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Interfering in local riding nominations sometimes the lesser evil

We see, with some regularity, controversies flare up in this country whenever a political party’s leadership interferes in local nomination fights.

We see, with some regularity, controversies flare up in this country whenever a political party’s leadership interferes in local nomination fights.

Sometimes the interference is done directly and overtly. A candidate’s nomination is vetoed or someone is appointed to run in a riding without having to face a nomination fight. At other times the interference is less direct and more covert to avoid the perception that anything is amiss — particularly when the leadership has pledged to leave these decisions in local hands. In these cases we hear allegations about rules and processes being rigged so that a preferred candidate succeeds or an undesirable one fails, but any interference is denied by the party hierarchy.

The tone of coverage surrounding these incidents typically seems to favour the aggrieved local candidate who was pursuing his or her grassroots dream before they were crushed by the centralized, party elites. Unless there is some really damaging dirt on the candidate, the machinations by higher-ups provide the narrative of the little guy against the meddling party machine.

But is there another side to these stories? I think there is. There are a few arguments in favour of giving a party’s leadership more latitude in crafting their team and, given the way our electoral system functions, this sometimes means intruding into local electoral politics.

There is certainly an argument that meddling with nomination processes is contrary to grassroots democratic values but we often don’t agree with one another about what is democratic.

Technically, Canadians don’t elect prime ministers or premiers. We elect members to our federal, provincial and territorial legislative bodies who identify with a political party. But this narrow description of how our system operates doesn’t account for what actually motivates us as voters at the polls.

Polling data has repeatedly shown that the identification of the leader, the party banner, and their stance on various issues — more so than local candidates — is what drives our votes. A 2015 Ipsos Reid Poll showed that 51 per cent of Canadians vote based on where the party stands on the issues, while 33 per cent voted based on the leader. Just 16 per cent voted based on the local candidate.

No local candidate is vetted quite like a party leader, and no one is as important to the success or failure of a party than its leader. I’m not convinced that a local party riding association has more legitimacy in choosing who gets to run – and, quite possibly, lose – than the leadership does.

I also think that the occasional foray of party leadership into local nomination battles could — theoretically at least — enhance the management of our country.

The number of people in society with the skill set and expertise necessary to oversee large government departments are few and far between. Consequently, I think our parliamentary tradition of insisting that cabinet be drawn from our relatively small pool legislators is less than ideal.

As heretical as it may sound, I prefer the American practice of drawing cabinet members from the population at large and giving them their stamp of democratic legitimacy through the process of “confirmation” by the (elected) Senate.

Some might say that such a system is undemocratic since the people who occupy these positions were never elected by the people, but bear in mind that each cabinet minister in this country received a tiny fraction of the country’s popular vote, so I’m not sure how our way of doing it is any better.

And what have our MPs done to prove themselves capable of these high positions? At best they have demonstrated themselves to be skilful at the kind of retail electoral politics and local political organization necessary to win a riding. At worst, they were warm bodies who happened to live in a part of the country that returns candidates of the same political stripe election after election.

We have had some strong cabinet members in this country, but there have been other times when there is a sense when a prime minister or premier has obviously had to settle for particular individuals because they happened to be available.

Of course we need to consider the motivations of the leadership in handpicking a candidate. Using these powers for the purposes of nepotism or patronage for sycophants is still wrong.

And to be clear, none of this is to forgive the apparent recent interference in a Toronto area riding nomination battle by the federal Liberals. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a promise to stay out of the decisionmaking by local riding associations and he can rightly be criticized for breaking that promise.

But the lesson learned shouldn’t be that parties should quit interfering, it is that they ought to quit promising to do so and acknowledge that there are valid and understandable reasons why a leader would want to get certain handpicked people into our legislative bodies.

It is important that we have a wide variety of people from all walks of life representing ridings in Parliament.

But it is also important that our leaders — who best personify our democratic choices — have people around them who share their values and can be entrusted to senior positions.

Ironically, we voters like to have it both ways. We don’t want party leaders messing with local nominations, but we expect them to wear the acts of bumbling cabinet ministers, as well as every fringe candidate and their “bozo eruptions.”

Personally, as a voter who has never cast a ballot based primarily on the local candidate, I am not overly bothered by this phenomena.

Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.