Provincial Liberal strategists are blaming their losses in the August 1st byelection on the gas plant scandal, and while this is a big negative issue it’s important to understand what people are truly reacting to.
I should disclose that I am am a past candidate for the Liberals in the 2011 election. So I come at this with a bit of experience and a little insight into how things run within the party.
My advice to Premier Wynne is to make sure that she addresses the true issue around the gas plant scandal: it isn’t just about what was done but more about who did it. The public is upset because the Liberal election campaign team seemed to have more control than those who were elected. That the campaign staff had enough power to stop the gas plants is what truly upsets people. The feeling on the street is that the bureaucracy has become far too powerful and devious. That is the true issue the Premier has to deal with and voters will be watching closely to see how she handles it.
Replacing staff is a good first step but if the Premier doesn’t curtail their power it will amount to very little. Liberals lost three of their held ridings because the candidates they put into those ridings lacked the authenticity needed to overcome the devious image the gas plant scandal has cast over the Liberals.
As things currently stand the Premiers campaign staff are selecting too many of the candidates they want. This is a huge mistake and one that will have big consequences in the next election.
Allowing campaign team staff to have control over the elected politicians, over government policy, and extending it to choosing the new candidates gives them far too much power and influence not only over the new candidates, but also over MPPs who need their help to get re-elected. It shows how strong the bureaucracy has become.
You wouldn’t run a company and put your staff in charge of selecting their supervisor or managers and as the leader of the Liberal party the Premier should not be allowing her staff to hand pick the candidates they want. Not only is it bad for government but it will also hurt her chances of winning.
Why? Because staff will pick people most likely to do their bidding, to cover up their mistakes, and to bend to their will. This means that a whole group of excellent politicians, will not have an opportunity to run.
Gone are the vocal candidates, and anyone who would stand up to the staff.
Gone are the community activists who don’t always agree with the a policy position and drive the party to change – keeping the party relevant to voters.
Gone are the candidates who worried openly that the campaign team was getting too powerful.
When the Liberal campaign staff control the candidate selection process it becomes insular – they get other staff or past staff in as candidates, or bureaucrats they know will do as they are told. But in doing so they risk voter support – as the past byelection demonstrated.
For example, take the byelection in London West – a riding that has been held by Liberals for a decade and where Ken Coran, former head of the Teachers Union, was announced as the candidate with all other possibles shunned. Coran the man who took credit for pushing the Liberals out in the Kitchener byelection in 2012. Among staff he was seen as the man who beat them, and he was treated with awe and respect. Among Liberals he was seen as a big gun for the NDP – a wolf the farmer thought a dog and mistakenly put in to guard the hens. Liberal voters refused to come out and vote for him. He lost by a whopping 9,637 votes to the NDP and even trailed the Conservatives by 6,256 votes
Or look at Windsor-Tecumseh riding which has been held by the Liberals since 1995. Liberal candidate Jeewan Gill won a nomination, but his experience working as special assistant to a former MP hurt him on election day. Voters saw Mr Gill’s background and connected him — albeit in error — to those devious election staff behind the Gas Plant scandal. The NDP had a landslide win with Percy Hatfield taking the seat away from Liberals easily.
In the riding of Etobicoke-Lakeshore – which has been liberal for a decade – the campaign team hand-picked their candidate dissuading all others. But they picked Councillor Peter Milzcyn a candidate who was viewed by most voters in the community as being a Conservative and served on Rob Ford’s executive. The general public didn’t look at his history as a Liberal Party riding president, it’s only party insiders who noted that but less active Liberals didn’t trust him and stayed home on election day.
The role of the politician is to represent what voters want. But when party staff show up as political candidates voters worry that their loyalty will be to the party bureaucracy first and because of the gas plant scandal, the next election campaign is sure to focus on the issue of Liberal Campaign staff having too much power. If it does any candidate who is or was a political staffer will have a tough time winning.
Premier Wynne needs to prove to voters that she is strong enough to curtail the bureaucracy, to take control away from her staff and put it back into the hands of the elected officials.
I recommend three actions to the Premier:
First — set up a campaign selection committee of politicians who can and will stand up to the campaign team and work to dissuade staff or former staff from running as candidates.
Second — have the candidate selection committee review the candidates her staff have already put in place. There are ridings that now have current or former Queens Park staff as candidates, that have had staff pack the nomination meetings in order to get their guy in. As things now stand they are very likely to lose those ridings for the same reason they lost so many in the byelections … voters will see staff or former staff as the bureaucracy weaseling in to gain even more power. Staff should be encouraged not to be involved in any way in the nominations. I have met many of these “staff” candidates and know them to be good solid people — but unfortunately the trust voters have in Queens Park staff or former staff or anyone tied to the bureaucracy is at an all-time low.
Third — have the candidate selection committee entice strong active community advocates to run for them. They need to select people who aren’t afraid to say what they think, who have name recognition and are active in their communities. Voters need to trust that their candidate will not only represent their issues, but stand up to the powerful bureaucracy that a decade of government has enabled.