Former Progressive Conservative Party leadership candidate Shelly Glover is about to get her chance to convince a judge the Manitoba party must throw out its decision to name Heather Stefanson its leader and hold a new vote.
In a civil case that has the potential to set a Canadian legal precedent, Court of Queen’s Bench Justice James Edmond will entertain arguments Friday from Glover and the Manitoba PCs about whether the Oct. 30 election contravened the party’s constitution or leadership-race rules.
Stefanson won that race by 363 votes and was sworn in as Manitoba’s premier three days later. Glover has asked the court to declare the result invalid and order up a new vote.
Experts in law and political science say Glover faces an uphill battle to succeed in a case that has few parallels in Canadian legal and political history.
“It’s very unusual for a court to be reviewing the internal affairs of a party like this. This isn’t a regular, statutory election. It is a leadership contest within a party,” said Gerard Kennedy, an assistant professor of law at the University of Manitoba.
“Normally courts are very wary and seek to avoid getting entangled in partisan controversies,” added Paul Thomas, professor emeritus of political studies at the U of M.
“They’re independent, impartial bodies, and they want to maintain the reality and the appearance of being above the fray of partisan political fights.”
‘Matter of urgency and public interest’
Justice Edmond is not conducting a review or judicial recount of the Oct. 30 PC leadership race. Instead, he said he will determine whether there were any breaches to the party’s constitution or the rules and procedures established for the leadership race.
“This is a matter of urgency and public interest,” Edmond said in November, declaring the case not only affects Glover, the PCs and Stefanson, “but also affects the people of Manitoba, who have an interest in knowing whether the election of our new premier is flawed.”
The court does not, however, have the power to remove Stefanson from office.
“The premier of Manitoba is the person who can command the control of the Legislative Assembly, so the court will not order that the lieutenant governor swear in Ms. Glover,” Kennedy said. “Of that, I’m quite confident.”
The best possible result for Glover would be the court requiring the PCs to hold a new leadership vote, a decision that could itself be subject of an appeal or further legal wrangling.
“If you do a rerun of the leadership contest, the context has changed completely. Now you’re running a contest in the wake of a series of allegations that were tested in court and were all over the media,” Thomas said.
“You have to again go out and identify members and get them organized to vote again and go through the whole process of distributing ballots, collecting, securing and counting and all of that. That’s a long, long process.”
Vote marred by irregularities, Glover says
Initially, Glover based her case on a pair of claims. She submitted sworn affidavits stating that early on Oct. 30, the party provided the leadership campaigns with a spreadsheet that included a total vote count that ended up differing from the final vote count.
Glover also submitted affidavits stating the party failed to secure ballots on election day.
In a later submission to the court, Glover argued the vote count was marred by irregularities that failed to meet the standards of a “balloting process rules” document sent to the Glover campaign as well as the Manitoba Elections Act.
The PCs responded by conceding the party provided both campaigns with a faulty voter-information spreadsheet, but insisted that had no bearing on the final vote count. The party also denied the allegation ballots were not kept secure and suggested that claim impugned the reputation of accounting firm Scarrow and Donald.
The party also rejected the notion the “ballot processing rules” document or the Manitoba Elections Act applied to this case.
“We may never know exactly what all the rules were,” Kennedy said. “It will be Justice Edmond’s decision to determine what the rules actually were.”
If the court declares the PC leadership race result invalid, it would set a new Canadian legal precedent, Kennedy said.
“There are many ways Justice Edmond could decide the case on far narrower grounds related to contract law. That could be extremely specific to this case that it might just be an interesting footnote in Manitoba history,” he said.
Regardless of what happens, both Kennedy and Thomas said the PCs have already suffered damage.
“No matter how you look at it, this is not great for the party to have this in court,” Kennedy said.
“This is hurting the party because it’s dragging on and it won’t do them any good and we’re less than two years away from an election,” Thomas said, referring to the 2023 provincial election.
“The NDP and the Liberals in opposition can have lots of fun with this by saying ‘You can’t even run your own leadership contest.'”
Glover, the PCs and Stefanson have consented to the presence of television cameras in the courtroom. The entire proceedings will be posted on CBC.ca/manitoba as soon as the video is processed.