Photo Credit: Original Cartoon: Greg Perry | The Tyee; caption revised by VanIsle Staff

The Slimy Underbelly of Choosing Premiers

Our regular elections are fair, why are leadership races so scandalous?

Recent party leadership contests have been more like mud wrestling in a cesspool

Canadians think our politics and elections as pretty free from sleazy shenanigans.

Generally, we’re right. And that’s something to be proud of.

Our elections are short. They don’t cost us a lot, at least not compared to the political money orgies down south. And they’re free from the violence, intimidation, and fraud that happens in other countries.

But that’s not how our party leaders get chosen. That’s where the sleazy underbelly is hiding.

Most Canadians think voters choose provincial and federal leaders in a general election. But lately, that’s not how things have worked.

If a Premier steps down, someone needs to take their place, and the party chooses that person.

Wait, how’s that?

Take Christy Clark. She wasn’t even an elected official when she took over the BC Liberals. But after Gordon Campbell resigned, the party chose her as the leader. She won a seat in a by-election, and ta-da! SHE’s THE NEW PREMIER. British Columbian voters didn’t get to vote on leadership until the general election two years later.

At the best of times, leaders are chosen in a leadership race by folks who’ve signed up to be members of that party. At the worst of times, leaders have been picked by a few party insiders.

Scenarios like this have happened a lot.

Once the BC NDP choose their new leader this fall, eight of our last ten Premiers will have gotten the job this way.

In Alberta, seven of the nine most recent Premiers took power in a similar way.

Here’s where things get shady. Party leadership contests haven’t been calm and straightforward like our general elections. Instead, they’ve been more like mud wrestling in a cesspool.

Virtually every recent leadership contest has been rocked by allegations of fake memberships, fake candidates, questionable finances, and voter fraud.

They’re a gong show.


In leadership contests, parties make up their own rules. And there’s almost no independent oversight. So other than spending caps, Elections Canada, Elections BC and Elections Alberta take a hands-off approach.

That leaves the door open for nonsense. And recently, things have been nasty.

Jaw-dropping scams have tainted the last two Alberta leadership races. The RCMP is still investigating allegations that one candidate (Jason Kenney) ran another candidate’s campaign (Jeff Callaway) to stop a third candidate (Brian Jean) from winning the United Conservative Party (UCP) leadership race in 2019.

Three years later, the slimy tactics returned. In Jason Kenney’s recent leadership review, UCP party leaders changed the location of the vote, the rules, and who was on the voters list to smooth things out for Kenney. His win was still so slim he had to step down anyway.

Things aren’t much better in BC. In the recent BC Liberal leadership race, there were lots of allegations of voting fraud. The campaign managers for five of the seven contestants filed a complaint that thousands of “members” who voted weren’t real. They might have been real people, but they weren’t actual members.

When these campaign managers reviewed membership lists, they found members who:

  • Share the same phone number or email address; 
  • Share the same phone number or email address, but live in different houses or even ridings; 
  • Used addresses like businesses, parking lots, and even a forest service road; and
  • Used out-of-province phone numbers and/or addresses.

Their complaint added, “Additionally, some campaigns have been contacting members by phone and in-person who attest that they have no idea that they are members, who the BC Liberal Party is, and/or that a leadership race is underway.”

How could actual party members have no idea they’d signed up to choose a new leader? Hmmm???

The only two campaigns that didn’t file a complaint were the winner, Kevin Falcon, and also-ran Val Litwin.

The NDP isn’t looking so hot, either. Premier Horgan was the acclaimed leader in 2014 without a race, and it seems like David Eby will get the job the same way. That means even the party’s members have no say in who fills the big chair.

The last time the NDP had an election to choose their leader was in 2011. Adrian Dix’s leadership win was full of rumours of similar fake membership scams back then.

Federal political parties aren’t much better when it comes to picking a leader. Patrick Brown has been ousted from Conservative leadership race. He’s been accused of dirty tricks around—you guessed it—party memberships. Brown has since called the race “rigged” and says the party wants to install their favourite candidate, Pierre Poilievre.

We know from regular elections that we’re capable of being fair and above board. So are we really okay with leadership races that are so full of scandal?

The “winners” in those scandals immediately become Premier. And unfortunately, that’s usually how we get our new Premiers.

Is that really the kind of democracy we want?

We don’t think so. We think British Columbians, Canadians (and Albertans) deserve better.