Natalie Pon is a card-carrying member of the Conservative Party of Canada, and a director of the interim joint board for Alberta’s United Conservative Party.
With Alberta’s next general election expected in spring 2019, and the federal election projected later that year, conservative opposition parties involved in two high-stakes races will be champing at the bit to nominate candidates to start campaigning in 2018. At the grassroots level, the same conversations that usually surround nominations will kick into high gear: what can we do to make conservative parties more appealing to women and youth?
It’s a big question. According to the 2016 census, women make up almost 51 per cent of the population, but currently represent just under 17 per cent of the Conservative members of Parliament sitting in the House of Commons. In addition, the average age of the Canadian population is 41, but the average age of a Conservative MP is 53. Our candidates and MPs simply don’t reflect the demographics of the Canadian electorate.
So Conservative organizers thinking about scoring big wins in 2019 would be wise to consider a policy of truly open nominations—that is, nominations with free political party memberships.
Open nominations with free memberships would help women tackle the elevated level of scrutiny that the electorate usually imposes on female candidates and which men generally have the privilege of avoiding. This scrutiny can be a huge obstacle in the decision-making process of seeking office. I’ve seen it firsthand: while working on the nomination campaign for a woman in her mid-30s, questions were raised: could she be a good mother to her two-year-old son while serving as an MP? Was she too young? What did her husband think of her decision to run? Canadians have elected men younger than her, across all parties—but men rarely endure personal lines of inquiry as assessments of political competence.
Free memberships would also make it easier to sign up new members and enlist support for your nomination. The conventional thinking is that identifying 1,000 members as supporters in a strong Conservative riding will make you competitive in the nomination. This requires significant sacrifice, both personally and professionally. You need to be prepared to take three to six months off of work to door-knock in the riding and sign up new members. This system benefits individuals with a certain level of financial security or strong ties to party influencers in the riding, and there is little correlation between these factors and whether someone would make a competent MP. Free memberships would make it easier to find support and make this less of an opportunity cost.
Political parties will have candidates who reflect the diversity of the Canadian population, and not just their base supporters, when the barriers to these “fair and open nominations” are removed. The Conservative base represents approximately 30 per cent of Canadian voters, but history shows that majority governments require 39 per cent of the vote at minimum. Growth of the Conservatives’ core vote requires them to sell their message to a new audience—a swing vote of politically unaligned Canadians who may flip their support between political parties from one election to the next.
Policy can only go so far. In 2015, the Liberals had a weak and light policy platform, but sold the emotional message of positive change to youth and millennials, while the 2011 Conservatives connected with soccer moms and young families on issues like solving economic uncertainty and assisting with their financial security. Politics is emotional, and Conservatives will need to figure out how to make this connection with Canadians moving forward. Perhaps the first step is nominating candidates with which the largest growing demographic—millennials—can find relatable.
The only way forward would be to reduce the cost of involvement in party politics, as the Liberals have done by offering Canadians free memberships. Asking someone to pull out their credit card to buy a $15 membership is a hard sell, even in the strongest Conservative ridings in the country; only the strongest Conservative supporters can be convinced to buy a membership, while the swing vote declines. These individuals with party memberships ultimately select our candidates for elections. Why not expand the group of individuals who nominate our Conservative candidates, to increase diversity and build excitement and engagement?
Free memberships have also allowed the Liberals to communicate with a wider demographic of individuals and collect more in-depth issues-tracking data. This would allow Conservatives to more easily determine what the general electorate cares about, rather than pigeon-holing themselves into issues championed by only their core support base. And with free memberships, the special interest group most motivated to sell memberships and get out their vote will no longer dictate nominations. Removing barriers to participating in a nomination race will strengthen our party by increasing the quality of candidates we nominate.
It’s time to remove the private club mentality from our political process and make our political parties and candidates more accountable to the electorate. Removing barriers to being involved in politics would be the epitome of grassroots political engagement. This idea is not new—it was a policy plank outlined by Michael Chong in the Conservative leadership race, and there is support for this idea from across the country by conservative activists like me. It’s why in 2018—a policy development year for the Conservative Party of Canada—I plan to propose changing our party constitution to support free party memberships through the grassroots process.
While making membership to the Conservative Party of Canada free would not solve all problems, it would be a significant step towards nominating Conservative candidates that reflect the diversity, modernity and message Canadians will expect from their government in 2019.