How do we fix our parliamentary problem? Just look down under. -

How do we fix our parliamentary problem? Just look down under.

Australian backbenchers can vote out their party leader

How do we fix our parliamentary problem? Just look down under.

Scott Barbour/Getty Images

You can make a long list of things that Canada and Australia have in common. Both countries share colonial histories and federal systems. Both are small, open economies heavily dependent on trade and resource extraction. Our demographics are similar, and our geography, too, in that we both have huge tracts of untamed wilderness that play a central role in our national mythologies. We both share a passion for sports the rest of the world considers obscure, viz. curling and Australian-rules footy. The list goes on.

And yet there’s one way in which we diverge sharply from our Antipodean cousin: picking political leaders.

Last week, Australians found themselves with a new prime minister, despite the lack of an election or leadership convention. Kevin Rudd, who’d previously won the 2007 federal election as leader of the Australian Labor Party, returned to the top spot after Julia Gillard was ousted as party leader. Gillard had become prime minister in June 2010 when Rudd was similarly tossed.

Such a swift change in the top job is possible, because leaders of Australian political parties are not chosen by party members, as is the case in Canada, but by the elected members of their caucus. And Aussie MPs can hold a leadership vote whenever they want. Under such a system, even sitting prime ministers such as Gillard (and Rudd before her) can be fired by their backbench.

The most recent swing of the revolving door at Canberra’s Parliament House is the result of calculations by Labor MPs that Gillard had become unelectable due to her lack of public appeal. With an election possible at any time in a precarious minority situation, the government caucus figured their odds were better with the populist Rudd back at the helm. Gillard had previously fought off a challenge from Rudd’s supporters in February 2012.

From the perspective of the Canadian party system, which emphasizes stability and security for its leaders, the Australian model seems downright medieval, encouraging as it does political backstabbing, backroom plotting and constant uncertainty. All this is true. The Rudd-Gillard-Rudd affair is not the first of its kind in Australian politics. And yet there are also some important strengths to the Australian system, not least of which is that it improves parliamentary democracy.

Putting leadership decisions in the hands of an elected caucus inevitably strengthens the position of backbenchers by giving them real clout. This is significant for Canada, since the biggest problem with our current system is the dramatic centralization of political power in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). Individual MPs have become entirely emasculated.

Consider Brent Rathgeber, the Alberta MP who recently resigned from the Conservative caucus after the PMO demanded substantial changes to his proposed “sunshine law.” He had no other way of expressing his displeasure. Then there’s the Prime Minister’s handling of the Senate expenses scandal. In May, at the peak of the outcry over the alleged wrongdoings, some of which involved his own office and most of which involved senators he personally appointed, Harper claimed to be “very upset” by the issue and then promptly left on a South American tour.

Putting leadership-review abilities in the hands of backbenchers would dramatically alter the Canadian power dynamic. Backbench priorities would suddenly have real weight. And rather than the PM simply skipping town, it would have been possible under the Australian system for MPs to demand a more fulsome and immediate answer from their leader. The Prime Minister would suddenly be accountable to his caucus. As things stand now, power goes only one way: from the PMO down.

And without belittling the decisions of party members, the Byzantine machinations of traditional Canadian leadership conventions have been known to produce some strange results. Would a vote of election-minded federal Liberal MPs, for instance, have installed Stéphane Dion and his Green Plan at the head of their party in 2006?

On close consideration, both the Canadian and Australian methods provide their own particular advantages. Canada is better off for avoiding rampant outbreaks of Australian-style ambition. On the other hand, there’s a real benefit to weakening the unbridled power of the PMO. Perhaps a compromise can be found?

Recent British innovations that give both elected officials and party membership a say in leadership decisions are worth a look. The Conservative Party there, for example, permits party members at large to vote on leadership contests, but the convention itself is triggered by a caucus vote. In this way, individual MPs hold a lever that keeps the prime minister attentive while the membership makes the ultimate decision. Perhaps we could consider this system, combining as it does the best of two different leadership selection methods, the duck-billed platypus of party politics.


How do we fix our parliamentary problem? Just look down under.

  1. It should be noted that the UK Conservative party allows party members a say only once the caucus has reduced the number of candidates to two. When David Cameron ran for the leadership in 2005, he was one of 4 candidates. The first ballot was caucus only, and Cameron finished second. The last place candidate was dropped from the ballot and Conservative MPs voted a second time a couple of days later. Cameron was first this time, and the third place candidate was dropped. A postal ballot was then sent to all party members, and Cameron ultimately won.

