“It’s like we’ve become House of Cards,” is how one Progressive Conservative Party member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, described their party’s candidate nomination process. With a rush of nomination contests being held in advance of a spring provincial election in Alberta, the member said “the entire process has gone straight to hell.”
A number of frustrated PC Party members have contacted me over the past few weeks to vent their frustration with interference by senior cabinet ministers and party officials in local nomination contests, especially in rural constituencies where long-standing PC Party loyalists are challenging former Wildrose MLAs who crossed the floor to the PC Party in December 2014.
Over the past few months, cabinet ministers have criss-crossed the province to campaign and be seen alongside their favoured candidate nominees. The interference is coming from “the boys on the third floor,” said another disaffected PC activist, referring to the Premier’s Office, which is located on the third floor of the Legislative Assembly Building.
While hurt feelings, drama and even the odd scandal are not uncommon in party nomination contests, the increased number of controversies arising from PC nomination contests this year could be a cause of concern for the 44-year long governing party. In many Alberta constituencies, winning the PC nomination is a more challenging campaign than winning the actual election.
When running for the PC leadership last year, Jim Prentice promised to restore trust in a PC Party badly damaged by former Premier Alison Redford, but the latest nomination controversies undermine his promise and will likely increase cynicism among Alberta voters.
Here is a quick run-down of some of the more contentious nomination races that have been reported in by the media:
– PC MLA Naresh Bhardwaj resigned as Associate Minister for Persons with Disabilities last Friday pending an investigation by the PC Party into allegations of bribery in the recent Edmonton-Ellerslie nomination contest. Metro Edmonton first reported that a party member publicly accused Mr. Bhardwaj of offering him, through another person, a $10,000 bribe in return for recanting his support for candidate Balraj Manhas. Mr. Bhardwaj, who was acclaimed as the PC candidate, has stated that he plans to clear his name.
– As I suspected in February, former Calgary Police Chief Rick Hanson was appointed by Mr. Prentice as the PC Party’s candidate in Calgary-Cross. Normally, the appointment of this type of star candidate is celebrated, but in this case, there were at least six other candidates already campaigning for the nomination. Although the party leader has the power to appoint the candidates of his choosing, it is a delicate balance not to offend or alienate local party organizers.
– One day before the Edmonton-Meadowlark PC nomination vote on March 14, 2015, candidate Tom Choucair was disqualified after another candidate, Steve Benson, alleged someone from another candidate’s campaign offered him money to drop out of the race. Mr. Benson announced in an email sent to the local PC Association that he had filed an affidavit with the party. “Personally, the party wants a particular person to be the nominee,” Mr. Choucair told CBC. Former Globe & Mail reporter Katherine O’Neill won the nomination vote this weekend.
CBC reporter John Archer has written about the strange details behind the Meadowlark nomination controversy, including mistaken phone calls from senior staff in the Premier’s Office and a former Edmonton City Councillor.
– Don Martin, a 2012 Wildrose candidate and a 2015 nomination candidate in Edmonton-Decore, claims he was forced out of the nomination contest by a PC Party official. Mr. Martin posted his account of the situation on his Facebook page, claiming he was forced out of the race amid wrongful accusations of misconduct and threats of a mystery affidavit. His withdrawal from the nomination led to PC MLA Janice Sarich being acclaimed as the PC candidate.
– Defeated nomination candidate Dixie Dahlstedt submitted an official complaint to the PC Party about the conduct of the party’s nomination vote in the Bonnyville-Cold Lake constituency. Ms. Dahlstedt’s complaint lists a series of objections about the organization of the nomination, alleged conflicts of interest, and calls for the party to conduct an inquiry. The nomination vote was won by Cold Lake Mayor Craig Copeland.
Only two remaining constituencies – Chestermere-Rockyview and Calgary-McCall – have not yet scheduled nomination contests, leaving some PC Party members to speculate that Mr. Prentice is aiming to appoint candidates in those spots.