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NPA's Backroom Needs Airing

Secret dealings favour machine politics over civic spirit.

By Charles Campbell 26 Sep 2005 | TheTyee.ca

Charles Campbell edited the Georgia Straight weekly for 11 years, and helped to establish the venerable alternative newspaper as an influential and respected voice in the Vancouver media. As the Vancouver Sun's entertainment editor, he increased the section's readership by more than 30 percent in two years. Most recently, he served on the Sun's editorial board.

As an editor and writer he's been closely involved in work that has won more than 60 awards. In 2000, he was honoured with a Southam Fellowship by the University of Toronto's Massey College.

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It took more than three hours to count the ballots at the NPA nomination meeting at the Vancouver Marriot Pinnacle on Hastings, Saturday afternoon. The coffee ran out, then the water. Sam Sullivan stalwarts, with the exception of his parents, seemed to be steeled for the worst. Most sat disconsolately, their Sullivan signs slumped idly against their chairs.

Some Sullivan supporters seemed surprised when they were told that the NPA had no intention of announcing the actual vote count in the fiercely contested race. "They better," said one.

After all, there was a sense among them that the nomination was being bought. The powerful campaign machine of Christy Clark, the telegenic carpetbagger from Port Moody, signed up 2,300 members in just 10 days before the vote. The earnest good soldier Sam Sullivan, who learned Cantonese so he could better represent Vancouver's large Chinese population, managed just 1,000, despite his six-month head start in the nomination campaign and 12 years as an NPA councillor.

Asked if the party intended to announce the vote totals in the race, NPA campaign co-chair Peter Hyndman barely had time to answer before former city councillor Lynne Kennedy broke in with a slightly incredulous "Why?"

We'll get to those reasons. Right now the question is "Why not?"

'People's feelings'

Hyndman said it's not common practice to announce vote totals at nomination meetings, unless the presence of multiple candidates requires run-offs. "I think it's largely a matter of people's feelings, of respect for the candidates and their privacy," he explained.

Ah, yes, and out of respect for their feelings and privacy the candidates' scrutineers aren't going to tell them or anybody else how many votes they got. Sullivan won by between 50 and 80 votes, according to several media reports. Sorry, Christy, if I or any of my colleagues have violated your privacy or hurt your feelings by reporting this terrible fact.

Hyndman's reason is totally spurious, of course. The practice of secrecy has more to do with bad habit, lack of general public interest, and the persistent tendency of backroom politicos to keep from public view all things the public does not demand to see.

Why should political parties disclose the number of votes received by candidates at nomination meetings? For the same reasons that those same parties should tighten membership rules to limit mass sign-ups, institute nomination-campaign spending guidelines, and make their enterprise as transparent as possible. They should do it so that those who actively participate in party politics don't feel screwed, and so the public can have complete confidence in a critical component of our democracy.

After all, with very few exceptions, the people we elect to public office are first chosen by political parties. And many voters are deeply suspicious and resentful of the backroom manipulations aimed at controlling the names that appear on our ballots.

Votes against the Marrisen machine

That's one of the central reasons why Sullivan beat the former Liberal deputy premier on Saturday. The majority of NPA members who took the time to vote didn't like the idea that the NPA nomination could be acquired not through service to the citizens of Vancouver but through attachment to a high-powered Liberal political organizing machine. A machine that happens to be operated by Christy Clark's husband, Mark Marrisen.

They didn't like a Marrisen machine that steamrollered longtime federal Liberal constituency stalwarts if they failed to declare their fealty to Paul Martin during the last national Liberal leadership race. They didn't like a campaign machine that helped to bring David Basi and Robert Virk, the BC Liberal political aides now charged with fraud and breach of trust, into positions of influence. They didn't like a campaign machine with a reputation for generating "instant memberships" in the South Asian community. They didn't like the idea that Gordon Campbell supporters like Marrisen and NPA veteran Marty Zlotnick should be able to install a candidate who, until this week, has never lived in the City of Vancouver.

Resentment of backroom manipulations was also one of the reasons the late Reform/Alliance/Conservative MP Chuck Cadman won a rare and resounding victory as an independent candidate in the last federal election. Voters in Surrey North were deeply offended that the humble MP lost in a stacked Conservative nomination meeting to former TV news anchor Jasbir Singh Cheema.

Concern about backroom power and influence is also the main reason the NDP needs to stop giving organized labour significant blocks of delegates at party conventions.

Public confidence at stake

The NPA might say in its defence that at least it had a contested nomination process. COPE's five council candidates were all acclaimed on Sunday, and Vision Vancouver's five council candidates, running with mayoral contender Jim Green, were selected by the consensus of insiders. Christy Clark might say that Sam Sullivan had a pretty good campaign organization himself, one with ties to the federal Conservatives.

However, it's also true that vote totals were announced at the vigorously contested COPE council slate nomination meeting three years ago.

More importantly, it's also true that pointing at the behaviour of others does not excuse you from improving your own practices.

Why should political parties be more transparent and, in the bargain, less susceptible to the influence of money and power? Because it will result in greater public confidence in the party political process. And that will ultimately give us better government.

Charles Campbell is a contributing editor to The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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