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It’s no surprise that political party nominations are rigged

Yolande James is running to replace Stéphane Dion in the federal riding of Saint-Laurent.

Sarah Mongeau-Birkett/The Globe and Mail

It is a pointed accusation: Some Liberal Party nominations for by-elections are being rigged. And they are. Again.

The problem is that federal political party nominations are made to be rigged. They're not democracy. They're gang fights. Until that is changed, the leadership of political parties will keep on rigging them. Again and again and again.

The latest accusations of rigging involve nomination races in two ridings, Saint-Laurent and Markham-Thornhill, where by-elections will be held to replace former cabinet ministers Stéphane Dion and John McCallum.

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In Saint-Laurent, where former provincial cabinet minister Yolande James is seen as the favourite of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's inner circle, the local borough mayor, Alan DeSousa, has been disqualified for unspecified reasons. In Markham-Thornhill, where former PMO staffer Mary Ng wants the nomination, the party set a retroactive deadline for signing up party members who could vote.

On one level, it's cause for dismay. Mr. Trudeau, as a candidate for the leadership of his party, promised open nominations in every riding. But open nominations and retroactive deadlines like the one in Markham-Thornhill just don't fit together.

But on another level, one has to wonder why anyone is surprised. Nomination candidates are expressing shock that the system isn't fair. Liberals are circulating missives alleging bias and rule-bending, some so distressed they WRITE IN CAPITALS. But it's hard not to shrug it off as old news. Party brass in all parties have been putting their thumb on nomination scales for years.

In 2014, the Liberal Party disqualified a candidate in Toronto, which ensured star candidate Chrystia Freeland, now the Foreign Affairs Minister, got a choice riding.

It's not just Liberals. Stephen Harper's Conservatives grew out of a Reform Party tradition that touted grassroots democracy but Mr. Harper's party was a centrally controlled machine that sometimes pushed local candidates aside. His Conservatives almost lost a 2013 by-election in a Tory bastion, Brandon-Souris, after Conservative HQ disqualified candidates over paperwork, helping Larry Maguire win the nomination.

It's just too tempting. Most nominations aren't rigged, of course, but there will always be times when party leaders or party brass will want to weed out candidates they don't like, or that they find embarrassing, or when they just want to pick a strong recruit. Canada's political system often makes leaders answer for their MPs.

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It used to be easier for party leaders to simply appoint candidates. But that clashes with a desire for democracy, so leaders promised open nominations and grassroots democracy. Then they had to make their desires felt in surreptitious ways.

Mistreated nomination candidates regularly charge that democracy has been subverted. But party nomination races aren't really democracy in the first place. Yes, people vote, but nomination elections don't meet basic democratic standards. They are organizing battles. The candidate who signs up the most new members and gets them to come to a meeting and cast a ballot usually wins. The membership of a typical riding association declines between races, so signing up new members is key.

That's why nominations can be gerrymandered by changing the deadline for memberships – if favoured candidates know the deadline date, they can have more eligible voters on the list. Party vetting committees can disqualify candidates with no explanation. Leaders and party brass have a secret power and it is sometimes used.

That will keep happening as long as political parties are treated like private clubs. Nomination races are a key part of Canada's democracy, so they should be democratic. They could work like primaries in the U.S. where each party has registered supporters who can vote. Deadlines can be regulated by Elections Canada. And if party leaders feel they still need to appoint star candidates, let them do it in a small number of cases – maybe five – but openly.

Until then, promises of open nominations are misleading. Democracy can't be guaranteed by a leader's goodwill, it has to be built into the process. Right now, party nominations are a process that is built for rigging.

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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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