Candidate Vetting: Then and Now

This will be the last in the series of posts dealing with my relationship with Joe Clark. It deals with vetting candidates for Parliament.

The Background

In a 1977 by-election in the Quebec riding of Terrebonne, the local riding association nominated Roger Delorme, a local broadcaster. It turned out – and this was known before his nomination – that Delorme had a history of antisemitic statements on-air, including three years previously “Zionism is Nazism and racism … Zionism rhymes with racism … Zionism is synonymous with Nazism and synonymous with racism.” He denied that six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust and claimed Anne Frank’s diary was a forgery.

Carole Uhlaner and I wrote Joe Clark, asking him to refuse to endorse the nomination. Clark stuck with Delorme, writing us back that “Mr. Delorme categorically and publicly accepted the position of the party on the policy in question, before and after he won a duly constituted, and contested, nominating meeting. I telephoned him the day before that meeting, as soon as I became aware of the views attributed to him, and secured a personal and unqualified commitment to support the position of the party. … there was never any serious question that Mr. Delorme would oppose, or deviate from, the clear support of the Progressive Conservative Party for the right to exist of the State of Israel.”

The Liberal candidate defeated Delorme in the by-election by the 10,000 votes (25,000 to 15,000). Delorme’s loyalty to party policy was never tested and he disappeared from politics. Indeed, my cursory online search found no mention of him other than this election.

The Bigger Principle

In his letter to us, Clark enunciated a broader position. “To reject a candidate who has publicly embraced the Party position but has in the past expressed outrageous views would establish the precedent of having to examine every past utterance of every potential candidate. More significantly, it would have enlarged, dangerously in my view, the capacity of a party leader to impose his private views upon his party, and thus to limit freedom of expression and choice.”

Clark wrote this in 1977. Since then, the Internet and social media have become vast reservoirs in which to search for the outrageous views and embarrassing actions of every potential candidate. “Oppo research” is widely practiced, and it is now commonplace for Canadian parties to withdraw support for candidates who are discovered to have skeletons in their digital closets. The latest instance, which played out over the last few days, involved Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath dropping former Ajax mayor Steve Parish. In 2007, Parish supported the naming of Langsdorff Avenue in Ajax after a World War II German naval captain, albeit one who scuttled his damaged ship and then committed suicide. The Jewish community pressed Horwath to repudiate Parrish; she initially supported him, but a few days later changed her mind.

Fair Game

Now that every potential candidate’s words, utterances, and deeds and readily available online, there will be fewer candidates who can pass the obligatory background check. Roger Delorme and Steve Parrish provide an interesting comparison. A current-day background check would undoubtedly have disqualified Delorme, which would have been the right decision given his numerous anti-Semitic statements. I think Clark was wrong in assuming that the issue at question was whether Delorme would have supported the Party’s position on Israel; the disqualifier was Delorme’s antisemitism. Parish’s support for naming a street after a German officer in retrospect was unwise, but not evidence of antisemitism comparable to Delorme’s. Nonetheless, he was disqualified.

But I think Clark is right that the existence of oppo research has limited freedom of expression on the part of people interested in entering politics. To a certain extent, it is a good thing if it makes them think twice about promulgating extreme and ill-considered views. But it may well be the case that written or spoken words and decisions can be spun in ways that make people unelectable. Michael Ignatieff’s extensive written corpus certainly provided grist for Conservative opposition research, especially when he was speaking or writing in an ironic tone.

Trust me, I have no political ambitions. This blog makes that a certainty.

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