With the countdown on to the planned 2015 general election now underway, and with riding redistribution a reality that is playing out at the ground level, we’re starting to see a renewed focus on the role of the party nominations. In places like Calgary, this is already manifesting into a bit of drama, with challengers appearing once again to try to take down Conservative MP Rob Anders from within. And given that all parties have announced that there will be open nominations across the board without any protection for incumbents, we may finally see some attention paid to this incredibly vital process.
Nomination races are perhaps the most important and yet least understood part of the way our democracy functions. Under normal circumstances, candidates don’t appear out of thin air, appointed from on high by operatives in party headquarters or the leader’s office. In almost all circumstances, it’s the grassroots party members that hold a race and elect the person that will represent them on the ballot in the next election. It’s also one of the most basic forms of accountability for MPs, where their own riding members can have them replaced and have someone else run on the ballot for the party if they feel that their MP isn’t doing a good enough job. Yet, this process is largely unknown to most Canadians, and largely goes unmentioned in the media unless it’s for a by-election, or a case like Rob Anders, where the incumbent is being challenged in a high-profile way.
There have been periods in Canadian history where the nomination races have lapsed into elite-driven processes, where a small handful of people decided who would be the candidate on the ballot. Those kinds of processes can successfully be challenged, and have been in the past. One of the most memorable in Canadian history was the 1978 Liberal Party nomination in the riding of Toronto-Rosedale, where upstart nomination candidate Anne Cools challenged that party machinery and started signing up new members to support her candidacy, many of them women and visible minorities from the low-income areas of the riding who were otherwise disengaged from the political process.
The National Film Board captured the race in the documentary The Right Candidate for Rosedale, to date the only real film that we have in Canada on the nomination process. In that race, what had been a moribund riding association of some dozen members swelled to over five thousand, where bigger and bigger venues for the final vote needed to be found. And while Cools was not ultimately successful, it did bring attention back to the process of enfranchising the residents of a riding that they had a say in who would be on the ballot to represent them.
“It changed the way nominations were run forever,” Cools, now a Senator, told me recently when I mentioned to her that I had seen the documentary. And while those five-thousand member nomination votes are once again rare – though they can happen in some more contentious ridings – we have recently seen some nomination meetings that ran into the upper hundreds in places like Toronto Centre during the last by-election.
Nomination races can be gruelling experiences. Ask anyone who’s ever challenged one – they’re often worse than the general election itself. You’re not only fighting your fellow party members for votes, but you’re also ensuring that you don’t burn any bridges because you’re going to need their support if you win. But it’s also a proving ground to show that you have the stamina and wherewithal to be the party’s candidate on the ballot.
It’s also the place where our attention needs to shift as citizens if we want a House of Commons that is more diverse and more engaged in our communities. After all, it’s the grassroots members who will be choosing their nominees, and it becomes incumbent upon them to actively choose more women and minorities to run for office starting at this basic level. Having more women or minorities nominated in a top-down process tends to open those candidates up to criticisms of tokenism, despite the structural barriers that they may face. It’s also where the parties are showing their biggest differences in how they run these nomination races.
The Conservatives tend not to impose any kind of quotas on their nomination races, but as a result see far fewer women who get elected in winnable ridings. The Liberals in the past have used the leader’s ability to nominate more women candidates to reach the number of one third running – albeit not all in winnable ridings – though Justin Trudeau has forsworn this ability in the next election because of his commitment to open nominations, and is encouraging more riding associations to actively recruit more women and minorities to run. The NDP have a built-in mechanism where all open nominations must have at least one equity-seeking candidate (either a woman or other minority) to contest the nomination, though we have seen instances where this rule has been skirted in order to essentially acclaim a preferred candidate.
With our politics having shifted so far toward a quasi-presidential leader-centric focus, the kinds of grassroots engagement that a nomination process represents is crucial to maintaining the health of our democracy. It’s not only at the grassroots level where nominees are chosen and held to account by their constituents and supporters, but party policy is also decided. Under the current structure, for better or ill, it’s also how leaders are chosen and held to account under a review process. Grassroots party members matter a great deal in our system – far more than most people realise or would give them credit for.
Our democratic system relies on more than just trudging to the ballot box every few years – it relies on the input of ordinary Canadians at the riding level. These nomination races are that most fundamental distillation of how our system operates, and it behoves Canadians to get out and get involved.
Other articles by Dale Smith
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