On Thursday morning, Nova Scotia premier Stephen McNeil announced his pending retirement, just days after a leadership contest was concluded in Newfoundland and Labrador for that province’s premier – also a Liberal, for what it’s worth – and if the pending Nova Scotia contest is anything like the one in their neighbouring province, then it’s a sign of how badly things are faring in Canadian leadership politics. It’s bad enough when sitting premiers in unpopular governments bow out without a reasonable succession plan in place, no doubt trying to save the embarrassment of a coming election loss, but when you throw open the doors to anyone in a desperate move to try and save the furniture, it betrays the rot in how we conceive of our politics.
In many respects, the process that we witnessed in Newfoundland and Labrador was a horror show in terms of accountability. The provincial party decided that they not only needed to ape their federal cousins in abandoning a requirement for memberships in favour of a class of “supporters” who only need to totally swear that they don’t belong to another party. Curiously, they also adopted the system that many Conservative parties have implemented of weighting the ridings in a point system, which may be indicative of trying to provide some of the more rural or outport communities with a bit more heft than just having the vote concentrated in places like St. John’s. As with other parties, federal and provincial around the country, the age at which one can become a member or “supporter” of the party has been steadily decreasing from 16 to 14, and Newfoundland and Labrador was no exception.
As we’ve seen increasingly in Canadian leadership contests, the race to expand the voter base in these contests with “supporter” categories is that they are primarily for the singular purpose of populating the party’s voter identification database. Absolutely no appreciation has been given to the fact that this dilution of the voter base – which they insist is “more democratic” because it “engages” more people – is that it makes leaders less accountable. After all, that supporter base is large and nebulous, and largely consists of people who don’t have an attachment to the party, but were interested in voting for the next premier, as though this were a presidential primary – something made more acute by the fact that it’s a sitting premier who is being replaced and not a party leader in opposition.
Because there are usually thousands of “supporters” who sign up to these kinds of contests, the eventual victor is able to lord that so-called “democratic legitimacy” over their caucus. They didn’t select him or her, and they can’t remove him or her for that very reason. As well, because these increasingly large “supporter” figures tend to dwarf the number of electors in any giving riding across either the province or the country, it allows the leader to insist that their selection holds “more weight” than an MP or MPP/MLA/MNA/MHA’s electors (pick your nomenclature as appropriate to your province). It’s that faux “legitimacy” that has steadily allowed party leaders to accumulate and centralize power, and to increasingly resist accountability, especially by the members of their caucus, whose own electoral chances are directly affected by that leader’s performance.
What was particularly galling about the Newfoundland and Labrador Liberal leadership was the fact that there were only outsiders in the race – neither the victor, Dr. Andrew Furey, nor his rival, long-time civil servant John Abbott, were elected or had ever sought office in the past. Furey apparently had the unanimous support of the current Cabinet, which can’t be said for every leadership contest, but there are two particularly disturbing take-aways from it – one is that the role of premier is essentially considered an entry-level job, which it most certainly is not; the other is that this is indicative of a party in need of a Hail Mary pass, bringing in someone untainted by their mounting scandals and political malaise to put a fresh face on the government and party in the hopes that people will consider it enough of a fresh start – a hope that rarely actually works out for the party.
What is also problematic with Furey is that there is an element of political dynasticism about his – his father is the Speaker of the Senate, and his uncle was also a provincial Cabinet minister. Because Furey hadn’t previously sought so much as a seat and instead heads directly to the premier’s office, it makes that sense of dynastic politics all the more glaring. Even worse is the fact that he is not seeking a seat immediately, which would mean asking one of his own MHAs to step aside so that he can run in a by-election and ensure that he is in the legislature at the earliest opportunity, merely committing to waiting until there is a vacancy before he runs. Not having the first minister in the chamber is bad form, and lessens accountability even further because he won’t have to directly answer for his government to those to whom he is responsible, which is even more egregious because there is a hung legislature.
This result sets up what could be a similar race in Nova Scotia. While the provincial party’s constitution doesn’t lay out how a leadership convention is to be run, I would not be surprised to see the fad of “supporter” categories be extended to this race as well, and with the party being in their second majority legislature and with their problems mounting, we are likely to see a number of outsider candidates entering the race in the hopes of being the saviour to the party, to buck the trend of merely saving the furniture. Nevertheless, until Canadian parties start realizing that the further they try to “democratize” these contests, the less accountable their leaders get, and that we ultimately need to get back to a system where the caucus selects a new leader from among their own ranks, then we will continue to see these kinds of deeply problematic outcomes.
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