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Open nomination process just a pipe dream

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Dmitri Soudas has resigned as the Conservative party's executive director.

FRANK GUNN / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES Enlarge Image

Dmitri Soudas has resigned as the Conservative party's executive director.

Can we finally admit the whole idea of open nominations to determine candidates for federal political parties is a fantasy?

In the lead up to the next election -- now expected in the fall of 2015 -- all parties are nominating candidates in ridings across the country. Or, they are not nominating candidates for reasons that are not entirely clear. Or they are promising they will nominate candidates, but not saying how or when.

When you get right down to it, the whole idea of an open process to nominate candidates is a farce wrapped in a cruel joke stuffed with tragic irony.

Imagine asking your kids to write a letter to Santa listing what they want for Christmas. And then on Christmas morning, instead of a present, they get a note indicating they missed the deadline for submitting letters.

The major parties may like to talk about open nominations, but in reality there are just not that into them.

Consider the unmitigated disaster that is the Conservative party's open nomination process. At the party's annual convention last fall, party brass promised that for the first time since 2004, there would be open nominations for the 2015 election. No incumbents would be protected.

Despite that, about a dozen incumbents, including Winnipeg MP Steven Fletcher, were acclaimed in mid-March. It is not clear why they got a get-out-of-nomination-free card, only that they were eligible to be expedited because no one was ready to challenge them.

No, nobody stepped forward because not everyone knew the 14-day nomination window had opened. In some ridings, challengers reported they were not notified about the window. Further confusing matters is the Tories will not confirm how many incumbents have been acclaimed.

That manoeuvre pales in comparison to the sheer silliness authored by Dmitri Soudas, Harper's former director of communications who, just last December, became party executive director with a mandate of overseeing the nomination process. Soudas generated immediate controversy by disqualifying, without explanation, a number of outsiders who wanted to challenge incumbents.

Things got really complex for Soudas last week when it was confirmed he interfered in an Ontario nomination that involves his fiancée, MP Eve Adams. Soudas made phone calls on Adams' behalf and used staff in the party's national office to support her nomination campaign. All this after pledging he would recuse himself from Adam's nomination race. He resigned this week.

Showing the same propensity to spin fairy tales, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau also promised open nominations for 2015 with no interference from the leader's office.

However, Trudeau ran into trouble after barring a Toronto candidate from seeking the Liberal nomination for a byelection in the riding left vacant when NDP MP Olivia Chow resigned to run to be Toronto's next mayor. Based on concerns the candidate and her husband were bullying people in the riding, Trudeau barred her from running in any riding in the 2015 election.

In Winnipeg, there have also been nomination concerns. Karen Alcock, widow of former cabinet minister Reg Alcock, has cried foul over what appears to be support from Trudeau's office for fellow challenger Jim Carr, ex-CEO of the Manitoba Business Council. Although Trudeau maintains he is not showing favourites, Carr has been touted in news reports as a star candidate and was showcased at the recent Liberal annual general meeting, evidence Trudeau's hand was at work.

In theory, a nomination is an opportunity to find new blood, hold veterans to account and allow the much-celebrated grassroots of a party the chance to decide whose name goes on the ballot.

The reality is all parties have become leery of a truly open nomination process. Most have a pre-screening process to weed out anyone with ethical, moral or legal baggage. And most parties still rigorously control the timing of membership drives and nomination meetings, which can in many instances determine the eventual winner.

Why so much central control? In modern electoral warfare, it has become de rigueur to dig deep into the past histories of all candidates to find dirt, disgrace or dysfunction -- anything that could be used to turn a key race in mid-campaign. Although it would be easy for any party to simply blame the electoral district associations for picking the wrong candidate, the fact is the central campaign and the leaders are left to pick up the pieces when a candidate implodes.

It's not hard to see the problem here is not necessarily the nomination process, per se. It's the foolishness of leaders who promise their members open nominations in the first place.

Promise transparent nomination processes. Pledge to give everyone the same timetable for nominations, membership sales and votes. Set out clear eligibility requirements and explain the leader gets a veto.

But for goodness sakes, stop promising an open process you neither want nor intend to deliver.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 2, 2014 A4

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