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politics insider

Political promises of openness and transparency are easier made than kept, it seems – and not just for Justin Trudeau.

The Liberal leader is under fire this week for blocking the candidacy of Christine Innes, whose team he accused of bullying fellow Liberals. Mr. Trudeau's unilateral move ran afoul of his sunny pledge for open races leading up to the 2015 election. But he wasn't the only one to make such a pledge.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives have also promised "fair and open" races leading up to 2015 – and are also facing complaints about how transparent the process has been.

The Conservative Party has, for instance, opened nominations in a series of ridings without public announcements. In contrast, one former MP says such races used to be advertised publicly.

This week, at least four incumbent Conservative MPs were acclaimed as candidates – no one ran against them – after their nomination period opened and closed without a public announcement. The four include Ontario's Parm Gill, Alberta's Deepak Obhrai, Manitoba's Steven Fletcher and Nova Scotia's Scott Armstrong.

The Conservatives defend the low-key approach, saying nominations are strictly private party business, but have in recent elections faced complaints by candidates who say they were frozen out or mysteriously disqualified.

This time around, Conservative supporters are saying privately – wary of angering the party – that hard-copy letters from the national party headquarters, announcing a nomination race, are arriving late in the mail or not at all, leaving even loyalists in the dark and raising questions of whether the party was trying to hide nominations from its own base.

Timing of letters is essential, because challengers to incumbents face tight deadlines to send in a complex 51-page application, along with a background check, signatures of 25 current party members and a $1,000 cheque. The letters, as opposed to phone or e-mail, eat up valuable days for prospective challengers.

Some close to the party bristle at the complaints, saying Mr. Trudeau's smackdown of Ms. Innes' candidacy is a more serious transgression and that only extensive preparation could knock off an incumbent anyhow.

But the new process sounds familiar, and infuriating, to former Conservative MP Inky Mark.

"That's the same trick they played in other years, ever since Harper got there," said Mr. Mark, who has since emerged as a critic of the party's process, saying Mr. Harper's leadership team interferes in grassroots elections.

"Who knew? I'm still a member of the party. Nobody sent letters about nominations," he said, adding of the party claim of openness: "I refuse to believe it. To me, it's just another big lie that they tell. And the public don't know, because most of them don't care."

The Conservatives have also opened a nomination race in Calgary – Signal Hill, where former Alberta finance minister Ron Liepert is mounting a high-profile challenge of incumbent Rob Anders. If both candidates are accepted by the party, it will trigger a nomination race, as opposed to another case of an acclaimed candidate.

A Conservative Party spokesman declined to say which ridings the party had begun nomination races in. "These are internal party matters, and I can say that the Conservative Party will have fair and open nominations across Canada," spokesman Cory Hann said.

Mr. Mark said the party used to advertise nomination races and keep them open for a "reasonable" period of time.

"It was all open. Now everything is closed. As far as I'm concerned, when Harper became the leader, everything was shut down because he wants control of everything. And it's based on that premise," Mr. Mark said, later adding: ''We talk a lot about democracy, we go around the world preaching democracy, and we're undemocratic right in our own backyard."

Josh Wingrove is a reporter in The Globe's parliamentary bureau.