Friday, January 18, 2008

Canadian parties should hold primaries to elect local candidates

Barbara Yaffe's column today, "The dirty little undemocratic secret of political parties," makes some good points. The power of party leaders like Stephane Dion to appoint good candidates in local ridings, or to simply manipulate the process to produce the kinds of winners leaders seek, is now common practise.

At the heart of the issue is our flawed process for nominating candidates: the only voters who get to decide who runs locally for a political party are local party members. Theoretically, any one, no matter how extreme or inexperienced, can run for a nomination, sign up thousands of friends or instant party members, get them to a nominating meeting and win a local party nomination. This is not democracy by any stretch of the imagination, it is the perverting of democracy, the manipulation of the local voting pool in favour of one candidate or candidates. That's why all this talk coming out of Saskatchewan of late is so annoying, like the signing up of hundreds of instant Liberals is democratic. Sure, it's more democratic than appointing someone, but the power to appoint was put in place to counteract the irresponsible abilities of bad local candidates from taking over a riding association and hoisting themselves on the nation and party.

We need a new way of nominating local candidates, one that mimics the American process. Instead of only paid-up party members voting in nominating races, why not expand the party electorate to include all voters who publicly identify as "Liberal" voters, or "Conservative" voters, or "NDP" voters, etc? The pool of voters to nominate a local candidate would be all voters in the riding who identify with that party. Throw in "independent" voters who choose not to identify with any party, hold a big, riding-wide vote with several polling locations just like a by-election, all voters who chose to take part could take part. Soon thereafter, the local nominating process wouldn't be so easily manipulatable. And more than likely, the best candidate would win.

It would be fair, it would be open and it would be far more democratic than our pathetic, instant-party-member process long since discredited. And it would avoid the kind of controversy we're seeing in northern Saskatchewan today.


northwestern_lad said...

Interesting concept Matt and good post, but I think some of the differences between the American system and ours would prevent this from working. For example, the timing. Normally the whole process in the US is very drawn out and long just to get a nominee, before you have an election. I see that being a problem in Canada with our system simply because of the possible snap nature of elections in Canada. To allow for the time to have a whole primaries system, you'd need to make major, fundamental changes to the Canadian system.

As someone who has gone through the nomination process (and lost), I can say that it was quite the education. It's not a perfect system, but I would point out that this is a process for members of a party to choose who is going to represent their party. If the party chooses someone who isn't up to snuff, then they will pay for it. What I like about this set-up is that it does a better job of preventing any funny business, like we saw in the Michigan Primaries with Mitt Romney, where supposedly Democrats were voting for Romney, because they know he'll probably loose to whoever the Democratic candidate is. I don't think that kind of stuff does anything to help democracy.

When it comes to the situation in Saskatchewan, I completely understand where those Orchard supporters are coming from because as members of that party, they should have the chance to vote for who they want to represent their party (For the record, I'm against appointing candidates period, unless they are an incumbent MP). But once again, that's up to the party, and if the people are really upset about how a party chooses their candidate, the voters can choose to punish the party with their votes.

Matt Guerin said...

Thanks for the comment, Cameron. As most Canadian jurisdictions are embracing fixed election dates, it would make setting up such primaries quite possible, I say. Ontario elections take place in October. Hold primaries in the spring beforehand. We could also lengthen the period of a Canadian election. If a government is defeated in the House, the election wouldn't be for months and months - to give the parties time to hold local primaries to fill their slates. Every local riding association has to go through the nominating process in a rush for every election anyway under those circumstances. This would clean up the process.

I don't much like appointments either. But I think the leader needs some way to balance out the major flaws of our current nominating process which I described. How can you recruit good people to run for you if they have to go through the shenanigans of our local, nominating races, and lose to crappy people?

I think most "star" candidates might prefer to put their names forward to all Liberal voters in their community. Instead of signing up hundreds of new people (which is a pain in the butt), it would be far better for a candidate to simply door knock and take out advertising and meet and greet the old-fashioned way, so they win the nomination on their merits, not on their ability to load up buses and get instant Liberals to meetings.

