Saturday, January 25, 2020

Should it be easy to find candidates for a leadership election that probably shouldn't happen?

I've read several articles discussing how hard it is to find good candidates for party leadership races. The federal Green Party and Conservative party, as well as some provincial parties, are looking for replacements for people who stepped down or were unreasonably kicked out.

I wonder if it is finally time to discuss whether we should be having these party-run leadership races at all?

In her chapter in Turning Parliament Inside Out, Elisabeth May reminded us that it wasn't until the 1974 federal election that party affiliations appeared on the ballots. The law also indicated that party leaders authorized candidates to have that party affiliation on the riding ballot. It was only in the latter half of the twentieth century that Canada broke from the tradition of the leader being decided by elected caucus members as is the case in most Commonwealth countries, and adopting a more US style of having party members elect the leaders.

The changes for the 1974 election happened during Pierre Elliott Trudeau's time as PM.  His time is widely seen as the beginning of the centralization of government power within the Prime Minister's Office (PMO), as well as centralization within the Office of the Leader of the Official Opposition (OLO) and other party leaders offices.

I strongly believe these changes have been very unhealthy for Canadian democracy, as the system that Canadians use to govern ourselves is entirely different than the US.

In the United States they have separate ballot questions for the Presidency, members of the House of Representatives, and Senators. They also have ballot questions for many other positions and ballot initiatives.

In Canada, we do not elect the government, our executive branch that is comparable to the US presidency. We rarely have referenda.

What we elect are members of the House of Commons, currently in 338 separate electoral district elections (although we have used multi-member districts in the past). The House of Commons then determines which party leader will become the Prime Minister, and the PM then selects their cabinet and is able to appoint many other positions (including Senators) which are directly elected in the United States.

Treating the position of Prime Minister as if it were remotely similar to the US President, and treating members of the House of Commons as if they were merely participants in the US Electoral College, are extremely dangerous concepts.

The only elected body Canada has is the House of Commons. The job of every parliamentarian who is not in cabinet is to hold the government to account.   This is true whether that member has the same party affiliation as the PM, of a different party affiliation.

This is true of other party leadership as well, and caucus members are unable to hold leadership to account if the leaders believe they have a mandate from other than caucus.

The Samara Centre for Democracy reports on many aspects of our parliament. In a recent report they indicated there was a herd behavior in that. "the average MP voted with their party 99.6% of the time. The most rebellious MP in the 42nd Parliament: 96.6%." This doesn't at all sound like parliamentarians holding the government or their party leadership to account.

The centralization of power in leaders offices that comes with being confused whether this is the Canadian or US system of government leads to an unaccountable government as a majority of the house are unable to do their jobs.

The confusion about whether we are electing a Canadian parliament or a Canadian President has also lead the media and other groups to focus reporting on the leaders and the extremely harmful concept of "party popular vote" during general elections. This further makes members of parliament less accountable as they do not get the scrutiny and perceived mandate they require in order to do their jobs as the only elected part of our system of government.

As we do not elect a President in Canada, and members of parliament are critical to the functioning of accountable government, Canadians must abandon this extremely harmful confusion of thinking that we have a similar system to the United States. What we end up with is a series of party leaders that believe they have a mandate to do anything they want, and that the members of parliament have less of a mandate than the party leadership.

I have a few suggestions to return our system of government to being more accountable.

  • Immediately stop entertaining the idea that the general public or party tourists should have a vote in the leadership of political parties.
  • Return to leaders being elected by caucus members, from existing caucus members.  Some parties need a spokesperson during elections as they don't have a caucus member willing or able to be that spokesperson, but the leader should be decided by caucus and already be an elected member of caucus.
  • Elections Canada must stop reporting on the harmful and inaccurate concept of "party popular vote". It has never been true that every possible vote for a party nominated candidate is an endorsement of the party or its leader. Hopefully the media and various interest groups will follow suite and stop discussing this concept. Hopefully some of these interest groups will stop promoting harmful electoral reform which seeks to optimize parliamentary seats to "party popular vote".
  • We should amend the law such that it is not the leader of the party that signs nomination papers. An alternative is for officials within the party to confirm riding associations as being party affiliated, and it be the riding association officials who are able to attach any party label to that riding's ballot.
  • We should revert to the pre-1974 ballot which did not include party affiliation.