So you want to be a party’s candidate

What to make of the Dimitri Soudas controversy and a rough nomination season?

<p>Dimitri Soudas leaves the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on August 30, 2011. Soudas, a former spokesman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, is joining the Canadian Olympic Committee as its executive director of communications. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick</p>

Dimitri Soudas leaves the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on August 30, 2011. Soudas, a former spokesman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, is joining the Canadian Olympic Committee as its executive director of communications. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Nomination season is upon us and everywhere are blessed sounds of acrimony, the noise of hundreds of ridings emerging from hibernation after a long winter.

In Trinity-Spadina, the local Liberal association is upset with the federal party’s disqualification of a potential candidate, amid some consternation about riding assignments, but the Liberal leader insists that the “bullying” of “young volunteers” is the reason for the disqualification.

In Calgary-Signal Hill, a candidate has accused the Conservative incumbent of making inappropriate calls, the  incumbent has threatened to sue the other candidate over those allegations, the national party had admonished the incumbent, the incumbent has accused his rival of signing-up non-Conservatives and the incumbent has apologized for accusing one particular individual of buying a Conservative membership.

And in Oakville North—Burlington, there is all of this, this, this and this, which culminated rather dramatically in this.

One of the most interesting aftershocks of the Dimitri Soudas implosion is the emergence of rejected applicants who would now like their potential candidacies reconsidered.

Though he pledged not to get involved in the race involving his partner Eve Adams, Mr. Soudas nonetheless was tasked to played a key role in other races across the country. He was responsible for assessing candidate applications in other nomination battles, a process that included an interview and questions, in one case, about past Liberal support and the oil sands.

In at least three ridings where Conservative nomination races have opened so far, Mr. Soudas rejected one or all of the candidates hoping to challenge an incumbent Conservative MP, offering varying degrees of explanation. The candidates each argue there was no valid reason to be rejected by Mr. Soudas – and that the rejections, in essence, protect incumbents from challenges even though the party had pledge “fair and open” nominations.

The “open nomination” strikes me as the rough equivalent of the “free vote”—a lovely idea that depends entirely on the details, execution and political reality of the situation.

In an op-ed last week for the Toronto Star, the Liberal campaign’s co-chairs attempted to both champion and explain their party’s “open nomination” policy. In short, the “open” part is that the leader, Mr. Trudeau, won’t be appointing any candidates. But the party “will still ‘green light’ potential candidates (as other political parties do and as the Liberal Party always has).” The Reform Act, at least in its original form, would have made that “green light” process—the central party’s vetting of potential candidates—more difficult, or at least downloaded those responsibilities to the riding associations. There is an argument to be made that that wouldn’t have improved the situation, that some amount of higher oversight is prudent.

It’s probably worth noting that the examples above are not necessarily comparable. The situation in Trinity-Spadina is complicated by the fact that the specific allegations and the identities of those making the allegations have been kept confidential. You could object to that or you could object that the process for dealing with those allegations should been somehow different or you could venture that what’s known about the allegations doesn’t amount to a disqualifying offence. Calgary-Signal Hill might only be an example of a vigorous intraparty campaign. In Oakville North-Burlington and beyond, there are specific questions about a party official’s conduct and the management of nomination races.

Generally, you might say that there are issues here about how nomination campaigns are conducted. Kady O’Malley posits that ” if you step back to behold the full spectrum of nomination dysfunction, it’s hard not to worry that grassroots grumbling over favouritism, race-fixing and other unfair practices, whether well-founded or not, may further deter the newly politically aware from dipping a toe into the democratic process. If that turns out to be the case, regardless of the results of those races, we may all turn out to be on the losing team.” There’s a tension here between the idea of the political party as a public institution and the reality of the political party as a private club. And possibly political parties can’t be expected to worry about anything beyond their chances for re-election (though probably what happened in Trinity-Spadina has hurt the Liberal party’s chances there and probably what’s going on in the Conservative party right now is not helping either), but possibly the self-interest of political parties and the general interest in a robust democracy overlap at some point here.

On that note, a couple of links. First, Samara’s overview of riding association websites, which, among things, indicates that of the 1,307 websites it found across the major parties, only five sites provide information on becoming a candidate. Second, Jeff Jedras’ suggestions for either party-standardized nomination races or open primaries run by Elections Canada. If the basic observation of nomination races is that they are opaque, bewildering things, subject to whim and whismy, and if that’s seen to be a problem, the response would seem to involve straightforwardness and transparency. The question still remaining whether that is necessarily in a political party’s interest.