OTTAWA — Liberal MPs won't have to fight for the right to carry the ruling party's banner in the next election — provided their riding war chest is at least half full and they've made concerted efforts to keep in contact with voters.
Under new rules unveiled at a Liberal caucus meeting Sunday, incumbents who meet those and several other conditions by Oct. 1 will be acclaimed as candidates for the 2019 election, without the bother of having to win open nomination contests.
The new rules represent an about-face for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who ended the Liberal party's 20-year-old practice of protecting incumbents from nomination challenges when he took the helm in 2013.
At the time, the Liberals had been reduced to third-party status with fewer than 35 seats in the House of Commons. Trudeau argued that forcing open nominations across the board, including for incumbent MPs, would help develop the ground organization the party needed to claw its way out of the political wilderness.
And he pointed to his own tough nomination battle in Montreal's Papineau riding in 2008 as proof.
"Everything I achieved in the rest of my career, including this leadership run, I owe directly to that nomination race because it taught me about working on the ground, it taught me about organizing, it taught me how to win over people step by step," Trudeau said in an interview several months before winning the Liberal leadership in a landslide.
Other senior Liberals maintained that shielding incumbents from nomination challenges had bred a culture of entitlement that was at least partly responsible for the years of internecine leadership feuding that ultimately led to the once-mighty party's downfall.
But that was then.
Now, there are 183 Liberal MPs and they've been lobbying hard for a reprieve from nomination contests, arguing that they shouldn't have to waste time fighting off potential challengers while they're supposed to be in Ottawa working on government business — particularly when a 2016 change in party membership rules has made it much easier for an individual to mount a challenge.
The party has done away with paid memberships and now allows anyone willing to register for free as a Liberal supporter to vote in nomination contests.
"We are busy doing our jobs and it's not only just a distraction but I think it's unfair to the voters," said Montreal MP Alexandra Mendes, adding that she's "very comfortable" with the new rules.
After what the party says was the most extensive consultation ever conducted on the nomination process, the party's national board approved the new rules. Among the conditions to be acclaimed, an MP and his or her riding team must have:
— taken part in at least two "voter contact day of action" events in the previous 12 months.
— knocked on at least 3,500 doors or made 5,000 phone calls.
— stocked the riding war chest with money amounting to at least half of the riding's anticipated election expenses limit for the 2019 election and provided a written plan for raising the other half.
— signed up at least 30 new monthly donors, based on the number of such donors as of Jan. 1, 2016 or Jan. 1, 2018, whichever is less.
— signatures of support from at least 150 registered Liberals in the riding.
As well, the national campaign chair must be satisfied that an incumbent has fulfilled his or her duties as an MP.
In ridings where there is no sitting Liberal MP, the local Liberal association must document that it has conducted a thorough search for women candidates, have at least 15 per cent of the election expenses limit in its bank account, have at least 150 registered Liberals in the riding and have recruited at least 15 new monthly donors before the party will allow a nomination contest to be called.
In the run-up to the 2015 election, Trudeau's vow to allow open nominations in every riding was questioned by some would-be candidates who complained that their contests were rigged to favour so-called stars recruited by the leader. Two contenders who were barred from running in nomination battles filed defamation suits against the leader and his campaign team, which were eventually settled out of court after the election.
The new rules give the national campaign's green light committee, which vets potential nomination contestants, "sole and unfettered" discretion to decide if there are financial, legal, ethical or "any other political considerations" which would justify barring someone from seeking a nomination.
They also continue to give the leader unfettered discretion to refuse to endorse anyone's candidacy and to appoint candidates in as many ridings as he sees fit — powers that were on the books in 2015 but which Trudeau did not use.