A rudderless ship of state sails on - Macleans.ca

A rudderless ship of state sails on

No sooner had Gordon Campbell left than British Columbia’s NDP caucus decided Carole James should go too

A rudderless ship of state sails on

Jonathan Hayward; Richard Lam/CP

It is an interesting experiment British Columbia has embarked upon, having disposed of not one but two political leaders in little more than a month. The question the province appears to be asking itself is: are leaders strictly necessary?

It is not uncommon for a province to declare one party leader expendable, though rarely a sitting premier, such as Gordon Campbell. But to attempt to do without a leader of either party, unless out of mere parsimony, is suggestive of a sort of generalized Presbyterian disdain for hierarchy.

Mind you, I suppose the NDP had no alternative, once the Liberals decided to “go commando.” The canny strategists in the Liberal backroom were plainly on to something: the party had already jumped several points in the polls since discarding Campbell, and might have gained still more, once more people realized he was gone. Clearly, voters were hungering for less leadership, and while it was always possible the Liberal leadership void was still enjoying a honeymoon, to be competitive in the long term the NDP had to close the leaderless gap with their rivals.

Still, it’s an odd way to run a party, let alone a province. Campbell was apparently only persuaded to go, notwithstanding the single-digit support to which his party had sunk, when 17 members of his caucus threatened to cross the floor and sit as Independents. Likewise, the NDP’s Carole James, perhaps misled by the 20-point lead she enjoyed over the Campbell-led Liberals, only finally packed it in when it became clear that the alternative was expelling two-fifths of her caucus. It’s encouraging that they’re gone, but really, what took them so long?

I’m being sort of serious, here. That the two parties’ long-suffering caucuses were at last able to assert their primacy over the leaders who had for so long ordered them this way and that is indeed a belated triumph of the parliamentary system. But that the leaders could have grown so disconnected from the caucus in the first place, to the point that they could only be dislodged by the threat of mass political suicide, shows how far our system has strayed from its roots.

Do not be misled by the dissidents’ seeming minority status: a good number of the leaders’ “supporters” in either party will have been secretly delighted to see them fall, declining to join the rebels only because they were unsure they could succeed, or because they feared the chaos and division that would follow, to say nothing of the expense and delay of a leadership campaign.

Either way, it is an artifact of our strange, bastard-American leadership selection process, wherein the party leader is chosen, not by the caucus it is his or her job to lead, as in the classical Westminster model, but by the “members,” meaning whatever artfully contrived and deviously weighted mélange of permanent executives and instant recruits is provided for in the party’s habitually manipulated rules. That isn’t the system we were bequeathed, and it isn’t how our earliest and greatest leaders, Macdonald and Laurier, were chosen.

Like many bad ideas, the current system derives from Mackenzie King, elected Liberal leader in 1919 by the then-novel ritual of a party convention. It sounds more democratic, but in practice it has made the leader accountable to no one, empowered by dint of his supposed popular mandate to ignore the caucus for years at a time, with only the occasional confirmation vote by the party, typically won by margins of 80 per cent or more, to disturb his Augustan reign. Indeed, both Campbell and James, notwithstanding their caucuses’ increasing desperation, had recently been confirmed by identical 84 per cent votes.

The relationship between leader and caucus is all the more distorted by the provision in our election laws, unique in all the democracies, requiring that a candidate, though he be the unanimous choice of his local riding association, may not stand for office without the party leader first signing his nomination papers. So not only does the caucus not choose the leader: in effect, the leader chooses the caucus. Every one of them owes his seat to the leader, dependent for his very livelihood on staying in the sunshine of his love.

No wonder caucus revolts are so rare. Only when the situation is truly dire can members pluck up the courage to face down the leader, and then only if enough of them band together: on their own, they would be quickly disposed of.

But now let us imagine a different system. Suppose the leader were elected by the caucus, as of old. And suppose, again as of old, that each member really was the choice of their local riding association (while we’re at it, suppose we cleaned up nomination races, with real rather than instant members deciding them). Then not only would leaders have to be highly solicitous of caucus concerns, but when the day came that they had to be replaced, as it does to most, the job could be done swiftly, cleanly, and with a minimum of violence. Think of poor old Margaret Thatcher, queen of all on a Monday, gone on a Tuesday. Now think of Jean Chrétien, hanging on for months and years after caucus (leave aside the wisdom of their judgment) had determined to be rid of him.

Of course, they did get rid of him, eventually, as Campbell and James were got rid of: eventually. So we are halfway to restoring the Westminster system. Why not finish the job?


A rudderless ship of state sails on

  1. YES! I have been making this argument in different ways for 2 years on these boards. The intended consequence of a "more democratic" selection process for candidatesw and leaders has distanced party members, not included them.

