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Media Bites: Choosing a Party Leader Should Be "Un-Conventional"

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Nationalization, the belief that the government should occasionally seize control of private enterprise to better serve the "public good," isn't an idea with much traction in Canadian politics these days -- despite the NDP's best efforts. Though the party may have officially ditched socialism this weekend (or at least stopped denouncing "the making of profit") one imagines future Dipper gatherings will continue to entertain Minister Flaherty with Marxian demands for the immediate transfer of energy, banking, and auto firms from private hands to "workers' control." If we learned anything from yesterday's convention, it's that it's a lot easier to take socialism out of the NDP than the NDP out of socialists.

But if Canada's political parties can still muster a vigorous debate on the pros and cons of making Chrysler a public good, no one contests that political parties themselves should remain anything but private.

Amid all the cliched outrage about "corporate politics," it's worth remembering that Canadian political parties are, in fact, literal corporations. They have hierarchical management structures, slick Bay Street offices, vast vaults of money, and armies of employees. And open memberships notwithstanding, publicly traded they ain't.

As countless partisan sinners have learned -- Senator Brazeau most recently -- membership in a Canadian party is a privilege, not a right. You pay a fee and get a card, but unlike a share of stock, the party boss reserves the right to yank it back for any misdeed, real or imagined. Decisions supposedly delegated to the membership, such as nominating parliamentary candidates, can be (and often are) vetoed by head office. There are Dairy Queens with more independence.

In this oppressive context, it's unsurprising Canadian party membership as a percentage of the population languishes around 1 per cent. The Liberals made much fuss yesterday about how Justin was elected Grit leader by the "largest turnout of any party race in Canadian history," but with only 104,552 casting a ballot, that's still a depressingly lower figure than say, the 416,000 Canadians who are fans of Doritos on Facebook.

If there's any Canadian industry crying out for nationalization, in short, it's this one. Unlike General Motors or CIBC, political parties have literally no reason to exist beyond serving the public interest. We need parties to form governments in our parliamentary system, and they provide the lifeblood of choice in elections. Joining a political party is the only way a citizen can directly elect a prime minister following an incumbent's resignation -- as Liberals did in 2003 -- and for that matter, it's the only way to elect a prime ministerial candidate. Surely these are powers too crucial to be outsourced to the private sector.

Imagine how much healthier our democracy would be after we forcibly seize the assets of the Conservatives, Liberals, and NDP and place them in the hands of a well-suited government manager -- Elections Canada. Under their neutral administration, any Canadian could join any publicly-owned party they want and stay a member as long as they desire, without having to pay any fees, demonstrate any loyalty, or pass any ideological litmus test.

Once they stop being the political equivalent of the Best Western Loyalty Club, joining a political party would be like registering to vote in a federal election -- a one-time form mailed to Ottawa without any dollar bills attached (voting without paying? Wild, I know). Harper, Justin, and Tom wouldn't judge your fitness to be a Tory, Liberal or New Democrat -- you would. After parties become public utilities, a right to party membership would become as sacred as the right to vote itself -- a right the Supreme Court says we can't even strip from convicts serving life sentences.

Sticking Elections Canada in charge would similarly ensure all future party leaders are chosen through open and accessible national elections -- not cliquey party conventions -- using the standard paper-ballot-and-church-basement system we use to elect MPs and provincial legislators. Party bosses would be picked by millions instead of thousands; MP candidates by thousands instead of dozens.

Is there a downside to nationalization? American political parties are basically run this way already, and they seem robust enough. We could still have some sort of Liberal Largess Council or Tory Trust to help fundraise and distribute cash to candidates -- but they wouldn't "run" the parties any more than the Republican and Democratic National Committees run theirs. The people would.

Naturally, some hard-core partisans might worry that allowing every yahoo to vote and run for every partisan office could lead to a breakdown of ideological consistency and message control. What if a rabid right-winger registers as an NDPer just to vote in their nomination elections and elect the worst guy? Hell, what if he runs for leader?

My guess? No one cares enough to be that psychopathic. Some US states allow anyone -- even members of the opposite party -- to vote in Democrat or Republican primaries, and there's little evidence this has affected anything. No less a psycho than Rush Limbaugh tried to get Republicans to vote for Hillary over Obama in 2008 as part of some would-be sabotage. It didn't take.

As it stands, Canada's political parties are a textbook example of the sort of crooked corporate cartel socialists originally arose to oppose: enormously rich, conspiratorially unaccountable, and corrosively corrupting of the democratic process. The era of peoples' republics and peoples' corporations may be over (even in the NDP) but people's parties? Why not?

If the track record of nationalization is any indication, the absolute worst-case scenario is incompetent state-administration drives Canada's parties into economic collapse, forcing us to start afresh.

What a shame that'd be.

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