Tory MP used public funds to back candidate
"As we prepare for the next federal election, the following few months are extremely important. The prime minister wants the party to present the best slate of candidates possible in all 308 ridings," MP Greg Thompson wrote on Commons letterhead of the contest to replace him in New Brunswick Southwest.
"I also believe it is important that you know exactly why I'm supporting John Williamson as our next Conservative candidate and MP."
The letter, sent using parliamentary mailing privileges, is one of a list of grievances cited by local Tories over how the nomination contest unfolded in one of Canada's largest ridings.
Williamson, who resigned as Stephen Harper's director of communications to run, won handily on nomination voting day Oct. 23, with nearly 60 per cent of the ballots.
"It certainly doesn't give people confidence that they're part of a democratic process," said Lloyd Wilson, one of the unsuccessful candidates.
"He's entitled to an opinion as anyone else is, but as a sitting member of Parliament I think there's an expectation that you provide a separation from your opinions and the party — or are you speaking on behalf of the party when you say those things?"
Commons bylaws state that parliamentary resources should not be used for electoral campaigning. Thompson, former veterans affairs minister, said he believed his letter fell within the rules and that party members are ultimately constituents.
"The other thing that I pointed out to those who did complain, if you will, that if they do have a concern with that, make sure that they pass that concern on to the Speaker of the House because I clearly was within the rules of engagement," Thompson said in an interview.
Party members frustrated
Several party members who spoke to The Canadian Press said they were frustrated with the Conservative party's response to their concerns about the race leading up to that date.
"The membership was hurt, it was the membership that wasn't given its due consideration, and no matter what happens, Mr. Williamson certainly has some healing to do in the riding," said Scott Sparks, another unsuccessful contender.
One of the main complaints brought up by members is the fact no polling stations were located in the northern corners of the riding, which spans 10,000 square kilometres. Some voters faced a three-hour drive to vote, and the main polling station's location favoured southern-based candidates such as Williamson.
Riding association president Fraser Ingraham, a dairy farmer, acknowledges local executives missed a deadline for applying for those satellite stations, but he said the party could have set them up if they wanted.
"I think the party should take a look at that and work closely with the riding associations because we're the people on the ground and we're all volunteers — we do this because we believe in the party," said Ingraham, of Dumfries, N.B.
"Most of the people who make these decisions grow up in cities and don't know what really happens in rural parts of the country or New Brunswick."
"It was frustrating, but I think that's the name of the game in nomination contests, that all the candidates are thrown various curve balls and you win some, you lose some," said Williamson.
No real convention held
Another frustration that came up repeatedly was the fact there was no real convention held on voting day, despite the rental of a large high school gym. The four candidates were not permitted to address members, making the station even less of a draw for Tories who lived farther away.
"In Atlantic Canada, we've never heard tell of having a nomination and candidates not having a chance to talk to the membership," said Ingraham.
Conservative party spokesman Fred Delorey said a series of town hall meetings with candidates in advance of voting day were designed to connect members with the contenders. He said the preferential ballot system used by the party precludes conventions, although people in the province might not be used to it.
"We're doing this across the country, this type of setup," Delorey said.
Delorey also said it was up to the riding association board to ask for the northern polling stations in a timely fashion.
"They recommended, and we approved it, and then we moved forward from that. They had their opportunity to set the locations and we accepted it," he said.
On the subject of Thompson's use of his parliamentary resources, Delorey had no comment. Williamson, a former national director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, would only say he was honoured to have Thompson's endorsement.
"I was appreciative of his support and I know that other candidates wanted it, they were climbing all over themselves for it, but ultimately Greg did what Greg thought was best," Williamson said.