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On primaries and party democracy.

As a Liberal netroots/grassroots supporter, this blogpost from a few days ago over at Pogge’s is a rather uncomfortable one for those of us hoping there will be some genuine attempt at democratic renewal/reforms in the LPC from the current Liberal leadership:

I’ve been wondering why Liberals haven’t made more of the fact that the change their leader made in Outremont was not from one appointed candidate to another but from an appointed candidate to an open race for the nomination. I would have thought they’d take the opportunity to frame this as representing a re-dedication to grass roots democracy instead of looking for any opportunity to change the subject. Then it occurred to me that maybe they don’t want anyone to think that Outremont is the beginning of a trend.

Good point. I wondered for the same reasons why they wouldn’t play that up, and perhaps Pogge is on the mark. To be fair, all the major parties in Canada have reserved the right to use the appointment process in ridings where they see fit to do so. This is done mostly on the justification that you can only get star candidates elected in ridings if they don’t have to go about the annoying business of politically organizing in the riding and possibly facing defeat to more experienced opponents in the nomination process. Another reason that is given as justification is if the party leadership wants to remove the possibility of a candidate standing for them that they feel is detrimental to the party (that reason seems to have a lot of leeway, when need be. Check out the CPC’s reasons for removing their candidate Mark Warner). That said, I personally wish that the power of appointing candidates be used with discretion. It has the potential for being abused.. and if at all possible, I’d much prefer the local riding be allowed to vote on their choice of candidates unless there are extenuating circumstances.

As to the 2nd point that Pogge brings up, where he wishes that there were more open party primaries as they have in the political parties in the US (ie. local riding members could find a candidate in their riding to challenge the incumbent MP if they don’t like how their MP has been voting in the H of C on certain issues. Basically, you’d be forcing the MP to participate in a nomination process within the riding, and if he lost the vote, he’d not be able to run in it for the party, even if the MP had been elected the prior time), I don’t mind that either – I think it would hold the MP more accountable to the local ridings members as to how they were voting on issues and if they were representing the riding.

However, I don’t think that is as important an issue with regards to democratically reforming party institutions. The reason I say that is that there is a lot more party discipline and “whipping” of the vote in Canada with parties and their MP’s votes in the House of Commons then there is in the US. I can see a scenario where an MP would lose a nomination vote to another candidate because of disgruntled riding members, only for the riding members to their dismay discover that the new MP was voting the exact same way on the issue as the old MP, because of threats/being whipped from the party leadership to vote for the issue or face sanction/expulsion.

Before one can advocate more primaries, you have to reform the tendency of political parties in our system to enforce “whipped” votes and party discipline. That will be very hard to do, since all parties leadership in Canada enforce that, and it’s been an unwritten rule in Canadian parliamentary tradition to do so, at least since the formation of Canada as a nation.

UPDATE @ 3:57 pm: More on open party nominations at Runesmith’s Canadian Content and how she feels Denis Coderre may have unwittingly helped push the LPC towards more local ridings deciding who their candidate should be and less of the party leadership.

5 comments to On primaries and party democracy.

  • Roll Tide

    Its one thing to appoint a local candidate, its quite another to appoint your party leader in this manor.

    • @Roll Tide, That would be spelled “manner”. I’d also argue that the December situation was a one-off.

      The Brits allow their MP’s to pick their leaders, as an aside. Their parties constitutions also give the MP’s the power to vote out a leader internally if the majority of the caucus is disgruntled… so there’s a bit of give and take there with regards to party democracy.

  • Great minds think alike – I just posted on this very issue.

    I used to believe in the ‘use with discretion’ approach to candidate appointments, but I have come to the conclusion that the only legitimate reason for appointments is to prevent the manipulation of candidate contests by special interest groups – and that problem can be solved by requiring members to be members for at least a few months before being allowed to vote.

    I also think that having candidates and MPs who truly represent their constituents goes beyond just having them vote the way you want in the House of Commons. It means having the party caucus and eventually the upper echelons populated by people who represent our interests and values rather than those of the people who appointed them. Which would eventually mean party strategies and policies that truly reflect us.

  • Trackback worked. I don’t know for sure but I’ve gotten the impression that it’s more difficult for a leader of the NDP to ignore the riding association’s wishes when it comes to nominations.

    Before one can advocate more primaries, you have to reform the tendency of political parties in our system to enforce “whipped” votes and party discipline.

    That’s a point and I would argue that it’s a feature of parliamentary systems rather than being a particularly Canadian tradition.

    I can see a scenario where an MP would lose a nomination vote to another candidate because of disgruntled riding members, only for the riding members to their dismay discover that the new MP was voting the exact same way on the issue as the old MP…

    Which would indicate a party leadership that didn’t get the message. And the next time around, the party would be liable to lose that riding completely instead of losing an experienced member in favour of a rookie.

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