Controversy that recently arose around a Progressive Conservative candidate’s nomination in an Ontario riding highlights the issue of organic versus appointed nominations—considerations that could play a role in the federal election that is expected this fall.
Former Mississauga South MP Stella Ambler had sought the provincial PC nomination in Simcoe-Grey since last November, only to have her party appoint Collingwood Mayor Brian Saunderson as its candidate in June, without a vote. Ambler’s appeal to the party was denied, so she recently turned to the courts, saying the party acted contrary to its own constitution.
Geoffrey Hale, a professor of political science at the University of Lethbridge, said the political cost of appointments can vary.
“It depends on the local circumstances of the riding and it depends on how widely known and how widely contested it was. If [the leader] keeps somebody from running in the first place, the cost is relatively small except for a small handful of support workers around [the former nominee hopeful],” Hale said in an interview.
“The greatest risk is you have a nominated candidate who was rejected who is the consensus candidate of the riding leadership. … A central party’s control is widely enough recognized that the only place it is likely to be decisive is if the central party waits until after a nomination in a closely contested riding and makes a bad call.”
Ambler moved to Wasaga Beach in 2020, making her history in the area shorter than Saunderson’s, something Hale says means more in a rural constituency.
“Local representation matters hugely if you are not from a major city. Not living in an urban riding that you are running in is rarely a prohibitive factor in and of itself if the candidate in question either has a strong track record in the wider community or is somebody that the local community can identify with.”
Allan Tupper, political science professor at the University of British Columbia, says a candidate’s residence outside of a small, densely populated urban area is “generally inconsequential,” but an outsider in a rural area has a poor chance.
“Having someone represent a completely rural riding when their entire background is as an urban dweller is not the best idea. But … this case is quite a bit different, when you’re in a large city and [live] slightly outside of the boundary. I think a lot of people don’t pay huge attention to that because you’re living in the same environment, the same city, and so on,” Tupper said in an interview.
Tupper says voters pay more attention to the party than the candidate. Hale agrees, but says the candidate is still important.
“The research that I have seen suggests that local candidates can make a difference of plus or minus 5 percent at the constituency level in federal politics,” he said, adding that this factor is most important in ethnically diverse ridings.
“The notion that you parachute a white-bred candidate into a highly diverse riding doesn’t work anymore. It’s considered insensitive to significant parts of the community if locals aren’t allowed to run, but at least they should be locals with party credentials.”
Parties protect incumbent MPs from losing a subsequent nomination, and the Conservatives and Liberals do better with that than the NDP, Hale said, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t problems.
“Nomination politics can be incredibly dirty, sometimes at the local level and sometimes with the national party. … Both the Liberals and the Conservatives have highly opaque relationships between the riding associations and the central party, and the games that are played will vary from cycle to cycle,” he said.
“Sometimes it’s necessary, sometimes it’s just arbitrary, and because these things are rarely transparent, sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.”
Parties often do extensive background checks on those seeking nominations. Tupper said that’s more important in the internet era.
“The other thing that shoots [down nominee hopefuls] is of course the evidence that’s brought to bear. People now bring into politics such a longer history, if we can use that term, because of the way they possibly foolishly used social media [in the past] and so on, speaking out.”
Tom Flanagan, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Calgary, says there may not be any general answers, and it would largely depend on the party’s rules and the circumstances.
“I believe it works out OK in the end most of the time, but you can certainly find cases where the whole thing blows up, perhaps resulting in an independent candidacy, and the star candidate fails to get elected,” he said.