Marland: Too many Canadians vote for a political party, leaving local candidates with little influence


Once upon a time, Parliament was filled with personalities and figures who kept party leaders on their toes and were not afraid to take a public stand in defense of their constituents. No more.

Content of the article

Canada’s election candidates are largely ignored, and Canadian democracy is worse for it. A federal campaign is made up of about 2,000 people across the country who put their names on the ballot in one of 338 electoral districts. We rarely hear about how these brave people who compete for Members of Parliament intend to resist becoming representatives of party interests, or whether they have different views than their parties, or what their policies on local issues.

Advertising

Content of the article

The perceived relevance of electing a local representative has been in decline for decades, and is getting worse. In the years after Confederation, voters wanted fierce advocates of local interests who could give them access to public service spoils, such as government jobs. A candidate’s residence or occupation, not their party, was on the ballot. Candidates were elected on the basis of their own commitment, and some MPs chose a party after the election to maximize their bargaining power. Parliament was filled with personalities and figures who kept party leaders on their toes and were not afraid to take a public stand in defense of their constituents.

As political parties became official, election candidates increasingly made their party affiliation known during election campaigns. Celebrating party ties became a problem when aspiring candidates failed to become a party’s official candidate and nevertheless proclaimed their partisanship on campaign posters and brochures. There was also some confusion in differentiating between two candidates with the same name in a constituency.

Advertising

Content of the article

Reforms to the Canada Elections Act that came into effect in the 1972 federal election addressed this problem by adding party labels to the ballot and requiring the party leader to sign nomination forms with a candidate. But reducing the confusion for voters came at the cost of marginalizing their local representatives in favor of party supremacy.

Changes to the Election Law fueled the growing importance of political parties and their leaders. A leader’s ability to veto a candidate’s nomination raised fears of complicity from incumbents hoping to be re-elected, and this sparked allegations of central interference in local democratic processes to select a candidate.

During the election campaign, candidates may be shocked to learn that they are supposed to stand behind the leader, applauding cheerleaders who say nothing.

Today MPs could be told their re-appointment is in jeopardy unless they raise money and recruit new supporters, and anyone in a nomination contest must first be approved. by party agents. A party’s leadership circle systematically rejects candidacies from potential candidates without having to publicly disclose the reasons.

Advertising

Content of the article

Before an election, political officers run candidate training schools to teach candidates what to expect and how to behave. This includes stressing the importance of staying true to the message and never contradicting the party leader. During the election campaign, candidates may be shocked to learn that they are supposed to support the leader by applauding cheerleaders who say nothing, or that they must publicly support policies they oppose. The party may even ask them to skip all candidate debates or ignore media requests to avoid becoming a distraction.

Nowadays, candidates and deputies have very little involvement in shaping a party’s electoral platform. Members of the Leader Circle prioritize responding to opinion polls by segmenting the electorate into shreds of like-minded supporters and deploying the latest marketing tactics. The leader’s entourage seems to want the candidates to behave like avatars of the policies announced by the leader.

Advertising

Content of the article

No wonder political parties, leaders and the media care so little about candidates and MPs. On election day, the evaluation of local candidates represents around 4% of the vote, which makes the difference between winning or losing in around 10% of constituencies. In 2019, only 125 people ran as independent or unaffiliated, and former Liberal cabinet minister Jody Wilson-Raybould became the first independent elected since 2008 – the only woman to do so since 1972. Canadians vote for a local representative in the House of Commons, yet few prioritize who their MP is and what they do over party affiliation.

Jody Wilson-Raybould sat as an Independent in the last Parliament, able to speak out where others cannot.
Jody Wilson-Raybould sat as an Independent in the last Parliament, able to speak out where others cannot. Photo by Adrian Wyld /THE CANADIAN PRESS

How did Canadian democracy get here? Can we do better? The intensification of party discipline can be attributed to the government gaining more authority as the rules of debate tighten in the House of Commons. Since World War II, Canadian MPs have consistently followed the party line on bills and motions. The control of party leaders and their agents is so restrictive that party discipline has evolved into message discipline, with MPs often exerting social pressure on each other to maintain group cohesion.

Advertising

Content of the article

Social media has given MPs a digital megaphone, but it has also provided a mechanism for the leader’s agents to broadcast approved messages and monitor what party officials are saying. In an election, candidates are treated by their parties as little more than brand ambassadors, supposed to trumpet the message of the day and collect data on supporters who can be mobilized to vote and donate.

Canada needs politicians who create an image of a willingness to defend their constituents. Candidates for federal elections should be aware that it is possible to speak out on localized issues that do not interfere with the national campaign. Politicians of all political stripes can ask the government to do better and do more for their constituencies. They can make voters care about who becomes their MP instead of just voting for a party robot. Engaging in local advocacy and sometimes pushing back the party would help give the media, political parties and voters a reason to pay attention to local representatives.

Advertising

Content of the article

More importantly, candidates who forge their own identity during an election campaign can retain that sense of themselves when they arrive in Ottawa and gain the confidence to push back their party leaders. The Parliament of Canada and Canadian democracy will be better off.

The discipline of the party message can only be strong if Canadian politicians are prepared to accept it.

Alex marland is a member of the board of directors of the Institute for Research on Public Policy and professor of political science at Memorial University of Newfoundland. He is the author of Whipped: Party Discipline in Canada (UBC Press 2020).

Advertising

comments

Postmedia is committed to maintaining a vibrant but civil discussion forum and encourages all readers to share their views on our articles. Comments may take up to an hour of moderation before appearing on the site. We ask that you keep your comments relevant and respectful. We have enabled email notifications. You will now receive an email if you receive a reply to your comment, if there is an update to a comment thread that you follow, or if a user that you follow comments. Check out our community guidelines for more information and details on how to adjust your email settings.


Comments are closed.