Time for a rethink on leadership contests


Party leaderships are all over the news right now – Tim Hudak has stepped down in Ontario as leader of the Progressive Conservatives, Andrea Horwath could soon face her own leadership challenge within the Ontario NDP, Mario Beaulieu was just chosen as leader of the Bloc Québécois, while Frank Coleman stepped down as presumptive party leader in Newfoundland and Labrador before he could even be sworn in as leader.  Not to mention, we just saw the resignation of Alison Redford as premier and party leader in Alberta, which has that province in a leadership contest while an interim leader sits as premier, as is still the case in Newfoundland and Labrador, obviously in flux now that Coleman has stepped down.

What is notable about the examples of Beaulieu and Coleman is that were chosen without first having a seat in the respective chambers, chosen over sitting MPs or MHAs in these cases.  In Alberta, the perceived frontrunner in that race is also someone who currently doesn’t have a seat, and it’s beginning to expose some of the problems with the way in which we’ve mutilated the leadership selection system under our system of government.

The sudden resignation of Redford was in many ways a direct relation to the way in which she was selected – without caucus support, and based on the votes of a swath of “rent-a-Tories” – people from outside the parties who took out memberships between the first and second votes during the leadership convention.  Redford then didn’t work to build bridges with the caucus until they finally pushed her out, but the problem with our system as it has evolved is that leaders come in with a “democratic legitimacy” conferred by a broader membership than caucus, and have been known to wield that sense of authority.  Only when the caucus revolts do leaders take their cues and usually leave, but it does seem from an outside perspective that things have to reach that crisis point because of the “legitimacy” that shields those leaders, rather than there being an innate awareness that they could go at the drop of a hat if caucus isn’t kept happy.

The ability for caucus to select and dispose of leaders is one of the features of the system of Responsible Government that we enjoy, which has been watered down by the attempts by parties to make their leadership contests “more democratic,” which in turn made them less accountable.  After all, the membership vote by which a leader is selected is nebulous and meets at best every couple of years.  The more parties expand the base that votes for the leader, going from delegated convention to one-member-one-vote to the “supporter” system that the Liberals recently employed, the less accountable the leader becomes to it.  When you’re accountable to everyone, you become accountable to no one.  This is why caucus revolts become necessary and messy affairs (and why Michael Chong is trying to put rules around them with his Reform Act).

We need to remember that while the talk about being “more democratic” in leadership conventions is all well and good, the system was built for both stability and accountability thanks to the confidence convention.  Leaders need to have the confidence of their caucus lest they be toppled, just like first ministers need the confidence of the chamber, lest their government fall and either another party be given an opportunity to form a new government that can survive a confidence test, or an election be called.  The current system has watered that down tremendously.  It also takes away from the empowerment of MPs or MLAs/MPPs/MHAs, or however they’re styled in your province, because they no longer have a say in who leads them in the chamber, and they don’t hold the leash that keeps those leaders from getting too powerful.  Restoring that power to the elected members would give them back much of their proper role in a representative democracy because they would be actual representatives, and not ciphers for a leader.

And then there is the stability aspect in that the way the system is supposed to work, the transition from leaders is seamless, from one to the next in a caucus vote.  Instead, we have been witness to a rise in interim leaders, and recently in both Alberta and Newfoundland and Labrador, premiers who are interim party leaders (often incorrectly styled as “interim premiers”).  Ontario only avoided that fate by proroguing the Assembly during the duration of the leadership contest.  It creates a great deal of confusion, and it’s fuzzy with the ability to govern with any kind of agenda so long as the leadership remains unsettled.

What we see instead are months-long leadership contests that end up spending tens of thousands, if not millions of dollars.  Bringing in outsiders does not necessarily confer “fresh ideas,” but can exacerbate divisions, as with Beaulieu, and they are often untested electorally, as with Coleman.  We see leadership candidates coming forward with policy platforms, which circumvents the policy development process by grassroots party members, and expects the those ideas to be top-down instead of bottom-up as they should be.  Most of those “new ideas” would indeed have a better time being hashed out amongst party members, while leadership hopefuls should at least see if they can win a seat before looking to attain loftier goals.

If anything, we can hope that these recent leadership challenges can restart the conversation about the way in which we select our leaders.  The debate on Chong’s Reform Act has started a conversation in how we dispose of them, but the conversation about selection remains stalled, even though there are MPs who object to the bill precisely because it discounts the voices of the grassroots members who chose those leaders.  You can’t look at the two in isolation because they are inherently linked.  We need to have a grown-up conversation about our system of government and getting back to the way it was intended to function, and that means caucus selection.


Other articles by Dale Smith

A looming Senate crisis is history repeating
Chong’s Reform Act is a step but not a panacea
NDP satellite offices and expanding the definition of “parliamentary” work
Showing up for QP
Mandates and the names on the ballot

Follow Dale Smith on twitter: @journo_dale


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