A Brewing Controversy in the Conservative Party of Canada

By Steve Paikin - Published on Mar 25, 2014
Steve Paikin

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First it was the Liberal Party of Canada that had its problems with so-called "open nominations" for candidates seeking to run in the pending Trinity-Spadina byelection.

Now the Conservative Party of Canada is having its problems around the same kinds of issues, with an added layer of complication because of a personal relationship between the party's executive director and one of its MPs.

The riding in question is a new one with no current sitting member: Oakville North -- Burlington. And the problems began when a sitting MP from another riding -- Mississauga -- Brampton South -- decided she didn't want to run for re-election in that riding, but rather, wanted to switch to the Oakville-North Burlington one, despite winning in 2011 by a healthy margin.

Eve Adams was a Mississauga city councillor until the 2011 federal election, when she ran for the Conservatives and upset a rising star in the Liberal Party, Navdeep Bains. But since then, Adams and Conservative Party executive director Dimitri Soudas have become romantically linked. They're now engaged to be married. The couple now lives in Oakville North -- Burlington and so, Adams wants to run in the riding in which she now lives.

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That has upset the plans of another candidate who had already set her sights on the riding: Dr. Natalia Lishchyna, an Oakville chiropractor and college professor. Lishchyna can't understand why Adams wouldn't simply stay in the riding she's already represented since 2011. Based on the 2011 election returns, Oakville North -- Burlington is a more Conservative riding and thus presumably easier to win. Lishchyna figures it would be better for the party as a whole if Adams stayed in Mississauga -- Brampton South, used her superior name recognition and experience to hold that seat, and left the "easier" seat for her.

For her part, Adams is somewhat perplexed that she shouldn't continue to do what she's been doing for years as both a city councillor and an MP: seek a mandate from the voters to represent the community in which she actually lives. 

But this story has got more intense because of some nasty behind the scenes machinations. On March 19, Adams showed up to meet with the Oakville North -- Burlington riding association. She is an MP, but technically, not the MP of that riding. So the question of whether she actually had any standing to attend that behind-closed-doors meeting was raised. According to a few people I spoke to who were at the meeting, when one member of the riding association's board asked her to leave, she allegedly declined, prompting that board member to call the police.

Complicating matters is the fact that Dimitri Soudas, as executive director of the party, has the final say on when nominating meetings can happen. But given the obvious conflict, he has recused himself from influencing the Oakville North -- Burlington race. Except he was there, with Adams, the night of the brouhaha, albeit not in the actual meeting, but rather, waiting in the hallway.

The Soudas-Adams relationship complicates this nomination fight, but it's not unprecedented in Conservative Party circles. The late Senator Doug Finlay ran the party machinery when his wife, cabinet minister Diane Finlay, was running for office. 

But some Soudas critics in the party charge he's abusing his position to favor Adams. They find it hard to believe Soudas won't use his authority behind the scenes to influence when the Oakville North -- Burlington nominating meeting will be called, presumably to Adams' advantage. They also claim Soudas fired an Ontario regional organizer named Wally Butts because Butts was making a stink about Adams' contesting Oakville North -- Burlington.

Here's an email Butts sent to the Conservative Party's director of political operations on March 20:

would not be involved, and Eve was to be treated just like any other 
candidate seeking nomination as a candidate.

I am in a totally untenable position in this matter as Dimitri is my 
ultimate boss.

Can you please take action in this matter to straighten out this worsening 
mess?

Thank you.

Wally Butts,
Regional Organizer,
Hamilton, Niagara Regions,
Conservative Party of Canada"

Butts was fired by Soudas shortly after firing off that email. A Conservative Party source insists Butts wasn't fired because of this controversy, that the two have a good relationship going back more than a decade. It was simply time to make some hard decisions to the party's personnel.

There are, however, more emails. Here is an excerpt of a confidential email widely distributed by a Conservative Party CFO to a list of party insiders on March 24:

"The way our party’s leadership treats its paid staff is a clear indication of what’s to come for volunteers. This is not just about Wally, it’s the principle. When HQ plays games in our local nominations process it significantly impacts our ability to win ridings in the next election. The political process depends on the accountability, honesty and integrity of our nominations process – a process that is being compromised in Oakville-North Burlington by Wally’s dismissal."

And then there's this from another Conservative riding association president, also sent on March 24:

"When I received an email blast announcing Mr Butts' dismissal, I was shocked that the party would handle a termination in such a non professional manner, as well as it's exposing the party to bad press and, if it were me, an unlawful dismissal suit against the party. I am sending this email to the Prime Minister's office, with copies to the party executive. My purpose in doing so is to get this situation resolved to everyone's satisfaction before it blows up in our face. I do not agree with Mr Butt's (sic) dismissal and unequivocally state that his leadership and support for our EDA [Electoral District Association] has been outstanding, and not deserving the treatment he has received."

And from yet another Conservative riding association president: "What caused this is known and a sham and an embarrassment to all surrounding ridings. I hope the Prime Minister dismisses those involved."

Nominating races are always one of the hardest parts of politics. It's a fight within the family and these battles often leave hard feelings. It's possible as many as 10 sitting Conservative MPs could face nomination challenges, despite the party's wish that that not happen. In fact, Prime Minister Harper yesterday came out and endorsed all sitting MPs in a bid to lower the temperature.

It's a reminder that the worst fights in politics are rarely across the floor with members of other parties. They're inside the party's own tent, which makes them particularly hurtful.

Image credits: eveadams.ca; @D_Soudas/Twitter; undated handout photo; Elections Canada. 

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