The Myth of Open Nominations

The spin keeps coming from all of the federal parties and the new buzz words are “open nominations”.

Really? This is politics, just how gullible do they think the public is? I know everyone preaches it, but how realistic is it to expect there to be a true 100% open nomination contest.

It would be quite rare at the riding level for the executive not to have a favoured candidate. To begin with members of the executive carry out the candidate search and the executive usually has a sense as to who they think will make the best candidate. How cooperative they are with other potential candidates can encourage or discourage people from seeking the nomination.

Even if the executive has a preference, there is nothing to say that party headquarters won’t “suggest” they interview someone else. Smart executive members, especially if they have political ambitions of their own, listen closely to those suggestions from on high.

In a few cases, there will be only one person stepping forward (not unusual for the Conservatives in Quebec), but when a nomination is challenged all sorts of factors come into play.

Anyone who has been involved in the nomination process knows that this takes a huge effort.  How long the party allows for the sign up of new member’s tilts the selection one way or another. If party headquarters picks a short few weeks, it will favour an incumbent. Even lead time given to announce the nomination date plays a part in who can get organized, sign up new members or prepare for the nomination.

If we look back over the last year or so we have examples at both the provincial and federal level of either candidates deposit cheques arriving to late, deadlines that were supposedly missed, headquarters staff directly supporting one candidate over another or even disallowing a candidate because of their spouse. But it doesn’t end there.

There will also be star candidates that the party wants to run in a particular riding. And yes the parties will guarantee the media and public that it will be an open contest. Yet some potential challengers will be told that perhaps the party can find them a better riding for them to run in so the star can run in that particular riding. Another way it could happen is for the party to announce the star candidate will seek a particular seat and then call the nomination meeting as quickly as possible, catching potential challengers off guard and unable to organize or sign up new members in time.

Sitting MPs usually dread open nomination meetings. They often seek assurance that the party will help them win which publically of course the party can’t do and why should they? If you have held your seat for four years or more and you can’t win a nomination battle you have a big problem. Nor should there be any need for a leader’s office to offer or suggest a template for the MP to use that suggests that MP is hardworking, a valued member of the caucus etc. That in itself looks a lot like interference in an “open” nomination process.

The nomination process is a time to bring in new blood to the party, it’s a time to get rid of some of the dead wood and it helps to keep sitting MPs engaged both in Ottawa and more importantly with their riding and the people who elected them. When the process is over, party leaders will have lost some of their key people and find some they aren’t too keen on representing the party in the next election. That is the way it has been for decades.

Nomination battles are fascinating to watch and if you are part of one it is an exhilarating experience. Everyone always hopes that each individual seeking nomination will be treated fairly and in the same manner as all other candidates. You want to know that if you won or lost it was done fairly. The hype of “open nominations” will continue as all parties try to prove to the media and public that there is a new way of doing business now. Let us see how long it takes before we start hearing complaints from potential challengers about how they were dealt with during this “open” process.  I will suggest it will be sooner rather than later.


Come Fly with Me

Watching the NDP’s feigned outrage at the Conservative’s use (misuse) of government aircraft generates flashbacks to when the Conservatives were in opposition.

At that time as head of the Conservative research group looking into Liberal misdeeds, we would often check the Challenger jet flight logs. Most of the time it was pretty boring stuff, but from time to time a few gems would show up such as holiday trips for either Prime Ministers Chretien or Martin. We even found one ministerial trip to Salt Lake City during the winter Olympics- naturally to watch a hockey game. But for the most part it was pretty routine stuff.

At that time cautionary notes that one day we might be in power and have to live with the results of our attacks on the Liberals went unheeded. It was simply too much fun to unleash our attack dogs in Question Period.

Upon assuming office in February 2006 realty set in. Other than very general guidelines on when government jets could be used, things were pretty well left open to interpretation.

At that time newly minted Prime Minister Harper recognized the pitfalls the use of government aircraft could create. He was insistent that they only be used for government business. The wrinkle in all of this though was the insistence of the RCMP that for security reasons the Prime Minister must use government aircraft at all times- even for private business, vacations etc.

