Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Time to Open Canadian Politics

Preston Manning: If Britain can experiment, why can't we?

Throughout history, Canada has shared many things in common with Britain.

Our Parliamentary system is one of them.

In Open and Shut, John Ibbitson compares the 2008 elections in Canada and the United States and draws a disappointing conclusion: in Canada, there could never be a Prime Minister Barack Obama. There could never be a Prime Minister John McCain.

The reason for this has nothing to do with the virtues of either man -- although, speaking outside of hypotheticals, citizenship certainly must. Instead, Ibbitson concludes this because the Canadian political system is too closed, as opposed to the American system, which is comparatively open.

Ibbitson muses that an open primary system could not only improve participation in Canadian politics, but improve Canadian politics itself. While individuals like Frances Russell go into conniptions any time anyone suggests that Canadians "pollute" our Parliamentary system with American innovations, it seems that an innovation such as a primary system may not be as antithetical to our Parliamentary system as some may think.

Preston Manning seems to echo Ibbitson's sentiments in a column recently published in the Globe and Mail, and provides a surprising example to support his arguments:
"Earlier this month, Canada's electoral officers - officials of Elections Canada and their provincial and territorial counterparts - held their annual conference.

The main subject of discussion was what to do about declining participation in Canadian elections -- for example, the turnout of 59 per cent in the last federal election, the 51 per cent in the recent BC provincial election, and the abysmal 41 per cent last time out in Alberta.

It is good to know that our elections officials are concerned about this problem. They play an important role in informing and educating voters on election procedures and rules. But surely the primary responsibility for remedying Canada's democracy deficit rests with others -- with parents, educators, the media and particularly our political parties, politicians and leaders.

Often it takes a crisis of some sort to create opportunities for reform. In Britain, the recent scandalous abuse of expense accounts by members of the House of Commons from all major parties has created precisely such a crisis and opportunity.
To support his argument, Manning offers the example of the British Conservative party. In the riding of Totnes, they're replacing a discraced MP with a candidate who will be nominated through an open primary election:
"In order to bolster public confidence in its candidates for the soon-to-be-held general election, the British Conservative Party has become willing to experiment with democratic innovations.

One in particular is being introduced in the constituency of Totnes. It should be watched closely by Canadian politicians and parties.

The Conservative MP for Totnes, Anthony Steen, was recently forced to 'stand down' when it was revealed that he had claimed more than £87,000 over four years in parliamentary expenses on his country home.

Rather than choosing a candidate to succeed him by the conventional method of a constituency nominating meeting in which only card-carrying Conservative Party members can vote, the party has decided to experiment with an 'open primary' in which every voter in Totnes will be invited to help choose its candidate for the next general election.

The Totnes Conservative Association drew up a short list of 11 potential candidates which was then reduced to three on July 15. Starting last Monday, ballot papers were mailed out to the 69,000 eligible voters in the constituency. There was an all-candidate event Saturday where the three candidates were to receive and answer questions from voters. Thursday, the results of the Totnes 'open primary' are to be announced.

'This is the first time any political party in Britain has sought the views of the voters [on who should be the party's candidate] in such a direct way,' said Conservative Party Leader David Cameron.
While David Cameron has provided a glimmering example in regards to how to rebuild and rebrand conservative political parties, his party's efforts in Totnes may revolutionize the classic British Parliamentary system:
"Observers will be watching closely and seeking answers to several key questions:

To what extent will the voters of Totnes actually participate? Will that participation give that candidate any advantage in terms of public confidence and support over candidates of other parties nominated in the more traditional way? And, will the primary stimulate greater interest and participation in the general election itself?

And here in Canada, will any political party be willing to experiment with the 'open primary' to attract more Canadians into the process of putting candidates' names on the ballot and thereby, one hopes, increasing public interest in the campaign and election to follow?
Perhaps an even better question is whether or not any of Canada's political parties would be willing to experiment with a primary election system -- perhaps not necessarily an open primary -- in order to elect their leaders.

If Canadians who support -- but haven't made the commitment of joining -- a political party were given the opportunity to vote on the leaders of each party one as to wonder who may be leading each of these parties.

Conservative leader Peter MacKay?

NDP leader Lorne Nystrom?

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau?

One would certainly at least have to wonder about the odds of individuals like Paul Martin, Stephen Harper, Stephane Dion or Jack Layton to lead their respective parties.

Whereas, in the United States, the primary system has often foiled the ascent of allegedly "inevitable" Presidential candidates such as Hillary Clinton or Mitt Romney.

In Ibbitson's mind, the affect of this influence has been overwhelmngly positive. Manning seems to agree:
"In North America, it is the United States that has made greatest use of the primary system, which is why Canadian liberals and social democrats -- pathologically averse to adopting U. political practices -- are unlikely to embrace it.

But what about Canadian conservatives? If the British Conservative Party -- far older and tradition-bound than any Canadian counterpart -- can experiment with such democratic innovations, why can't Canadian conservatives?
Sadly, Canadian Conservatives don't always prove themselves to be the experimental innovators they purport themselves to be.

Don Mazankowski's long-forgotten proposal that the province of Alberta establish its own elected Senate within its provincial government seems to be a good example. if Albertans so badly want an elected Senate federally, showing that one could work at the provincial level is certainly a productive step. It's one that was never taken, and a proposal that was quickly forgotten.

Sadly, the Conservative party of Canada hasn't always been true to the populist principles that were supposed to be integral to its reformation:
"The federal Conservative Party has recently tightened rather than opened its nomination process by permitting incumbents to avoid a nomination contest unless more than two-thirds of local party members vote for one. But if this should prove to be counterproductive, in terms of rallying party member support for the next election campaign or public support for candidates who are past their 'best before' date, perhaps the British experiment with open primaries will find favour here.

And what about provincial conservative parties? Let's take the aging, long-in-office, Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta.

Forty years ago, I tried to persuade another aging, long-in-power provincial political party in Alberta to embrace a variation of the primary system as a means of injecting new blood into the party and new energy into the electoral process. The concept was rejected, especially by incumbent MLAs who saw it as a threat to their renomination and by 'gatekeepers' at the constituency level who feared it would reduce their influence.

Two years later, the party was out of office, never to return -- the opportunity to re-energize itself through democratic reform lost forever. Let us, therefore, watch the British experiment with interest, and not wait for a crisis before conducting similar experiments in Canada.
John Ibbitson may be surprised to find Preston Manning to be such a willing ally in helping institute such innovations in Canada: he shouldn't be, but he may be.

But Ibbitson and Manning are both right: it's time for Canadians to find new ways to open our politics. While the idea of a primary election system is promising, it's far from guaranteed to be the panacea that will solve some of the problems confronting Canadian politics.

But something almost certainly needs to be done. The time is as right now as it ever has been.

Other bloggers writing about this topic:

The View From Seven - "Preston Manning: Building Democracy or Just Activist Influence?"

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