On the issues: Vetting candidates

The major parties seem to be shedding troublesome candidates almost every day. How were they picked in the first place?

If you’re older than 18 and a Canadian citizen, you’re legally eligible to run for federal office. Of course, the parties don’t take just anyone—do they?

Turns out, all prospective candidates go through a vetting process. Wannabe Liberal MPs, for instance, are asked to fill out an elaborate form including plenty of questions that could result in some compromising answers: Have you ever declared bankruptcy? Been fired? Disciplined by a professional association? Been sued? Kicked out of a college or university? Caught cheating on an exam? Convicted of a crime? The Conservatives’ nomination documents ask applicants to fill out a presumably similar questionaire. (Potential candidates must sign a confedentially agreement that prevents them from disclosing any info relating to the application process, and neither the Conservatives nor the NDP got back to with information about their greenlighting process.) They are also required to produce a certificate from their local police detachment attesting to their good behaviour. That‘s followed by a mandatory interview with a party official. This is all an attempt to pre-empt what Jack Siegel, the Liberals’ chief legal counsel and one the people who signs off on candidate nominations, refers to as the “inevitable brown envelope phenomenon,” whereby rivals dig up compromising information from a person’s past and deliver it to the media.

And yet, despite the breadth of information parties collect from their candidates, some things always seem to slip through. Before the campaign even began the Green Party ditched John Shavluk for referring to the World Trade Centre as a “shoddily built Jewish world bank headquarters” in an online post; the Liberals dropped Simon Bédard shortly after the former radio host suggested that the army should have been sent in to “clean up” during the Oka crisis, even if it resulted in as many as 125 deaths; Dana Larsen quit as the NDP’s candidate for a Vancouver riding when footage emerged showing him driving while smoking a joint; and, most recently, Conservative candidate Chris Reid bowed out of the race after some of his more controversial blog posts were uncovered by a rival Liberal blogger over the weekend (Reid claims his departure was due to the fact he couldn’t commit to a four-year term as an MP).

Though the distribution of incriminating evidence may very well have played a role in sinking some of the candidates in this election, it wasn’t exactly necessary. In every case mentioned above, the damning information was readily available to just about anyone, not just to well-connected political types armed with a team of researchers. Shavluk’s inflammatory post was on a public Internet forum; Bédard had made his original comments 17 years ago on a radio show he hosted and repeated them to a journalist working for Quebec City’s Le Soleil earlier this month; no amount of digital scrubbing could rid the Internet of Reid’s blog posts; and, the video that torpedoed Larsen’s short-lived political career had been taped for, on which Larsen made regular appearances. As one commenter on Larsen’s Facebook page put it, “Didn’t they know who you were? It’s not like it was a secret.”

Despite the damage a candidate can do to a party’s electoral chances, Siegel concedes that, in his party’s case, the vetting process doesn’t actually involve all that much digging. In many ways it’s like a routine job application. “I’ll ask around, either informally or formally,” Siegel says. “You’re asked to provide a couple of personal and business references that we may or may not call depending on the degree to which you’re known, and we may interview you.” That’s easier than securing an apartment in most major Canadian cities. Amazingly, it used to be even more lax. Siegel has been involved in the greenlighting process since 1993, when it consisted of little more than perusing resumes. But a few “surprises” later, the Liberals decided a closer look at their potential candidates might prevent some headaches on the campaign trail. Still, according to Gerald Caplan, the NDP’s former campaign manager, there’s only so much that can be done in the lead-up to an election. “No party has the resources to perform the time-consuming vetting process for the entire 308 names,” he wrote for The Globe and Mail. It’s more efficient, Caplan argues, to simply focus on “potential trouble-makers.”

That’s not to say that a potential candidate with some baggage is automatically discounted. For instance, a past criminal conviction for a minor offence—say, pot possession—wouldn’t be a significant impediment, so long as it wasn’t connected to a more serious crime, like trafficking. What the selection process comes down to is “political experience,” Siegel says. “It depends on the nature of what someone discloses, but if it’s far enough in the past, people grow, people change. But if it’s significant, if it’s likely to be over the fold of a newspaper the day it gets released in the inevitable brown envelope, then we’re going to talk about it a little bit more.”

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