COLUMN: Constituency at the centre

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Russ Hiebert’s band of Conservative followers in South Surrey-White Rock-Cloverdale is somewhat divided at present, over issues such as his spending and communication with both party members and the general public. (See story at http://bit.ly/ifzNbb).

Hiebert’s expenses were the second-highest in the country in 2008-09, and prompted a great deal of outrage last year. He was on the hot seat, as he deserved to be, for spending that was higher than all other B.C. MPs.

Some members of the executive of his riding association have stepped aside over that issue and how he communicates with both party members and the public. They feel there is too much “spin” and not enough emphasis on facts and issues.

This may be a bit unfair. Hiebert recently hosted a very successful electronic town hall meeting on the economy with finance minister Jim Flaherty.

What may well be at the heart of the whole matter, however, is the fact that Hiebert and other Conservative MPs cannot be challenged for the nomination, once they are sitting MPs.

While this issue has received little attention from members of the Ottawa press gallery who are almost constantly telling us that the country is on the cusp of an election, it deserves a great deal more. It is an affront to democracy, particularly in ridings like Hiebert’s, where the Conservatives have a virtual lock on winning the seat again.

In addition to the anti-democratic nature of such an edict from Conservative party headquarters, it is indicative of the top-down control from the party leader and prime minister, Stephen Harper.

It is a far cry from the way the Progressive Conservative party, one of the present Conservative party’s ancestors, operated when it was the ruling party in the days of Brian Mulroney’s prime ministership. It is even farther removed from the way the Reform party, the current party’s other antecedent, operated.

The PCs held the Surrey-White Rock riding from 1974 to 1993 under longtime MP Benno Friesen. He won the initial nomination at a time when it wasn’t clear if the PCs could win the seat, which had been held by NDP MP Barry Mather for 12 years.

In the four subsequent elections he contested, there was a formal nomination process and he could always face a challenge for that nomination. Ultimately, it was up to party members to decide who their candidate would be.

Reform took the democratic process further, with members given a great deal of latitude. In fact, Reform members in North Vancouver nominated controversial columnist Doug Collins as their candidate, and it was only because party leader Preston Manning intervened that he did not contest the 1993 federal election.

Harper has consolidated a great deal of power into his office. Some of this may have been seen as necessary in a minority government situation, but that power should never extend to giving MPs immunity from a nomination challenge.

Harper is trying to build the Conservative party into a “natural governing party,” taking advantage of continued weakness in Liberal ranks. But he must not forget that individual party members in each riding need to have the ability to select the person they think will best serve the constituency.

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