Monday, June 19, 2006

Internal accountability

While Stephen Harper's decision to make sitting MPs subject to nomination challenges is certainly worthy of discussion, I have to disagree with Cowboys for Social Responsibility on both the merits and the likely outcomes.

It's a fair question to ask why Cons appear to have gone from being too busy to deal with potential nomination challenges while they were in opposition, to being able to do so once in government. But the problem isn't with the change, but rather with the previous policy which completed insulately MPs from the democratic will of their riding associations. The change may have taken longer than it should have, but that doesn't mean it's a bad one.

I note also that contrary to what's implied from CSR's post, the policy doesn't appear to be limited to backbenchers. As should be the case, each Con MP, whether or not appointed to a privileged position by Harper, looks to be accountable to his or her constituency. Granted, members of cabinet probably won't face particularly strong challenges...but it does appear that the process will apply to all MPs, and not only to the supposedly-expendable backbenchers.

So much for CSR's concern that this means that backbenchers in particular are disposable. But what about the practical effects within the Con party? In CSR's comments, Red Tory points out the possibility that social activists will use their ability to stack a nomination meeting to drive the Cons to the right:
(T)his opens up sitting MPs to pressure from social activists promoting a far right agenda who threaten to stack the nomination meetings with their supporters. The result is that the MP will either fold under this pressure and allow their views to be influenced (e.g., opposing SSM) or risk being defeated.
Of course, social activists aren't the only constituents who could see fit to shape the course of a nomination meeting. It could well be that the result would be instead for moderate challengers to mount successful runs against the Anders- or Vellacott-types who aren't likely to lose to another party anytime soon. And in those ridings where the social activists do outnumber all the groups with an incentive to keep the party moderate, that strikes me as more a necessary cost of an open policy than a large enough concern to justify a "get out of accountability free" card for sitting MPs.

Moreover, it seems likely that in any nomination race, the support of the party structure would tend toward more moderate nominees, providing a strong counterbalance to the possibility of far-right hijacking. Which means that while Red Tory's concern is a valid one, it's far from certain to reflect the end result.

I'll add that there is one more possible concern arising out of the policy. By opening up nominations, Harper may also be able to exercise more control over his sitting MPs by threatening to support an alternate nominee where an MP goes offside. It remains to be whether Harper would apply that type of threat. But any danger associated with increased top-down pressure on MPs would be more a symptom of Harper's own attitude toward his members than a problem with open nominations.

In sum, there are certainly ways in which an open nomination process could seem to go bad, both due to internal riding politics and central management. And those dangers certainly explain why the Cons and Libs apply such a process selectively rather than as a matter of course. But the rewards of a principled stance in favour of internal accountability ultimately outweigh the potential costs. And Harper deserves credit, not blame, for endorsing for once a policy which actually makes his party more accountable rather than less so.

(Edit: typo.)

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