Clark promises more democracy in party

Colin Hansen’s convention pitch for a new name for the Liberals sparked much talk – and many jokes.

It’s interesting. But much more significant was Premier Christy Clark’s pledge to end the party’s practice of preventing nomination challenges for incumbent MLAs. That’s been an unwritten, but strictly enforced, rule.

It’s profoundly undemocratic. Someone who wins a Liberal nomination in a safe seat can sleepwalk through a couple of decades in the legislature without having to worry about being challenged for the party nomination.

There’s little incentive to pay much attention to the concerns of local residents. The nomination is guaranteed and, in many ridings, victory in the election would be almost certain no matter who the party ran.

And there is considerable incentive to place the interests of the party brass ahead of local residents, because they’re the key to job security.

And there’s little chance for party renewal. A brilliant potential candidate, with great credentials and broad community support, might be in the wings.

But unless the incumbent decides to retire, it’s impossible to challenge for the nomination.

It’s an odd position for the Liberals, who talk a lot about how free competition brings the best results. Except when it comes to competition for MLA jobs, with their $100,000 base salary and dandy benefits.

Clark said that’s going to change. Well, actually, she claimed that there had never been a ban on nomination challenges and wouldn’t be as we head toward an election.

“The B.C. Liberals have never had a policy of protecting incumbents,” she told the Globe and Mail, “and we are not going to start doing that now.”

Clark’s claim was immediately contradicted by MLA Kevin Krueger, who said he enforced the ban on nomination challenges as caucus whip.

People who wanted to challenge an incumbent were “encouraged” to look elsewhere, he said. “It was not ‘open season’ and it won’t be ‘open season’ this time,” he said.

Krueger is more believable. That raises the possibility that Clark doesn’t really want to end the practice, just to pretend it’s not happening.

That would be a shame.

There are risks to allowing open nomination contests. A well-funded, ambitious would-be candidate could hijack a constituency association, sign up a bunch of instant party members and take over without real support from party members.

But simple rules could prevent that. Something as basic as requiring people to be members of the party for at least six months before being allowed to vote in a nomination contest reduces the risks.

And the benefits, for the public interest, are great. MLAs would have to pay much more attention to the concerns of the riding, rather than the interests of the party, to ensure they weren’t replaced.

Meanwhile, Hansen’s call for a new party name had to have been made with Clark’s blessing.

Many voters are confused and think the provincial party has some connection with the federal Liberals, he said. Which is not a good thing these days.

Perhaps a different name might better reflect the party’s coalition of centre and centre-right voters, Hansen said.

A name change would mean a pretty short run for the modern incarnation of the Liberal party, revived by Gordon Wilson in 1991. It’s interesting that after winning three elections, the party still doesn’t feel comfortable with its name. Or believe that it has built loyalty among voters.

It’s possible that nothing will come of the idea – that simply floating it was a way to suggest to voters that the party is keen to distance itself from its own record. (No wonder Gordon Campbell chose to skip the convention.)

Whatever the party is called, it would be welcome if it loosened the straitjacket that prevents party members from nominating the best candidates to represent their ridings in favour of a system based on seniority, not performance.

Footnote: The convention also saw Christy Clark promise some sort of changes to the HST in an effort to win a yes vote in next month’s mail-in referendum. And she continued to signal a desire for an early election, urging delegates to prepare for the campaign.