An adult talk on candidate nominations
Have you noticed a common theme around what passes as “scandal” in Ontario politics these days? The majority of political shenanigans seem to relate to the selection of local candidates by political parties.
The Ontario PCs seem particularly vulnerable on this issue. Locally, the Cambridge Progressive Conservatives seem to be tearing themselves apart over what appears to be efforts to impose on the riding a “star” candidate from Alberta. Similar episodes in other parts of the province have led to mass party resignations, appeals to party brass, and folks even calling the police.
Liberals are not immune to these troubles. At the core of the current court case in Sudbury is a decision by the party’s leadership to favour a supposedly ideal candidate in the 2015 byelection over someone who had run previously.
And that is what it really is all about: Finding the “ideal candidate” for every riding. Parties devote considerable time and resources searching for that perfect individual who cannot only win the local riding but help boost the overall team profile in terms of talent, gender, background etc.
Although every party has its own rules, the basics are the same. Each local riding organization works closely with the leader’s office and central party to identify an ideal individual to run.
Sometimes leaders openly appoint that person to be the candidate. Other times, an acclamation is choreographed to make it seem more democratic. And every so often, an actual nomination fight ensues where the establishment’s preferred choice is forced to take on all comers through a membership vote.
Sometimes it all goes smoothly. In other cases, it gets messy — particularly if the provincial leadership and the local party disagree.
Things can also fall apart when longtime party members accuse so-called outsiders, often representing a certain ethnocultural community or interest group, of hijacking the process through a seemingly endless supply of new members.
Maybe it’s time to have an adult conversation about the nomination process: A discussion where no one holds back and isn’t afraid to share their most candid observations.
What would such a conversation look like?
On one side, you would have those at the top: Central campaign staff and aides to the party leader. They might point out that they are concerned with the big picture. For a leader to be successful, they would argue, party members must fall into line and take some direction from the top. A candidate that may not be overly welcome locally may make sense from a provincial perspective.
They might also point out that many riding associations are closed shops, refusing to welcome new people and ideas. They might also mention that many local campaign gurus are more legends in their own minds than anything else.
On the other side, you would have local party members. They might respond that they know their communities better than someone sitting in Queen’s Park. They might point out that the talented whiz kids in the leader’s office are often not that talented, and are horribly overworked and prone to making hasty decisions. Forcing an “ideal” candidate on a riding association that doesn’t want them often does more harm than good.
Those in charge centrally might counter by pointing out that attracting “star” candidates is crucial to provincewide success, especially in creating a more diverse candidate pool.
Persuading non-traditional candidates to run, especially those without political experience, often involves promising them a smooth nomination process where they don’t have to become mired in the hand-tohand combat that often accompanies local battles.
Local party members might counter that these “star” candidates often look better on paper than in real life. Many act like prima donnas and their lack of political experience makes them poor performers in the general election. They might also ask how these “stars” expect to win a general election if they can’t win a nomination.
Locals might also express their frustration at the apparent ease in which some ethnocultural communities or special interest groups can take over nomination contests with instant members. They might tell stories of busloads of strangers arriving at nomination meetings with questionable membership status, voting according to the direction of some local boss and never being heard of again — especially at election time.
The party leadership might respond by pointing to steps taken by every party to strengthen the rules around membership. They might also point out that trying to prevent blocs of ethnocultural communities from voting in a nomination could easily be portrayed by critics as being anti-new Canadian (at best) or racist (at worst). And so the conversation would continue. Would it be frustrating? Might it cause headaches and result in some cathartic yelling? Yes, but it might also lead to some concrete suggestions about how political parties can respect the authority of those at the top, capitalize on the perspective and experience of those on the ground, and operate within a democratic context.
It sure beats calling the police.