Saturday, August 15, 2015

On veto points

I'll follow up on this post by once again discussing another area where individuals' past comments are being treated as a basis for general exclusion. And the subject is particularly sensitive the midst of an election campaign - particularly in light of the issue where it's surfacing.

As in the case of judicial appointments, the starting point should be that past comments offer a reasonable basis for rejecting political candidates only if they meaningfully signal some general unsuitability for their anticipated future role (in this case representing constituents as a party's MP), not merely because they differ from one's preferred opinion. And in the political sphere, the assessment of candidates should take place first at the riding level through the nomination process, then through an election itself as the best means of assessing whether a candidate's views actually affect voter support.

Of course, party leaders have the ability to signal their own views about potential and actual candidates, and also have the statutory authority to exercise a veto. But the existence of that power doesn't mean it should be exercised as a matter of course.

Instead, I'd argue that leaders should do so only in the most extreme cases - a standard which doesn't apply to candidates such as Morgan Wheeldon and Jerry Natanine. And while the NDP may have concluded it's best off for now letting leaders' approval cut in all directions and playing it "safe" by jettisoning interested candidates at the first hint of potential controversy, there's a serious problem with the message that sends to its own supporters and activists.

That said, the longer-term fix should be to remove the systemic factors which both incentivize and permit the rejection of candidates on a standard of perceived inconvenience rather than genuine unsuitability. And on those fronts, the NDP is easily the best bet among the parties who have a prospect of exercising power - though there's room for it to do more.

For the moment, the promise of a system of proportional representation offers two related benefits to deal with similar problems in the future. Parties will have more of an incentive to appeal to principled candidates and voters, rather than seeing their future in votes by default in a winner-take-all system. And if one party is too quick to silence particular viewpoints, it will be far easier to develop a viable competing party willing to represent the points of view which are otherwise being limited.

That said, the leader's veto might remain a significant structural issue even under an MMP system.

Yes, a watered-down version of the Reform Act eventually managed to pass - but it leaves the decision as to who gets to approve nomination papers in the hands of the party. In contrast, the first-reading version provided for a nomination officer to deal with candidate approval at the local level.

Given that the Libs have already shown their hand on democratic reform and the Cons don't have any particular interest in it, there's an obvious opening for the NDP to promise to rein in the statutory power parties hold over the nomination process. And if Tom Mulcair recognizes that opportunity, then this may be the last election where undue top-down control over candidate selection remains a problem.

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