Why are we so eager to take the politics out of politics?


Wouldn’t you know it, that dastardly Justin Trudeau is at it again.  Playing politics with the internal politics of his political party.  In what’s become a familiar refrain, the prime minister and his office were accused of playing favourites in a pair of nomination races.

But the idea that there’s something nefarious with a party leader getting choosy about who’s running under their banner is a faulty one.

The trouble stems from Trudeau’s promise to have open nominations when he was running for the Liberal leadership.  In a post on his campaign website from 2013, Trudeau wrote:

“If elected leader, I will ensure that in 2015, every candidate for the Liberal Party will be nominated through an open nomination process.  I will not appoint any candidate, in any of Canada’s 338 ridings.  The goal is to build a truly representative party, made up of citizens who are engaged at the grassroots level, so they can bring Canadians’ voices to Ottawa.”

More than a few times, that phrase “open nomination process” has become a useful bludgeon when a potential candidate finds themselves either excluded or facing long odds.  In the past couple weeks, two nomination races have come to a close shrouded in much controversy.

First, in the race for Ontario’s Markham—Thornhill riding, PMO aide Mary Ng won her spot as the next Liberal candidate.  Juanita Nathan, one of Ng’s opponents, withdrew her name after the school board trustee claimed party shenanigans had sunk her campaign before it could get off the ground.

Nathan said the cut-off date to register new members was set so some 2,000 of her supporters were disqualified.  Because of this, she said the process was essentially rigged and withdrew her name from the ballot.

When the party announces when a nomination meeting is going to be, it also announces when voters have to have been registered to qualify to vote for the nomination.  According to Liberal Party rules, that cut-off date has to be anywhere from seven days before the nomination has been announced, to two days after.  In the case of the Markham riding, the notice went out Feb. 20, and stated the cut-off date was Feb. 14.  (This is the same six-day period the party used in an earlier Ottawa nomination.)

Like anyone who’s been burned by not saving a document before their computer has crashed, Nathan is lashing out at her word processor for ruining her class project.

Meanwhile, in Montreal, former Quebec provincial cabinet minister Yolande James was thrashed by two virtual unknowns in the riding of Saint-Laurent.  Despite James being heavily favoured, 26-year-old high school teacher Emmanuella Lambropoulos walked away with more than half of the votes cast in the riding.

Lambropoulos’s win essentially mooted earlier complaints in the riding the race had been rigged for James.  Former borough mayor Alan DeSousa had been disqualified from running by the Liberal green-light committee.  DeSousa, who’s well known and fairly popular in the riding, said this was to clear the way for James.

But, more likely than rigging the nomination for James, the party was interested in minimizing their exposure to DeSousa’s political past.  DeSousa was never charged with corruption, but his office was raided alongside disgraced former mayor Gerald Tremblay’s office, and he was elected on the same ticket.

No matter how popular he might be, it’s not hard to see why a party might not be interested in enlisting DeSousa under their banner.

At the root of the uproar in these cases is the idea that open nominations mean anyone should be able to run for a party, no matter their background or beliefs.  To get selective in who is allowed to run for the party, and to show preference to certain candidates, is somehow a betrayal of Trudeau’s democratic idealism.

But to believe that you have to ignore the partisan underpinnings of the parliamentary system.  The mindless barking seals that populate the Commons during question period have no doubt sullied the idea of partisanship.  Calling someone a partisan isn’t something you toss around as a compliment.

But without parties, how do you form a government?  How do you make laws, pass budgets and manage the bureaucracy?  How do you bring the messy and diverse polity of a huge country like Canada into a manageable set of voting options?

And while voters are technically only directly casting their ballot for for individual candidates, they’re voting for the party and the leader, too.  That works both ways, candidates ride the coattails of their party into office, but when a candidate goes supernova — looking at you, pee cup guy — it’s the party that owns it.

Showing preference for certain candidates isn’t breaking democracy, it’s making it manageable.  There’s nothing nefarious about that.

More from Robert Hiltz     @robert_hiltz

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