Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Redesign Parliament: Democracy and Party Leadership

During the Liberal leadership convention I came across an article that caused me to reconsider the entire process we use to select our political leaders. Peter Loewen of the Ottawa Citizen examined how we select party leaders in this country in this article, which initially inspired this post.

An often repeated refrain during the Liberal leadership coverage was, “this will likely be the last delegated convention in Canada”. A delegated convention works as follows: within the local riding associations delegates are elected to represent each riding at a central convention. Each riding has the same effective weight as all the others. That means it does not matter if there are 10,000 or 10 party members in a particular riding, it gets the same number of delegates.

Many partisan commentators from both the NDP and Conservatives (Progressive or federal) pointed out how undemocratic this whole process was. So, how do they select their leaders? Political parties in Canada, by and large, use a one-member-one-vote system. This system means that each party member gets a vote in choosing the next leader, or in the case of the next federal Liberal leadership vote, party members and “supporters”. Typically because political parties have thousands of members this is now conducted through day-of telephone or internet voting. Voters meet with their fellow party members and cast ballots together if they cannot make it to the convention.

Proponents of the one-member-one-vote system argue that the delegated convention is undemocratic and places all the power in the hands of party hacks and insiders. No one really defends the delegated convention anymore, as it is unfashionable in our political culture, but I think it’s worth exploring.

As Loewen points out the delegated convention falls between two “extremes” of how a leader can be chosen. At one extreme is where elected members caucus to pick their leader with no consultation of the electorate. The other extreme is to let part members pick, the one-member-one-vote system. But as Loewen and others have pointed out, by directly electing leaders and only making them accountable during leadership reviews we have terribly weakened our elected members of the legislatures. Previously, and in some countries/parties still, it is possible for the MPs to call for a leadership review. If the leader fails a new leader is selected. This famously happened in the case of British PM Margaret Thatcher. She was one of the most powerful leaders in the world until her caucus revolted and removed her from power.

Now, however, leaders draw on a legitimacy of being elected by the party members and individual MPs are unable to remove bad leaders from office. Leaders claim a stronger mandate and shape the party into their image rather than lead an existing party. While leadership has always been important it strains the ability of parties to remain consistent or honest to their core beliefs.

Despite opening the leadership contests to the public they remain largely private affairs. The show for the public fails to scratch the surface because it’s not just party members watching, but the whole electorate. Rarely do new voters sign up, merely former members renew their memberships.

Delegated conventions also offer some distinct advantages. If the ONDP had to call a leadership contest this year and we were using a one-member-one-vote system the leadership candidates would have very little incentive to travel outside of Toronto, Hamilton, Niagara, Windsor and Northern Ontario – the ONDP strong points. Why? Because that’s where the party members are. I have heard in particular about the size of the party membership in Hamilton Mountain, which probably dwarfs the total number of activists in Peel.

During a delegated convention though the leadership campaigns are encouraged to go into every single riding and build up a base of support. This has three distinct advantages to my mind. First, since becoming active in a riding association I have found that people in the RAs just want some autonomy and be able to contribute. A one-member-one-vote leadership race does not give much hope for the small RAs. However, a delegated convention can support the growth of riding associations across the province/country. Even a small number of new members in certain ridings could swing the vote share and delegate numbers dramatically. Second, a delegated convention better reflects how elections are actually won in this country. Until we reform our system we are still stuck with First-Past-the-Post, which means to form government a party must win the most seats. Parties in decline shrink their base and the number of ridings they are active in. Leadership conventions under those conditions cannot build the party back up under a one-member-one-vote system. Third, a delegated convention allows new coalitions in the party to form. Kathleen Wynne (OLP – Don Valley West) won by putting together several of her leadership rivals under her banner and those defeated candidates leading their delegates to her. Contrast that to Tom Mulcair (NDP – Outremont, QC). The NDP leadership convention suffered because candidates did not cross to each other. This was likely because with pre-entered ballots and so many voting from home candidates were unable to control their supporters like the Liberals could. Therefore if Peggy Nash (NDP – Parkdale-High Park, ON) crossed to Tom Mulcair she could not count on her support doing the same. At a delegated convention loyalties are stronger and likely form around ideological or personal leadership. In addition, delegates can keep in touch with their members in their home riding via phone, text, or social media and reflect the consensus there.

Once a leader is selected it is very difficult to remove them, as Loewen writes, “once a leader is selected, there is no clear mechanism for them to be deselected by their caucuses. Instead, every few years, leaders must stand before a convention of party members who will decide to reaffirm their leadership or withdraw their support. Such conventions are as often a gathering of political staffers as they are genuine party members. They are rarely exercises in democratic deliberation.”

As with many things, I am learning this is a matter of grays, not black and white. One system is not inherently more democratic than the other. Giving sitting MPs/MPPs the power to oust the leader is a tad problematic, but worse still is allowing leaders to defy their caucus and stay in power while weakening the ability of our legislators to resist authoritarian control from the leaders’ offices. Samara Canada has just published a new report, Lost in Translation or Just Lost?, and now are asking how to redesign parliament. Perhaps a “simple” change could fundamentally help push back the gross centralization of power – let the caucus have the power to remove the leader. Perhaps then the MPs/MPPs would get the respect they deserve and Parliament and Queen’s Park could begin moving in the right direction and reverse some of the damage of the last few decades.

Before signing off, I am credited in Samara’s report as a volunteer researcher as I did a small part to help in their project. I will also be doing a few write-ups for them in the coming days to elaborate on their findings and answer the question of how best to Redesign Parliament. I will be sure to share any links on this blog.

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