Friday, January 6, 2012

At a Crossroads: One Green's Hopes for The Liberal Party of Canada (Part 2 of 2)

(continued from Part 1...)

Candidate Appointments / Protections

Liberals are also considering doing away with the Leader’s ability to appoint candidates to run in specific ridings, rather than leaving it to local members to nominate their own candidates (which is what usually happens). I once lived in a riding where the Liberal leader decided to appoint a candidate, one who had lost his seat in the previous election in a different riding. This parachute candidate from a riding in a different city was left to carry the Liberal’s banner in my riding, much to the chagrin of the local Liberal riding association, and to other local Liberals who were considering contesting the nomination. In this case, the perception of having a lack of legitimacy really hurt the parachute candidate, and many in his own party actively campaigned against him, leading to an unsuccessful showing on election day. I certainly did not vote for him.

It’s high time that Liberals get rid of the leader’s ability to appoint candidates. Now, I understand that this appointment provision exists ostensibly so “star” candidates who might otherwise not seek a local nomination (at risk of losing, especially to another popular local with a strong organization on the ground) can get the nod more easily, and that it’s used as a mechanism to attract candidates who are perceived as having more heft. However, it is often used for patronage situations as well. Either way, why not allow local grassroots members to have the (almost) final say in who they are going to try to elect to represent their community’s interests?

I say “almost” final, because the Liberal leader would still continue to have the ultimate say over whether a nominated candidate can run on behalf of the Party by signing (or not signing) nomination papers. That’s a more appropriate use of a leader’s powers.

If Liberals decide to rid their leader of the power to appoint candidates and circumvent local nomination processes, they will be moving towards a circumstance which the Green Party of Canada has long followed.

At the riding level as well, Liberals are considering getting rid of provisions which protect incumbent MP’s from facing nomination battles in their own ridings. These protections may prove to be a little more controversial for Liberals, because the theory here is that a sitting MP already has an electoral advantage over any rivals, and further, why should an MP have to battle for a job they’re already occupying? Riding-level nomination battles are also distractions from taking on candidates from other parties.

That being said, though, some other political parties allow for challenges at the riding level, and sometimes challengers are successful in getting the nod from local members in preference to sitting parliamentarians. In Ontario this past year, we saw just that situation arise when long-serving Progressive Conservative MPP Norm Sterling was ousted by local PC members in favour of Jack MacLaren, former President of the radical right-wing libertarian Ontario Landowners Association. Former Ontario Premier Ernie Eves was vocal in his opposition to the decision of local members to oust Sterling in favour of a “tea party-style” candidate. But MacLaren did go on to win the riding of Carleton-Mississippi Mills in the October provincial election.

The Green Party too does not shelter its candidates from nomination challenges at local levels. For Greens, this is an elementary position. If a political party really believes in the value of democracy, clearly it can’t shelter candidates for purely partisan political reasons, no matter the quality of those candidates. What happened with the PC’s in the riding of Carleton-Mississippi Mills is illustrative of local democracy in action, despite the scorn heaped upon the process by Eves and others. Look, I’ve always been a big fan of Norm Sterling, and I clearly don’t have much respect at all for the Ontario Landowners’ Association, but the fact is that local members in C-MM didn’t want Sterling to represent them any longer, and dumped him in favour of a preferred candidate, likely one whose ideology may be more in keeping with their own. They also took a big political risk in doing so, by deposing a known quantity in Sterling and replacing him with someone who many perceived as less-electable. What’s important here is that the Party members in C-MM had the chance to seize control of local democratic processes, and I believed that the interests of democracy triumphed over politics in C-MM.

This kind of exercise in local democracy played out in the Green Party recently as well. When Green Party Leader Elizabeth May decided to run in the riding of Saanich-Gulf Islands, her nomination as candidate was opposed by another party member. As a result, Greens in SGI had to vote for May to represent them. Now, that happens all the time in most ridings, but when it’s the Leader of the Party, it’s very rare for the Leader to be challenged. And currently, in the Liberal Party, the leader has the power to make sure that such a situation never arises, by appointing themselves as candidate!

