is that provided a party member meets the requirements to vote in a nomination campaign, in other words, they have been a member for a sufficient amount of time in advance of the nomination vote, shouldn’t riding associations and parties be open to new members and shouldn’t they want to attract new members?

And the argument that, well, wouldn’t this bill allow unhealthy riding associations to be easily taken over. Well, why is that a bad thing? If a riding association isn’t quote-unquote “healthy” it means it doesn’t have very many members, so why would we not want new members to join that association to grow its membership?

At the end of the day, registered political parties are not closed clubs. They are quasi-public institutions that receive large sums, millions of dollars of taxpayer money and also are granted special powers. These parties should be open to all Canadians who wish to participate in the political process.

We discussed other issues and aspects of the bill and then I came back to this issue of riding nominations. Here is that exchange (with my comments in bold).

Just to go back to this because I want to make sure I understand it. The issue of nominations and this question that has been raised by Tim and Paul, that there are 338 ridings, there aren’t robust riding associations in all of these ridings, they could be easily overrun…

Well, they’re in part not robust, I would argue, because what powers do members of a local electoral district association have? Ultimately, in the final, final analysis, what powers do they have? They do not have the final say over the nomination candidate.

Now, more often than not, the leader of a political party defers to the riding association, but ultimately it’s up to the leader of the party to approve the nominated candidate. I would argue that that rule, the veto that party leaders have over party candidates, along with the other two rules that have weakened the parliamentary party, the combination of the three is one of the reasons why there’s a disconnect between Parliament and constituencies across the country.

The counter scenario, I guess, or one scenario that might come out is, there are all these ridings—first of all, there aren’t riding associations in some of these places because there isn’t much of a chance of winning. So to use the NDP example, in Quebec, most of these people, excluding what happened in 2011, most of those ridings didn’t ever imagine that there would ever be an NDP MP for them. So, in theory, these ridings could be easily—issues-based groups or mischief makers or what-have-you could go into these ridings…

But, no, no. But that is—language is very important. We don’t have voters who are eligible to vote because they’re not mischief makers and they’re not issues-based. In other words, the franchise is universal in Canada. And that means that everyone has the right to participate in the political process.

And the idea that we should somehow restrict the franchise within political parties because people don’t look like us or because they don’t think like us or because they’re too young or too old, I don’t think makes sense. It’s not logically coherent.

Because a group of people who believe in something strongly join a local riding association shouldn’t preclude them from membership.

Right. I guess the counter argument to that would be that parties have a certain amount of sovereignty and right to decide sort of what they’re about and what their ideology is and what their agenda is. And in the situation sort of that this bill would allow, you could have some group of a dozen people or whatever either take over one riding or take over several ridings and present some platform that doesn’t at all correspond to what the party, the larger party, has and suddenly the national party has to account for that.

You know, that can happen within the current system.

But doesn’t the leader’s veto prevent that from happening in the current system.

Yes it does, to a certain extent. But nevertheless, the leader can’t veto every single nominated candidate that’s presented. So that can happen in the current system.

Look, I really believe that all these arguments are quite thin. Every other Western democracy has a system where local associations, local districts, nominate the party candidate and have the final decision. And I don’t see why we are so different in this country that we can’t adopt that kind of a system. And frankly, it was the system that we had in place prior to 1970. And to my knowledge, the history of parliaments prior to 1970 weren’t filled with MPs that were anymore single-issues based or anymore different than the parliaments that would happen under this bill.

How do you see it playing out with an election campaign, in terms of a party ends up with 338 candidates and there are, let’s say, half a dozen or some small number or maybe even a larger number that disagree with the party platform or disagree with the leader or the leader disagrees with them? The response becomes, either the leader has to wear those people or he doesn’t have control of his party.

Well, first of all, that’s not a hypothetical, that happens in every election campaign.

Yeah, to a certain extent, but…

So it happens in every election campaign today. And so under today’s rules, the onus to respond to that conflict rests on the leader because it is the leader’s responsibility to vet the candidate, to approve the candidate. Under the system proposed under the Reform Act, that authority rests with the local electoral district association. And therefore, the focus becomes not on the leader, as to what he or she is going to do with respect to this candidate that’s gone off message or has other problems, the issue becomes one for the local electoral district association. And so, in my view, it will actually reduce the media focus during election campaigns on those candidates that go off-message or that have other troubles during the campaign. Because the leader’s response will be, well, don’t look at me, this was not my decision as to whether this candidate should stand for election, phone up the local electoral district association, it’s their decision. It becomes a very different dynamic.