This is how a Westminster model is supposed to work -

This is how a Westminster model is supposed to work


The Australian Liberal party has just replaced its leader. It took all of a couple of days, from caucus revolt to leadership vote. That’s because the Australian Liberals choose their leader on the classic Westminster model: by a vote of the caucus, rather than, as in this country, by the wholesale purchase and sale of thousands of instant memberships, busloads of elderly drunks etc.

And they do this because in Australia they believe a party leader’s chief task is to lead the caucus in Parliament — because, in Australia, Parliament matters.

In the end, the incumbent, Malcolm Turnbull, lost to challenger Tony Abbott, 42 to 41. I pass no judgement on the proximate cause of Turnbull’s downfall, his endorsement of the governing Labour party’s climate change policy. But you can bet that any leader of the Australian Liberal party has to be awfully solicitous of his caucus’s views. The balance of power between leader and caucus is very different there than it is here, where MPs have aptly been described as “$140,000 voting machines.”

It also signals a strategic shift on the Liberals’ part: they intend to stand and fight on this issue, sharpening their differences with the government rather than minimizing them. Again, whatever your views, it’s refreshing to see a country where voters are actually given a choice.


This is how a Westminster model is supposed to work

  1. it's refreshing to see a country where voters are actually given a choice.

    Except of course when they aren't and Parliament drags them into an illegal invasion the majority of them oppose.

  2. I think it would be a great move for party leaders to be elected by their caucuses, but it would also require fully independent riding associations, which have the power to nominate candidates without interference from the leader. I think Canadians might call it undemocratic, but I think it might be positive to remove some ‘output legitimacy’ from the Prime Minister, so they can less plausibly pretend to be our president rather than merely the leader of the largest party in Parliament, appointed by members of his party’s caucus. Our democracy should not be about electing Prime Ministers, which is what it has been boiled down to in many ridings.

    • I like it. Easy to implement, just enough of a tweak to work yet not throw out the entire system.

    • I'd love for this to be the case in Canada.

    • I like that too. Keeps MPs accountable to their riding, and the leader accountable to the MP. Logically, the wishes of the riding will therefore have more impact on the leader's decision making.

      The way we have it, our MPs ore accountable to the leader and to their riding. And I think the split is more 70/30 (90/10?) in favour of the leader.

    • I completley agree; the one major reform I would make is take away the power of the "leader" to approve party candidates. Most parties elect a seperate national president; give that person the power (ie the party) to approve candidates who run in the parties name, candidates who are selected by their ridings; and then they in turn decide who their leader is.
      One day we will end up with a party where the caucus has a leader imposed on them none of them want – what then?

      • We'd have . . . Stephane Dion???

        The Liberals should really jump on this. Being the middle-of-the roaders, they attract the fewest way-out-there candidates. If the CPC had independent riding associations, we'd have Grant Devine & one or two raving hate-promoters sitting in Parliament for some of Saskatchewan's weirder conservative ridings.

        The Greens & Dippers do have pretty independent riding associations. This is probably because most fund-raising happens at the riding association level for the NDP & because the Greens don't have a central organisation capable of controlling more than three ridings, not because of any kind of ideological purity.

  3. Indeed.

    As it currently operates, one could replace Canadian Parliament with an elected dictatorship in which the percentage of ridings won by the dictator determines the strength of his rule (i.e. 51% gives him absolute rule, less that 50% gives him a weighted vote along with each Opposition leader).

    This is not how our system was designed to operate. It's supposed to be more along the lines of the Aristotelian model in which every town elects someone they know and personally respect, and this individual votes according to his judgement in Parliament. That way citizens put the power in the hands of those whom they know to be trustworthy rather than in the hands of a Prime Minister whom very few know personally.

  4. Not sure I agree with you. Caucus only leadership selection sounds quickt, except that parties with only regional representation (aka LPC) would thereby disenfranchise all party members in areas without representation. In the long run this would merely exacerbate their regionalism

    • We have a party that doesn't only have regional representation?

  5. "Again, whatever your views, it's refreshing to see a country where voters are actually given a choice"

    Too right it is. Other countries seem to get some semblance of debates but we don't even get that. Our parties seem to be afraid to disagree with one another publicly and loudly and our 'debates' focus on minutiae.

