Elizabeth May’s valiant, yet flawed, effort

Elizabeth May has tabled yet another Private Members’ Bill which she is flogging before the media tomorrow, and this time it’s about one of the necessary steps to restore some of the necessary balance to our Westminster system of democracy. In this case, it is specifically to do with limiting the power of the party leader to sign off on nomination papers, which has become a kind of blackmail tool that leaders have increasingly employed to keep their caucus in line. It’s a valiant effort on May’s part, and props to her for giving it a go, but let’s step back for a moment and remember a few things.

Number one – this is not the only bill she has on offer. In fact, she has five others on the Order Paper already. In all likelihood, this will never see the light of day. She herself has admitted that she hasn’t decided which of her bills she’ll bring forward when her slot comes up on the Order Paper – not that it’ll stop the usual round of “But the government is totally free to pick this up and I’ll withdraw it, I’m doing this to raise awareness” and other kinds of equivocations and excuses that MPs make when you confront them with this fact. As such, I’m usually loathe to give too much attention to these kinds of bills because it just encourages MPs to spend more time tabling them and holding press conferences and events in support of them “to build support,” even though they’ll never see the light of day, when they should instead be spending their time doing their actual jobs, which has a lot more to do with studying the estimates and holding the government to account. But since May is pretty good on that to begin with, I’ll give this one a pass.

Number two – this is a somewhat cynical attempt to latch onto the whole Warawa Rebellion/”Backbench Spring,” whose thrall We The Media are caught up in. Yes, it’s important that we’re having these discussions and that we’re starting to see some faint sparks of life in the backbenches that have to do with their actual roles of holding the government to account. But let’s also remember that this can’t actually be done piecemeal, which this bill is. If we’re to make a genuine restoration to Westminster principles of strong representative democracy, then ensuring that leaders don’t need to sign off on nominations is only one piece of the puzzle. Broader reform needs to happen, most especially is the way in which leadership contests are run in this country. The reason why backbenchers have actual powers in other Westminster democracies is because they select and remove the leaders – not the broader membership, or as the Liberals rather ineptly decided to do in their latest contest, anyone who totally swears that they’re not a member of another party to help decide, even though they have no actual loyalty to the party whose leader they are choosing. Yes, it’s been done under the rubric of “more democracy,” but as was soon discovered, “more democracy” means “less accountability,” and with their “democratic legitimacy,” leaders elected under these newer systems have resisted caucus efforts to remove them because as they rightly pointed out, said caucus didn’t select the leader and can’t remove him or her. Until that kind of change happens, limiting the ability to sign off on candidate nominations can only be seen as little more than a half measure.

Number three – the bill as drafted seems to ignore some of the history around why the changes were made in 1970, and leaves gaping holes for problems to crop up. I spent some time this past summer going over those changes in 1970 as part of the research for my book on civic literacy (which is still awaiting a publisher, for the record), and it might surprise you to know that the concern that a leader might use this power of signing off as a tool of control was never once mentioned in debate, either in the Commons or in committee. The major change at the time was that they were going to put party affiliations on the ballots instead of the candidate’s address and occupation, a practice that had become increasingly problematic. Alongside these changes were spending controls on political parties, which made party identification necessary in order to apply the controls, but because political parties were not well defined legal entities, they needed some means of control, so that any candidate couldn’t simply declare themselves the candidate for one party or another, or to put a similar party name on the ballot (ie: “Progressive Conservative Party FOR Canada” instead of “Progressive Conservative Party of Canada”). They used the leader’s signoff as that tool. Let’s be clear – we can’t realistically go back to a system where the party identification is taken off the ballots, given those very same spending controls, and given that publishing addresses is no longer kosher, nor would it address the inherent problems around listing an occupation, especially where it concerns the incumbent.

The other reason, anecdotally cited by not in the debates at the time, was the problem of pro-life groups hijacking local nominations, especially amongst the Liberals. (Remember this was just after the sweeping omnibus bill of 1969 did things like decriminalising homosexual and allowing birth control and abortion under certain circumstances, and pro-life groups were on a rampage). The feeling at the time was that for “quality control” purposes – as in, avoiding a hijacking – the leader’s signature would keep things in check. Obviously that tool has been misused in other ways, but May’s bill doesn’t allow for an alternate mechanism to dump a candidate in the event of a hijacked nomination or other problem. The most it demands is that one board member from the riding’s executive endorse the nominee, and if there is no riding executive, then the leader can sign off in his or her stead. If the aim is to ensure that the control remains in the grassroots and not the leader’s office, then it would seem to me that there should be some other mechanism in place. A single board member is no insurance against a hijacked riding – it should be just as easy to get a single board member in place as it would be to hijack the nomination – which is why there should be a more robust means of checking the power. Perhaps the party president, or a meeting of the riding presidents could serve as that override mechanism, as those remain within the grassroots of the party and outside of the leader’s control. But as it stands, May’s bill leaves this gaping hole.

