by Chantal Hebert

Alan DeSousa has been the mayor of Montreal’s Saint-Laurent borough since it was created 15 years ago. Initially elected on the ticket of mayor Gerald Tremblay, he survived the corruption scandals that marked that era and was re-elected as part of Denis Coderre’s team in 2013.

When DeSousa declared his intention to run for the Liberal nomination in Saint-Laurent – the riding just vacated by former foreign affairs minister Stephane Dion – he was considered if not a shoo-in, at least a highly competitive candidate.

Neither of his two rivals, former Quebec immigration minister Yolande James and Marwah Rizqi, a professor at Sherbrooke University who ran for the Liberals in Hochelaga in the 2015 election, could boast roots as deep in the riding.

There was no doubt that DeSousa would not have been Justin Trudeau’s preferred choice. The prime minister has made gender parity a defining feature of his cabinet. Women account for only one quarter of the Liberal caucus. The government could use more cabinet-ready female MPs.

James – given her experience in the Quebec cabinet and the fact that some of her former ministerial staffers toil in the backrooms of Parliament Hill – was considered to have the inside track with the party establishment.

Some of the organizers who helped secure Heritage Minister MÈlanie Joly’s 2015 nomination in a neighbouring riding, were asked to lend a hand again. If James was going to have a shot at beating her two opponents, she needed all the help she could get. With the byelection set for April 3, she was also going to have to hit the ground running to sign up enough members to win the nomination.

That was last week. On Tuesday, DeSousa revealed that the Liberal party had barred him from vying for the nomination. In the letter he shared with the media no reason was given.

Privately, party insiders point to DeSousa’s association with the discredited Tremblay administration. As a member of the city’s executive committee, he was part of the mayor’s inner circle. In 2013, his borough’s offices were among those raided by Quebec’s anti-corruption unit.

Still, DeSousa was never charged. If he is guilty of anything in the eye of the federal Liberal brass, it is by association.

For the residents of Saint-Laurent it is, to say the least, awkward to be told that their long-serving mayor does not, for some unspecified reason, pass the smell test of Trudeau’s Liberal party. From the perspective of DeSousa and his supporters, it is also a convenient way to remove him from contention.

Some Liberals in Markham-Thornhill are also crying foul after the party retroactively set Feb. 14 as the cut-off date to recruit members for a March 4 nomination vote.

One of Trudeau’s senior advisers, Mary Ng, is running for the Liberal nomination in the riding vacated by former immigration minister John McCallum. Her rivals claim the move is designed to give her an edge on the competition.

In his days as leader, Jean Chretien made no apologies for parachuting star candidates into some of the party’s safest seats.

Immediately prior to and just after the 1995 Quebec referendum, ChrÈtien appointed Lucienne Robillard, Stephane Dion and Pierre Pettigrew to safe Montreal seats.

At the time he desperately needed more francophone Quebecers at the cabinet table. It is far from certain that an open nomination process would have resulted in the selection by local Liberal members of any of the three ridings.

Chretien used the same route to ensure he had more women in his candidate lineup.

He took hits for short-circuiting the process, but at least his rationale for doing so and his method were transparent. ChrÈtien also took responsibility for imposing his choice on a given riding.

Officially, Trudeau has renounced that leader’s prerogative. Early on, he pledged to have open nomination meetings in every riding. But in reality, he has replaced ChrÈtien’s somewhat brutal clarity by an opaque vetting process for which neither he nor party officials seem to be accountable.

Regardless of the outcome of the Liberal infighting, there is little doubt that the party will hold Saint-Laurent and Markham-Thornhill on April 3.

But this is not the first instance where there is a perceived gap between the prime minister’s words and the
actions of his party and his government, and such episodes accumulate at corrosive cost to Trudeau’s brand.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.

Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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