Trudeau Needs More “Nate’s”
For the Liberals, the Tories and the NDP, the nomination process is a political blood sport and intrigue and backroom manoeuvrings have defined nomination races in all parties since Confederation.
All political parties have nomination issues. In Calgary, a former provincial Conservative minister defeated a sitting MP, Rob Anders, for the nomination in Calgary Signal Hill and will now represent the Conservative party in the riding in the next federal election. Anders was seen as a thorn in the side to the Harper Conservatives and many were happy to see him go. After losing the nomination in his riding, he ran for the nomination in an adjacent nearby riding and was defeated again. In Calgary Skyview, Buta Singh Rehill and Puma Banwait were challenging the incumbent Conservative MP Devinder Shory for the party nomination, but they were disqualified from running by the Conservative party without explanation. (It is generally frowned upon in all parties to run for the nomination against a sitting MP). Now, Banwait says he is thinking of running as an “independent Conservative” in the upcoming election. Conservative MP turned Liberal nomination seeker Eve Adams jettisoned her political career and credibility recently in a nomination battle in Ontario. Her boyfriend Dimitri Soudas, the former Director of Communications to Prime Minister Harper and the Executive Director of the Conservative Party of Canada, became inappropriately involved in her nomination battle and was removed from his high profile role as a consequence. When Adams was advised by the Conservative leadership that she would not be allowed to run as a Conservative in the upcoming election, she suddenly became a Liberal. She has yet to win a Liberal nomination.
The NDP have their own nomination nightmares. In Ontario in 2013, the NDP provincial council was accused of ignoring serious irregularities at a nomination meeting. Participants at the meeting claimed former controversial Toronto councillor Adam Giambrone had allegedly broken the rules, as several ineligible members were allowed to vote for him when he won the nomination against the local favourite Amarjeet Kaur Chhabra. The party went into quick denial, people quit and Giambrone went on to lose the by-election.
Recently, Justin Trudeau and the Liberals have kept busy putting out a series of nomination brush fires. The most egregious case is in the riding of Ottawa-Orleans, where former Liberal leadership candidate David Bertschi was treated horribly by the Liberal Party of Canada. Bertschi is an Ottawa lawyer and former Liberal candidate in the 2011 election in Ottawa-Orleans. He lost the election to Conservative candidate Royal Galipeau by just 6 percentage points. Like hundreds of other Liberal candidates in that election, he was burdened by the disastrous performance of Michael Ignatieff, which ended with the Liberals having the worst national election defeat since Confederation. Afterwards, Bertschi entered the federal Liberal leadership race and made a respectable run, further raising his profile and winning many admirers in the process. It was assumed by all he would run again for the nomination in Ottawa-Orleans and be the candidate.
However, after winning the leadership race, Justin Trudeau promised “open nomination meetings” for all Liberal ridings. Then, Trudeau got himself into a pickle when he selected former General Andrew Leslie as his defence and security advisor. Leslie, in that role, then announced he would run for the nomination in Ottawa-Orleans, even though he does not live in the riding. Bertchsi, who had been previously “green lit” to run for the nomination in Ottawa Orleans by the Liberal Party, was suddenly told by senior party officials that he could not stand as a candidate for the Liberals. They claimed it was because Bertschi had not paid off all of his leadership debts, but that was poppycock. He had met all the payment terms laid out for him by the green light committee regarding his leadership debt and was ahead of schedule. The problem for the Liberals was that Bertschi was too strong in the riding with local Liberals and had much more support for the nomination than Leslie. Rather than risk the embarrassment of Trudeau’s security and defence advisor losing the nomination to his former leadership opponent, Trudeau’s team simply disqualified him from running. Leslie was acclaimed at the nomination meeting while Bertschi stood on the sideline and watched the charade unfold. In the end it was a bad day for Liberals, messy for Trudeau, Leslie and Bertschi, and only helped Conservative MP Royal Galipeau to solidify his role in the riding where he is still very popular.
The Liberals also had problems in Vancouver South, where Barj Dhahan, the former Liberal Party candidate for the Vancouver South riding in 2011, claimed he was pressured to withdraw from the nomination race because the Liberal Party National Campaign Co-Chairs had a preferred candidate named Harjit Singh Sajjan who they wanted to be acclaimed as the candidate for the riding. They told Dhahan to run elsewhere. Dhahan refused. The process got nasty when claims were made that Sajjan was backed by the World Sikh Organization, which is often described as being associated with extremist and fundamental groups. Dharan did drop out, although on the record, he blamed the mess on the National Co-Chairs, not Trudeau, saying that he believes Trudeau’s commitment to open nominations across the country is “genuine.” When asked, Trudeau told the CBC in British Columbia that, “There is a clear process that people have to go through and Barj made a decision to withdraw from the race.” Dharan’s campaign team alleges that people were so upset with the Liberal party brass over the nomination process, that 4,000 members loyal to Dhahan had torn up their cards. The party says this is untrue.
