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Hey Canadians, don’t be smug about American candidate selection processes | Stéphanie Plante

Monday, February 03, 2020 @ 12:00 PM | By Stéphanie Plante

Stéphanie Plante %>
Stéphanie Plante
On the eve of the Democratic Iowa primary, many Canadians get smug about how American leadership races and elections seem to revolve around money and fundraising.

But before we judge the winner of the Democratic 2020 race as the person who was simply able to buy votes, it might be a good time for Canadians, especially lawyers who volunteer and assist in election campaigns, to consider advocating for a better made-in-Canada framework on how we run our political party leadership contests.

Currently, the only federal regulations on leadership contests in Canada are on spending, which are outlined on the Elections Canada website. Beyond that, federal parties lay out the ground rules and timelines and they change from contest to contest.

Both the Green and Conservative Party of Canada launched their searches for new leaders in December 2019, and the differences could not be more stark.

The Tories require a deposit of $300,000, signatures from 3,000 card-carrying Tory voters in 30 ridings in seven provinces or territories. This formula, while not novel, prompted early frontrunners Jean Charest, Rona Ambrose and Pierre Poilievre to drop out or not even bother throwing their hats in the ring.

The Green Party, which has been led by the same person since 2006, requires an e-mail expressing interest.

Given that we have had four minority governments in less than 20 years, we can expect more leadership contests in the future, not less, and more leadership-contest rule confusion. This is blatantly unfair to those who wish to vie for the top ranks of public service and who are most disadvantaged by systems that reward ambiguity and uncertainty: women, Indigenous individuals and minorities.

The reasoning behind allowing political parties to manage their own rules: it allows parties to control the timeline, it creates excitement and curiosity about the party and the candidates themselves and it can weed out extremists who appeal to the lowest common denominator. That last point has been punctuated by one U.S. political party outlier who was able to manipulate leadership contest rules to his advantage: the Republican nominee in 2016, Donald Trump.

By contrast, the 2020 Labour Party leadership contest in the United Kingdom has a four-month contest with nominations only allowed by members of Parliament and only the final round open to voting by party faithful.

Given the diversity and cheap (by comparison) contests, one could argue that egalitarian leadership contests electing party leaders internally have actually produced some of the longest serving and most successful leaders. Brian Mulroney, Margaret Thatcher, Pierre Trudeau, Narendra Modi and John Howard were voted by the front and backbenches of their party before their general election wins.

Maybe there is something that party insiders know intrinsically that we do not?

Regardless, the current open format of party leadership races has opened the doors to Trump-type outsider candidates and regulation is needed.

But before we get too smug about how we promote them, maybe we should be regulating how they get there in the first place.

Stéphanie Plante is executive director with the International Commission of Jurists-Canada and an election consultant who has provided services and expertise in jurisdictions across Canada and around the world. She is currently the francophone liaison for Take Me Outside and Twice Upon a Time. E-mail her at

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