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Conservative MPs divided on how protected they should be from nomination challenges

By Abbas Rana      

‘From my personal standpoint, having open nominations is the most fair and democratic way of going about it,’ says Edmonton Conservative MP Michael Cooper.

Conservative MP Michael Cooper, centre, pictured with NDP MP Murray Rankin, left, wants the party to hold open nominations in all 338 ridings for the 2019 election.
The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

Conservative MPs are divided on how much protection they should get from nomination challenges in the run-up to the 2019 election.

In May of last year, Dustin van Vugt, executive director of the Conservative Party, informed caucus at a weekly meeting about proposed nomination rules. MPs were told that, under the proposal, they could avoid nomination challenges in the next election cycle if they had $150,000 in the riding association bank account and at least one per cent of eligible voters in their ridings signed up as party members.

For candidates who met these conditions by April of next year, the party would hold a vote within their riding associations on whether to hold a nomination contest. If more than one-third voted to hold a nomination contest, one would be held. Otherwise, the incumbent MP would be acclaimed as the Conservative candidate for the 2019 election.

Joe Preston, a former four-term Conservative MP and now a member of the Conservatives’ national council, told The Hill Times a decision would be made on the new rules within “the next couple of months, at the very latest.”

“I know we’ve had a couple of discussions at the national council and have been out speaking to the EDAs [electoral district associations] and to the caucus,” said Mr. Preston.

Former Conservative MP Joe Preston is a member of the national council of the Conservative Party. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

Conservative caucus members were surprised by the party’s new rules because they were not consulted, some told The Hill Times. Several rural MPs expressed frustration about the threshold of $150,000, saying it’s harder to raise funds in their ridings than in urban ones. They had no objection to the membership requirement though.

“There are ridings that really struggle to raise money,” Conservative MP Marilyn Gladu (Sarnia-Lambton, Ont.), who represents a rural riding, said in an interview with The Hill Times last week.

She said she’s confident she will be able to raise the required money, but there are a number of other rural MPs who won’t.

Conservative MP Michael Cooper (St. Albert-Edmonton, Alta.) told The Hill Times he’s in favour of open nominations. He argued that as a grassroots party, it’s an incumbent MP’s responsibility to work their ridings and be able to win the confidence of their riding associations in nomination contests. Mr. Cooper said he has provided his input to the national council of the party and is confident that they will come up with a “fair, equitable, and democratic” decision.

“From my personal standpoint, having open nominations is the most fair and democratic way of going about it,” said Mr. Cooper, who was first elected in the last federal election. “We’re a grassroots party. I don’t believe that anyone is entitled to be a Conservative candidate, regardless of whoever you are as a Member of Parliament.”

Mr. Cooper said he supports party leaders protecting caucus members from nomination challenges only during minority Parliaments because MPs have to spend a lot more time in Ottawa in such circumstances than during majority governments.

“In minority situations, you need every singly MP to be in Ottawa at all times for all votes,” he said.

Mr. Cooper added that incumbent MPs have an advantage over challengers because of their name recognition, being the local face of the party. He added that in most cases, riding association members show a fair amount of deference to local MPs. Mr. Cooper said with these advantages, MPs should be able to successfully face nomination challenges.

Mr. Cooper said he’d prefer open nominations to the rules that have been proposed.

“There’s probably 100 ways of doing it in terms of certain thresholds and so on,” said Mr. Cooper. “I just believe that the one-member/one-vote, open-nominations process is the easiest and the most democratic.”

Ms. Gladu said she opposes the proposed rules because MPs’ time is best spent doing their legislative work in Ottawa or serving their constituents, as opposed to singing up members and fundraising.

“[Rural MPs] really believe that by [making] MPs spend their time on membership sales and raising funds instead of serving their constituents, which they were elected to do, is not really the best use of their time,” said Ms. Gladu. “As long as Members are doing a good job, then we don’t see a reason why they ought to be able to be challenged.”

Rookie Conservative MP Marilyn Gladu. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

Ms. Gladu said if a riding association members are dissatisfied with their MP’s work, there should be a mechanism to challenge that MP. She suggested that if a third of existing local members vote to hold a nomination contest, the party should hold one.

“I don’t oppose a mechanism for people to express their discontent if a Member is not performing well,” Ms. Gladu said.

She added: “It should be the existing members that determine that, and not a bunch of new members that sign up behind a candidate that wants to overthrow the existing candidate. That’s really what I want to protect against.”

Holding nomination contests is one of the toughest exercises that all parties go through prior to every federal election or byelection. These contests are divisive and, in some cases, result in negative media coverage or legal challenges that go on for years.

All national parties publicly claim to hold open, free, fair, democratic, and transparent nominations. However, party leaderships still sometimes disqualify candidates without explanation and are often accused of rigging the process to accommodate star candidates or friends of the leader or other influential officials.

Most incumbent MPs do not face serious challenges, but on occasion, political parties manipulate the rules to ensure the defeat of certain caucus members who, in the top party officials’ view, are seen as not toeing the party line.

Theoretically, any incumbent can lose his or her nomination in a fair process.

Nomination fights are more competitive and divisive in parties that have better odds of winning the next election and forming government. The 2015 election was seen by most political observers as a three-way contest between the Liberals, Conservatives, and the NDP. All three faced a number of controversial nominations in held and unheld ridings in which losing candidates or their supporters accused their respective party leaderships of rigging the process to get their preferred candidates.

Last month, several Liberal MPs told The Hill Times that they want Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) to protect them from nomination challenges. They reasoned that MPs spend half the year working in Ottawa, while potential challengers can use that time to “undermine” them in ridings. They also said that since the party no longer charges membership fees, it’s even easier for their potential opponents to organize against them.

Last year, the federal Liberal Party eliminated the $10 party membership fee. Now, anyone can register with the party free of charge and take part in all party activities. The Conservative Party membership fee is $15. The New Democratic Party’s membership fee differs from province to province and ranges between no fee in Newfoundland and Labrador to $25 in Ontario and Manitoba.

Some Liberal MPs said they would like the party to establish criteria in terms of fundraising and riding-association membership levels, similar to what the Conservative Party has proposed, to avoid nomination challenges.

“Most [Liberal MPs] I would say would go for being protected, outright protection,” said Liberal MP Alexandra Mendès (Brossard-Saint-Lambert, Que.). “They can live with some sort of criteria that will guarantee our nomination, but most would love to have outright protection.”

A Liberal Party spokesman told The Hill Times last month that the party is currently holding consultations within the party to finalize the nomination rules, but did not say when the rules will be announced.

The New Democratic Party has a policy of making all incumbent MPs go through nomination contests before every election.

arana@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times

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