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Canada's American Style Primaries

By Scott Proudfoot, Principal
July 2000

Changing the way we elect our leaders creates a new game with new rules.  With each successive leadership convention, we are beginning to learn what the rules really are!

There has been considerable media focus on Mr. Stockwell Day’s attention to the Religious Right & the social conservative agenda. It is undeniably true that mobilizing those constituencies helped put him over the top in the recent Alliance race. But the real story of Mr. Day’s success is that he ran a great ‘primary’ campaign.

The Alliance race just highlights emerging trends. Most federal & provincial political parties in Canada have now adopted the US Primary system of electing leaders.  Changing the way we elect our leaders creates a new game with new rules.  With each successive leadership convention, we are beginning to learn what the rules really are!

A quick history review: Canada’s political party system has imploded three times in the last century - in the twenties, early sixties and early nineties.  Each implosion has inevitably precipitated ‘reforms’ to open up the way in which political parties select their riding candidates and leaders.  As the political footing becomes less secure, political parties become more democratic and inclusive to attract new members or simply copy the electoral practices of the new upstart parties. Each wave of reform has opened up the selection process to a wider circle of party members.

In the early history, elected caucuses choose the leaders. In the twenties and thirties, this gave way to a delegate section process.  Local delegates selected by the membership of the riding association would choose the leader at a national convention. In the beginning, party power brokers tightly controlled the system. Gradually, rank and file party activists wrested more control.

In the latest wave of reforms, most parties have abandoned the delegate selection process in favour of a one-member/one-vote system in which all registered party members may vote directly on the selection of a leader.  This is similar to a US primary except, in our case, parties only hold one national primary and, if necessary, run-off elections.

There are obvious features of ‘primary-style’ leadership campaigns:

  • More people get to elect the leader. Instead of a few thousand delegates, all members have the option of participating. In 1998, 48,000 party members voted in the process that saw Mr. Joe Clark returned as Conservative leader. 92,000 Alliance members participated in the recent crowning of Mr. Day.
  • Compared to the delegate section process, the voters are likely to be a better cross-representation of the electorate as a whole
    In a delegate selection process, voting delegates are more likely to have met one or more candidates personally or attended a campaign debate. A primary system is less personal and more reliant on the media.  More voters rely on the media to filter their information about the contenders.
  • A primary system is about adding lots of new members and getting them out to vote.  Dedicated party activists are the core of any campaign but new recruits may well hold the voting balance.

Potential consequences of primary politics:

  • Money or more accurately access to a rich vein of donors becomes a critical factor. You need more money to reach more people and you have use more media, marketing and technology to do it. You require a sophisticated organization to get out the vote.
  • Leadership campaigns are already a game that few can play but the need for more money to launch a credible campaign creates an even higher barrier to entry.
  • There is an inevitable tendency to slice and dice the voters into issue segments and then craft promise and appeals to win those ‘segments’.
    Special interests who deliver money, workers and, most importantly, votes can play a significant role in primary elections. If specific promises solidify their support, so be it.  Religious schooling, anti-abortionists, unions, environmentalists, pro-gun lobby, anti-gun lobby, gay rights, fisherman, etc.  Depending on their starting point, candidates will make their choices. Disaffected interest groups whether of the right or left will be over-represented because they tend to be more active.
  • Under the delegate section process, leaders were chosen by those who showed up - party regulars who come to the fund-raisers, work in election campaigns, and take positions on the local executive - individuals with a long-term interest in the party. Under the primary system, they are joined by those who don’t show up for long! Their interest may be momentary or driven by a particular issue. The Canadian Alliance signed up 207,000 members but only 44% showed up for the final vote. During the 1998, Progressive Conservative leadership race party membership quadrupled from 18,000 to 90,000 but only 53% were there for the final ballot.
  • Under a primary system, your objective is to encourage your supporters to vote but discourage the other person’s voters from showing up. Negative campaigning is an inevitable temptation.

Over the last three decades, there has been a decline in Canadians’ identification with their political parties.  It is, at least, an even bet the new system will not reverse that downward trend.

Going to a one-member/one-vote system is an attempt to make parties more popular by making them more populist, democratic and inclusive. At the same time, this new system will dramatically reshape the political landscape.

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