“Open nominations,” or, how to further destroy people’s faith in democracy

A seriously heavy run-down of allegations of interference in nomination contests across Canada

All current and past Liberal MPs may not like it, but they are going to have to fight in 2014 for the right to run in the next election, says Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.

As the federal Liberals gear up to begin choosing candidates in the new year, Trudeau is warning that there are no safe seats or free passes for anyone who wants to wear the party banner in the 2015 campaign.

“Canadians need to see that the Liberal party has understood the lessons of the past and is willing to completely reboot,” Trudeau said in a year-end interview with the Star.

“We have to offer a full reboot, and that means that every candidate for the Liberal Party in 338 ridings in 2015, or whenever the election does come, will have been chosen in a free vote by the Liberal members of that riding.”

That’s what he said to the Toronto Star at the end of 2013, with the election a comfortably long ways in the future. And it was a well-received pledge because it was so common-sense, so reasonable. Of course party members should be able to choose their candidates locally – it’s practically tautological that in a representative democracy, the people should have the ability to choose who will represent them, that they shouldn’t have their options arbitrarily limited by outside forces. So Trudeau’s pledge was heartening, and I personally hoped it would help to set a standard for the other parties.

Fast forward two and a half months.

Christine Innes sent out the following email to supporters on Thursday [March 13 2014] afternoon, shortly after the news that the party had barred her from contesting any future nomination:

[…]

The party leadership had previously told me they would only approve my candidacy for the by-election in Trinity-Spadina, if I agreed in writing prior to the by-election to run in a pre-assigned riding that would be determined by the Leader of the Party’s unelected backroom advisors.

I could not, in good conscience, sign a document-which made no attempt to hide that this new “riding assignment” practice was now the standard practice of the Party. This seems to be at variance with the Leader’s commitment to open and fair nominations. I did make it clear to party leadership, however, that I had an open mind about which riding I would run in in 2015, and would work closely with them after the by-election to ensure the Party’s best interests were served. That commitment was not good enough for them which is why they will not approve my candidacy. It was made clear to me that if I did not submit to their demands that they would “still get their way”. I am now incredibly saddened that those same people have now not only manufactured allegations of apparent “intimidation and bullying on young volunteers” by my team, but made them public. These allegations are totally baseless and without merit and were never brought to my attention, as one would have expected in a Party governed by due process. [All bolded emphasis throughout this post is added]

(You can read the full letter here.)

The move ruffled feathers in the party and prompted Liberal hopeful Zack Paikan very publicly called off his campaign for the party’s nomination in Hamiltion. Innes later announced a $1.5-million defamation lawsuit against Justin Trudeau.

The plot continued to thicken in Trinity-Spadina as local Liberals tried to select a candidate. Longtime Toronto city councillor Adam Vaughan was eventually drafted by Trudeau to run. Vaughan won the nomination and then the election, but not without some controversy:

Justin Trudeau’s credibility has again come under fire from a member of his own party, with new allegations the Liberal leader is stacking the deck to help star candidates win local nomination battles.

Ryan Davey announced Wednesday night that he is pulling the plug on his hopes to represent the party in the upcoming byelection to replace former NDP MP Olivia Chow in the Toronto riding of Trinity-Spadina.

Davey said in a statement to supporters:

As part of a renewed Liberal Party – one that would do politics transparently and democratically – we were promised open nominations. However events over the past few weeks have led me to decide that this nomination process has been a de facto appointment. While it’s the leader’s prerogative to recruit and select candidates, the clear identification of favoured candidates creates an imbalance in support that is difficult to overcome for other candidates. Further, the nomination rules for Trinity-Spadina were changed so that all candidates received the membership lists and forms prior to being green lit, which provided Adam Vaughan with critical information that all candidates had waited several weeks to receive. Regardless of the outcome, these circumstances have not been consistent with an open nomination process.

Trinity-Spadina makes a great starting point, because it showcases so many of the themes that have popped up time and again in subsequent nomination contests. And there have been many. Bear with me, because things are about to get repetitious. I’ll try to move through these quickly because good lord there’s a lot of examples!

From Don Valley North, in July 2014 [HuffPo link, sorry]:

On July 26, Tan won the nomination with a three to one ratio. It wasn’t close. About 600 votes separated the two men.

Two people close to Sarkar’s campaign alleged that many of Tan’s supporters had not paid for their memberships. They said people wearing labels and barcodes were bused in by the hundreds.

The same article details a nomination gone awry in Bay of Quinte in May 2014:

There, former Liberal candidate Peter Tinsley faced off against Trudeau’s preferred nominee, Belleville mayor Neil Ellis, in May.

HuffPost has learned that Tinsley’s greenlight process may have been delayed unnecessarily – possibly to prevent him from accessing the party membership list.

A week after the greenlight, Tinsley’s team was informed that the membership cut-off date — the last date for someone to buy a membership and be eligible to vote — would be May 5, the very day they had placed their first order for membership forms.

