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Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

(Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)


Party democracy is great, except when it isn’t Add to ...

We shall never know, of course, but it is highly likely that Pierre Trudeau would never have been elected to Parliament under the rules now imposed on the Liberal Party by his son.

Those rules involve open battles for Liberal nominations in constituencies across the country. The leader has said he will not select candidates, which means he will not impose them on ridings or parachute candidates into them. The Liberal Party shall be open and democratic, Justin Trudeau argues.

Had this rule been in place in 1965, Pierre Trudeau may well have chosen not to run. He had not been seriously involved in electoral politics before; indeed, he wasn’t even a member of the Liberal Party. He was known in intellectual circles in Quebec, but not by the general public. At that stage of his life, he was hardly the type to wade into a nomination fray, not knowing many people.

When the Liberal hierarchy approached him, Mr. Trudeau was extremely hesitant. The hierarchy really wanted his friend, union leader Jean Marchand. Once Mr. Marchand and another friend, newspaper editor Gérard Pelletier, agreed to run, Mr. Trudeau joined them to form what were called the “three wise men” of Quebec.

Then there was the matter of a constituency. Some largely French-speaking riding associations didn’t want Mr. Trudeau, who had already earned a reputation as a critic of certain forms of Quebec nationalism. Eventually, the party hierarchy dropped him into Mount Royal, a constituency with a large English-speaking population. The rest, as they say, is history.

Why dwell on his case? Because it raises at least an argument that a leader, in attempting to build the strongest possible political team and the strongest possible government, should have the right to anoint people of substance, for whom a drawn-out nomination contest would not do.

“Would not do” in the sense that their jobs might not have been compatible with being seen to run for office, or with being given the time to try. Would not do in the sense that other candidates, such as constituency aides to retiring MPs, know the membership lists and how to work them. Would not do in the sense that although they might make excellent front-benchers or even cabinet ministers, the act of getting there through a constituency fight might not be their talent.

Former prime minister Jean Chrétien certainly reserved for himself the leader’s prerogative to bring people into the Liberal Party and “arrange” for their election. He did it for Stéphane Dion and Pierre Pettigrew, because he needed to put fresh faces on his Quebec team to help fight the secessionists.

Mr. Trudeau is trying, of course, to “do politics differently,” to emphasize openness and democracy. With one speech, he dissolved the Liberal Senate caucus. With another, he decreed that all Liberal MPs must vote pro-choice on abortion bills, hardly the stuff of democracy. In both cases, he decided on policy without widespread consultation, or what we might call “democracy.”

Liberal-style democratic nominations can be somewhat pliable. In Toronto Centre, it was known that he favoured Chrystia Freeland, encouraged her to run and got his people to talk former Ontario cabinet minister George Smitherman out of contesting the nomination.

That his team should have recruited and encouraged her was an excellent strategic move, since Mr. Trudeau needs to surround himself with people of accomplishment to dilute criticism that he has little practical experience. It would have been a blow had she lost, just as it would have been bad for Mr. Trudeau if Jim Carr, former head of the Manitoba Business Council, had lost the nomination for Winnipeg South Centre. As it will be if Andrew Leslie, former head of the Canadian army, fails to win the nomination for Ottawa-Orléans.

Nomination dates can be advanced or delayed to suit the preferences of certain candidates known to be favoured by the leader. His people can subtly put out the word on whose head the leader’s favour rests. His emissaries can approach potential candidates and conversations inevitably start with the stated principle of democratic nomination contests but then move into the shadows of how the contest might be won.

So intra-party democracy is terrific, much of the time. On other occasions, it can be argued that the leader should have latitude, in the interest of building the party, to exercise his own discretion – as took place for Pierre Trudeau.

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