Wednesday, October 19, 2022

On democratic decisions

Today looks to be a watershed moment for the future of the B.C. NDP, as its provincial council determines whether to follow a recommendation to disqualify Anjali Appadurai from its leadership race - and in the process effective disenfranchise the entire membership in favour of a coronation. 

But it's worth noting that the issue isn't an entirely new one. And the recommendation in the B.C. campaign seems to be applying drastically different standards and results than what Saskatchewan experienced in relatively recent memory. 

By way of background, in the 2009 Saskatchewan NDP leadership campaign, a volunteer on behalf of Dwain Lingenfelter's campaign submitted and paid for 1100 membership applications in the names of members of two Saskatchewan First Nations without their knowledge or consent. (The volunteer would end up pleading guilty to the criminal charge of attempting to utter forged documents.) 

Lingenfelter's campaign manager had approved of payment for the memberships - without knowing they were being submitted without the putative members' knowledge, but also without following up to determine whether there was any financial need to justify the mass payment of membership fees. And when the mass signups without consent were discovered, both the campaign and the party had to determine how to respond. 

For Lingenfelter's part, he treated the matter as being one of an "overexuberant volunteer", while not imposing public consequences on the campaign manager or anybody else. 

The Saskatchewan NDP's response was to cancel the memberships that had been falsely submitted, and to commission an investigative report into how the problem arose and how to prevent it from happening again. And while there were some calls for Lingenfelter to withdraw from the race voluntarily, I don't recall any serious possibility that he would be disqualified, either for the initial violation or for his reaction. (Indeed, my view at the time was that it was best for him to remain in the race and let members decide how his handling of the issue weighed in evaluating his suitability as a leader.) 

Comparing that situation to the one now facing the B.C. NDP, there looks to be little reason why a more severe penalty would result in Appadurai's case. Any issue about the validity of new memberships would result solely from potential regulatory non-compliance in reaching people who wanted to become members, not outright forgery to bring people in unwittingly. The investigation was able to contact questioned members at a level of detail which allowed for the flagging of specific memberships based on existing membership in another party (if one presumes that should itself result in cancellation). And there isn't an obvious difference in Appadurai's response as compared to Lingenfelter's: both acknowledged some wrongdoing, while minimizing how it would be characterized and declining to punish members of their own campaign for less-than-perfect oversight. 

That leaves a strong perception that the difference in treatment arises largely from the question of deviation from expectations. Lingenfelter was the heavy favourite entering the campaign, meaning that his disqualification might have been seen as producing an unexpected result. And conversely, Appadurai's campaign is under particular scrutiny due to the perception that she might well have signed up enough members to change the previously-anticipated outcome. 

Hopefully it goes without saying that campaign rules shouldn't be made and applied with the goal of channeling the results toward predetermined outcomes. And if the B.C. NDP decides it would rather deny members any vote than find a mechanism to cancel only questionable memberships, that figures to have far-reaching effects within the party and beyond as to whether people see democratic change as a meaningful possibility. 

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