This presented us with the problem of how does one account for trips that are a mixture of events IE government business, political events or personal time. Back in 2006, we couldn’t find any guidelines as to how to calculate or pay back the government for mixed use trips. In the end the decision was to look at what would a comparable commercial flight cost for the same route and destination. If the Prime Minister was not restricted to the use of the government jet, those would be the real costs he and staff would have to pay. It was far from perfect but established the principle that on any flight any nongovernment business had to be accounted for and that portion paid back to the Government of Canada.  

When a trip was being planned, great care was taken in ensuring that we knew what percentage of that trip was government business, political or personal. We would spend many hours counting the mileage of flights and figuring out which parts had to be reimbursed. Costs were calculated as above and a cheque was required as soon as possible. I might add that Harper was insistent that it be paid back quickly and would often ask in the senior staff meetings if we had received the cheque from the party.

Who could use a jet and under what conditions was very tightly controlled. Ministers wanting the convenience of government aircraft use were told in no uncertain terms to take a commercial flight.

When looking at the present issue, if nongovernmental staff, friends etc. are on the flight, then at the very least they should be paying their own way, unless the Conservative Party wants to pick up their tab and aircraft should not be used for purely political events. It is hard to believe that a Prime Minister flying to any part of Canada cannot find government events or meetings to coincide with a trip.

There is no easy solution to this problem and simplistic solutions that all costs are paid for at full value don’t work either. It will be fun to watch how the NDP puts themselves in the same political straightjacket that the Conservatives did when they were in opposition. Of course the one advantage the NDP has it that they don’t have to worry about being in government any time soon.


Truth and Consequences

They say that truth is one of the first casualties of war, but it should not be a casualty in the daily war of words we see in the House of Commons.

Recently, House of Commons Speaker Andrew Sheer ruled on an NDP motion which had accused Conservative MP Brad Butt of misleading the House with comments Butt made about witnessing voter fraud in the last election. Speaker Scheer in his ruling stated, “From what the member for Mississauga-Streetsville and other members have revealed, it is quite clear that the House has been provided with two narratives that are contradictory statements.”

When an MP or minister stands and addresses the House of Commons, they are not just speaking to other elected members, but to the nation as a whole. It is a huge responsibility they carry on their shoulders and that is one reason everything they say is recorded in Hansard. The words our MPs speak are important and they do matter.

There will always be disputes over the interpretation of what someone said or the facts used in an argument or debate. Going all the way back to Confederation, members have contorted themselves into all sorts of verbal positions to avoid misleading the House. In this case though Speaker Scheer was pretty clear about how he viewed this issue when he stated “At the same time, the fact remains that the House continues to be seized with completely contradictory statements.”

The only person who knows if the member for Mississauga-Streetsville simply got carried away the first time he stood to reference the issue or if he deliberately mislead the House is the member himself. In this case the member has apologized to the House.

Whether or not his apology was sufficient, this episode should serve as a warning to all of our elected members whether they sit on the government side or in opposition.

The public may disagree with what you say, we may argue about the facts you tell us or how you interpret them, but remember that your words will still be there for others to see and read decades from now. We are listening, so at least tell us the truth. Is that too much to ask?


Politics 101

Once again we have a spending scandal occupying the attention of Canadians. This time however, it doesn’t involve our esteemed senators but two former generals, Andrew Leslie who is presently a senior Liberal advisor and Daniel Menard who retired in disgrace from the armed forces. Leslie claimed $72,000 for moving expenses and Menard claimed $40,000.

Both the Senate scandal and this latest one have one thing in common; they involve amounts of money and expenses that everyone can understand. Virtually every adult has had to pay for moving expenses at one time or another and when the dollar amount exceeds the yearly income of many Canadians, they notice.

This is not to say that either general did anything wrong when they submitted their claim for reimbursement. As retired General and Trudeau advisor Andrew Leslie explained, he played by the rules. Yes he did and the rules that are in place allowed him to claim the expenses from his last move. As far as I know, there is no distance stipulation covered by those rules. The same rules applied for General Menard; although asking taxpayers to pay for a move from Canada to the United Arab Emirates after being court-martialed does make them shake their heads.

