Liberals play rough on by-election
In the abstract, the governing Liberals at Queen’s Park like to talk up their plans to “renew democracy” in Ontario. On the ground, however, it is a different story. The McGuinty government is proving to be every bit as ruthless and efficient as the Daley regime in Chicago at eliminating internal dissent and fixing nominations.
Take, for example, the upcoming by- election in the riding of Scarborough- Rouge River to replace Alvin Curling, who has been named Canada’s ambassador to the Dominican Republic.
Scarborough- Rouge River is a highly diverse riding — more than three- quarters of its residents are visible minorities — and is considered a safe Liberal seat. Curling won it in 2003 with 64 per cent of the vote, the fifth best result for the Liberals in the whole province. Not surprisingly, then, there was a lineup of people interested in seeking the Liberal nomination for the by- election when Curling announced his departure in August.
Paul Kossta, president of the Liberal riding association, says he interviewed “ a dozen or more” prospective candidates. But when the Liberals hold their nomination meeting in the riding tonight, only one name will be put forward: Bas Balkissoon, the Toronto city councillor who sounded the alarm on the MFP scandal. To hand Balkissoon the nomination, the Liberals used a clause in their party constitution that allows them to declare all other potential candidacies invalid. The decision to invoke what should hereafter be known as the “ Balkissoon clause” was made by the riding’s four- member nomination search committee and endorsed by the Liberal party hierarchy.
Kossta says the search committee decided that a contested nomination was “ unnecessary” because the support for Balkissoon was so overwhelming.
“ I don’t believe anyone could have beaten Mr. Balkissoon,” says Kossta.
That is debatable. Among the prospective nomination candidates was Raymond Cho, Balkissoon’s fellow city councillor and a man with a large following in the riding. He thinks he could have won a contested nomination.
“ The whole thing was very undemocratic,” says Cho. Why did the Liberals opt for Balkissoon over Cho? Cho says he was “ unofficially” told the party was upset with him for running as an independent against a sitting Liberal MP ( Derek Lee) in the 2004 federal election. Now Cho may choose to run as an independent in the by- election.
Another angry would- be candidate for the byelection nomination is Viresh Mathur, a local businessman. He accuses the Liberals of “ hijacking democracy” in the riding.
“ Mr. Balkissoon is a very capable and talented man who could be a great MPP, but through a corrupt process by the Liberal Party of Ontario he has not earned the right to represent the people of Scarborough- Rouge River,” says Mathur.
Balkissoon himself was testy when asked about being handed the nomination without a fight.
“ I followed the rules,” he said. My follow- up questions were dismissed as “ very rude.”
If Scarborough- Rouge River were just a one- off example of Liberal heavy- handedness, it could be dismissed as an anomaly. But similar tactics were used to eliminate competition for the nomination in a previous byelection ( Hamilton East), and there is talk of using the Balkissoon clause to forestall any potential challenges to incumbents in the run- up to the 2007 general election.
Liberal party president Deb Matthews says the process followed in Scarborough- Rouge River is actually “ highly democratic” because the Balkissoon clause was voted into the party constitution by the membership. My guess is that the public will see it differently. A footnote: The Scarborough-Rouge River Conservatives will have a contested nomination meeting on Thursday night, with John Dolstra, a Durham school trustee, running against Cynthia Lai, a former president of the Toronto Real Estate Board. The date of the NDP nomination meeting is still to be announced. Premier Dalton McGuinty is expected to call the by- election shortly. Ian Urquhart’s provincial affairs column appears Monday, Wednesday and Saturday. email@example.com.