Rent-a-Tories, Liberal Supporters, and the death of accountability

Parliament Hill 2

I have been heartened that one of the debates that has broken out in the wake of the tabling of the Reform Act 2013 is that of leadership selections.  If caucus is to have the power to depose a leader, then it also means that we need to look at how they were selected.  Where this also leads us is into a discussion on the role of the party membership, and the tension between being “more democratic” or less accountable.

In Canada, we began selecting leaders through delegated conventions in 1919 with the Liberal party leading the charge, electing William Lyon Mackenzie King.  This move of opening up the leadership selection beyond the caucus was seen as being “more democratic” but it quickly led to a situation where Mackenzie King, under threat by his caucus later on, declared to them that they did not hire him, and therefore they could not fire him.  It was a blow to the ability to hold that leader to account.  In the decades since, this delegated convention selection has opened up even further, creating yet more problems.

The advent of “one member, one vote” leadership contests in other parties broadened out the leadership selection process into one that was more akin to a quasi-primary like we would find to the south of us, culminating with the creation of the “supporter category” with the most recent Liberal leadership process which saw the selection of Justin Trudeau as their leader.  Unlike a primary, however, there are fewer accountability mechanisms, be it term limits like they have in the States, or scheduled leadership review votes in all parties.

In Alberta, which operates as a virtual one-party state with the same party in power for over forty years, the one member one vote system has become a kind of direct election of the premier at the expense of meaningful party membership engagement.  Because there is no cut-off for membership sales, new members are still being signed up between first and second ballots, many from constituencies that would traditionally avoid voting for the PC party, such as teachers unions.  This phenomenon, dubbed “Rent-a-Tories,” has become part of what’s wrong with both leadership contests in this country, but also the way in which parties maintain meaningful grassroots engagement outside of the leadership period.

Retired senator Lowell Murray took umbrage with this particular system in a 2011 CBC radio interview, shortly after his retirement.

“Where’s the cohesion in that?” Murray asked.  “Where is the commitment?  If the membership of a political party at the constituency level is so fluid and so amorphous, how can that party play its essential role of acting as an interlocutor of the people of that constituency and the caucus and government in Ottawa or Edmonton, or Toronto or wherever?  The short answer is that it can’t, and then the constituency party is just a sitting duck – it’s completely at the mercy of the well-financed and permanent apparatchiks in the nation’s or the provincial capital.”

That same question of cohesion should be posed of the Liberal leadership, where the “supporter” category — meaning anyone that could prove they didn’t belong to another party — could sign up to vote, without needing to even bother with party membership.  Of course, what signing up “supporters” did was populate the Liberal voter identification database, which is a poor way of not only engaging existing members, but most importantly, like the Rent-a-Tories, there is no coherent base that is supposed to hold the leader to account.

The fact that giving more “democratic legitimacy” to leaders has also been accompanied by giving them more powers over the grassroots with a veto on nominations, the ability to appoint candidates, and now top-down policy pronouncements that have become the subject of debate during leadership contests, it makes one wonder just what is left for the grassroots membership to cling to?  There should have been no excuse for leadership candidates to be putting forward policy proposals because policy in our system is supposed to come from grassroots members, advanced from the riding level to national policy conventions.  These extraordinary powers have elevated the leaders to being more than just a member of caucus, but a figure on high who exerts an inordinate amount of top-down power over the party as a whole.

If the Reform Act is to have a measurable effect in rebalancing the powers of the leader, it’s going to have to mean giving power not only back to the caucus, but also to the grassroots membership.  That means making nomination races and policy resolutions more meaningful again, and putting an end to running paper candidates, even in “unwinnable” ridings, just because the party wants to max out its spending allowance.  If there isn’t a healthy riding association, then perhaps it behooves the party to build one in the area rather than using the leader’s power to appoint a warm body to fill the space – especially a warm body who has never visited the riding or can’t even speak the language if it’s in Quebec.  But as our system increasingly becomes about membership as a primary for an overly powerful leader, we should stop and re-examine the path that we’re on.

That those who now select leaders are nebulous constructs at best means that they can’t hold that leader to account.  It’s one of the biggest reasons why “more democratic” can wind up meaning less accountable.  Even a membership-based leadership review vote, such as what Michael Chong proposes in the Reform Act suffers from this same problem because it is just as much relies on the same kind of Rent-a-Tory membership base as the same leadership process does.  The accountability framework is just as weakened under this proposal as it exists currently, and ultimately, a leader’s “democratic legitimacy” argument will overpower caucus attempts to hold him or her to account.  It becomes a recipe for more of the same, which is what we’re trying to get away from.

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Other articles by Dale Smith

The “Reform Act’s” missing link

Follow Dale Smith on twitter: @journo_dale

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