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Andrew Coyne: Reforming Canadian democracy starts by reforming candidate nomination process

Andrew Coyne: Reforming Canadian democracy starts by reforming candidate nomination process
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One of the paradoxes of Canada’s pantomime democracy — the meaninglessness of Parliament, the impotence of its members, the wildly unrepresentative process that puts them there — is the impossibility of fixing it.

The changes that are most needed, after all, require the consent of the people who stand to lose most from them. No parliamentary reform is possible without the consent of the prime minister. No party reform is possible without the consent of the party leaders. The same stifling control from the top that makes reform necessary also makes it unlikely.

And yet in theory MPs could take back the power they have lost at any time. They just choose not to. This is the other paradox of reform: the people who stand to benefit most from it show the least interest in it. This came up repeatedly during debate on Michael Chong’s ill-fated Reform Act, which aimed (before it was watered down) to redress the imbalance of power between leaders and caucus members by legislative means. What is the point, critics scoffed, of asking MPs to do by Act of Parliament what they are plainly unwilling to do within their own caucuses: defy their leaders?

This was not so insoluble a paradox, however, as the critics pretended. If members of caucus are subservient to the leader, it is in part because they are themselves the product of the same system; they are the beneficiaries of it, in their own way, just as much as he is. They depend on the leader’s favour for any chance of advancement in Parliament. They depend on the leader’s performance in the campaign for their election. And, as an extraordinary new study by the Samara Centre for Democracy (“Party Favours: How Federal Election Candidates are Chosen”) makes clear, they depend on the leader for their very nominations.

This was always apparent with respect to one specific stage of the nomination process: the requirement, added to the election laws in 1972, that a candidate’s nomination papers bear the signature of the party leader. But the Samara study documents show how thoroughly the leadership controls the process at every stage before then. Of the more than 6,600 candidates who ran for the five major parties in the last five federal elections, Samara found, just 17 per cent were chosen to represent their parties in competitive nomination races.

More than 40 per cent were simply appointed, without a nomination vote of any kind. (Necessary, parties will say, to ensure racial and other forms of “diversity.” Bunk, Samara finds: candidates chosen by appointment turn out to be no more diverse than those chosen by a vote of the members.) While the leader’s hand in appointments is obvious, what is more striking, and insidious, is the further 40 per cent-plus who “won” their nominations in races where they were the only contestant.

Doubtless some of those were candidates of such obvious merit or unassailable popularity that no one dared to run against them. But the rules, if that is the word, governing party nomination races are so opaque, so arbitrary and so wholly at the discretion of the party executive as to make it likely in many cases that the absence of competition for a particular candidate was at the behest of the leader.

An unknown number of candidates, for example, are ruled out from the start by the parties’ highly secretive vetting procedures. Again, in most cases this is probably by virtue of some genuinely disqualifying bit of information from their past. But given the lack of transparency surrounding the process — the Greens were the only party to even say how many of their candidates were vetted out — there is corresponding potential for abuse.

Still more opportunity for mischief lies in the timing of nomination races. The dates on which the votes are held varies, but is typically long (as much as two years) before the actual election — indeed long before, as Samara notes, ”ordinary citizens are thinking about the next election.” Their duration, likewise, is various, shifting and uncertain — but typically short. Half last less than three weeks; five days is not unusual. In 253 races, Samara found, nominations opened and closed the same day. The candidate with inside knowledge of when a particular nomination race starts, and when it ends, will be at a decided advantage.

The fairly contested races — perhaps especially those — are often the scenes of the worst excesses

Of course, it is still possible for the blessing of the leader to be decisive, even in those races where the other potential candidates did not take the hint and take a hike. For that matter, the “fairly” contested races — perhaps especially those — are often the scenes of the worst excesses, thanks to the tendency of the parties to treat nomination races, not as an opportunity for the party’s loyal members to choose who should represent them in the election, but as a chance to sell memberships en bloc. The cut-off dates for new members is often indecently close to voting day, leaving races to be decided by “instant members,” stacked nomination meetings, and worse.

This is not only a matter of the legitimacy of the candidates themselves. So long as members of caucus are nominated in this fashion — either by appointment, or by favouritism, or at best by the kind of street-corner politics that went out decades ago elsewhere — then not only will they be unwilling to challenge the leader’s power: no one else will want them to.

If MPs are ever to assume their rightful place in our system — holding their leaders to account, rather than, as now, the reverse — they will have to be more accountable to the members of their party riding associations. Reform of Canadian democracy starts there.

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