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?