Monday, April 07, 2008

Canadian sausage

[Aliza's note: This article was timely in January when it was commissioned "on spec" by a Canadian paper that shall remain graceless. I rewrote it twice for them, and they responded by ignoring me. Curse be the laws of supply and demand that free editors from the obligation to be polite....]

There is an old adage that laws are like sausage – you don’t want to see how they’re made. Canadians have extended this cliché to party leadership contests - while in the US, candidates declare their intention to seek nomination two or more years in advance, Canadian leadership selection is “quick and dirty” and sometimes borderline invisible.

It’s nine months until the 2008 US election, and most Americans have already cast their primary ballots. Many states, like Michigan and Texas, have open primaries, where any citizen can vote in any primary. Other states have semi-open primaries, like Massachusetts, where if you register as “unenrolled”, you can show up on primary day and pick which primary to vote in without becoming a member of that party. If I want to be a Canadian party decision maker, I need far more advanced planning, and I need to commit.[1]

A Canadian wanting to help select the new leader for the Liberal party in 2006 would have had to join the Liberal party three months before the vote. This commitment just doesn’t happen on a major scale. The Liberal party brags that they have over 100,000 members[2], but that isn’t much to brag about. If every single party member participated in the choice of Stephane Dion in 2006, then fewer than 1% of Canadians selected the man who might be Canada’s next Prime Minister. No wonder CTV reported in January that his approval rating is only 39%.[3] The choice of Dion involved so few Canadian voters that it is neither representative nor meaningful.

I’m sure there are party stalwarts from all parties who don’t want the non-committed participating in “spoiling” their primary by voting for a leadership candidate who they think would be easier to beat. But the system that has evolved in Canada is so restrictive that it makes American closed primaries look open by comparison.

So why don’t more Canadians join political parties? It is a simple task – just go to, click on the large “Join the Party” icon, and fill out the simple online form. Just don’t forget your Visa or Mastercard. The Conservative Party of Canada also has a “Join” button on their webpage, with one key difference – they also take American Express.

And they call the US the most materialistic country on earth. But the two most substantive differences between Canada and the US involve money and hassle – Canadians have to pay to join a party, and they can’t just do it by checking a box on their voter registration form.

Canadians who join can have their voices heard, as Liberal voting is proportional - their constitution sets out a system where riding members pick candidates, and delegates are assigned proportionally. This favors the parts of Canada where the population is greater. The Conservative party gives each electoral district an equal number of “points” that are divided proportionally among the candidates based on the votes. This means that a voter in a riding with half the members gets twice the say. However, it gives Canada’s more neglected provinces a greater voice. But nothing compares to the much-hyped early American decisions in Iowa and New Hampshire.

What these early primary contests say about democratic ideals is too important to miss. Imagine if Paul Martin had had to visit dozens of living rooms across Saskatchewan, selling his policies to farmers and nurses and teachers, one vote at a time. Would he have defeated Sheila Copps so handily?

Political parties here are still making their decisions in the back rooms. Canadian politics are set up so that insiders make decisions and voters get to choose from the lesser of many evils, little of which they can influence without a concerted effort.

The American system puts the job of running primaries and recruiting voters on the state, and many do their job aggressively. The Canadian system places early decisions in the hands of the party, who can change the rules as often as they like. Like in the US, these parties have elected delegates and “super” delegates (such as MPs and party candidates and former leaders) but the people doing the electing come from quite a small pool. Presumably, the party members are culturally and politically aware and willing to part with a few bucks – a self-selecting group that may exclude the poor, new Canadians and the apathetic youth that our leaders bemoan.

It is the independent, uninformed, and easily disenfranchised voters who get lost in the shuffle. Since it takes greater effort in Canada to participate, too many decisions are made based on the “party faithful”. An elitist might mock Americans interviewed on CNN who say they make their voting decisions based on how a candidate’s speech made them feel, but at least the common people are the ones making the decisions. Every multimillionaire who wants to become President has to go out and stump for votes. As Iowa showed Mitt Romney, voters can’t just be bought with millions of dollars in TV ads.

Though the best first step would be for leaders and decision-makers to make party membership free and easy, ordinary Canadians have to do their part by refusing to be sidelined from decisions of major significance. No one can ignore the messy American system, which brings representative democracy to life. If Canadians want popular involvement, perhaps we have to be willing to get our hands dirty.

- Aliza Libman is a freelance writer and teacher in Brookline, MA. She can be found online at