What is an open nomination, really?
Part 1 of 2: the concept
The realpolitik definition of an open federal nomination in Canada is not that anyone interested in running has a fair shot at becoming the candidate; it is that anyone who beats the party will then be accepted as the party’s candidate.
With recent calls for Elections Canada oversight of nomination races relating to the Johnston report on foreign interference, it’s worth doing a slightly deeper dive into the question of nominations in the first place. Foreign interference may well be a factor, but regulatory oversight of the process needs to go quite a bit deeper.
Most federal political parties describe their nomination processes as open. Technically, it is mostly true. Any member of the public can fill out the extensive forms required for nomination and submit them for consideration. The parties then have a process to ensure that the candidate is, essentially, morally acceptable to the party and that that any skeletons are declared in advance and manageable. The process is generally called the “green light”.
Having a green light does not mean the party will do anything to give you a fair shot, and having your skeletons explored and documented reduces the chances that you will fight back or run for another party or independently if you are ultimately defeated or pushed out of the race. It is a kind of blackmail that the parties do not need to verbalize.
In order to win a nomination, candidates need to have the most supportive members show up to the nomination meetings and cast their vote for their preferred candidate. Parties use all kinds of tactics to influence the outcome of a nomination race. Often, they are looking for a demographic result - generally a candidate who isn’t Yet Another White Male if they don’t have a specific person in mind. The tools they use are access to membership forms and membership data, timeliness in sharing information and processing forms including the green-light application itself, the timing and location of the nomination meeting, as well as the timing of the membership cut-off date to vote, which parties reserve the right to set retroactively and thus favour the candidate they want at the moment that they are leading the membership drive. This last one is referred to as a “blind cut-off”.
As an anglophone white male, I was not the Quebec Liberal organization’s choice for candidate in my home riding of Laurentides—Labelle in my September 18, 2014 nomination for the 2015 federal election.
While I started selling memberships in the summer of 2013, the campaign did not officially begin until near the end of January, 2014, when the party announced the nomination process and the opening of applications. I filed for my papers almost immediately, and it took more than two weeks for the Montreal office to email me the blank forms to fill out, though I had already managed to obtain a copy of them and so had the answers already prepared. I answered dozens of pages of questions, applied for police background and credit file checks, and gathered up more than a hundred of my published works, as well as the entire historical content of my blog, including posts I had removed at some point, offering it all for the close scrutiny I expected. I put all the information on a DVD and had the whole thing notarized. I submitted everything before the end of February of 2014 and waited for the call to come for an interview with the Green Light Committee, the final decision-maker on whether I met the standards to be a Liberal candidate.
To this point, I had no announced competitors, though I had heard rumours of some who were interested. During the 2014 Quebec provincial election, my principal competitor, Julie Tourangeau, appeared on the scene, also intent on networking on the campaign. She came from the old guard.
The party organization needed female candidates, and an English white male in what was seen as an unwinnable francophone rural riding was not good for their statistics. In spite of being well-connected on the Hill, I began to realize that I was not the provincial wing of the party’s preferred choice for candidate, indeed not by a longshot.
By the end of May, my patience at this time was also wearing thin as I still had not received my green light from the Party on my application to run, now three full months old. I had been interviewed on the afternoon of April 22nd over two months after submitting my papers, entering the room as François-Philippe Champagne had exited, and his nomination was now already complete.
At the last minute, the party added a requirement on nomination candidates to sign up 10 new monthly donors to qualify. Anticipating a move like this, I had people in mind ready to go and we filled this requirement very quickly. My principal opponent only filed her papers in May and received her green light in early June, with mine following on June 16th, four and a half months after my application; my first clear indication of a preference by the party.
The party having a preference is not unreasonable in a democratic system where the voters in an election vote only for the party with little consideration given to the candidate. In that environment, the candidate represents the party rather than the community. But if we want to bring relevance back to individual representatives, the party’s preference should be limited entirely at the green-light stage and at that only to ensure that the candidate is philosophically in line with the party. After that, there needs to be a fair, consistent, and auditable process to select them and there is nobody more qualified than Elections Canada to perform this task.
In part two - how my nomination got messy as the party tried to prevent me from winning.