Open Nominations Pledge Now an Open Question

  • National Newswatch

I was a believer on this pledge of Justin Trudeau's, I really was. He made a persuasive argument during the Liberal leadership race to party members and new supporters that to rebuild the Liberal Party, every nomination had to be open, and no MP could expect to be protected. And people agreed with him.For one thing, it was smart. Incumbent MPs whose nominations are protected have the party over a barrel if they don't want to be cooperative. For example, it was the worst kept secret in Vaughan and everywhere else that former MP Maurizio Bevilacqua planned to quit and run for mayor. But as his federal nomination was protected and he continued to insist he was running again, party officials had their hands tied behind their backs trying to recruit a candidate to run against Julian Fantino in the by-election everyone knew was coming. Bevilacqua quit at the last possible minute, leaving behind a nearly empty riding association bank account, and no local election preparation work done. The seat was lost, and no wonder.For another thing, the Liberal Party needed elected people with a ground game to help rebuild its membership and local infrastructure. Too often, star candidates recruited in the past and offered safe seats with no nomination contest, turned out to have no political skills and be duds at the doorstep when it mattered, to help keep their seats against a wave. A nomination contest is where you learn those skills and prove to party members that you have them.Finally, the party needed to remake its political culture into a rule-respecting, democratically competitive and yet cooperative team, as a matter of pure survival.Now, all political parties encounter hiccups in their nominations process, and whenever they do, you can always count on a greek chorus of political virgins from the other teams proclaiming their shock, I tell you, and disbelief that such transgressions could ever occur.And, while we're pulling back the curtain a bit, it's also true that the leader's office and party leadership plays a big role in candidate recruitment, and so naturally they do have their favourites.But.If you're going to promise an open nominations process, and you meant what you said, then the leader's favourite has to win the nomination fair and square. In fact, the leader has to prefer the democratic choice at the end of the day, so long as everyone has followed the rules.There are arguments in favour of protecting incumbents' nominations. Government backbenchers in a minority government would be at a distinct disadvantage if they had to be in Ottawa all the time to see the government didn't fall while challengers were free to work the riding back home. That was the argument made to and accepted by the Conservatives prior to 2011, and perfectly understandable. This time the Conservative Party has said that candidates who won a nomination for a by-election in the current Parliament won't have to face a nomination challenge either in the next election. Again, those members wouldn't have had a full term to establish themselves and their record against any potential challengers, so it's a reasonable position for that party to take. At least they're being honest about it.In the Trinity-Spadina case, a Liberal candidate who was twice green-lit in the past formally announced her nomination bid when the seat became vacant, though admittedly before she'd been greenlit this time around. With reportedly hundreds if not thousands of signed-up members, Christine Innes clearly calculated that an early announcement would be the show of strength needed to guarantee her green-lighting and secure an open nomination, and that issues about post-redistribution nominations could be settled afterwards.Instead, the party acting on the leader's direction barred her candidacy and took the further surely unprecedented step of notifying the national media of their ruling, alleging unspecified incidents of bullying and intimidation by her “team” and husband Tony Ianno, though not the candidate herself. Innes alleges she was singled out for refusing to back away from a bid for the 2015 nomination in University-Rosedale, the seat apparently sought by newly-elected Toronto Centre M.P. Chrystia Freeland.If that really is what happened, the Liberals would frankly have been better off and more honest just to protect their by-election MPs in their preferred seats, thereby sending the right signals to other prospective candidates. Pretending it's an open system if it's clearly not creates more problems, and doesn't establish or reinforce the party culture they were looking to create.Until now, it was possible to accept Justin Trudeau's pledge of open nominations at face value. The Toronto Centre nomination? Well, it followed the wacky rules the Ontario section of the party had in place that permitted retroactive cut-off dates, but that's why the party wanted to establish new national rules that would apply to everyone, which it did. The Ottawa-Orléans and Etobicoke-Lakeshore nominations? Well, it seems perfectly reasonable to ask former leadership contestants with huge debts to prove they can pay them off and that doing so won't be a distraction to their election bid. The fact that long-time incumbents were being allowed to seek early nominations to avoid a challenge? Well, a lot of incumbents who are long-time get that way because they're popular locally, and would not likely attract challengers.But publicly disqualifying a former two-time candidate, whether for transgressions not directly tied to her or for refusing to accept the fiction that there would be an open nomination in University-Rosedale when apparently there won't be?That's the moment you have to say the pledge of open nominations is now an open question. We certainly will be watching with a little bit more of a jaded perspective now.Alice Funke is the publisher of