    The leader is too remote to ever be able to connect at a local level. He/she needs their MPs to do that. But their MPs are also too insulated by their own selection process. It never focuses on their individual policy posiitons – that is sacrificed to the centralized leader's office and the hired guns.

    There needs to be a balance where the leaders have to listen to and heed the MPs while still being able to make final choices confident in the loyalty of their party members. But you can't have one without the other. You can't make choices that are not only strategically advantageous; they have to be within the comfort zone of the base. You can't be sure of that without your MPs having a meaningful relationship with their riding members and without some levers over the leadership to make them listen.

    • One problem Be_rad is that in your model, we might begin to see the regional differences between MP's (at federal level politics) that are otherwise negligible by a powerful, authoritative leader. You think the bureaucracy is big now…make every MP in every region capable of pushing their own individual policy positions and see where you end up. I am not advocating for our current system, only that the change you recommend is much more easily envisioned then it is institutionalized.

      • You're not wrong, but I wouldn't argue for that degree of power, either. Call it a fine balance. You are very right in considering the regional imbalance that can happen if only elected MPs have a say in national policy decisions by their leader. It could easily endup having the opposite effect of having a grounded, connected relationship to the people.

        If I recall correctly, one of the big compromises that went to the old Prog-Con side in the merger was an insistence on equality of vote to each riding rather than by strength of representation in each riding. They were mostly concerned with the kind of regional imbalance the latter system would have and the negative effect it would have on national unity within the new party.

        • But lets have a look at your example: there is no doubt that the Conservatives we know today under Stephen Harper can definitely pull far more of their roots from the Alliance then from the PC. The last important stalwart of the PC days is Peter Mackay, and he is not much more then a mouth piece. I don't know if you can expect federal politics to ever mirror the regional representation that provincial politics can potentially harness. Having a powerful leader is almost a necessity IF we want them to have a vision of Canada. Again I am actually in favour of better cheques on a leader running wild, and with MP's being capable of embodying their own policy ideas….but I would never pursue such an idea at the expense of a strong leader – and i think that means an opinionated one. You say a balance between the two, I think I would err on the side of a more powerful leader, then a more powerful caucus.

          • Well, I'm not sure what to say. The premise of the article, with which I agree, is that leaders are so distanced from their respective MPs/candidates/grassroots that the leader can have their head so far up their patootie that it takes a seismic electoral reaction to them for them to finally clue in. I get that Caanda's national scene requires a strong leader with vision to unify not only their party, but the country. But in setting them up at such a lofty height, with no linkage to the rest of the MPs we individually send to Ottawa, sets them up to fail, in my opinion. Again, the balance has to favour a leader capable of making the right decisions, but those decisdions, I would argue, woudl be better in the long run, if they were based more heavily on MP input than currently is the case.

            ps, then does not = than.

  2. why is everyone insane?

    • Fluoride in the water.

      • At least our teeth are in great shape.

  3. Agreed. While we're at it, maybe we can eliminate politicians all together. How about a management board comprised of CEOs, CFOs and COOs of successful companies and organizations, one per riding, all volunteer, half serving a two year term and out, the other half staying for three to establish continuity. No second terms ever.. They can form a caucus who can select a leader, said leader being more of a spokesperson than the tyrannical dictator type that we're more used to. Think about it: no more party politics, no more tantrums, no more partisan screaming, no more waste, lower taxes, more services, leaders who are responsible and (gasp!) accountable, prosperity for all. Yes, this BC Bud is very good.

    • When younger, I would have agreed that CEOs, etc., would have made the best leaders. However, after working in both the private and public sectors, each with its own problems, it seemed clear that the raison d'etre of business was fundamentally incompatible with the broader issues of protection and cohesion of 'society' (Margaret Thatcher's dictum notwithstanding ['There is no society. Only 'other people.']).

      Do you think a CEO, with his/her inescapable sector allegiance, would really make the hard decision that might impinge upon that sector, or other sectors? Our elected representatives, with the pressures on them from interest groups, etc., have a difficult enough time with that.

      • Enough of them running checks and balances on each other to insure no one sector was permitted an advantage or disadvantage against another would ameliorate the effect. OK, maybe it wouldn't be that easy, but at least they wouldn't be politicians. And with respect to your "when I was younger" comment, I take no offense and offer none but I'm a grandfather. Of four. A true old fart. And I have also worked in both the private and public sectors. I liked the private sector better.

    • Good Lord, and they say the left is authoritarian.

      You may want to try thinking a little harder. Accountable? With a single term allowed period? How the hell does that make them accountable? They screw up the country three ways from Sunday and we're gonna what? Not let them run again? Oo.. big disincentive there.

      And if you really think CEOs etc don't get involved in politics or have tantrums, engage in petty partisan crap, create massive waste, or don't think of lining their own pockets through higher taxes and fewer services, you simply haven't met many.

