Politics at its worst in political parties

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Retroactive cutoffs, and green light committees with no public transparency or accountability, turn voters off. More important, they turn party members off. As a volunteer, if you are not allowed to participate in a nomination, you may just take a pass on an election too.


First published in The Hill Times on Monday, March 20, 2017.

OTTAWA—Politics is at its worst in political parties.

Internal decisions are usually made in secret with little recourse to the rules of due process that apply to normal business decisions.

That may change, as a disgruntled New Democrat took his case to the courts last week after his party would not allow him to run for the leadership.

Court documents filed last Wednesday say it is the first time in history that the NDP has prevented someone from running for the leadership.

Brian Graff, a former Liberal who joined the party last August, was informed in late December that he could not be a candidate. He was given 48 hours to appeal the decision.

His appeal was dismissed without any “reasons, explanation or basis for their decision” according to court documents. Graff’s lawyer, Nader Hasan, applied for a judicial review, complaining that the internal appeal process was flawed.

He told The Globe and Mail that while political parties have the right to choose their nominees “We’re saying that, if they want to vet out people, they at least have to respect basic principles of procedural fairness in a transparent and open way.”

If the courts rule in Graff’s favour, it could have wide-ranging implications for all political parties in Canada.

We saw from afar, via leaked Democratic National Committee emails, to what lengths party officials were willing to go to tilt the process in favour of the preferred choice of the establishment.

The dubiousness of the DNC decision to marginalize Bernie Sanders played out in the election. The insider rebuff of Sanders played into the hands of Donald Trump, who won the election, in part, because of Democratic hubris.

Similar warning signs surfaced in recent Liberal Party decisions involving byelection nominations.

Decisions were made which served to tilt the nomination process in the races to replace outgoing ministers, John McCallum and Stéphane Dion. Notwithstanding public protestations to the contrary, non-transparent internal steps were taken that served to benefit party-preferred candidates, facing tough nomination battles.

In one case, the meddling backfired. The popular mayor of St. Laurent, Alan DeSousa, was deemed ineligible to run by the party’s vetting committee. That move ostensibly paving the way for party favourite and former provincial minister Yolande James. Instead, DeSousa’s 26-year-old assistant, Emmanuella Lambropoulos, whose candidacy was green lighted, surprised everyone by winning the nomination.

By any standards, former PMO staffer Mary Ng, and former Quebec provincial minister Yolande James would both have been excellent candidates. They are young, articulate and reflect the diversity of Canada’s population.

But party meddling handed them a poisoned chalice.

In Ng’s case, the party approved a retroactive voting process resulting in the disallowance of 1,500 memberships sold by her chief opponent.

Ng’s obvious talents may help her overcome the rocky beginning of a controversial nomination victory two weeks ago. But party actions in both nominations have soured volunteers.

The moves provoked a hot debate among Liberals. Jack Siegel, former co-chair of the Liberal constitutional and legal affairs committee, defended the party on his Facebook page. He claimed “the Liberal Party has had retroactive blind cut-offs for close to 25 years,” using it as a means to prevent “dumping thousands of forms at the deadline, keeping their signups secret and overloading the party’s membership systems with the flood of forms, all in urgent need of inputting.”

Siegel was deeply involved in the nomination which prompted my departure from politics. He oversaw a decision to count 500 unsigned ballots that had not been initialed by the returning officer. The membership system in the party offices was so ‘overloaded’ that, just before midnight, an official deleted 378 eligible Liberals from the voting list. Party officials wanted to ensure the nomination of my opponent, who was the leader’s choice.

I was not the only one who exited Parliament under a cloud. Rigged nominations across the country ultimately poisoned the volunteer base. Many diehard Liberals dropped out of the party and two million of them stayed home when Prime Minister Paul Martin lost the election to Conservative Stephen Harper.

Thanks to the NDP complaint, the courts may ultimately decide that political parties need to establish rigorous, transparent processes so their decisions are not just seen to be arbitrary or biased.

Retroactive cutoffs, and green light committees with no public transparency or accountability, turn voters off.

More important, they turn party members off. As a volunteer, if you are not allowed to participate in a nomination, you may just take a pass on an election.


Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.