The political woes of Alberta Premier Alison Redford have been front and centre the last few days, and speculation is rife about when, not if, she’ll be pushed out as leader of the Progressive Conservatives, and subsequently from the premier’s office. A couple of high-profile walkouts – the first a backbencher who declared Redford to be a bully, and the second an associate minister whose motivations were less about Redford than the party itself – along with rumours of another ten or so MLAs ready to sit as independents, has everyone wondering just how much time is left for Redford.
Underneath the drama and personality clashes, however, comes some questions about how much of this kind of situation comes from the way in which we choose our leaders in Canada – and in Alberta in particular, given their own particular political quirks – and the subsequent level of accountability those leaders have, especially where their caucus is concerned.
Columnists like Andrew Coyne have said that this situation proves the need for Michael Chong’s Reform Act, at least on a federal level that could presumably be imported by the provinces, so that it would provide a sense of stability that a single rogue MP or MLA would not destabilize the party. It’s an argument that really only tells half of the story when it comes to the dynamics of leadership selection and ouster. Other columnists have tried to claim that this shows it’s the caucus who really is in charge, but that again is too simplistic a claim.
Here in Canada, starting in 1919, we began the process of taking the power to determine the leadership of a party away from the caucus with the first Liberal Party leadership convention, which was heralded as making the party “more democratic.” Because Mackenzie King wasn’t a sitting MP at the time (requiring him to run in a by-election later that year), it was the first time that a leader didn’t need to be in caucus to attain the position. It also changed the dynamic so that his authority no longer came from the caucus but the convention members outside of Parliament. It makes it much harder for a caucus to hold a leader to account if they didn’t select him or her – Mackenzie King himself was reputed to have told his caucus that they didn’t select him and they couldn’t remove him. That authority and indeed “democratic legitimacy” can embolden a leader’s leadership style.
Why this dynamic is important in the Redford situation is because it was one where she didn’t have caucus support during her leadership bid. It’s a dynamic that is becoming increasingly familiar as well – sometimes for good or for ill. While Jack Layton didn’t have caucus support when he became NDP leader, he managed to build that support over his tenure. Others, like Redford, her predecessor Ed Stelmach, or Christie Clark in BC, who was also elected based on a membership vote when she didn’t hold a seat, have had to struggle to build that caucus support.
Where all three leaders got a reprieve was with electoral success in their first general election. Stelmach was facing discontent in his caucus before he won another majority government. Same with Clark, and both her and Redford managed to turn her party’s fortunes around when all of the polls said that they were doomed to defeat. But one has to wonder whether these electoral successes simply paper over the deeper problems that exist within the caucus when it comes to the question of leadership, especially when the caucus would have to resort to a very public walkout or open questioning of their leader’s support in order to create pressure for the leader to leave, ostensibly of their own accord.
In Alberta, there is the added problem of the ranked ballot by which the Progressive Conservatives conducted their leadership elections (which they have since abandoned). There, memberships and the right to vote in them could be sold right up to the second ballot. In other words, anyone could show up at the leadership polls with their $10 and vote for the premier – and given that Alberta is a de facto one-party state, it amounts to a kind of presidential election. Those lax membership rules have allowed someone like Redford to reach far beyond the party base in order to support her leadership bid. The result is a major disconnection between the leadership and the party itself, as ephemeral and one-time instamembers get that say in choosing a leader who has a lot of centralized power in our system.
The added dynamic of the preferential ballot created situations where second- and third-choice candidates manage to come up the middle, and fewer people are happy – especially the majority with vested interests in the front-runners. That it achieved an artificial over-50 percent decision is of little comfort to those who have to live with it (and perhaps this should be the lesson for all of those in Toronto salivating over the possibility that a future mayor being elected on a preferential ballot, as though it would solve all of their problems and that they would never have another unsuitable mayor ever again). That this kind of built-in resentment is there, along with the fact that most of the caucus did not support the leader in the first place, creates this tension that becomes difficult to resolve when tempers flare behind the caucus room doors.
If, per Andrew Coyne, this situation becomes an object lesson in the need for the Reform Act, perhaps it should also be said that this is a demonstration of where that very same Reform Act fails. Until we return to a system in Canadian politics where it’s the caucus that makes the decision to both hire and fire leaders, keeping the leash as short as possible, then these kinds of situations of fraught legitimacy and dubious caucus support will continue, and accountability will remain a nebulous concept.
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