      • My, my. Aren't we getting a little too emotional? It's amazing how a simple comment – rooted entirely in fantasy, as it will never fly – can get some people so worked up. This started out as a bit of a goofy comment made out of amused frustration at the lousy quality of our politicians, and now Thwim seems to need something calming. Too much coffee? And yes, the Left is authoritarian. If this concept was possible (it isn't, pal, so take a few deep breaths), and if accountability could be built in (maybe jail terms for messing up? forfeiting salary? putting up performance bonds?) the main benefit would still be that almost none of our current crop of politicians could qualify. That would be nice. But it ain't gonna happen, so you can relax there, Thwim. Everything is OK. Deep breaths and watch the sugars and caffeine.

        • My apologies, I thought you thought your idea was actually reasonable, not that you were playing silly buggers. We see enough poor thinking on here as it is it's difficult for me to tell when someone is just playing stupid as opposed to actually being that way.

          • Fascinating. Trash the concept, even though there was ample evidence that it was satire. Then react indignantly by telling me that my idea was "reasonable", even after I admit the obvious, to somehow reinforce your position or to take another stance. Then off we go to the typical place where you call anyone who doesn't do things your way "stupid", and I, of course, refrain from stooping to your level. Fun, ain't it? I'll look forward to your next shot. Give it your best. I have a number of people following this thread. Don't disappoint us.

  4. I agree completely (and I've posted my view on these boards before) that requiring the party leader's approval for a locally nominated candidate is an affront to democracy. I didn't realize, however, that it is currently a legal requirement. Could a party amend its bylaws to require the leader to approve the candidate nominated by the local constituency association?

    • I, too, found that surprising. I guess I assumed it was the parties that put such a requirement in, to somehow exert a degree of caucus peace and stability. Is it really in the elections law? Why? Who came up with the allegedly "good" reasons to actively put that rule in there? And how on earth is it ever going to get removed by those least likely to ever want to remove it — the legislators who attained power through this mechanism?

  5. While I agree that combining American and British political traditions in equal parts often creates a monstrous hybrid with the worst elements of both, in this case I think the great flaw of the Canadian party regime is that we didn't go American enough.

    In America, you get to vote in a party primary simply by self-identifying as a Democrat or Republican. There are no fees to pay, no hierarchy to approve you, and no purity test to pass. American primaries are thus very open, general-election type things, as opposed to our party leadership votes, which as Coyne noted, are closed, esoteric affairs consisting of only a tiny, strange subculture of instant members, staffers, family members and so on.

    Carol James had an approval rating of something around 20% with British Columbians before she resigned. If you ask me, that should have troubled her a lot more than any level of caucus support, or whatever motley collection voted to confirm her leadership earlier this month.

    There's become this idea that political parties exist for their own behalf, rather than the interests of the public. I think open primaries for all self-identifying party members to select leaders would be the best way to break down our current cycle of unaccountability and arrogance.

  6. 'Like many bad ideas, the current system derives from Mackenzie King, elected Liberal leader in 1919 by the then-novel ritual of a party convention. It sounds more democratic, but in practice it has made the leader accountable to no one, empowered by dint of his supposed popular mandate to ignore the caucus for years at a time, with only the occasional confirmation vote by the party, typically won by margins of 80 per cent or more, to disturb his Augustan reign. Indeed, both Campbell and James, notwithstanding their caucuses' increasing desperation, had recently been confirmed by identical 84 per cent votes.'

    I say yes to democacy and no to phoney popular democracy ; let the representatives have the power and responsibility to represent.
    But…to play devils advocate. Isn't AC overlooking the possibly nefarious reasons for a power grab by a caucus ; you know those all to human ones like, jealousy , envy, spite. Isn't that what happened to Rudd? There is no perfect solution, humans being what the are and power being what it is, so i'm with AC on this one.

  7. I imagine she's a pretty nice girl and she seems to have a lot to say
    I imagine she's a pretty nice girl even though she's on her way
    I want to call her up and tell her so,
    but I need to get a belly full of wine
    One day I'm going to ask her out
    One day I'm going to make her mine, ya
    One day I'm going to make her mine.

  8. Who elects the caucus under what Andrew is proposing?

    • Voters in general or by elections.

      • … after having been nominated by the local riding associations of each given party.

      • Doesn't this mean that they can't plan a campaign (because they don't have a leader who will set the focus) until after the election?

        While I realize that's just a minor furtherance of the current M.O. of the CPC, I don't think it's a good way to go.

  9. "Only when the situation is truly dire can members pluck up the courage to face down the leader, and then only if enough of them band together: on their own, they would be quickly disposed of."

    If destroying the oil industry, backing human rights commission censorship and of course destroying health care weren't enough, the Alberta Tories didn't even dump Stelmach after "cookiegate".

    If only what your saying is true in Alberta, Andrew (insert loud eye roll here).