Like I said before, it’s a valiant effort, but one that has its problems. Hopefully it can be used as that means for a broader discussion rather than just a shiny bauble tossed into the ring while the Warawa Rebellion/”Backbench Spring” rages on around it. But unless we have that honest dialogue with the bigger picture – selection and removal of leadership, getting over this false notion of “more democracy,” and even more broadly, tossing away lists and scripts from the Commons entirely – this particular piece of the puzzle is wholly inadequate to actually addressing the problems that have developed within our system, and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise.

6 thoughts on “Elizabeth May’s valiant, yet flawed, effort

  1. I don’t buy the hijacking argument. “Hijacking” is simply the pejorative each of us applies to the successful campaign when our candidate fails to get the nomination. It has no objective meaning in this context.

    • There is a context for it when an outside group tries to game the nomination with instant memberships to get a preferred candidate in place that goes against the usual party policy. More recently there were cases of attempted hijackings of Liberal nominations around the time of same-sex marriage votes, because Evangelical groups wanted to exert influence that way.

      • All candidates for nomination use “instant memberships to get a preferred candidate in place.” That’s the way it works. It’s only called ‘gaming the nomination’ if you are on the losing side. Otherwise, it’s know as ‘involving the community in the democratic process.’

        One way policy change occurs in parties is through new people with different ideas offering themselves for nomination. We may not like those ideas and, if such is the case, we should fight the ideas and support other candidates with other policy positions. But it is fundamentally undemocratic – in fact undermines the democratic process – to deny candidates access to nomination contests because their ideas do not conform to ours.

  2. So? Why shouldn’t such grasroots groups exert such influence, especially if other groups who oppose them such as pro-choicers can’t be bothered to organize? If the problem is transiency, i.e. their memberships are ‘instant’, then why is tightening up membership never considered in these discussions? A senior member of my riding association when I was a teenager once pointed out to me that the membership fee of $5 had been unchanged since he joined in the 30s… when $5 was worth hell of a higher cost than it is now. Demand prospective menbers invest something significant and you ensure they’ll stick around as part of the internal conversation, and quite likely, the volunteer team. That’s only insufficient if the real goal is actually to bar ideologically nonconforming groups from membership, i.e. extend party discipline to the membership. Which is an incredibly continental, anti-westminster approach to what a political party is or should be.

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  4. There are some good points by the author here, but the author fails to understand exactly where May, and where the Green Party she leads, is coming from. The Green Party has always expressed a high and sincere level of discomfort with some of the Elections Canada requirements regarding the role of the Leader in the Party. The Green Party’s constitution makes few distinctions between the Leader and other members of the Party, and where these extinctions exist, the powers of the Leader of the Party are extremely limited. The major power within the Party structure is the membership itself, which acts through General Meetings of the Party. Between meetings, the stewardship of power lies with an elected administrative body overseen by an executive. The Leader is but one vote on these bodies, and has only the one vote at a General Meeting. While the Leader may have access to other tools, such as moral suasion, it is fair to say that the Leader of the Green Party of Canada, as per the Constitution, is primarily a spokesperson for the Party. The only other real authority the Leader has is the ability to appoint critics.

    The notion that a Party Leader should have the ability to deny a candidate duly nominated through a local process where there is an electoral district association in place has always been problematic for the real decision-makers in the Green Party: the Membership. The Membership has continued to make it a priority to limit the powers of the Leader because Greens believe that this is a sensible and far more democratic approach to decision-making. What has been standing in the way of implementing this reality is the legislative requirements of Elections Canada. Based on the Green Party’s own experience, it only makes sense for May to try to change the rules. In some respects, May’s Bill can be seen as playing to her base within in the Party: it’s the sort of Bill that Greens would expect to see. That it would be good for Canadian politics as a whole is, in some respects, just a fringe benefit (but a pretty significant one, I think).

    While concerns raised above about highjacking a nomination process are real, there are serious countermeasures which can be employed to limit those possibilities, including building strong, healthy and diverse electoral district associations. Of course, that’s not always possible (nor does it hardly ever happen quickly). But a better question would be, why does Party unity have to be so absolute? Certainly, it’s not that way in the U.S., where Democrats often don’t toe their Party line. Ultimately, rogue politicians will have to answer to their own parties. And that’s not just necessarily at nomination time. The Green Party has, as I’m sure other parties have, mechanisms for throwing out members whose actions are considered egregious. While tossing out a sitting MP might prove problematic politically for a Party to consider doing, the fact is that Party’s have on occassion undertaken similar actions (expelling them from caucus, for instance).

    So, yes, highjacking is a concern, but only in that having to address this concern would lead to new approaches. The concern itself does not represent a good enough reason to allow a Party Leader to override the wishes of local Party members as expressed through a nomination contest. Either we get serious about public engagement in politics and governance, or we continue to reap the whirlwind of lower voter turn-out. May and the Green Party understand this.

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