As I mentioned in yesterdays piece, over the Holidays there have been some interesting discussions happening out there in our politics, with interesting debates being sparked again. One of those debates is about how parties should run their leadership races, the rules that should be in place and the principles that should govern them.

With both the Conservatives and Greens going into leadership campaigns this year, it’s a conversation that holds a greater immediate importance for those parties. But no party has the rules that govern themselves in a total vacuum, as they’re always compared against the rules that other parties use to govern themselves. Given the razor thin margin that brought the Conservatives the Andrew Schemer era (or protected it from the Maxima Bernier one, whichever you chose to be of greater consequence), these rules and specifics matter.

So when I saw Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner went to Twitter to tell everyone how she thought the Conservatives should run their race, I couldn’t help but take note. I’m a poli-geek when it comes to many things, but leadership campaigns and rules is right up there on my list of things I get very geeky about. I’ve been involved in three different NDP leadership campaigns, under a couple different systems, and I’ve gotten an interesting first hand view on how these rules matter in the end. In her Tweets, Rempel Garner raised for specific suggestions, which I’ll go into one at a time:

Leadership races can be a great time to activate members and activists in a party, regardless of the system. While under the old days in delegated conventions some of those individual activists held more sway, under the “One Member One Vote” races that we see with the Conservatives and NDP today individual members don’t hold as much power. But at the same time, activists that can organize can hold outstripped power in OMOV, which we saw a great example of in the last Conservative race. More ways to engage those members, new and old, is a good thing in my mind.

Making leadership candidates have nomination signatures from across the country is a good way to do that and a way for candidates to show their organizational chops. But the specific numbers that Rempel Garner suggests (min. 3000 signatures from 10 provinces/territories) are not the way to go. In a day and age when fewer and fewer people take out memberships in political parties (for whatever reason), it’s asking a lot to get that many signatures. Just for a point of comparison, if the Conservatives have 150,000 members nationwide (which is a high estimate), you’re asking each candidate to find 30,000 signatures. That’s 20% of the membership nationwide, let alone when you add in small provinces like the Maritime provinces and the territories. Some of them likely don’t have 3,000 members period, or maybe slightly more. Given the need for 10 jurisdictions to meet a threshold, that’s just too much to ask for. I would think that a number more proportional to what Elections Canada requires election candidates to get on a ballot would be totally reasonable, and would serve the same goal.

In her second point, Rempel Garner suggests a minimum number of endorsements as a bar, suggesting it as a way to stop “drive by shooters” as she put it. I have a problem with this concept for a couple of reasons. Firstly, this idea seems to fly in the face of any OMOV system, as it gives a certain power to electoral district associations that seems to complicate matters when it comes to keeping candidates out.

But my much bigger problem with this point is the end result that it’s apparently trying to achieve; to stop those not deemed to be “enough” of a member from having sway. We see this argument all the time in all parties, that somehow if you’ve been a member longer, or you’ve volunteered enough, given enough or earned enough holes on your party punch card that you should have more say than someone who just signed up. We hear that those that just arrived, just took out a membership or even worse, dared to be a member of another party at some point in time, that they aren’t “Real” members, that they are somehow less than, invalid or an operative trying to sink this party.

To me, this mindset is the antithesis of what a leadership race should be about and completely undercuts the opportunities they can present. Not only does it totally undercut the whole point of a OMOV system, which was to put more party power in the hands of individual members, it also completely undermines any party’s greater goal; eventually winning an election. It basically says to millions of Canadians out there who have never been a member of that party “Look, we want your vote to get us into government, we might even take your donations too, but we don’t want you to be a member because we’re suspicious of you”. It’s a crazy approach, yet it’s one that’s not uncommon in all parties. The Conservatives have rightly been attacked in this past year for being beholden to social conservative groups, which has pushed them to take positions that put them way out of step with the general public. So what is the natural solution to that? Get more of the general public to become members. Instead this point suggests the opposite, which seems to be a serious missed opportunity if it were acted on.

The third point kind of builds off the last one, this time focusing on endorsements from former candidates. As I alluded to above, I am not a fan of the idea of endorsements as a formal requirement to become a candidate, so I would think that is a bad idea. But that’s not to say that Rempel Garner’s idea isn’t without merit when it comes to making your own personal judgements about who should be a leader and how candidates should make their case that it should be them. The endorsement of an EDA or past candidates is a strong sign that people who have done a lot of the work (and are likely to do so in the next campaign) have faith in that person and their abilities to lead. Given that a lot of former candidates eventually become candidates again in the future, they are basically saying they would feel comfortable being on the ballot with that person as leader. As we saw unfold in this last federal campaign, that’s no small thing and it’s a good sign of the candidates’ strength. So while I agree that endorsements of former candidates are an important metric for members to consider when they vote, I don’t think that it should be one that’s used to qualify or disqualify candidates in that same race.

The last point that Rempel Garner makes is probably the one that I am the most sympathetic to; the ability to raise money. I say this from cold, hard lived experience in leadership campaigns; if you can’t raise enough money to run a competent campaign in a leadership race, you shouldn’t be in it. If you can’t raise money in a leadership race, odds are you’ll have a hard time raising money once you’re leader too. And if you struggle to raise enough money to meet the entry fee, odds are you’ll struggle to raise enough money to finish the race, let alone win it. Of any reasonable barrier a party can put out there to ensure that a leadership race is kept serious, I see the entry fee as the single best way to do it. The figure of $200,000 might be a bit too high in my mind, but that might have more to do with party than anything else. The NDP’s entry fees have typically been the lowest of the other parties, and even with that fact, some have constantly complained that they were too high. But regardless of the precise figure, for me this idea is reasonable.

In a different Tweet later that same day Rempel Garner raised one other suggestion for her party, one that might have gotten the most response:

I’ve always been a believer in the idea of looking at other parties for good ideas because, simply put, a good idea is a good idea. Back when Justin Trudeau became Liberal Leader, one of the first things he did was eliminate a fee to become a party member, making it free. Rempel Garner appears to like this idea too and to me this is a good idea for any party that’s hoping to open itself up more. The fact is that most fees that parties charge to become or maintain a membership don’t even cover the administrative cost of that work. All that fee does at best is offset some of the cost, but it’s far from being a fundraising measure for parties. And with the ways that parties can raise money today, is it really worth the $20 a person every year to keep them from being involved in your party? Heck, stats show us that party members tend to give more to political parties than non members, so the odds are very good that if you dropped the fee, you’d more than make up the difference in increased fundraising. That would seem to be a win-win, right?

Well when you read some of the reactions Rempel Garner got online, you’d think that this would throw the doors open to the liberal hoards trying to tear their party down. Yes, that suspicion of new members is a strong thing, even to the point where it undercuts attempts at progress. I would point out that while a $20 membership will keep out someone of marginal financial means who might believe in what you believe in, but what it won’t do is keep out someone who would go out of their way to try to take your party down from the inside. To read those comments, you’d think that the only thing keeping their party “pure” was a $20 bill, and that faced with that barrier, those folks just give up, cursing their ingenuity for knowing that a green piece of specially printed paper with the Queen on it was their kryptonite.

Anyway, I found this series of Tweets interesting and honestly I believe these are healthy discussions for parties to continue to have on an ongoing basis. No party has a perfect system for electing their leaders or governing their own parties, so I believe that all parties need to keep talking about how to do it better. Also, as other parties change, your party probably needs to respond to that change. I, for one, welcome Rempel Garner kicking off that debate within her own party and I look forward to seeing what newer things may come from that, what lessons we can learn and how we can all improve.

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