It's entirely possible a riding-wide vote in Churchill River would've elected Joan Beatty. However, a tainted process where two candidates have a head start warping the local voting pool with new members makes recruiting such people impossible.

You said, "If the people are really upset about how a party chooses their candidate, the voters can choose to punish the party with their votes." Funny, you didn't accept this argument during the MMP referendum when we argued that the way parties nominate their lists would have an impact on the votes that party receives.

northwestern_lad said...

LOL!!! I was waiting for you to bring up MMP Matt... There is a fundamental difference here. With our current system, we know up front who said representative might be (you vote for Candidate X of Party Y), but under MMP you don't know who you might end up with (voting for Party X but getting Candidate????), which makes it harder to punish the party for that rep.

As for Ms. Beatty, I would argue that if she is truly the best candidate (being a former Cabinet Minister and twice elected MLA) that winning a nomination race shouldn't have been the problem. But, that's just my two cents.

Matt Guerin said...

Thanks for the comments again, Cameron.

Not that I want to start a fight, but you clearly didn't understand MMP based on how you describe it. All voters would've known who was on the province-wide list and in what order. If a party won 3 province-wide MPPs, guess what, the first three on their list would've been elected. Not rocket science. If you didn't like the people on the list or the order, you could punish the party by not voting for it (but still vote for the local candidate, if you liked him or her.)

Now, if I don't like the party's rep in Saskatoon or in Frontenac-Addington, but I like my local Liberal, what can I do? Hold my nose and vote Liberal.

But that battle is behind us, I agree.

But I do take exception to someone who thinks that 38% of the vote is enough to give one party all the power for five years straight, but then quibbles with a leader's ability to appoint a local party candidate over local party members' wishes.

38% overrules 62%, but my God, all hell should break loose if someone doesn't win a local party nomination meeting?

If you don't believe in majority rule, then you can't credibly criticize an appointment of a candidate, Cameron, at least in my estimation.

northwestern_lad said...

LOL!!! thanks for thanking me Matt... Trust me, I don't want to go back into the whole MMP thing again, but just to clarify one thing. I completely understood how MMP was supposed to work (with province wide MMP MPP's being decided by province wide vote totals), which is why I was against it. My major problem with it was that that MMP proposal didn't take regional considerations into account, and would have allowed areas with large pools of votes (i.e. the GTA) to dictate and trump other areas. Like I said then, if they had taken those MMP seats and divided them up by regions, using regional vote totals to determine the seats, I would have been onside.

As for your majority rules comments, I would just say that in a country like ours, that is so large and with a population that is so unevenly distributed, there needs to be a balance between Rep by Pop and regional concerns. Sadly, the only way to get true majority rule is to totally give up on the idea of regional balance. Now that might be alright for those who have the balance of the votes (i.e. Southern Ontario, major urban centres), it doesn't give any reason for those from those areas that don't have the population to be a part of the process. I think that alienating whole provinces and regions isn't going to help matters either.

Either way, a good philosophical discussion to have non the less

Matt Guerin said...

As I'm sure you know, you can have proportional or fair voting, but still allow for solid regional representation. There are many electoral systems that allow for both - Australia being one.

One better form of MMP could be regional, open lists which would allow voters to decide who got elected to top up local members in their area, and also ensure those new MPPs would be based in regions.

Alternatively, PR-STV would also ensure regional representation, but also (mostly) proportional results, based on the number of seats per multi-member district.

These alternatives are infinitely better than our current 'Winner-Take-All' system which exacerbates regional tensions far worse than anything I'm advocating. There are Tories in Toronto and Liberals in Alberta, but you wouldn't know it based on first past the post....

northwestern_lad said...

Matt... I agree that you can have PR regional representation, but it takes some work to come to a proposal to get that. And I agree there are better systems then the current one. Personally, I've always been a fan of a ranked ballot, but STV and Regional MMP also have their upsides too. But that MMP proposal from the fall, at least in my opinion, wasn't a move forward. Trust me, as a New Democrat, seeing us get 15%-20% of the vote and get less than 10% of the seats hurts, but at the same time, when I look at issues like these, I try to take my partisan lenses off and look at how the system would work, not just how the system would work for me.