The federal Liberal Party has always treated British Columbia as a strictly colonial operation. They have never developed a strong grassroots base in our province. They maintain their party organization through the distribution of federal patronage.
Thus, it was no surprise that Paul Martin abandoned local democracy in his party by appointing three people including former premier Ujjal Dosanjh, and forestry executive David Emerson as federal Liberal candidates in our province. More appointments are expected including controversial federal Liberal party president Bill Cunningham and possibly IWA-Canada president, Dave Haggard. The announcement of this would-be “dream team” is an overture to an expected election call later in April.
Martin’s decision broke a specific promise made during his leadership campaign. He said he would leave candidate selections to local party members. He said, in the case of Hamilton-Stoney Creek, that he would not intervene to avoid a bitter nomination campaign between Sheila Copps and Transportation Minister Tony Valeri. Local democracy was a matter of principle for him.
Alas, Martin’s principles have apparently changed in less than a month.
Modern political parties provide few means of expression for their grassroots membership. Policy decisions, particularly in the federal Liberal Party, are made by a few senior people, some elected, most unelected. The principal means by which ordinary party members exercise influence and democratic expression is through the election of their local candidates. That’s why membership rolls increase during pre-election periods. Now, in B.C. at least, the prime minister wishes to take this right away as well.
Local nomination of candidates also ensures a community base for our representatives. How can candidates appointed by the prime minister ever stand up to him on behalf of their riding or constituents?
The federal Liberals have used nomination rules to manipulate membership races as well. In many riding associations, full membership lists are not available to all candidates. Rules are brushed aside for Martin loyalists; witness the fiasco in the Saanich riding last weekend when a candidate was dropped on three days notice by federal Liberal insider Mark Marrissen, shattering the Liberals own rule book and securing a dubious nomination.
In the province of Quebec, a women-only rule was imposed in the riding of Shawinigan to block the candidacy of former ChrÃ©tien press secretary Steven Hogue. Elsewhere however, strong Liberal ridings were reserved for male Martin friends including once and future separatist Jean Lapierre and former MP Denis Dawson. In the riding of Beauport, a talented women candidate was forced to contest an unwinnable neighbouring riding to make way for Dawson.
And what of the candidates who have been pushed aside for Emerson such as current Vancouver Kingsway MP Sophia Leung or Wendy Yuen who was challenging her for the nomination? What have they been promised by Martin? Will any of these new candidates sign a pledge not to accept a patronage appointment for the next four years if they should lose?
David Emerson is a well-known business leader. However, the decision to appoint him in the East Vancouver riding of Vancouver Kingsway is bizarre. The only reason he would have visited the riding recently, is if he got lost on the freeway and took the wrong exit. Dosanjh is running in Vancouver South, a riding with little NDP tradition. In fact, the combined Canadian Alliance and Conservative vote in the riding was higher than the Liberal vote in the last election. Dosanjh too may well lose.
The recruitment of Dosanjh and possibly Haggard seems designed to counter NDP leader Jack Layton’s growing support in B.C. There is nothing new in this tactic. The Liberals recruited former New Democrats such as Bill Barlee, Lyle MacWilliam, Lee Rankin and Bill Bell to run for them in recent elections in order to appeal to provincial New Democrat voters.
However, this gambit too is likely to fail for one good reason. In general, the voters donâe(TM)t like politicians who cross the floor. In fact, all of the NDPers recruited in previous elections lost.
Former premier Dosanjh has been an NDP member for decades. The party has given him enormous personal support and an opportunity to hold some of the highest offices in the province — Attorney General and Premier. Now, with an opportunity to be in the federal Cabinet, he abandons the principles and position he has espoused for 20 years and the people who sacrificed to support him, in exchange for an opportunity to prolong his political career.
Even voters who don’t like the NDP may not appreciate a politician so ready to abandon principle for power. Or a party so desperate to cling to power that it will offer privileged candidate positions to those who yesterday opposed what the party stands for.
Rather than build a real grassroots network in B.C., the Paul Martin Liberals have decided to buy one in the free agent market. The tactic should be embarrassing for a political leader who promised to end the “democracy deficit.”
Politics is not professional sports and the federal Liberals are not the New York Yankees. They can’t win by buying high profile players and spending the most money. After all, there is one part of this deal that will not take place in the Liberal backrooms. That is the election itself when the people decide what they think of a party that tries to rule our province from afar, like colonial masters from times past.