Ontario Liberals wrestle with the principle of local democracy

By Steve Paikin - Published on October 30, 2017
George Smitherman
Former Liberal deputy premier George Smitherman says party brass doesn't want him to run in the next provincial election. (Newzulu)

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​When it comes to bizarre shenanigans over party nominations in the lead-up to the 2018 provincial election, there’s no question the Ontario PC Party takes the cake.

We’ve documented several examples of irregularities in this space over the past several months, as numerous PC candidates have vied for nominations. Allegations of ballot box stuffing, the leader’s office favoring candidates when it’s pledged to stay neutral, police investigations, lawsuits, meetings inaccessible to the physically handicapped — the list goes on. The Tories have looked not at all ready for prime time. They’ve even called in PwC to monitor the nomination meetings, although few people seem to know precisely what services the consulting firm is providing.

It’s also fair to say that this has been a bigger problem for the Tories than for the other parties — because the PCs have led in the polls for almost three straight years, many people expect them to win the next election, and thus a PC nomination is a more prized thing to have these days.

But the governing Liberals have done some curious things as well. For example, with former cabinet minister Glen Murray having stepped out of public life, his Toronto Centre seat is now vacant. Since it’s considered one of the safest Liberal seats in the province, you can imagine many potential candidates are interested to enter that contest.

However, despite the fact the election is only a little more than seven months away, the Liberal Party’s head office has so far not set a nomination meeting date. And according to several people I’ve spoken to, it’s also declined to give prospective candidates application forms to sign up members for any future contest.

Former Toronto Centre MPP George Smitherman, once deputy premier in Dalton McGuinty’s government and a former Toronto mayoral candidate, has expressed interest in making a political comeback in the riding. But he says that so far, his efforts have been stymied by head office, which told him (via a third party) that his candidacy wasn’t welcome.

Apparently, there is a new clause in the Liberal nominations process that allows head office to deny a prospective candidate the right to run if that person is deemed likely to “bring controversy or disrepute” upon the party. Smitherman, it was suggested to him, fits that bill.  Smitherman earned the nickname “Furious George” for his bull-in-a-china-shop demeanour, and as a minister was deeply involved in two files that have caused the Liberals headaches: e-Health and the Green Energy Act.

Furthermore, the scuttlebutt I’ve heard is that the party is looking to appoint a candidate to that riding, with Toronto councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam at the top of the list of rumoured appointees.

It’s a similar story next door in the University-Rosedale riding. Local Catholic school board trustee Jo-Ann Davis has expressed interest in vying for the nomination there, and even has a website. But again, Smitherman says the party is not allowing sign-up sheets to be distributed, thus stalling any attempt to fill that vacancy, too.

Inquiries made to the local riding associations were re-directed to the party’s communications staff. Spokesperson Patricia Favre confirmed: “No decision has been made yet about whether these ridings will be open nominations.”

I infer from that response that the Liberals are still negotiating with some high-profile candidates, trying to convince them to run for the party in 2018 — presumably because the premier would prefer to appoint them to the nominations rather than have the candidates contest them in an open meeting. Until those negotiations conclude, everyone else will be kept cooling their heels.

Clearly, there are differing interests at play here. On the one hand, riding-association officials and volunteers think local democracy is a pretty important principle. Generally speaking, people who volunteer hundreds of hours for their parties — and often make financial contributions, too — don’t appreciate being “big-footed” by the central committee, which may have its own ideas about who’d be the best candidate.

And hand-picking a candidate rather than letting local democracy run its course can have consequences. That was surely one of the hard-learned lessons in the Sudbury byelection of February 2015. When the premier’s office decided it wanted Glenn Thibeault, then a federal NDP MP, to be the unchallenged candidate, it set in motion a series of events leading to Election Act charges being levelled against the premier’s deputy chief of staff and a local backroom official. The fact that the charges were thrown out this week by a provincial court judge doesn’t negate the point that bypassing the nominations process came at a significant political cost.

But let’s be candid about the other side of the equation, too. Every leader has a significant interest in who carries their party’s banner into every election. Some parties, such as the provincial Liberals, even give their leader the power to appoint a handful of candidates to nominations, dispensing with the riding-level process altogether. It’s an acknowledgement that while local democracy is an important principle, it’s not the only one at play.

What I object to is the hypocritical lip service all leaders seem to pay to the importance of local democracy free from interference from the leader’s office. Of course leaders constantly interfere with the nomination process. Of course they put their thumb on the scale for their preferred candidates. We expect leaders to have opinions about everything. How could they not have an opinion about who they’d like to have in their caucus?

In the interests of more honesty and less hypocrisy in politics, why can’t leaders simply say publicly: “Yes, here’s my preferred candidate, and here’s why. I’m trying to form a government, and Candidate X is the one I want beside me on election day. So I intend to help them win, or appoint them to the nomination.”

Given that leaders are often called upon to defend the conduct of everyone in their caucus, it seems reasonable that they’d get a say in who gets to be in that caucus.

I just wish they’d do that more transparently, rather than indulge in all the subterfuge that, as we’ve seen, can end up in a courtroom rather than at the ballot box. 

Related: The countdown to Ontario election 2018

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