When the contest was held on May 25 — right in the middle of the provincial campaign — only 178 people voted. The membership lists were incomplete, many had been excluded, several were surprised to discover that their membership had lapsed or were simply unaware of the race. Tinsley’s team felt the unexplainable rush to complete the contest had created a “fictional” race.

The same HuffPo article also details some less well-substantiated/more rumour-based allegations of impropriety, which I’ll summarize:

In Vancouver Granville, Trudeau’s team is also on the defensive about suggestions that they pushed heavily to ensure that their preferred candidate, Jody Wilson-Raybould, would be acclaimed

In at least two Greater Toronto Area ridings, rumours persist that would-be nominees Muraly Srinarayanathas and Theodore Anthony were asked by Trudeau’s people to step aside to make way for a preferred candidate

“Anybody can apply, and anybody can try their luck at the green-light process,” [Trudeau’s national campaign co-chair in British Columbia Bruce] Young said.

The green-light process is the extensive vetting the Liberal party does internally before approving a candidate. The rules are vague enough, however, to give the party as much latitude as it wants to disqualify a candidate.

From Ville-Marie, May 2014:

Maclean’s recently contacted several people who voted for Marc Miller, a close friend of Trudeau and the party’s recently elected candidate in the Montreal riding of Ville-Marie. These people, primarily from the riding’s Muslim community, say they never paid for the membership cards—a clear violation of the Liberal party’s own rules.

Rather, the membership cards were given to these voters through intermediaries, who in most cases suggested that the new Liberal members vote for Miller. All of the people contacted by Maclean’s had signed up on either March 6 or 7, the final days of a deadline for new memberships in the riding.

We didn’t buy a membership,” said Nahida Rahman, who despite having voted for Miller on the nomination was unaware she was a Liberal member. “Maybe my mother’s friend bought it for me. He gave us a form to fill out. I never gave any money to anyone. My two brothers, my mother and me all got cards.”

“Somebody paid for me,” echoed Mohammed Shabuddin. “I don’t know who paid. They paid for everyone in the family. I don’t know [Marc Miller]. Somebody I know likes him, so I gave him my vote.”

From Brantford, in September 2014:

“This goes explicitly against what [Justin Trudeau] has said in terms of free, open, transparent nominations. We’ve had something that was distinctly closed and very, very opaque,” said Bryan Kerman, who quit the board of the Brant riding association after 40 years as a Liberal.

[…]

In the case of Brantford-Brant, members of the riding association allege the Liberal Party favoured the only officially registered candidate, Danielle Takacs, by abruptly called a nomination vote.

There were at least three other candidates preparing to contest Takacs, Kerman said. However they never got the opportunity, because an e-mail was sent out on Aug. 5 saying the deadline for applications was just two hours away.

(But obviously there was reason for the Party to rush the nomination along, because the election was barely fourteen months away!)

From Ottawa, December 2014:

The acclamation of retired general Andrew Leslie as a candidate for the Ottawa riding of Orléans on Saturday was undemocratic, according to a former Liberal leadership candidate whose candidacy in the riding was blocked by the party.

The Liberals said the candidate, lawyer David Bertischi, was disqualified because of unpaid debts from his leadership campaign. Just a few weeks ago, Bertischi fired back, also filing suit:

In March, Bertschi filed a statement of claim against Trudeau and his staff alleging they leaked false and defamatory information to the media about his disqualification.

In a second lawsuit, he alleges Trudeau and his aides were grossly negligent and in breach of contract by disqualifying Bertschi.

He accuses them of orchestrating a conspiracy to keep him from winning the Liberal nomination over their preferred candidate, retired general Andrew Leslie, whom Bertschi refers to in court documents as “the Chosen One.”

[…]

The LPC contravened its stated commitment to open nominations by “providing staff, resources and funding to Leslie, to further the candidacy of same,” he alleges. He also claims that as many as 100 of his supporters were barred from attending the nomination meeting where Leslie was acclaimed while party agents filled it with out-of-riding members.

Also in December of 2014, there was trouble brewing for the Liberals in Vancouver South:

The party-preferred candidate, Sajjan, is a decorated soldier and was a featured speaker at the last Liberal convention. He now stands to win by acclamation after Dhahan was persuaded by the party leadership to withdraw.

Dhahan declined to discuss his reasons with CBC News, except to confirm that he withdrew reluctantly.

A few weeks later, he did talk to the CBC, and this is what he had to say:

A former Liberal Party candidate for the Vancouver South riding says he was pressured to withdraw from the race because the party had a preferred candidate — Harjit Singh Sajjan — whom they wanted acclaimed.

In an exclusive interview with CBC News host Andrew Chang, Barj Dhahan said he was told by campaign co-chairs that the Liberals already had a candidate in mind for Conservative-held riding and that they would prefer him to run in Surrey Centre.