    I like Andrew (nPoC) idea about how to balance needs of base, to feel like they are participating in process, and the MPs to have leader they respect and want to follow.

  6. This event, of course, illustrates the problem with the caucus choosing the leader. Out of their own self-interests, half of the caucus voted to get rid of a leader who was doing the right thing.

    More importantly, since, as a result of FPTP, the caucuses do not accurately reflect the members of the party, a caucus choosing its leader might choose someone unpopular among unrepresented constitutuents (the Liberals might pick someone loved in Quebec, but hated in the West).

    This type of election also prevents outsiders from moving quickly to the top of the party apparatus, which could be a good thing (since it would mean that party leaders would have to have actual parliamentary experience), but it can also give parties an unvetted, poor choice of leader (see Liberal Party of Canada, December 2008).

  7. hmmmm….maybe

    One assumes that those members, Bloc excepted, actually want to get into government and would be inclined to try to choose a leader that might actually expand things. But I suspect there would be no general rule and each is done on a case by case basis.

    For example, they tossed Thatcher because they thought they would lose.

    I bet Ignatieff wouldnt want this model.

  8. Of course we have a choice in this country: endorse Kyoto as the only possible solution to environmental/climate change problems, or be labelled the equivalent of a Nazi. Where's the problem?

  9. "Out of their own self-interests, half of the caucus voted to get rid of a leader who was doing the right thing."

    Or maybe, out of sincere conviction, half the caucus voted to install a leader who would represent the interests and beliefs of their constituents, but not the constituents of the other party.

  10. "Of course we have a choice in this country"

    Some choice. My sister is having some mighty battles with my six year old niece at moment because the wee one wants to choose her own clothes. Which means lots of pink and sparkles. My sis has compromised: she chooses two or three outfits and my niece gets to choose one. That's what Canadian political debates are like. Remove the good options and focus on staid, ho-hum.

  11. Granted, the Leadership system is terribly flawed.
    Far more damaging to the Westminster system in Canada is the way Harper treats the House of Commons and the Members of Parliament:
    Avoid the House.
    Have blustery Ministers (and MPs) give meaningless non sequitur answers to most serious questions.
    Render committees dysfunctional.
    Hide from the media and public while (occasionally) arriving and departing from our place of governance…..
    Were he to gain a secure majority, Harper will grace the House even more infrequently to deliver what will amount to his "State of the Union" address.

  12. Re: "And they do this because in Australia they believe a party leader's chief task is to lead the caucus in Parliament — because, in Australia, Parliament matters."
    "Again, whatever your views, it's refreshing to see a country where voters are actually given a choice."

    You got to be friggin' kidding, Coyne. As somebody who lived in Australia for years, I have always been a big proponent of the Canadian system of choosing a party leader. In Australia, you have leaders being selected behind closed doors by just the caucus. No transparency. Limited input from people in the party who aren't MPs. It may be a faster way to pick a party leader but this method is inherently undemocratic and it leads to a much more vicious and backstabbing style of politics than our more genteel version in Canada. Just listen to some of the political talk-shows on radio or TV in Oz, and you'll see what I mean.

    The Liberals in Australia have been flailing around ever since John Howard imploded and lost the election in 2007. That they now have switched leaders from Turnbull to Abbott just demonstrates (especially given the small margin of victory) that the party backstabbing and lack of direction continues unabated. Given that the Liberals appear to be going down the road of opposing the climate change policy of Kevin Rudd's Labor (yes, that's actually how it is spelled) means that the Liberals are going to be out in the political wilderness for some time to come. Why? In recent polling two-thirds of Australian voters back the introduction of Labor's proposed carbon emissions trading scheme.

    There's giving voters a choice and there's going against the overall will of the country (better known as political suicide).

  13. *Bus loads of drunks* has to be the best quote of the day.
    Right up there with voting a horse to the senate.

    • correction:

      "busload of ederly drunks"

      that made me laugh out loud.

  14. Andrew, yes, the format of selecting leaders is interesting, but the "why" of the leadership change is surely the more interesting, and important, story!

  15. It isn't a "tweak", it's the way Westminster Parliament is supposed to work. Somehow we ended up with a bastardized version that combines Westminster with the worst aspects of silly populism. No system is perfect, but Canada has taken an already imperfect system and made it more so.