Like a lot of the Senate rules governing allowable expense claims, the military move policy does need a review, perhaps something as simple as a cap on the maximum allowable claim. Let us not forget though that while these two cases highlight the moves of two very senior former officers, the vast majority of these “last moves” involve the rank and file, the backbone of our armed forces. Let’s not punish them to make an example of two senior officers, one of whom happens to be a Liberal advisor and potential Liberal candidate.

A lot of the online discussion has focused on the political attacks that have come in on Andrew Leslie and the appropriateness of those attacks. Welcome to politics 101. Once you enter the political arena the gloves come off and you become a legitimate political target. What you say, what you have done and yes what you claimed can easily make you a target. Just ask Senators Duffy and Wallin, it doesn’t matter who you were or what you have contributed over the years. Everyone is fair game in the political world.

There are many examples of outstanding citizens who have chosen to enter federal politics from a variety of backgrounds and no party spared them from attacks. Claude Wagner (a former judge), Robert Stanfield (a former premier), Lester Pearson (a distinguished diplomat) and Paul Martin (a distinguished businessman) all had outstanding backgrounds of service to their province or country. More recently we have seen the attacks from the Liberals and NDP on Chuck Strahl, one of the most decent and highly respected individuals to serve any government. Yet their years of distinguished service didn’t spare any of them from political scrutiny and attack, nor will Leslie be spared this time.

There is an expression that “perception is reality in politics” and in the case of the two generals the perception is that their moving expenses are excessive. Fair criticism or not, these expenses don’t look good to the average voter and with politics being the rough sport that it is it’s no surprise that the general’s expense claims have been put under the microscope and become part of the political debate as we run up to the next election. Welcome to Politics 101.


Senate Change Has Arrived

Justin Trudeau probably shocked his Senate caucus colleagues more than the voting public today when he announced he was removing Liberal senators from the Liberal caucus, thereby limiting the caucus to elected members of parliament. For the most part I don’t think the public cares one way or another how a senator labels themselves, nor after the Senate scandal do they have much use for any of them.

However, it was a bold move on Trudeau’s part and certainly raised his profile in the media for the next few days. But there is one immediate question that comes to mind, why now?  Why not make the announcement at the upcoming Liberal policy convention in March?

Why the sudden rush to get this announcement out the door now? If it was a well thought out political maneuver, surely the Liberal brain trust would have anticipated the need to make changes to the party constitution and submitted those proposals in time to be voted on in March.

It has been done in such a rush that no one can figure out how the upper house will work without an official opposition. No one can figure out how the budget will be divided or offices such as the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate staffed. How will Senate committees function? They are made up of representatives based on their party’s numbers in the Senate.

Is this a pre-emptive move on Trudeau’s part in anticipation of some very negative findings by the Auditor General who is presently auditing a number of senator’s expenses? Certainly this move would cover him from having to throw senators out of the caucus just prior to an election. Eventually the dust will settle and the real reason for this move will become evident, but for now Trudeau is in the limelight and he will have the Conservatives scrambling and perhaps the NDP as well.

On a positive note, perhaps the chamber of sober second thought will return to that role and we will see a decrease in the partisanship we have seen there in recent years. What a switch to have senators study legislation strictly on its merits without support being based solely on which party appointed them.

It will also be interesting to see how the Conservative Senate caucus responds. How many of them will decide they would now like to become independent like their former Liberal colleagues? If enough Conservative senators decide to sit as independents it will change the dynamics of getting legislation through the upper house. The government side would be faced with convincing individual senators of the merits of legislation, rather than being able to demand loyalty to pass legislation.

Trudeau has started the ball rolling downhill and it will gather speed over the next few weeks and months, but outside of the immediate publicity and time spent in front of the cameras, how well was this move thought out? What are the long term repercussions, both good and bad? The truth is no one including Trudeau knows and we will only find that out down the road and closer to the next election.