In my time volunteering then working in politics, I was very fortunate to get to see and experience many campaigns. Federal, provincial, municipal and leadership, each campaign had its own characteristics and unique issues. The laws and rules guiding them were different, evolving and had an effect on how those campaigns were run.

In all of those campaigns one category of candidate stood out and faced a unique set of challenges; Independent candidates. In federal and provincial campaigns where I worked, invariably you’d see at least one Independent candidate step forward to run, whatever their reasons for doing so. In the majority of those cases, it was to either highlight a very niche issue or was more of a vanity exercise than anything else. As a result, most of those candidates were just not serious. That wasn’t always the case, as sometimes you’d see a serious Independent candidate on the ballot, who went that route for different reasons. But in all those cases, Independents have faced challenges that put them at a distinct disadvantage. So it was with that experience in mind that I noted a piece released in Policy Options today that spoke directly to those challenges, with a notable co-author:

Tamara A. Small, a professor from the University of Guelph, and the Hon. Jane Philpott both penned this piece, in which they dissected the experience of Dr. Philpott’s run as an Independent in the Fall of 2019 and it gave some interesting insights into that campaign. It pointed to some of the challenges that she faced and also went to great pains to point out how her particular circumstance helped to mitigate or overcome those challenges. The piece spoke well to the challenges Independent face in general.

But in my view, I think that their piece missed something, or at least didn’t have enough emphasis on two major impediments that put Independents on uneven footing compared to party candidates. And that lack of emphasis I think leads to missing the path to correcting things. The biggest impediment is financial and the rules around fundraising for candidates. As the piece points out, Independent candidates cannot give tax receipts for donations to be eligible for a tax credit, which is substantial. Parties have riding associations that can perform that function between elections, fundraising those amounts and giving those valuable tax receipts. Independents simply can’t do that, forcing them to either wait until the writ of the election is formally dropped to register as a candidate or to collect donations without giving those tax deductions, which is a serious disincentive for most donors.

That situation also has an impact on the ability to prepare for campaigns, putting those candidates further behind their opponents. This was something that former Conservative-turned-Independent MP Brent Rathgeber pushed to change when he was still in office, pointing to the inherent unfairness of that situation. In my view, a simple solution to that major barrier would be to allow candidates to register with Elections Canada before the writ is dropped. All ridings have Chief Electoral Officers in place full-time, so the staffing needed to make that happen would be there. And honestly that would help make Independent candidacies more transparent, as there would be a formal record of donations coming in, ensuring there are no shenanigans taking place. It would be a small change that would help level the playing field, but I wouldn’t expect parties to jump at doing it for obvious reasons.

The second impediment that was raised is one that is serious, but not one than can be undone as it’s a feature of our democracy. The issue of the inherent advantages that come from being a party candidate was raised, pointing to the resources, branding, wider knowledge, and party leader profiles as problems for Independents to overcome. For me, this is not a matter of fairness like the legal fundraising issues, mostly because not all parties have the same footing when it comes to those matters. We have many minor parties out there who have all those things, yet not at the same level or ability and as a result they are at a disadvantage too. Or put another way, not all parties give the same advantages. Being a Liberal candidate comes with greater inherent advantages than running as a Green, and even more than running as a member of the Christian Heritage Party or the Marxist-Leninists. Just the fact that a candidate is running for a party doesn’t give them an advantage by itself, as many Independents regularly do better than candidates of those last two parties and many others.

But yes major parties have advantages that come with years of work, fundraising, policy development and familiarity. As Max Bernier’s PPC showed us in the last campaign, starting a new party out of the blue is something that can be done, but it takes more than money to make up for those other advantages that major parties have. And that’s even truer for Independent candidates. In fact, you could argue that really no truly Independent candidate has got elected federally in ages. All Independent who have won fall into one of two categories: they either a) got re-elected after first winning with a party (Wilson-Raybould, Casey and Cadman being the most recent examples) or b) because a party laid down making it easier for them to win (André Arthur, where the Conservatives didn’t run candidates against him, helping him win).

Some may look at those facts as a problem that needs to be fixed but in this matter I disagree. I agree that parties shouldn’t be above the electoral system (which is why I suggested the first change above) but that doesn’t mean that parties should be punished for their years of work and longevity. By their very nature, political parties survive at the will of the electorate and we have more than enough examples of parties in this country that have lived long lives then died after they didn’t have enough support to continue on. The fact that the Liberals, Conservatives and NDP have survived as long as they have speaks to the fact that they have been able to gain the support of Canadians to keep them alive to various extents.

In my mind, that’s not a bad thing. Yes, that’s a problem for an Independent candidate who doesn’t have decades of personal brand and institutional knowledge, but that’s part of the choice an Independent candidate makes. You go into an Independent candidacy knowing that is a formidable barrier and you need to make your offering with that in consideration. You need to take advantage of the advantages that you get from being an Independent to succeed, including the fact that it can give you the flexibility to respond more directly to issues as they evolve.

I enjoyed the piece and I feel like it did shine a good light on the example that Dr. Philpott faced. But I would argue that her candidacy was an outlier, even for an Independent. If anything, her situation was the “best case scenario” that an Independent can hope for, despite all the challenges she faced. There are some big challenges that Independents face but only some of them are legal ones that can be fixed, like the barriers to fundraising. I would hope that MPs would look at that disparity and work to fix it, creating a more level legal playing field, but I’m not expecting it anytime soon. As for the other challenges, they exist but they are part of choosing to run as an Independent. If you run as a lone candidate, you should expect to not have the advantages that others get by coming together under the umbrella of a party. As the old saying goes, “there is strength in numbers” and if you decide to go it alone you don’t get that strength. While that is the harder path, that’s the choice those candidates make and in my view that’s part of the price of admission for that path forward.