An extensive review of nomination races run by Canada’s main political parties found more than 70 per cent of the contests had just one candidate, a finding researchers warn is a key weakness in Canadian democracy that the next Parliament should address.
The Samara Centre for Democracy reviewed nearly 3,900 federal nomination races that took place between 2003 and 2015 and spoke with insiders connected to the major federal parties in order to fully understand the process.
The results, contained in a report to be released Wednesday, produce a clear picture of how nomination races are conducted and reveal that successful nomination candidates fail to reflect Canada’s demographic diversity.
Nomination races are the elections – and occasionally direct appointments – that political parties organize in order to select the candidate that will represent them in each riding during an election.
The report said there is no way to know why so many nomination races feature just one contestant, but it lists potential reasons such as the manipulation of contests by parties or the perceived dominance of the leading candidate. However, the report notes the results suggest nomination contests do not produce a substantially different result than if parties had simply appointed their preferred candidate.
The research found women made up just 28 per cent of nomination contestants and appointed candidates were no more diverse in terms of gender or ethnic diversity than those chosen through nomination races.
The NDP had the highest percentage of female nomination contestants during the period that was reviewed at 40 per cent. The Liberal Party and Green Party both came in at 29 per cent, followed by the Bloc Québécois at 27 per cent and the Conservative Party at 16 per cent.
The researchers single out one key issue that could be addressed to boost participation in nomination races: Nomination races are often scheduled with little to no advance warning and tend to be quite short, with just a few weeks between the start and the end.
Because there is no clear “season” for party nominations, individuals who are thinking of running for the nomination may have no idea when the contest will begin.
The report recommends that nominations should follow clear rules and take place on fixed dates, so that the timing is clear. It states that it would be entirely appropriate for Elections Canada to provide an oversight rule to ensure nomination races are fair, clean and impartial.
Report co-author Michael Morden, Samara’s research director, said former members of Parliament frequently cite the nomination process as a problem that needs to be addressed.
“I think it’s a soft spot,” he said in an interview. “I think politicos tend to know that. It’s quite common for insiders to roll their eyes at what goes on at the nominations level. And because it’s so integral to the whole process, that leads to how we choose representatives, we think it’s reasonable for the public to realize its stake in this issue.”
Samara is a non-partisan charity that has produced a series of reports on the role of members of Parliament.
Mr. Morden said Elections Canada oversight makes sense given that parties are partly funded with taxpayer dollars through tax credits on political donations. Yet, he expects that recommendation will be a tough sell.
“It’s something that parties are pretty resistant to. Nobody likes to be regulated,” he said.
The report says such a system could go further, by making tax credit support partly conditional on whether or not parties set standards to encourage open nominations – as opposed to appointing candidates. Targets could also be set for the percentage of female candidates or candidates from underrepresented communities.
“We’ve collected a lot of anecdotes about how bad the nomination process can be, so we wanted to start to provoke the conversation by looking for some data that would let us step back and take a look at the system,” Mr. Morden said. “We wanted to bring some transparency to how names appear on the ballot.”