Afraj Gill is a 24-year-old Indian immigrant and technology entrepreneur who is running to be the Liberal candidate in the upcoming federal by-election in Markham-Thornhill, northeast of Toronto.
Rarely in all my years covering politics have I talked to someone better-equipped for modern public life – young, smart and tech savvy, with an innate understanding of what is hurtling towards us, not to mention ideas on how government should respond: robot taxation, education tax credits for those in automation-prone industries and so on.
On the doorsteps, Gill has talked about the challenges and opportunities of automation to the people in his riding.
“There is an awareness gap and it must be bridged,” he said in an interview.
He remembers talking to a 45-year-old truck driver about self-driving trucks that are already able to navigate themselves across the continent. The technology is there to replace the father of two, even if the regulations aren’t yet in place.
“He was blown away and asked what he should do for himself and his daughters … His entire family offered to come out and knock on doors with us,” he said.
Unfortunately, it is unlikely he will emerge as the victorious candidate because he is not the chosen one. As noted earlier this week, other candidates allege the party has a preferred candidate in mind for Markham-Thornhill: Justin Trudeau’s director of appointments, Mary Ng. She is, by all accounts, able, bright and well-qualified — but that’s not the point.
The race does not always go to the candidate backed by the party aristocracy, but that’s the way to bet.
Gill says he’s not keeping a close eye on the politics of the nomination race and that everyone is operating by the same rules. He says he has not been asked to step aside in favour of Ng, as other candidates allege.
But Gill, who has volunteered for Liberal campaigns for a decade, must be aware that the contention that theirs is the most open party in Canada is about as credible as the claim that the 2015 election would be the last fought under the first-past-the-post voting system.
Michael Kempa, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa, sought the federal Liberal nomination for Scarborough Southwest at the last election. Yet after more than a year campaigning, he discovered that a “star” recruit — former Toronto Police chief Bill Blair — was being parachuted into the riding, with the backing of the leadership. The feeling was, he said, akin to “an open-handed slap to the mouth.
“At least in the major urban centres in Toronto, half the people coming out are new Canadians who believe there will be free and open nominations. If they stick their toe in and it’s their first experience, they’ll never be back,” he said in an interview. “It’s a violation of process. Like anything else in politics, over time you accumulate a moral deficit and create a groundswell of opposition.”
Allegations about the federal Liberals manipulating the nomination process are not limited to Markham-Thornhill. In another byelection in Montreal, the mayor of a city borough, Alan DeSousa, has been blocked from running in the Saint-Laurent riding, after the Liberals told him he is not eligible, for reasons that have not been disclosed. Trudeau is said to favour former Quebec Liberal cabinet minister Yolande James.
These might appear to be mere local difficulties that should not divert Liberals from the latest viral outbreak of online pictures of the prime minister with his shirt off.
But these are dangerous days. Trust in government in this country has slid dramatically since the Liberals came to power, according to a survey by Edelman released last month. Four out of five Canadians believe elites are out of touch with regular people — fertile terrain for the kind of populist outbreak we saw in the United States last year.
Trudeau is clearly aware of the perils — hence the cross-country town-hall “listening tour” in January.
But the repeated intervention in nomination battles suggests a disconnect between the party’s leaders and its rank and file — perhaps even a disdain.
That is dangerous for democracy. It suggests that the Prime Minister and the people around him have forgotten the source of their power and no longer feel accountable to it.
Afraj Gill said an upbringing in a strong immigrant family compelled him into community service, where he believes a combination of good public policy and technology are necessary to improve quality of life for the common person. He chose the Liberal Party as the vehicle for those aspirations, a party that proffers inclusion and equality of opportunity.
The party should live up to those values.