    • Yes, I know. But somewhere along the way we "tweaked" it into this farce. We can just as easily tweak it back.

  16. He starts by not making a connection where none exists, and goes from there.

  17. Again, whatever your views, it's refreshing to see a country where voters are actually given a choice.

    How so? It appears the voters had no say in the matter at all.

    If a politician were beholden only to caucus, the views and wishes of voters would be next to nil.

    • Too true. I didn't vote for any of the busloads of elderly drunks who got to decide who represents me.

      • But I assure you they had your best interests at heart.

  18. I agree.

  19. And, isn't that sort of what the Canadian Liberal Party did… ditched one leader and chose another?

    • Yes but in Canadian politics we do what is right only in extreme emergencies.

  20. I agree with Dee. I for one, am glad that our election campaign occurred with leaders in place. I think it has a lot of bearing. And I am glad that in Canada anyone who feels strongly about a potential leader can take part and register a vote. I'll talk our system over Australia's any day.

    Criticism of Canada's system has become too knee-jerk for Coyne and others. There are a lot of positives to the Canadian system, and most of the are dismissed. It's "the grass is greener on the other side" phenomenon. Now that we're saddled with minority governments, out first past the post system looks very appealing to me, for one.

  21. None of those things started with Harper. He just practices the dark arts at a higher level.

  22. I for one, am glad that our election campaign occurred with leaders in place.

    Ignatieff didn't become leader until well after the election.

  23. An MP's job is to make good judgements, even if they go against the desires of their constituents. I can't see a way to spin this to make the Australian Liberals look good.

  24. Andrew, how do you manage to go from "good move by Ignatieff in supporting sensible Tory policy" to "voters deserve a choice, so bravo to the Australian conservative party for denying climate change"?

  25. The Liberals had a leader, I think his name was Dion.

    • I usually do. It was an oversight.

      To your point, having caucus choose a leader does not in any a prevent a party from having leaders in place at the start of an election. So I'm not sure what your remark means. The Liberals would have had Dion, or quite possibly a competent leader, chosen well before the last election.

  26. "It's refreshing to see a country where voters are actually given a choice" v. "Good for Ignatieff not offering an alternative on the HST". Leaving aside the clearly contrasting environmental policies offered in Canada's last federal election, there's a certain lack of flow in Andrew's logic today.

  27. Thats not true; if the leader of the party was responsible to his caucus, all of whom were elected directly by voters, then he is responsible to the voters themselves. One presumes that he MP's all want to be re-elected. The current system allows an interested and involved subset of the voting public to choose a leader with no actual elected legitimacy, ignoring the will of those actually elected. On top of it, the system then allows this leader to choose his caucus by denying the party membership the right to choose their candidate. Our system has the caucus serving the PMO; not the PM serving at the will of the elected members.

  28. "And they do this because in Australia they believe a party leader's chief task is to lead the caucus in Parliament — because, in Australia, Parliament matters."

    And we do it the OTHER way here in Canada (with increasing frequency it seems) because the Liberal Party doesn't have anything else to put in the window except for their leader.

    That said, it is refreshing to see how the Westminster system actually works in other countries. Particularly as we mark the anniversary of its biggest detour in history at the hands of a prime minister who pulled out all the stops to deny the majority their democratic rights.

    • We can hardly lay exclusive blame at the feet of the Liberals for dumbing down Parliament.(Though I'll admit the Liberals certainly have punched above their weight in this regard.) It's been a joint effort from all parties and our increasingly facile and infantile media.

  29. Thanks for pointing this one out, Mr. Coyne.

    It never did seem right to me that roundabout these parts its simply called "elitism" and the parties buy into it.

  30. Party leaders should be hired by the members, and fired by the caucus. To file off the rough edges:

    – caucus can only appoint interim leaders after they dump a leader
    – members only get a vote if they were paid up prior to the dumping (the 'bus of drunks' rule)
    – no nomination veto for leaders (no cherry-picking their caucus; more freaks, better politics)
    – only caucus can boot a colleague from caucus, not the leadership

    This gives all party members a voice in the leadership, but keeps the leader beholden to the caucus.

    Obviously, things get interesting when the members choose a leader already unpopular with caucus. But that's just good political fun.