    Also,regarding Australia, this “With an election possible at any time in a precarious minority situation,” isn’t entirely accurate. The date of the election was announced by Gillard back in Janauary of this year – Sept. 14. Australia’s parliaments last 3 years, not the 4 or 5 years we’re used to. Since the last election was in August 2010, there had to be an election this year. Rudd hasn’t confirmed if he will stick with the Sept. 14 date, but an election will occur this year.

  2. Another silly way to run a country. As if trying to lead a nation through chaos and please the voters at the same time wasn’t enough….the chance of being stabbed in the back is added to the mix.

    Instability doesn’t add to anybody’s confidence.

    • You think it would be a bad thing for cons who think they can’t win in 15 with Harper to have a chance to switch horses, or at least have the threat in hand? Maybe you think a leadership convention is enough? Anyone but Harper and I might agree. If he thinks he’d lose such a vote it wouldn’t happen, at least not until he’s sure he would win. More caucus power has more upsides for democracy then down, IMO anyway.

      • We want MPs who can be elected without the leader signing a nomination agreement…..but MPs can take out a leader whenever they like?

        Turmoil. Instability.

        • You can’t just take out a leader whenever you want. It still requires caucus consensus. IOWs there has to be a good reason. I agree I wouldn’t like to see it develop into the kind of fratricide that seemed to develop between Rudd and Gillard or say Chretien or Martin. But the status quo in our system ain’t too healthy either.

          • It still takes out the leader….instantly….no matter what’s been discussed in the back room and for how long.

            Thankfully Canada doesn’t allow this kind of nonsense.

            We have elections every 4 years….that’s sufficient.

        • Australia hardly has turmoil. Since 1983 they have had only 5 PMs (Hawke, Keating, Howard, Rudd and Gillard). Canada has had 7. Moreover, you are naive if you think caucus rebellion isn’t an issue in Canada (there’s a reason Chretien left, and there’s a reason Dion blew up).

          You dislike this approach for one reason: it worked out badly for Julia Gillard, of whom you are an uncritical fan.

          • It’s political turmoil….and something Oz doesn’t need right now.

            A snarky caucus is trivia….removing a leader is something else.

            I haven’t said anything pro or con on Gillard…or even on Oz for that matter. Don’t make shit up.

    • Instability is inherent in the parliamentary form of government. In fact it is outdated. At a point of time it worked well in Britain. That does not mean it can work well in other countries with more and more interest groups and pressure groups.

      • The US is unstable as well….all our forms of govt are outdated in fact

  3. “Canada is better off for avoiding rampant outbreaks of Australian-style ambition.”

    I’m not sure there’s any real evidence for that assertion. Sure it would be messy to have a Rudd style caucus coup here. It might well seriously upset the party partisans ( imagine the reactions if either Harper or Trudeau were turfed by their caucuses) and it might well be an incentive to the overly ambitious( think Martin) but as long as there was a subsequent election in reasonably good order, democracy would have been served. The Australian voters will get to have the final say on what they think of the back room skulduggery. The only thing I really don’t like is the fact Rudd gets to decide if there will be an election looming. ( or am I wrong there?) That is the kind of thing our executive might pull. On balance I like the concept of a caucus check on populism, as long as it cuts both ways; as long as the electorate ( and the party membership) get to have the final say. We can but dream and envy the Aussies in this regard.

  4. The media party and the desperate left continue to grasp at straws.

  5. While the Australian way of selecting their leaders has its advantage, it has some serious drawbacks. For it increases the influence of party bosses and factional warlords who could have a leader disposed of if they are not happy. It also opens the party up to criticism that the party’s leader was selected by backroom bosses instead of voters.

    The Australian Labor Party has had a problem with this on both the Federal and State levels for many years. One of the criticisms that dogged Julia Gillard during her time as PM was that she owed her support to the union and party bosses who were instrumental in removing Rudd in 2010.

    On the state level in Australia, the Labor government in New South Wales before being thrown out by voters in 2011 went through no less than three Premiers between 2007-2011. The first two (Morris Iemma and Nathan Rees) had lost their jobs in caucus coups after crossing the state party’s backroom bosses.

    • The Conservative Party of Canada elects its leader on an “equality of ridings” basis. For once in Canada, we are not ruled by those in party strongholds, with others silenced. Having caucus choose the leader would revert to type: the rule of the party strongholds. Quebec Conservatives would have only five votes. Never mind that their share of the major party vote would have given them 13 MPs, not five. If we want more power to the MPs, we’d better start by electing them fairly, so that every voter has an equal voice.