There are no interim first ministers

Dave Hancock

In the wake of Alison Redford’s surprise resignation last week, there has been a lot of confusion as to what happens next.  The caucus has appointed an interim party leader, Dave Hancock, and he was sworn in as premier on Sunday evening.  In the time since his name was announced, pretty much everyone, including the media, has dubbed Hancock “interim premier.”  And this is wrong.

There is no such thing as an “interim premier,” and there certainly isn’t any such thing as an “acting premier” as I have also heard him being described as.  Hancock may be the interim leader, given the way that the party has to now resolve how to fill a leadership gap while remaining in power, but Hancock is still the 15th premier of Alberta, and will always be recorded in the history books as such.

“But why does this distinction matter?” people ask me over Twitter, as my pedantry gets the best of me and I correct them that there is no such thing as an “interim premier.”  The reason it matters is because of the way our system of government operates – the Queen doesn’t appoint part-timers to lead her governments.

In many ways, this particular kind of situation has been brought about because of the way in which Canada started to change its leadership selection process for parties.  Previously, and as it still happens in some analogous parliaments like that of Australia, a leadership change happened entirely in caucus.  They could depose a leader, and choose a new one in a single afternoon.  The new one would be sworn in that day, and there would be no confusion, no “interim” status, no questions of legitimacy, and a direct system of accountability is maintained, as the leader was responsible both to the caucus for their continued support, and to the House in order to maintain the confidence of the chamber.

We have been muddying these waters in Canada since 1919, and while there are claims that Michael Chong’s Reform Act would help to clarify some of those rules, I would argue that just the opposite will end up happening.  The reason is because a caucus vote against the leader will simply trigger a leadership review.  When that review happens remains up in the air, the rules around it, the sale of memberships, and a convention for it to take place in all take time.  In the meantime, you have a leader who has lost the confidence of his or her caucus still in charge, and if that leader happens to be the Prime Minister, still running the country.

The first question that one has is to where that Prime Minister’s legitimacy comes from?  If he or she no longer has the support of their caucus, how can they continue to effectively govern?  And remember, our system is dependent upon continuity.  It’s one of the considerations that a Governor General has to address whenever a Prime Minister is appointed – can they maintain the confidence of the House in order to govern?  If not, is there someone else in the current parliament who can, or does parliament need to be dissolved and an election called?  This gap in leadership becomes a very big deal, especially considering the Prime Minister’s vast powers or regulation and appointment, as well as the exercise of Crown Prerogatives like foreign affairs, national defence, and even mercy.

The next question becomes whether or not that Prime Minister could survive a confidence vote in the Chamber if he or she has lost the confidence of caucus.  Would the caucus stand behind a leader that they have voted to be subjected to a “review”?  Would they continue to show confidence in such a vote, and give said leader ammunition in the leadership review campaign that would then be underway.  After all, how could they say “We don’t have confidence in you as a leader, but we still voted to maintain your leadership in the House”?  It becomes quite a headache to sort out.

The final question is what does a caucus do when they no longer have confidence in their leader, but the party’s broader membership – which will include a host of instamembers and outside interest groups brought in to bolster membership sales at the expense of the party’s membership base – still gave the leader a passing grade in the leadership review?  And it brings us back to the question of that leader’s legitimacy.  After all, they have just secured a “democratic mandate” from the party membership, and yet their caucus, those who are charged by voters to carry out their party’s agenda in the Commons, have no confidence in the leadership that has been imposed upon them.  In fact, this is largely the situation that Alison Redford found herself in.

As the Reform Act draws closer to debate in the House of Commons, I think it’s time that we had a serious discussion in this country about the way that leadership contests are held.  The experience in Alberta, with two unsuited premiers in a row being chosen by an open process that produced dubious results, should give us pause as to what we’re accomplishing by continuing this focus on keeping leadership contests as open as possible.  When we find that it contributes to an even greater focus on the leader in a party, and that the powers of MPs are further marginalized, as they become ciphers for their leader.  And the broader the membership vote by which a leader is chosen, the less accountable that leader becomes, with all of their centralized power.

It’s not enough for us to discuss how to push out a problematic or unpopular leader, especially when the resulting vacuum creates a mass of confusion.  We need to pay attention to the inputs – how they are chosen – and not just the outputs, if we are to achieve either meaningful reform to the system, or to restore it to a previous, more accountable, incarnation.


Other articles by Dale Smith

No, we don’t need any more Officers of Parliament
Redford vs Caucus
Inviting her to run
Not Both Sides
The Angus Standard On Election Rules

Follow Dale Smith on twitter: @journo_dale


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