It’s time to reform riding associations

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Leadership Wednesday, March 12, 2014 View Count = 1692

It’s time to reform riding associations

This week we released in infographic analyzing over 1000 riding association websites. Today, riding association volunteer Steven Lee talks about his experience, and the ways in which he thinks we need to reform associations to make politics more relevant and vibrant at the local level. 

Centralization is the enemy of an active, engaged democratic public. I do not mean centralization as in the balance of power between Ottawa and the provinces, or provincial capitals and the municipalities, I mean the clustering of power in the hands of the few. 

Power, without rigorous defense and strict separations tends to accrue to the few. Member of Parliament Michael Chong’s Reform Act would be the first step towards decentralization in Canadian politics in well over thirty years, perhaps in a century. Today, Canadian politics seems to be drifting toward the iron law of oligarchy as a small group of people—a shocking number of whom were not elected—exercise the vast majority of influence on our federal and provincial politics. 

Chong’s legislation makes significant progress in arresting this drift, but it fails to significantly address the dominance of the central party over the entire institution of Parliament. If Canadian politics is going to democratize, the solution is in repairing our political parties. 

It is important to note that the power exercised by the Prime Minister and his/her office over MPs is mirrored, if not surpassed by that of the central party over local riding associations. Currently, when riding associations organize nomination processes to select who will run as an MP in the riding, party leaders must sign-off on their decision. The Reform Act aims to change that. Yet, there are some who say that even if the Act passes, parties will find a way to block “less desirable” candidates. Basically, if parties cannot control Members of Parliament, they may prevent them from becoming MPs in the first place. 

That's why the Reform Act has to be followed up with a second Reform Act that liberates electoral district associations/riding associations from the central party, just as backbenchers will be freed from the leaders. There are a number of ways this may be accomplished. 

As Samara’s founder and Executive Director Alison Loat has pointed out on numerous occasions, political parties receive heavy subsidies from the public, and therefore can be justifiably called to better account for acting in the public interest. For example, in many European countries political parties must spend a certain percentage of their public subsidies on policy research. So there is precedent for mandating the way in which public money is spent.

There is also a need to better fund individual riding associations. Even the strongest majority government in Canada’s history saw only 86% of seats go to one party and it is unlikely that a party would ever represent a much higher percentage of seats in Parliament. In our current system, that means political parties have little infrastructure or incentive to invest and find new voters in their “long-shot” ridings. Yet, to increase the democratic capacity of our civic institutions, all riding associations require resources. 

I was a member of the executive for a riding association where my party had always come a distant third. We were desperately short of funds and party policies made our efforts to build locally very difficult. A large percentage of the money raised went to the central party. This arrangement is counterproductive to building a grassroots, active democracy. In a previous post for Samara I shared some of the benefits of being a member of a political party, I think it is even more important to be active at a local level. 

A simple step might be to force parties to pay their riding associations. Parties could be required to give each registered riding association $1000 per year, for example. $338,000 is not much in the grand scheme of things, but it is enough seed money to conduct fundraisers, support a website, and pay for incidentals. What if parties were required by law to keep 75% of all the money they raise in the riding association from where it originated? This might have the nice added bonus of choking off funds to the central party for things like television ads. What if we restored the vote subsidy, but all of that money stayed with the riding associations? The hard work of local activists would be directly compensated, and long-shot parties would be given added incentive to mobilize. 

That being said, it is not enough to simply give the riding associations more money. This type of reform requires significant oversight. By 2015 there will (ideally) be at least 1430 riding associations between the Conservatives, New Democrats, Liberals, Greens and Bloc. At the moment, Elections Canada has limited authority and power with which to oversee them, which is likely why Elections Canada is still investigating spending irregularities from 2008. Riding associations, the building blocks of our democracy, need to be given greater freedom, and coupled with that, responsibilities and oversight commiserate with their importance. 

The rot within Canadian democracy may be most obvious at the top, in the House of Commons, but it might be even more pernicious at the roots—with the parties and the riding associations. Riding associations and political parties must become more transparent, open and, to be blunt, functional and competent if our civic participation is to improve. There is an imbalance of power that has warped our system. Citizens, organized in their communities, are meant to select representatives, delegates and candidates to represent their values outwards, not just to act as franchises for the central office. It’s time to reform our riding associations too.  

Steven Lee is a freelance blogger living in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories. He sat on the riding executive of the Brampton West NDP as their Social Media Secretary in 2013. You can follow Steven on Twitter, @Orange_Tory 

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