Politically, appointing candidates and sheltering them from nomination challenges may be a smart political play for a Party, but in terms of democracy, it’s just not right. The LPC should end these practices.

Electoral Reform

Liberals will also be considering national electoral reform at next week’s convention, which is very interesting, given the sorts of internal electoral reform that they are considering implementing inside of the Party (primaries with open votes from non-members; removal of appointment provisions for MP’s; allowing for challenges of sitting MP’s at the riding level). Internally, Liberals will be asked to consider sweeping changes to the way in which member’s democratically engage within the Party. Nationally, the Liberals are taking a much less ambitious approach to electoral reform.

The only resolution on the ballot for national electoral reform calls for moving towards a preferential balloting system. On the one hand, preferential balloting would lead to a substantive change in the way in which MP’s are elected, but on the other hand, the Liberals appear to be engaged in a cynical political ploy rather than tackling the issue of true democratic reform head-on.

A preferential ballot would see a voter’s choices ranked first, second, third, and so on. After counting all of the first place finishes, if a candidate did not receive 50% of the vote, those counting the ballots will then count all of the second place finishes as well, and add the two scores together. This process continues until a single candidate emerges with 50% of the votes. Under this process, it’s possible that a candidate could be elected MP without a plurality of first place votes.

Interestingly, Liberals acknowledge their own cynicism in the preface of the Resolution itself. The Resolution speaks to both the NDP and Green Party’s support of Proportional Representation, in order to contrast their political rival’s position to the less-ambitious reform of instituting a preferential ballot. Strangely, the Resolution indicates that NDP and Greens would stand to benefit from a proportional representation system, which appears to be a stretch since the NDP has now found itself in the role of the Official Opposition.

Also, as Liberals believe that they occupy the middle of the left/right political spectrum, there is some belief that Liberal candidates would be the primary beneficiaries of second place voting choices of both Conservative and NDP voters.

Either way, the modest electoral reforms brought about by a preferential ballot clearly don’t go far enough towards real electoral reform, in my opinion. The election of representatives to our parliaments should be a true reflection of the will of all voters. While a preferential ballot is clearly better than the system we have in place right now, it will do little for Canadians who continue to support others points of view. Rather than electing the parliamentarians which we want, we’ll end up electing the parliamentarians which we don’t want, but who are mildly more acceptable to a majority of voters.

Only proportional representation fully captures the will of voters, and will lead to a parliament which is a true expression of that will. Hopefully, the Liberal Party will come to understand this self-evident truth before the next federal election, and join the Green’s in our call for true electoral reform. As an aside, many may remember a telling question put to Party Leaders during the 2008 English language televised Leaders’ debate. The question was about what the most important issue was for each leader. When it was Elizabeth May’s turn, I think that most people expected her to talk about the need to combat the climate crisis as being the number one issue. She didn’t say that (although ultimately her answer, if implemented, would have been a great assist with taking real action on climate change). May talked about the need for electoral reform to better improve democracy within our country. Some said later that her response was self-serving for her Party, as Greens clearly would benefit from a system of proportional representation. However, so too would all Canadians, as through proportional representation, Canada would end up with a parliament which is a true reflection of the will of voters. When you look at the parliament which emerged after the 2011 election, with the Conservative Party having received a majority of seats without receiving a majority of the votes, it’s clear to any casual observer that our current electoral system isn’t serving Canadians well. And that’s likely one of the reasons why so many Canadians choose to stay at home rather than cast a ballot at election time.

But let me be clear: I hope that the Liberals do decide to adopt the preferential ballot resolution (and then take the ability of their leader to decide policy out the leader’s hands), because I would love for the Liberals to campaign on the basis of a preferential ballot electoral system in the next election. And I say that because I, as a Green, would very much like to test the Liberal’s hypothesis that their Party would be the recipient of a majority of those second-place votes.

Co-operation with Other parties

Finally, Liberals won’t be voting on any resolutions which speak to the need about co-operating more fulsomely with other political parties, but I can guarantee that Liberal delegates nonetheless will be doing a lot of talking about working with other parties.

