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2011 Election, Federal Politics

The Catch-22 of Third Party Candidates

There was something that stuck out to me yesterday in Andrew Coyne’s Liberal endorsement, and it stayed with me for the rest of the day. In narrowing his choice of party down, he had this to say about eliminating the NDP and the Green Party from the first round:

I can eliminate two options off the top. While both the NDP and the Greens offer appealing proposals for democratic reform, I can’t bring myself to vote for either. It isn’t only their policies—the enormous increases in spending and taxes, the ill-judged market interventions—but their personnel. Simply put, neither party is ready for government.

I wanted to disagree with Coyne on this: I wanted to say that his discounting of quality candidates and dedicated public servants and worthwhile policies was flippant, and there is still a part of me that thinks his summary dismissal of these two important parties was made rather quickly. They received one small paragraph in a 1000+ word article.

But it got me thinking. And I realized he has a point. In their efforts to field 308 candidates in every riding from coast to coast to coast, sometimes the pool of available candidates can run…shallow, I suppose. As a party, you attract better candidates the more money you have, the higher your profile, and the better your odds of winning. And one of the best ways to win is to run high-profile, qualified, and knowledgeable candidates that you can best attract with the promise of winning.Yet if you do not have 308 qualified candidates, many parties feel obligated to run 308 regardless, many likely unfit for the job.

Some parties have done their best to field the most qualified candidates they can find, but not all of them are winners. The example of the Quebec NDP candidate that ran in the Toronto Star today who cannot speak French and took vacations in Las Vegas during the campaign is just one example of candidate selection being bungled.

Volunteering in the Community

But this is not the norm, I would wager. Layton is obviously fit to govern his party, and has been elected time and again. Elizabeth May is no doubt ready to represent the fine people of Saanich-Gulf Islands, and deserves the right to be their MP. She was ready in 2008, but made a poor choice of where to run. Anyone who saw May speak at the Rally for Democracy in Toronto can attest to May’s passion and knowledge: she is a natural, and I sincerely hope for her and her party that she makes history on Monday. But to be frank, I am equally sure there are many candidates in both parties that would not know what on Earth to do if they won. And that’s a scary thought.

It’s a vicious Catch-22 for the younger parties like the NDP and the Greens, and their greenhorn candidates. Truth be told, they cannot become better equipped to lead this country without practical, political experience, preferably at the federal level, but not always. And for those community organizers active on every volunteer board and community group, it is almost impossible to break through and gain the experience everyone says you need to compete.

And so we keep electing the same trove of people with ‘experience,’ typically Liberals and Conservatives with their long reaches into Canada’s past, and more recently the NDP with their growing base of support. But for those trying to break into the scene, it’s the same old, same old:

No experience? No job. No job? No experience.

And you have to feel for them. In most cases, these candidates are the most dedicated and passionate public servants we have: those people who volunteer to wash dishes in soup kitchens and spend countless hours away from family and friends to sit on volunteer community boards to know they are making a difference in their community. These are the kind of people we want to create as citizens of this country. But these skills, which used to be vital in any political figure, have become so far removed from the skill set needed to win – let alone survive – in Ottawa that it is becoming increasingly difficult to acquire those job skills.

And so thousands of incredible candidates will be out of luck on May 2. Many will go back to their day jobs, and their more immediate passions. They will stay engaged and involved, because it’s what they love to do. But the chances of them leading their constituents into power in Ottawa remains dreadfully slim under this system of governance.

And that’s a shame.

About awreeves

Editor-in-chief at Alternatives Journal. Author of 'Overrun: Dispatches from the Asian carp Crisis'.


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