Factors governing party nominations extremely complex

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A party race does not necessarily guarantee a more democratic outcome.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on July 22, 2019.

OTTAWA—Just last week, the Samara Centre for Democracy denounced the Canadian nomination process as “uncompetitive and biased.”

The organization released a study entitled “Party Favours: How Federal Election Candidates are Chosen,” which reviewed the circumstances surrounding nomination processes in the lead up to the October federal election.

After interviewing more than 6,600 candidates who had run for all parties in the last five elections, Samara concluded only 17 per cent had actually competed for the nomination.

Samara’s take was that “Nomination contests remain too short, uncompetitive, unpredictable, untransparent and exclusionary.”

The report also noted that non-competitive nominations, where parties appoint a single candidate, included fewer Indigenous or visible minority winners who contested nominations.

“Parliament can only ever be as diverse as the pool of candidates that run for it. Nominations designed primarily for insiders, those already plugged into the party and political system, are a major obstacle to achieving a more diverse political class.”

The report said Conservatives had the fewest number of women candidates, and the New Democrats had the most. It also underscored the fact that the Liberals and Tories were more likely to have contested nominations that the smaller parties.

Most Canadians have very little understanding of the internal party processes involved in choosing candidates for election or national party office holders.

There were two factors glaringly absent from the Samara report. First, are the rules governing an incumbent Member of Parliament.

In most parties, there is an effort to ensure that sitting Members of Parliament are actually nominated without a damaging internal fight.

There is a practical reason for giving incumbents a pass on the rigorous nomination process. If you are in Ottawa doing your job, and an opponent is spending all week in the riding selling memberships, it becomes quite simple to knock off a Member of Parliament.

The second factor is the will of the party to be more representative. The reason the Tories had the fewest number of women candidates is because they were the only party that refused to target the nomination of more women candidates in the last election.

That challenge was launched by Equal Voice, a non-partisan organization that encouraged all parties to set a specified number of female candidates in the last election.

Political reality also affects the process. It is sometimes tough for smaller parties to find enough candidates to run in an election, without the benefit of a contested fight.

Just a few months ago, the leader of the Green Party revealed publicly that she had actually offered her own job to former Liberal Jody Wilson-Raybould. At the time, most media focused on the Wilson-Raybould decision not to join the Greens. There was virtually no opposition to May’s proposition that Green leadership was offered to Wilson-Raybould as an enticement to join her party.

The members of the Green Party have a process to choose a leader, but that process did not seem to impact May’s view that she could singlehandedly appoint a new leader.

The reality is that in most circumstances, smaller parties are hard-pressed to nominate candidates, as they stand no chance of forming the government. And when an incumbent is reoffering, the party often eliminates the need for a contest.

In Atlantic Canada, where the Liberals currently hold every seat, almost all Grit incumbents have been renominated without any competition. In the limited circumstances where a member is retiring, contested nominations have already taken place or are about to happen.

Among 32 seats, only three are currently unfilled by the Liberals. But the New Democratic Party, which is struggling in that region, has currently nominated only six candidates, with another uncontested nomination scheduled this week.

The Greens, which experienced a hike in support because of recent provincial seat gains, have actually outpaced the New Democrats with 19 nominees. But most of their nominations were also uncontested, and one includes a former Newfoundland NDP candidate who is now running for the Green Party.

Samara is correct that there are definite problems with party transparency, or lack thereof, in the nomination process. Those problems could be solved by Elections Canada oversight of the process.

Most parties won’t endorse that route because they want to retain control over the choice of party standard bearers. Candidates are not running as Independents. It is understandable that they need to have some attachment to the values of the party they aspire to represent.

But factors governing party nominations are extremely complex. A party race does not guarantee a more democratic outcome.

a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.