Dale Smith is a journalist in the Parliamentary Press Gallery and author of The Unbroken Machine: Canada’s Democracy in Action.
Lisa Raitt has enjoyed a celebrated career in Canadian politics. From 2008 to 2019 she held the Ontario riding of Milton for the federal Conservative Party, becoming a high-profile MP and cabinet minister in Stephen Harper’s government and the party’s deputy leader under Andrew Scheer. Still, that wasn’t enough to save her from recently being booted off the executive board of her local riding association – an act that Toronto Sun columnist Mark Bonokoski described as a “coup.”
But Canadians should really see the events that took place as a sign of hope for renewed health in the grassroots, where new blood – here, in the form of Nadeem Akbar, who the riding membership nominated in December to carry the Conservative banner in the next federal election – outmaneuvered the old guard. What happened was the complete opposite of a coup: It was Canadian democracy in action.
According to The Toronto Star, Mr. Akbar had asked the riding association board to hire David Parker, a political consultant and podcaster who ran Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole’s field operations in the recent leadership race, and to pay him $6,000 to run the campaign before the election even began. Mr. Akbar also wanted to set up a campaign office before the writ was drawn up, which likely won’t happen for months, given that it would be suicidal for any party to engineer the defeat of the government and an election call while much of the country remains gripped in the third wave of the pandemic. When the executive balked, he signed up more than 200 new riding members and organized the membership to elect his chosen slate of candidates at the recent annual general meeting; Ms. Raitt was among the 10 directors replaced.
Politics can be a blood sport, and it can be brutal. But above all, it is a sport where the ability to organize is the name of the game. Mr. Akbar simply out-organized the old board, which failed to organize themselves well enough or to animate enough of the riding’s grassroots membership to maintain their positions. Sure, there are hurt feelings here, but making people upset isn’t a delegitimizing offence. This is not an overthrow of a democratic body; this is a sign that the system is working, more or less how it’s intended to, at the grassroots level.
And let’s face it: The state of the grassroots in all of Canada’s major parties is in rough shape. Canadians have allowed our quasi-presidential-primary-style leadership contests to dominate all aspects of how parties operate, which has empowered party leaders to create top-down structures within their party organizations. As a result, the grassroots have too little say over their own parties anymore.
To make things even worse, leaders have increasingly been gaming how nominations happen. As the Samara Centre for Democracy showed in its report “Party Favours: How Federal Election Candidates Are Chosen,” even the ability of riding associations to choose who will represent them in the next election, or to hold incumbents to account, is increasingly fraught. Party leaders do not hesitate to parachute “stars” into ridings, or to fix the date or rules of a nomination contest in favour of a preferred candidate, overruling local democratic processes.
The policy wishes of the grassroots are also being overwritten by leaders’ offices. As much as it was a black eye for Mr. O’Toole to have the membership vote against the resolution that climate change is real at the party’s recent policy convention, his ensuing dismissal of the vote is a sign of party weakness. This is not unique to the Conservatives, either; party leaders of all stripes have emerged from conventions only to disregard a number of the membership’s resolutions.
Mr. Akbar’s efforts represent a glimmer of hope within riding associations. He is clearly out to win the riding back from the Liberals, after former Olympian Adam Van Koeverden defeated Ms. Raitt in the last election. When the riding association didn’t want to give Mr. Akbar the tools he requested to do so, he set about ensuring that he got an executive that would. I have a hard time seeing how a motivated candidate’s campaign to get desired outcomes as a bad thing, regardless of the party – though it should be said that it’s hardly terrible for the Tories that a Conservative of colour was able to effectively sign up members.
There is a real malaise in our parties at the grassroots level. Instead of complaining that someone was insufficiently deferential to the old guard, perhaps we should be taking inspiration from someone who actually used the tools that our democracy made available to him.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.