Recently, NDP leadership contender Nathan Cullen proposed to his Party that it’s time Liberals, New Democrats and Greens considered implementing a system where members of each Party could jointly at the riding level choose to get together and nominate a single candidate to oppose sitting Conservative MP’s in the next election. I’m not sure that this is the best approach (although I haven’t made my mind up, and I am intrigued by the idea), but at least Cullen is thinking ahead to the future, and he, along with members in all of those parties, realize that greater cooperation may be necessary to beat the Conservatives in the next election.

Clearly, the Conservatives have begun the process of stacking the electoral deck of cards in their own favour. The Conservative Party of Canada isn’t letting anything stand in their way of turning Canadian democracy on its head. We’ve already seen the CPC break its own fixed election date law by cynically calling an early election in 2008 (which deprived Blair Wilson, Canada’s first Green MP, to sit in the House as a Green, and which led to the Broadcast Consortium’s original decision to exclude Green Party Leader Elizabeth May from participating in the televised Leader’s debates, on the grounds that the Greens had no MP’s sitting in the House). The CPC then went on to break election financing laws through the “in-and-out” scandal. Now, with a false majority situation in the House, the Conservatives have begun to phase out public subsidies to political party, which means that parties will increasingly be beholden to monied special interests and elites for electoral success. There are already calls being made within the CPC to allow corporations to donate to political parties in order to off-set the loss of public subsidy.

Some also believe that the addition of new ridings in Ontario, Alberta and B.C. will also increase the chances of electoral success for the Conservative Party in the next election. While that may likely be the result, the fact is that these new ridings will be created in locations which have lately become under-represented, due to population growth. And I’m not willing to concede that a majority of these new ridings will actually elect Conservatives in the next election, although I do acknowledge that it’s possible.

I believe that Liberals, New Democrats and Greens need to start paying better attention to this emergent threat to Canada’s well-being: the transformational nature of the Harper Conservative regime. The Harper regime represents a clear and present danger to Canadian society and democracy within this nation. It is not representative of a values system which is embraced by a majority of Canadians, although it is currently operating with impunity, imposing its own values on the face of our society.

It is easier to tear down than to build up, and we have already begun to see how the Conservatives are starting to tear down cherished and valued Canadian democratic institutions, such as parliament itself, and the rule of law in our society. That may seem like an unsupportable statement to some, but I urge all to take a very close look at the insidious way in which the CPC has chosen to operate both within government and outside of it.

To combat this latest crisis in democracy, which has been clearly brought on by the neo-liberal Conservative Party, despite my own concerns about what I consider to be misguided and in some cases dangerous policy positions taken by the Liberals and NDP, I believe that the moment has nevertheless come for the opposition parties to begin working with one another for the time being to face a common and greater threat to our national interests, and for the good of Canada.

Next week, when Liberals get together for lunches and dinners and at hospitality suites, I hope that they will be having those discussions too. The Liberal Party of Canada finds itself in a unique position at the moment, as it debates resolutions which may transform the Party and lead the Party to take a different direction in the future. Liberals have an opportunity to once again demonstrate real leadership in Canada should they choose to walk through the door which some Liberals themselves are trying to open. Liberals must begin to articulate what their shared values really are, and to implement those values throughout their organization. Further, candidates and their Leader must embrace and defend those values at all costs (even political costs) in order to stake claims to legitimacy. As a final aside, I sincerely hope that NDP leadership contenders decide to go down a similar road, as in my opinion, the NDP long ago sacrificed its own values on the alter of electoral expediency, and has become a party of spin over substance. That too must change if we are to address the bigger threat to Canada, that being the neo-liberal transformation of our beloved nation.

If instead Liberals choose to remain mired in the past as a middle-of-the-road political animal, rather than as a conscientious values-based organization which offers a real alternative to Canadians, then I urge disaffected Liberals currently within that Party to take some time to reflect on whether the Liberal Party is headed in a direction which is consistent with your own values. There is no shame in moving away from an organization which is no longer representative of your values. If Liberals find themselves in this situation, I suggest that they give us Greens a look, because I know that they will find themselves in good company.

Either way, there is too much at stake right now to maintain the status quo. Action is needed.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)

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