The Table Stakes

Forget Mark Carney. We need “electable” candidates like Jim Karygiannis in this race!

Now that we know who can run for Liberal leader (namely, anyone with $75,000 and 300 signatures), the question becomes who should run:

“We have to be careful not to think that somebody who wants to raise his or her profile or somebody who wants to pursue a particular single issue should see this as an attainable platform to do that,” New Brunswick MP and prospective leadership candidate Dominic Leblanc told Postmedia News earlier this month.

“What I think Liberals want are a number of good candidates with broad skill sets and different experiences so that the party has a choice between people they can see one day as occupying the Prime Minister’s Office, not somebody who has other ambitions.”

“The ability to win one’s own seat is to extent a judgment of one’s own electability,” he said.

“So party members will have to ask themselves a whole bunch of questions around what are the skills and the attributes they want for somebody who will be leader, and surely electability will be one of the main factors, I would hope.”

I don’t know why anyone would want to limit the pool of candidates to elected MPs at a time when that’s a pretty shallow pool. Brian Mulroney never held elected office before becoming PC leader, and it’s hard to argue Mark Carney wouldn’t be a formidable candidate if he decided to test the waters.

While we can all agree electing an electable leader might be a nice change, winning a seat isn’t the best litmus test to judge electability. Unless, of course, you believe Lise St-Denis is more electable than Ken Dryden.

If we take Leblanc’s argument to its logical conclusion, we could just rank Liberal candidates by their share of the popular vote – in which case, the media should be paying way more attention to Scott Simms (58% of the vote) than Justin Trudeau (38% of the vote). It also stands to reason that Martha Hall Findlay (40% of the vote) is more “electable” than, say, Dominic Leblanc (39% of the vote). A lot of good Liberals lost their seats last election through no fault of their own, and we’d be foolish to turn our backs on them because they didn’t have the good fortune to be running in downtown Toronto.

Still, we can probably all agree that some of the names being floated at the moment are not credible candidates, by any definition of the word. So what should be done with the half dozen fringe candidates who have no realistic shot at winning?

I disagree that leadership races are just about winning. After all, when I signed up for Dominic Leblanc’s leadership team in 2008, I didn’t hold any delusions about him winning – but I truly felt he would make the best leader and that he brought a different perspective to the table as a young Acadian MP from a largely rural riding. Likewise, I feel the current race needs a candidate from Western Canada, and if none of our four MPs west of Guelph want to run, I’m all for having someone else carry that banner.

What prospective candidates need to ask themselves is why they’re running and what they bring to the race. If this is nothing more than fantasy baseball camp – paying $75,000 for the opportunity to see their name in the newspaper and debate Justin Trudeau – then they don’t have any business being in this contest. If it’s only about raising their profile, I’d suggest they’re better served avoiding the risk of becoming a punch line for the Rick Mercer Report and instead working towards a riding nomination in 2015.

But if someone has a unique message, and they’re able to passionately and eloquently advocate it, I think there’s a place for them on that stage. When I say “unique message”, I don’t mean the usual platitudes (“I’m fiscally conservative and socially progressive“) – the Liberal Party needs bold ideas, and a leadership race is a great time to discuss them. If this contest turns out to be nothing more than a training ground for Justin Trudeau, we’ll all benefit by forcing him into a substantive dialogue about the issues of the day.

I do recognize the risk of no-name candidates sucking up the oxygen, but there are tangible benefits to a larger field beyond the usual feel good platitudes about democracy. Specifically, candidates with different backgrounds advocating for overlooked issues will appeal to Canadians who wouldn’t otherwise care one bit about who leads the third place party in Ottawa. Martin Singh and Niki Ashton were never going to win the NDP leadership race, but they still signed up thousands of Canadians, many of whom will stay involved with the NDP.

Not every long-shot candidate is going to engage otherwise overlooked voters, and they won’t all bring something substantive to the table. But those who do should not only be allowed to run – they should be encouraged to.

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11 responses to “The Table Stakes”

  1. I am just wondering. I have seen you and others bandy about the name Mark Carney. I know there hasn’t been any public indication that he is interested in elected office at this time – but is there any information that would point to him even being interested in the Federal Liberal Party even if he was going to run?

    His language and policies just seem to be similar to Minister Flaherty’s. Is the Mark Carney stream just wishful thinking at this point – or is there something I missed along the way.

    • Colin – I don’t think Carney will run, but I figured he was the best example of why we might not want to limit ourselves to MPs.

      No, there’s no indication at all that he’s interested or that he’s even a Liberal. But I know there have been serious efforts by Liberal organizers to convince him to run.

  2. What do you see as the line between sucking oxygen and presenting a bold idea? I too believe the LPC needs a true visionary leader but I think the party and Canadians for that matter are only ready for something safe. What would be the idea(s) people would be willing to stretch for?

    • I’d loosely draw the line as presenting policies others aren’t talking about – and ones that would actually cause Canadians to take note during a general election.

      That may be somewhat ambiguous, but it’s an ambiguous distinction.

      For a concrete example, I think someone like Deborah Coyne who literally has over 20 detailed policy papers on her website – many on topics others aren’t touching – is useful to have on the stage during a debate. She’ll force the other candidates to argue their position.

      • Wow – she does indeed touch a number of topics. Is this common for leadership candidates or is it because she’s something of a policy wonk?

        [Like that she wants Parliament to look at electoral reform with an eye to STV and AV.]

        • Well when you’re running for the leadership of a party with little policy a candidate might as well put out a ton of policy, especially when the leader is the only one who decides policy.

      • The breadth of topics could be good or bad. If all the candidates are basically painting the same vision for the LPC and Canada then these topics become a point of differentiation and conversation. If the candidates paint different visions of the future then these additional topics have the potential to become distractions.

        I do hope the latter case is true – because it means we can have some real discussions about where Canada is heading rather than “we’re not them”.

  3. Deborah Coyne does have an interesting site, but truth to tell when you wash away all the slagging of the Conservatives and nice sounding but hopeless vague blather, there’s not much there.

    She is clear on a few points: She wants a carbon tax. Ergo if she ever ran for the Liberals, she’d lose and rightly so. But how do you see that playing out in a leader’s debate? It would be a tragedy if the party got saddled with supporting a carbon tax just because Coyne put everyone on the spot.

    As for changing balloting, she basically says, let someone (else) lay out the options, then we’ll have a referendum. Has she not noticed that

    (a) Canadians have on interest in changing the system

    (b) That when asked, they’ve always rejected it. In Ontario, the PR system received the most decisive defeat of any political initiative in Canadian history: the vote was what 65% against and every riding but one rejected it.

    That parrot’s dead!

    • I tend to agree with you that the public doesn’t seem quite as keen as polisci students when it comes to changing the electoral system.

      I do think there might be appetite for QP reform, more free votes, and some initiatives of that sort, but I can’t see a change to a PR or STV system anytime in the next 20 years.

  4. Of course that should read Canadian have *no* interest in changing the system.

    And referenda should really be used only to decide the great and non-partisan issues of the day; not things that are non-issues, except for politics addicts.

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