Closing the Door: A Short History of Canada's "Open Nominations"

In 2013, Justin Trudeau announced that under his leadership the Liberal Party would be committed to open nominations of Liberal Party candidates. The promise remains in a prominent place on the Liberal website, though his commitment to it has been questioned many times in the last two years. Both the NDP and the Conservative parties have offered a commitment to open nominations, cementing it as an “important” part of the lead-up to the 2015 federal election. Today we look at how the principle of open nominations (or lack thereof) became part of Canada’s political process.

 Justin Trudeau in Winnipeg via CommunityNewsCommons.

Justin Trudeau in Winnipeg via CommunityNewsCommons.

Open nomination refers to local ridings electing who will represent the party there without interference from the party leader, or at least the central party organization. Since 1970, federal election candidates are required to have the party leader’s consent to have their name appear alongside the party name. So even if local Liberals elected Jane Smith to represent the party in his riding, if the Liberal party leader did not agree to Jane Smith as a Liberal candidate, they could not run in the election.  This is not to say party leaders could not influence the nomination process before 1970, because they most certainly did, but their power was not enshrined into law.

The change in Canada’s election laws in 1970 was never intended to give the leader such power or use it to block nominations. It was the opposite impulse – encouraging and strengthening Canadian democracy – that compelled the change. In 1964, the Committee on Election Expenses began its exploration of Canadian election financing with Judge Alphonse Barbeau as chair. The Barbeau Committee took two years examining problems with Canada’s election laws and in 1966 published a report that offered a wide range of policy recommendations. Among them was that political parties be recognized as legal entities so their campaign finances could be regulated, as well as a host of other means of improving the transparency and democratic legitimacy of election finances.

The committee also asked that a candidate’s party affiliation appear on the ballot. It was hoped that party affiliation appearing on the ballot would encourage voter participation and party allegiance. One result was that someone had to confirm that Liberal candidate Jane Smith was actually the right name to appear alongside the Liberal Party of Canada – and that person was the party leader.  When the 1966 Barbeau Committee report led to amendments to the Canada Elections Act in 1970, the new legislation allowed party leaders to sign off on their candidates. In the House of Commons, there are hundreds of pages of debate in Hansard over the amendment. Many issues were raised with the financial part of the law, but the House was unanimous in their support of the advantages of party affiliation on ballots. Party leader approval seemed a natural part of that new process. Some worried that it might discourage new parties from forming, but none reflected on the party leaders’ new power.

Progressive Conservative and leader of Opposition to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s government, Robert Stanfield, first used the new party leader veto in 1974. Stanfield rejected Mayor Leonard James of Moncton over his refusal to accept Tory policy on Canadian bilingualism – a key plank in their campaign platform against Trudeau’s multiculturalism. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney used the law to reject Sinclair Stevens in 1988, but its most famous use would be under Liberal Jean Chrétien during the 1993 election.

 Liberal 1993 Election Campaign Material via  PolText.org

Liberal 1993 Election Campaign Material via PolText.org

The Liberals had lost the 1984 and 1988 federal elections under Pierre Trudeau’s replacement John Turner. Several nomination battles had played out publicly as single-issue groups focused on the issue of abortion won Liberal nominations. They encouraged their supporters to vote in high enough numbers to influence their local ridings and secure Liberal party candidacy. In 1992, the Liberals adjusted their constitution to allow the party leader to appoint candidates to avoid these debacles – perhaps a natural outcome of the power that the leader had because of the 1970 amendment. The Liberals under Chrétien used this power to ensure the appointment of star and female candidates, as well as block the nomination of “undesirable” candidates who defied the party’s brand.  Fourteen of the party’s 301 candidates in the 1993 election were appointed by the liberal leader.

Chrétien made sure that the party’s star candidates, like future Cabinet minister Art Eggleton, could run, and specifically blocked anti-abortions Liberals from running. The Liberals had 22% female candidates in 1993, and 28% in 1997, a result of appointment females in some ridings. The nomination interventions caused court appeals and accusations of undermining democracy. Chretien intervened less during the 1997 election, but again interference was criticized as anti-democratic. Of course, the Liberals won majorities in both elections and today few remember Chrétien’s “abuse” of democracy.  Chrétien’s successor, Paul Martin, promised to allow open nominations and less strict party discipline upon becoming Liberal leader in 2003. However, Martin’s ensuing minority government left little room for democratization when strict control was required to maintain the party’s hold on power.  His loss in 2006 to current Prime Minister Stephen Harper changed the party's focus, and by 2011, the Liberals had dropped to the third party in the House of Commons.

Now they are seeking to renew and revitalize their brand and using open nominations as a clear example of a new commitment to democracy. When Justin Trudeau promised open nominations in 2013, it was a bid to move away from the centralizing authority of the 1990s, and present a new face to the Liberal Party. Of course, Trudeau still has the power to reject or accept any potential candidate since he legally has to sign off on them appearing on the ballot.  Much like Chrétien had done twenty years earlier, Trudeau has pledged to reject any candidate who holds anti-abortion views, and it’s evident that some candidates have had their nominations assured regardless of Trudeau’s promise.

The debate over riding nomination is a strange slice of Canada’s political history. Despite the intentions of 1970s parliamentarians, the amendments to the Canada Elections Act have not strengthened the democratic process.  They could not have predicted that such a relatively minor part of the new law would have such an enormous impact on Canada’s political system. It undermined democracy in the 1990s, and its rejection today to sell the Liberals as more democratic reveals just how poorly the legislation has fared. As we approach the 2015 election, open nominations continue to dominate some news stories and influence views on the federal parties.

Fifteen years ago, Reg Whitaker wrote of “virtual parties” – political parties that were not loyal to ideals, but to the brand headed by the party leader. These virtual parties were elected partially because of the policy package they offered to voters, and partially because they were recognizable. In his words, “virtual parties … are not so much participants in ongoing debate and deliberation as marketing tools for selling their product.” Whitaker identifies examples like Jean Chrétien’s Liberals appealing to the Liberal brand since they had governed for so much of the 20th century, Mike Harris’ takeover of the Ontario Conservatives and their similar track record, and the Reform Party rebranding as the Alliance Party. Writing in 2000, Whitaker no doubt would have also include the merger between the Alliance and the Conservatives in 2003, and perhaps the Liberal vessel with Trudeau at its helm today.

The ability to appoint and reject party candidates to fit with the “brand” of the party is a key element of virtual parties. Even today, though Trudeau’s “rebranding” of the Liberal Party includes the promise for open nominations, as ridings in Toronto and Ottawa show that staying “on message” is still a key part of the Liberal strategy and some nominations will be more open than others.  Whitaker identifies economic and technological changes that have entrenched virtual parties in the Canadian political system. Changes like the party leader’s power over nomination and the limitation of financial support were both key elements of the amendments to the Elections Act decades ago. In turn, they have forced and allowed parties to become extremely different entities than what they once were.  Political parties in Canada today are far more concerned with branding, their public image, and following public opinion as a means of electoral success, rather than constructing a coherent generational party ideology. Perhaps this superficiality has had a larger impact on the Canadian electorate than we yet realise - dropping voter turnout certainly points to some sort of problem.

Such conclusions belong to the expansive vision of a future historian. Undoubtedly, one day a historian will have to trace the changes introduced as a result of the 1966 Barbeau Committee to Canadian politics in 2015 - this blog post is but a superficial foray. It might be better to wonder as we enter the latest federal election campaign whether open nominations are a cure to Canada’s democratic deficit, or simply treating a symptom of a larger problem.