[…]

“They weren’t simply offering me to run in [Surrey Centre], they were saying that the nomination would be managed in such a way that I would be the sole candidate — essentially that I would be acclaimed,” said Dhahan.

In January of this year, the Liberals rejected the application of Jodie Emery to be a candidate for the nomination. Emery, whose husband Mark is a well-known marijiuana activist, says she wasn’t given a reason for the rejection:

“The message was really short, there was no detail … just that upon careful consideration of my application, they’ve decided to not proceed,” Emery said.

“They said they knew it would be a disappointment and it certainly is.”

[…]

She said the Liberals should be upfront that they have preferred candidates in some ridings — a fact that federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has denied in other interviews about open nominations.

In February of this year, controversial Tory MP Eve Adams decided to join the Liberal party after being disqualified from her nomination contest in Oakville. The Conservative Party found evidence of misconduct on Adams’ part. Trudeau welcomed Adams and found her a nice riding in Toronto:

Adams, who currently represents Mississauga-Brampton South riding, is in a tough fight for the nomination with Marco Mendicino, a lawyer whose family has lived in the riding for decades and who has been actively campaigning since last summer.

The race is rife with whispers — all unproven — of dirty tricks, “instant Liberals” with no ties to the party and $10 membership fees being paid by others.

[…]

The problem for Trudeau is that he has stirred the wrath of party loyalists by parachuting Adams into the riding, where she has no personal or business ties at all.

“It is one of the dumbest moves I’ve ever seen,” Colle said in an interview.

At the same time, some Liberals say they are upset that Trudeau’s team has recruited some powerful “hired hands” to help Adams, the outsider, win the nomination over a local candidate.

Most notable is Tom Allison, a well-regarded Queen’s Park staffer who managed John Tory’s successful mayoral campaign and masterminded Kathleen Wynne’s successful Ontario Liberal leadership bid in 2013.

All of which brings us up to the Justin Trudeau/Bill Blair presser yesterday afternoon:

Trudeau told reporters Blair will have to fight for his nomination just like everyone else, and said he made that clear when the Liberals approached Blair to run.

Having to compete for a nomination, Trudeau said, puts the decision over a candidate in the hands of local party members and it teaches candidates such as Blair the basics of being a politician.

Yeah fucking right. How can anybody possibly take Trudeau seriously when he says something like that? After numerous allegations of dirty tricks, backroom pressure, promises of guaranteed acclimations, membership buying, manipulation of the nomination process, arbitrary disqualification of candidates, arbitrary setting of nomination dates, slander, providing of resources and staff to preferred candidates, and the parachuting of preferred candidates into hotly contested ridings, we’re supposed to believe that Justin Trudeau and his advisors would sit back and allow their chosen star candidate to go down to some no-name sociology professor in a nomination battle in Scarborough? I mean, come on! How stupid does he think we are?

You heard it here first – watch out for dirty tricks in Scarborough. Blair’s getting this nomination, whatever Trudeau has to do.


One final note:

I’ve been focussed on the Liberal Party here because their conduct in this election cycle has been particularly egregious, but they are by no means the only offenders here. The NDP tightly polices who is allowed to be a nominee for their party, a policy put in place by former leader Jack Layton after a few minor scandals in the 2008 election. The party’s strictness is such that they rejected a candidate on the basis of his strong opposition to the blockade in Gaza, an opposition that is doubtless shared by numerous members of their party.

And in Simcoe North, the NDP outraged many local members of the party by revoking Jacob Kearey-Moreland’s candidacy literally hours before the nomination contest, on trumped-up accusations he had no valid opportunity to contest. (Full disclosure: I knew Jacob at Occupy Toronto in 2011. We also both sat on the 2013 organizing committee for Toronto’s May Day protests.)

Ironically, the HarperCons seem to be the winners here – I can’t find any serious allegations of impropriety in a Conservative nomination contest. If you’ve heard of any, or know of any other nomination scandals I’ve missed, please link in the comments below!

I’d like to keep my ear to the ground on this one – because this cuts right to the heart of our supposed system of representative democracy. The electoral system in this country is a rigged game, and this is the foundation of it all – the absolute control that party leaders have over who gets to run and what their policies will be. Their selections often have more to do with connections than with qualifications, and as we’ve seen, local interests are often ignored in favour of star appeal.

Open nominations are really important. Because in the face of all these accusations of rigging and impropriety and rule-breaking and intimidation and bribery, it’s impossible to say that we have a fully-functioning representative democracy. Because when so many people already feel that there’s no point in voting, this manipulation of the public trust can only lead to further disenchantment and apathy. Because the system can’t represent you when it’s rigged to do what some privileged elite politician with nice hair and a famous last name wants it to do. Because choosing from pre-selected options is no real choice at all. Because democracy can’t happen when parties tell their members and candidates what they’re allowed to think, or who they’re allowed to vote for.

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