Liberal nomination troubles were also on full display last year in the high-profile race in Trinity-Spadina in Toronto, the seat of former NDP MP Olivia Chow. Justin Trudeau openly favoured Toronto City Councillor Adam Vaughan as his candidate. Trudeau and the Liberal Party had banned Christine Innes, the wife of the former Liberal MP, and cabinet minister Tony Ianno from running, suggesting she showed poor conduct in running for the nomination. Innes ran and lost for the party in the 2008 and 2011 federal elections. Innes was notified by the Party Co-Chairs that she was being blocked from participating in the nomination race for Trinity-Spadina. Vaughn was acclaimed as the candidate and then won the by-election for the Trudeau Liberals last year. Innes is now suing Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and a party official for $1.5 million for defamation over their allegations about the conduct of her nomination campaign.
To Trudeau’s credit, he has won his own nomination and met fierce Bloc Quebecois candidates in Quebec. He has twice defeated strong BQ contenders in a working class neighbourhood in Montreal, including defeating a sitting MP in 2008. He is personally tested and has his own credentials and record of victory to understand what is at stake in these races.
As party leader, even in an open nomination process, Trudeau can use moral suasion and other tactics to ensure some of his preferred candidates are selected. The Liberals have a history of their Leaders picking “star candidates.” McKenzie King, Trudeau, Turner, Trudeau, Martin, Dion and Ignatieff all had their preferred choices. The idea is that “star candidates,” like the Leslie’s and Sajjans, are the people who are going to help Trudeau propel the party in to government in the election. However, there is a double-edged sword effect to “star candidates,” as they do not always go over well with local riding associations. It was particularly vexing in the Bertschi case because after his solid performance in the Liberal leadership race, he was a star candidate in his own right. It is a difficult road for any party leader to navigate.
The Liberals have never been a grassroots or open nomination type of party. Where Trudeau may have erred is in committing himself so forcefully and publicly to the principle of an open nomination process, while letting the shenanigans of the past continue behind the scenes. Trudeau must attract youthful and talented candidates to run, while at the same time not offending the older generation of party members who are still capable of making great contributions and have something to offer.
Trudeau and the Liberal Party can run into challenges, even when they successfully attract the best and brightest of the younger generation to run for the party in the open nomination process. Take the case of Nathaniel (Nate) Erskine-Smith, a formidable candidate if there ever was one for a new generation of Liberals.
Born and raised in Toronto’s Beaches-East York, Erskine-Smith is the son of two well respected local teachers. He studied politics (BA) and law (JD) at Queen’s University, where he won a number of academic and public speaking awards. He went on to obtain his Master of Law (BCL), with distinction, from Oxford, where he studied political philosophy and constitutional law. He is married and is a commercial litigation lawyer who has fought public interest matters before the Divisional Court and the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal. He is charismatic, authentic, principled, polite, savvy and smart. In short, he is the dream candidate for the Liberals and the kind of person that Justin Trudeau is counting on to bring in a new generation of Liberal voters.
He kicked off his nomination campaign in November 2013 and worked hard for 13 months with a committed and enthusiastic campaign team. Erskine-Smith and his supporters sat around hundreds of kitchen tables, knocked on thousands of doors and made over 10,000 phone calls. He handily won the nomination in December 2014, after signing up 800 new memberships and earning the support of many existing Liberal members. Three of the four other nomination contestants have since pledged their support to his federal election campaign in 2015. The fourth candidate has not done so and is appealing what was a clear win for Erskine-Smith.
Maria Minna, the former Liberal MP from the riding from 1993-2011 was the key backer to the candidate who is holding out and is now appealing the result. It is quite obvious the appeal is a hollow attempt by Minna to try to exert some hold or sway over the riding, rather than gracefully exiting the stage for the next generation. This is the rub and reality of many Liberal nominations for Justin Trudeau. Even when a formidable and top notch candidate like Erskine-Smith fairly and squarely wins a nomination, an old party stalwart like Minna can make things difficult. The appeal process has the very unfortunate effect of holding back the Erskine-Smith campaign team’s ability to move to election preparedness and focus on fighting the Conservatives and NDP in the riding.
So, in some ways, Trudeau is damned if he does get involved and damned if he doesn’t get involved in nomination meetings. Nate Erskine-Smith is a walking version of the new Liberalism Justin Trudeau keeps talking about. He is a star candidate precisely because he wasn’t acclaimed or named to the role. He did it the old fashioned way: smarts and hard work. He is someone to watch in the Liberal party and in Canadian politics. Trudeau would do well to get more “Nates” as quickly as he can.