More thoughts on “The Reform Act”

Another reform being proposed by MP Michael Chong in his Reform Act (see this first post for background) is removing the party leader’s veto over riding nominations. Currently, the Canada Elections Act stipulates that the witness for a nominated candidate must file with the returning officer in the electoral district in which the prospective candidate is seeking nomination:

“an instrument in writing, signed by the leader of the political party or by a person referred to in subsection 383(2), that states that the prospective candidate is endorsed by the party in accordance with section 68.” [67(4)(c)]

The Reform Act proposes instead:

4. Paragraph 67(4)(c) of the Act is replaced by the following:
(c) if applicable, an instrument in writing, signed by the nomination officer of the political party’s electoral district association for the electoral district that states that the prospective candidate is endorsed by the party.
5. The Act is amended by adding the following after section 68:
68.1(1) A prospective candidate for a political party in an electoral district must be endorsed by the nomination officer of the party’s electoral district association of the party in that electoral district.
(2) The nomination officer referred to in subsection (1) shall be appointed by the members of the electoral district association by a majority vote.

Dale Smith provides a bit of a history lesson behind the requirement for the party leader’s signature on a candidate’s nomination form:

When the changes to the Elections Act were debated in 1970, the decision was taken to include the party name on the ballot next to the candidate’s name.  Prior to this, the ballot showed not only the candidate’s name, but also his or her address and occupation.  The issue of people with shared last names became an issue, as did the listing of occupation — especially for incumbents.  While there were concerns about this amounting to “free advertising” for the party, there were more concerns around spoofing party listings — that unless there was a control mechanism that anyone could simply declare on the ballot that they were the Liberal candidate, or that they might instead put down “Progressive Conservative Party for Canada” instead of “of Canada.”  That fail safe mechanism was determined to be the party leader’s signature.  Not once in the debates recorded in Hansard was there the concern that the party leader might use this power to blackmail any rebellious MPs — and yet that is what ended up happening.

The other concern, while not recorded in Hansard but has been repeated anecdotally by those familiar with the situation, was that a safeguard was needed against hijacked nomination races.  This being the days of Pierre Trudeau’s famous omnibus bill that decriminalized contraception, homosexuality and took the first steps in removing some of the more draconian restrictions against abortions, there was intense pressure by anti-abortion groups who were trying to stack the nomination races in their favour.  Once again, the leader’s signature was the stopgap.

Oddly – in my view anyway – this seems to be one of the most problematic proposals for a number of people. For example, Tim Harper of the Toronto Star writes:

On one point, Chong would take away the power of the party leader to select or reject election candidates, making that decision binding from the local electoral district association.

It is silent on the fate of a leader who watches a candidate die, or deal with past indiscretions or criminality, or start spouting contrary policy during the campaign.

The leader cannot fire the candidate and he or she must deal with the damaging fallout until the electoral district association deals with the matter. The leader also cannot move to dissolve the local association.

Dale Smith, in the same article quoted above writes “What we know of Chong’s proposals to date is that they don’t contain some kind mechanism to prevent hijacked nominations, which do remain a concern.” Many others have chimed in on Twitter and elsewhere warning of total chaos, as Andrew Coyne aptly observes: “Remove the power of the leader to decide who may run under the party banner, warned some, and it would lead to a wave of neo-Nazis hijacking nomination meetings. At best, it would empower tiny parliamentary factions to divide and disrupt the party’s business.”

Nothing of the sort occurs in other countries which manage to select candidates without the involvement of the Party leader. I will, as usual, use the United Kingdom as an example, only because it is more familiar to me. What follows is based on information readily available on both the UK Conservative Party and the UK Liberal Democrat Party websites. I couldn’t find anything about candidate selection on the Labour Party website. I have also been in contact with someone who recently went through the selection process for the Liberal Democrats, and he answered a few questions for me. I have also attempted to contact the UK Conservative Party for a bit more information, but have yet to hear back from anyone. If I do, and if necessary, I will update this post with any new information.

Both the UK Tories and the Lib Dems follow very similar procedure to select candidates. It can be summarised as follows:

1. Persons interested in being a candidate need to fill out an application form
2. Based on the application form, suitable candidates will be assessed by an assessment board/team based on criteria established by the party
3. If they pass the assessment, they will be added to a national List of Approved Candidates
4. Once on the List of Approved Candidates, they can then apply for selection in any seat advertising for a parliamentary candidate.
5. The Local Selection Committee decides on a short list of potential candidates (if more than one candidate applies). If you are short-listed, you have a short campaign to drum up support of local party members, at the end of which, the members vote for their candidate for the next Election.

I will go over these steps in a bit more detail.

1. So you want to be a candidate

The UK Tories invite anyone interested in becoming a candidate for the Party to first contact the Candidates’ Team by email or phone for advice on how to proceed. You will then be asked to contact a member of the Field Team, who is either a Party official or senior volunteer in your area. You’ll have an informal chat with about the process, and you can ask any questions you might have. If you still want to be a candidate after that, you have to fill in an extensive application form, which asks about your experience, career, who you are as a person. You also need to provide three referees: one of them must connected with the Party and one must have known you for more than five years.

The Liberal Democrats do things a bit differently. They suggest that you first fill in the self-assessment questionnaire on their website before you apply. Their application forms are similar to the Tories’ – your contact information, basic background information, three referees, one of which must be a Party member, a signed declaration and code of conduct form.

