#34 – Restoring our political democracy.

It started in the 1980s with the departure of Pierre Trudeau from active politics. Ethnic groups were organizing their relatives and fellow newcomers in the major cities. They were coming en masse to seize local political organizations. We watched it happen. There was little we could do.

What was happening was summed with great simplicity by a dusky skinned young man who played hockey with my son at the local arena. I asked him what was happening at the annual general meeting of the local party association. He smiled and said without malice, “It’s our turn now.” He was part of the organization put together by a Jamaican immigrant that went through the list of nominees for the executive, caught them by surprise and defeated anyone with white skin. They rudely pushed aside people who had many years of experience in area politics in their eagerness to ’have their turn.’

When the coalition of dark-skinned party members finally lost interest because of the failures of their inexperienced executive, it left a serious vacuum that was quickly filled by an ethic group that was better organized. This was happening throughout the major urban areas and the Conservative and Liberal political party organizations were in crisis. (The union involvement in the New Democratic Party made that party more difficult to manipulate in this manner.)

The solution was brutal and simple. In 1992, the federal Liberal party executive, without reference to the rank and file of the party, came up with the simple expediency of having the party leader (or his authorized representatives) authorize all candidates for the party for Elections Canada. They further authorized the party leader to appoint candidates when necessary. The Conservatives and their soon partners, the Reform Party, were quick to agree to this. The party leaders now controlled the situation by the simple step of taking away the key power vested until then in the riding organizations.

The authorization of the candidate by the party leader was also key to accessing the public purse to help fund campaigns. This form of funding, along with constraints on business and individual funding of candidates, gave party leaders unprecedented control of the parties that they supposedly served. In business, it is the equivalent of a company’s chief executive officer controlling the only voting shares..

There were unimagined abuses of power by Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and his successors but they pale, in turn, beside the problems Mr. Harper’s imperial attitude creates. The most interesting Liberal abuse of this power was the manipulative tactics used to put Michael Ignatieff in as candidate in Toronto’s Lakeshore federal electoral district. Michael found himself a Member of Parliament before many of us found time to welcome him home to Canada. This was regrettable as, when I knew him as a young man, he was keen on promoting democracy in the party.

What is very clear today is that the political parties have to recover their supremacy over the functioning of their organizations. The membership must take and act with responsibility. The party leader is elected by the party as its parliamentary leader. To also act as chief executive of the party is not only an impossible task but a recipe for abuse and misuse. The party president has to control the services of the party and act in conjunction with the party leader in the interests of the party. Each, in their individual capacity, is a servant of the party.

In turn, the electoral district associations have to accept responsibility for initiating party policy, seeking out and identifying future candidates, improving political education in their electoral district and taking active roles in regional and national meetings of the party in the conduct of its activities. There might be the occasional maverick slip into parliament under this decentralized approach but every party needs a few mavericks.

– 30 –

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