Uncompetitive nomination races weaken parties, democracy, study says

OTTAWA — The opaque path federal parties take to select candidates for elections was detailed in a report Wednesday that warned of profound consequences for Canadian democracy unless parties change their ways.

The report from the Toronto-based Samara Centre for Democracy showed that only 17 per cent of more than 6,600 federal candidates from 2003 to 2015 faced competitive nomination races, while 2,700 candidates were directly appointed by parties.

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Michael Morden, the organization's director of research, said Samara has found through exit interviews with MPs that there is "broad, quiet understanding" in political circles of the deficiencies of the nomination process, but that most Canadians have little access or ability to scrutinize the "black box" of party nominations, despite the stake they have in how parties run their internal elections.

A lack of competition might signal a worrying disconnect with the Canadian public, the study suggests.

"If you see the nomination as a moment in a chain of democratic moments" leading to the election of a member of Parliament, he said, "I think it's notable that, in an overwhelming majority of cases, there's no real decision being made by local people."

The study, dropped weeks before the start of a federal election, said that snap elections account for part of why nominations are so uncompetitive, while rules that benefit incumbents are also a factor. Then's there's the reality that many local party associations are just too disorganized or small to attract multiple candidates.

But the trend extends even to larger parties that are competitive across the country, Morden said.

"In our mind, that is still a stunning lack of competition," he said.

The two largest parties in Parliament — the governing Liberals and Official Opposition Conservatives — expressed confidence in their nomination races. Liberal party spokesman Braeden Caley also said the party would look at the report for any ideas to improve the process. A Conservative party spokesman noted the rules, procedures and timelines for nomination races in his party are clear and available to everyone.

A spokesperson for the Green Party also said they would be studying the report, and it was supportive of "any initiative that aims to improve transparency and accessibility in our electoral process."

Beyond the lack of competition, the study also found nominations rules also have significant effects on the diversity of nomination candidates and, consequently, the diversity of members elected to the House of Commons.

Morden noted parties occasionally justify appointing candidates on the basis of diversity, but this was not borne out in the data. In particular, the study suggested appointed candidates were less likely to be from visible-minority or Indigenous backgrounds.

The issue of female representation in the nomination processes was even more stark.

In line with findings that women win elections at around the same rate as men, the study suggests female nomination candidates are just as likely to win internal races as men are. But just 28 per cent of nomination contestants covered by the study were women.

"That shifts the focus right back to recruiting, to the general openness of the process, to the intangible factors that cause some people to find their way in and others to self-select out or to never have the option," Morden said.

The study found that longer nomination races and races that didn't require monetary investment were correlated with higher female participation.

Morden said parties essentially close themselves off from a majority of Canadians through rules that make it more difficult to participate in nomination processes: short races, monetary costs, lack of information and protections for incumbents.

The Liberals, for instance, charge a $1,500 application fee for nomination candidates. Caley said the charge is necessary to cover meeting costs and as a sign candidates have fundraising potential. He argued that free membership in the party allows more people to take part in the process through attending nomination meetings.

The study recommends multiple changes in party policies: standard opening and closing dates for races, the obligation to report the number of votes candidates receive, and holding contests even where there are incumbent MPs.

The study also considers a potentially expanded role for Elections Canada in administering or regulating the races, something Morden acknowledged is not popular among the parties.

Parties can be reticent to even provide information about their nomination processes, Morden said. For example, only the Green party provided information about how many candidates it screened out of its nominations in 2015.

"There's just not a culture of openness," Morden said. "The nomination process is still seen as a very internal one, rather than a vehicle for mass political engagement."

The first step in a reform process is convincing Canadians to care, Morden said, because otherwise "you're not going to convince parties to do much.

"It's hard to regulate parties, because parties make the law."

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