Paul E.J. Thomas is a senior research associate at the Samara Centre for Democracy.
With the window to nominate candidates for this year’s federal election now closed, citizens have seen a major step backward for the open and transparent nomination process in Canadian politics.
Most parties struggled to find candidates for all 338 ridings – casting a light on the murky world of nominations and on the importance of revitalizing parties as grassroots organizations. The process by which parties select candidates has huge implications for who has access to political office – and how capable we are of holding members of Parliament accountable.
Our conventional image of candidate selection in Canada – where the local members of each party meet to choose a candidate from several potential contestants – does not match the reality. A study released by the Samara Centre for Democracy this summer found that just 17 per cent of the candidates who stood for a major party in the five federal elections between 2004 and 2015 were selected through a competitive process. The rest were either chosen through a nomination with a single contestant (42 per cent) or directly appointed with no contest at all (41 per cent). We also found that nomination races were short and highly unpredictable. With so few genuinely competitive nominations, the system seems designed to work for party insiders.
The 2015 election – the first to fall on a fixed election day – did see modest improvements, with all the major parties committing to hold open nominations. Nominations were held early and often. Even incumbents had to face a nomination to ensure they still had the support of local party members. As a result, the Conservatives, Liberals and NDP each completed at least 250 nominations by July 19 that year – three months before election day. The Greens held 164.
Fast forward to 2019. With three months to go, the parties had dramatically fewer official nominations: The Conservatives had held 172, while the Greens, Liberals and NDP had all completed fewer than 70.
For the Conservatives and Liberals, the drop occurred largely because of how sitting MPs were treated. Instead of open competitions, the Liberals reappointed the vast majority of their MPs without allowing any nomination challenges. New Conservative Party rules also meant that anyone seeking to challenge incumbent MPs faced tougher application requirements, resulting in just a handful of challenges.
In ridings where the same party repeatedly wins, election after election, nomination challenges can be the only realistic way to remove an MP. Protecting existing MPs prevents local party members from replacing an underperforming one.
Even more puzzling is the drop in nominations for the NDP and Greens – neither of which protected their incumbent MPs. Instead, both appear to have simply left their candidate selection to the last minute, unfortunately denying local members the chance for a meaningful democratic process.
Yet the major parties’ failure to prioritize candidate nomination is juxtaposed by the performance of the upstart People’s Party of Canada. Despite being formed just last year, the party had held more than 310 nominations by July 21 of this year – more than the Conservatives, Liberals and NDP combined.
Some will argue that a focus on candidate selection is misplaced, as modern voters cast their ballots based on a party alone. Yet research shows that candidates still matter. Most recently, researchers used a mass survey with more than 20,000 respondents to show that local candidates were the deciding factor for 4 per cent of voters in the 2015 election. While this may not sound like much, the closeness of many Canadian races means that roughly one in 10 seats was decided by the candidate – easily enough to swing the outcome of an election.
By centralizing nominations and creating a system that favours insiders, parties are getting in their own way. Some are now struggling to field full slates of candidates and are missing out on opportunities to hold meaningful local discussions about community priorities and concerns. Others have removed mechanisms for ensuring that MPs maintain local support. Without embracing reform and opening up the nomination process, the major parties run the risk of becoming even more disconnected from Canadian society. Weaker parties translate into a weaker democracy, further eroding trust in our political system.
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