Note: In both cases, you are applying to the party’s central office, not to a local constituency selection committee.

2. The Assessment Process

If you are deemed suitable based on your application form, the UK Tories will then invite you to attend a Parliamentary Assessment Board (PAB). This assessment lasts about 5 hours, during which you will be assessed by MPs and senior Party volunteers. In order to attend a PAB, you must be a current Party member and have been for at least three months. You will also be charged £250 to cover the Party’s costs of hiring the venue and running the PAB. The skills the Party is looking for are: communication skills, intellect, the ability to relate to people, leadership and motivational skills, resilience and drive, and conviction. However, you don’t have to know all about the Party’s manifesto and policies – you’ll learn about that if you make the cut. At this stage, the Party is more interested in you and your abilities.

The Liberal Democrats process is a bit more informal, but that is probably due to their status as the third party. They simply don’t have the same resources available to them. They are more stringent on the Party membership side of things, however; you need to have been a Party member for 12 consecutive months in England and Wales and 9 consecutive months in Scotland. The Lib Dems hold Assessment centres across the country, and once you’ve applied, you should be assessed within six months. The assessment team (similar to the Tories’ PAB) doesn’t see your application form; they only assess your performance during the assessment centre. The process is based on a Competency Framework of the qualities a parliamentary candidate should possess. These competencies are very similar to what the Tories are looking for: communication skills, leadership, strategic thinking and judgement, the ability to represent people, resilience and values. The Lib Dems do expect you to know about their Party policies, however.

Note: In both cases, the required skills and competencies potential candidates are measured against are drawn up by each party’s central office.

3. What happens if you don’t pass the assessment?

No worries! You can try again. The Tories admit that not everyone passes the first time – some require more training or experience. If that applies to you, you can try again in the next Parliament. And some people simply aren’t suited to become candidates, but the Party might find other ways you can help. As for the Lib Dems, if you don’t pass your assessment, you can reapply in either 1 or 5 years, depending on your final score.

4. You passed the assessment – now what?

In both cases, you’re now an Approved Candidate on the Approved Candidates List maintained by each party’s central office. And in both cases, you can now apply to run in any constituency in the country that needs a parliamentary candidate. That’s right – any constituency. However, the Lib Dems at least do encourage people to look for openings close to home. Someone from London seeking to run as a candidate in Newcastle probably wouldn’t be welcomed with open arms.

How do you apply to run for an advertised seat? You contact the Returning Officer named in the advertisement, complete the application form that will be sent to you by the deadline, and wait for the short-list decision from the Local Party Selection Committee (they might invite you to attend an interview). Local selection panels have the final say in who they choose as their candidate (s). In some cases, you might be the only person who applies. In other instances, there might be a number of Approved Candidates after that particular seat. If you are short-listed, there’s a short campaign – about three weeks – during which you will have to try to drum up support from local members. At the end of the campaign, there will be a meeting where local party members will vote for their candidate. If it’s you, you will fight the next General election for that seat.

The Liberal Democrat process described above is the general on which applies for candidates for both Parliamentary and Local elections. On the Party’s website, they stipulate the following:

The approval and selection of Parliamentary Candidates is the constitutional responsibility of each of the three Federal State Parties of England, Scotland and Wales. Each State has an elected Candidates Committee, which takes the decisions and sets the policies that govern the processes of the approval, selection and review of their Parliamentary Candidates.

At no point in this process does the Party leader have any say or input into who becomes an Approved Candidate or who will be contesting for a seat in the Party’s name. Nor can the Party leader veto the selection an Approved or selected candidate. But this doesn’t mean that there is no screening – quite the contrary. Each candidate who makes it onto the List of Approved Candidates has been screened and approved by the party’s central office based on criteria developed by the party. While local selection committees have the final say in which candidate they want, they can only choose from candidates who have been approved by the party. This eliminates (or at least greatly reduces) the possibility of local nomination meetings being stacked by special interest groups. And even if they are, they still will be limited to choosing between candidates who have been approved by the Party’s central office through the selection process described above.

According to my contact with the Lib Dems, the Approved Candidates list doesn’t carry over from one Parliament to the next. If you ran as a candidate for the Party in 2010, but didn’t win your seat, and want to try again in 2015, you have to go through the above process from the start. However, he did say that for previous Approved Candidates, the assessment might be shorter the second time around.

Would such a process work here in Canada? I don’t see why not. With regards to the Reform Act proposal, some concerns have been expressed regarding leaving the decision up to local party riding associations, since some of these local associations aren’t particularly healthy. Some parties may not have a very active membership in some parts of the country, which could make candidate selection problematic if decentralized. This is a legitimate concern, but I don’t see why our parties couldn’t set up Parliamentary Assessment Boards consisting of sitting MPs and long-time party volunteers who could assess candidates anywhere in the country via Skype, for example. The PAB could be supplemented by one or two local party members. Yes, the Canadian situation is different, but none of the problems or objections I’ve yet seen raised are insurmountable.

Do some oddball MPs get elected to the UK House of Commons? You bet they do! And that no doubt adds to the liveliness of the place (when compared to the Canadian House of Commons, for example). But here’s the thing – there are plenty of oddball MPs who get elected here in Canada even with the party leader signing off on nomination papers. The main difference here is that our party leaders can more easily keep their oddballs on a tight leash.

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