The lack of nomination contests undermines Canadian democracy, study finds

OTTAWA – Candidate selection for the federal election is surprisingly uncompetitive and opaque, according to a new study, a situation that would have profound consequences for Canadian democracy.
A new study by the Samara Center for Democracy, based in Toronto, shows that from 2003 to 2015, only 17 percent of the more than 6,600 candidates in the federal election faced a nomination contest, while 2,700 candidates were appointed directly by the parties.

“If you consider the candidacy as part of a democratic chain” leading to the election of a Member of Parliament, said Michael Morden, director of research in Samara, “I think it is remarkable that in an overwhelming majority of cases, there is no real decision made by the local population “.

Mr. Morden said that discussions with MPs showed that there is a “broad and unobtrusive understanding” in the political community of shortcomings in the appointment process.

But he added that most Canadians have little or no access to the “black box” of the appointment process, despite the importance of the way in which parties organize their internal elections.

According to Samara, political parties are private organizations, but they are also “public services” that have a profound impact on Canadian democracy.

And the lack of competition could signal a worrying disconnect with the Canadian public, suggests the study.

The study offers several reasons why processes are so often uncompetitive. The holding of hasty elections is one of them, as are the rules that benefit the incumbents. Then there is the reality that many local party associations are too disorganized or too small to attract multiple applications.

But the trend is spreading to larger parties that have large organizations across the country, Morden said.

“In our mind, the lack of competition is still blatant,” he said.

Diversity of applications

In addition to the lack of competition, the study also found that the rules of appointment also had important effects on the diversity of candidates and, consequently, on the diversity of elected members of the House of Commons.

Mr. Morden noted that parties sometimes justify the nomination of candidates on the basis of diversity, but the data in the study do not confirm this correlation.

In fact, the study suggests that nominees were less likely to be from visible minorities or Aboriginal backgrounds.

The issue of women’s representation in the nomination process is even more remarkable.

Consistent with the findings that women win elections in roughly the same proportion as men, the study suggests that female candidates are just as likely to win domestic races as men.

But only 28 percent of the nomination contestants covered by the study were women.

“This brings us back to recruiting, to the general openness of the process, to the intangible factors that drive some people to make their way and others to withdraw or never have the option,” M said. Morden.

The study found that longer runs and those that did not require cash payments by candidates were associated with higher participation by women.

Morden said parties are keeping a majority of Canadians out of the game by rules that make it more difficult to get involved in appointment processes: fast-paced runs, high costs, lack of information and protections for outgoing MPs.

The study recommends changes to party policies in this context: standard opening and closing dates for races, the obligation to report the number of votes obtained by the candidates and the organization of a race even when there is a member holder.

These changes are in the interest of parties that want to maintain a solid foundation and stay close to the people, says Morden.

The study also envisions a potentially expanded role for Elections Canada in racing administration or regulation, an unpopular avenue within political organizations that recognizes Mr. Morden.

Parties may also be reluctant to even provide information about their nomination processes, he said. For example, only the Green Party provided information on the number of candidates it selected from its nominations in 2015.

“There is simply no culture of transparency,” said Morden. “The nomination process is still considered to be very internal rather than a vehicle for mass political engagement.”

The first step in the reform process is to convince Canadians to care about it, Morden said, because otherwise “you will not convince the parties to do much”.

“It is difficult to regulate parties because they are the ones who make the laws,” he said.