While Conservatives at large ponder whether to ditch Erin O’Toole as leader or keep him, the party’s parliamentary caucus has just made a decision of much greater import: it has given itself the power to dismiss the leader – and thus transformed the office itself.
Meeting for the first time since the election, the Conservatives held four votes, as all parties are required to do by the Reform Act, 2014. The votes are to decide whether to accept the four powers conferred upon party caucuses by the Act: the power to decide who sits in caucus, to choose a caucus chair, to remove the leader, and to choose an interim leader.
The Conservatives had previously voted to give themselves three of the four powers; the sticking point had always been the power to remove the leader, viewed in political circles as the proverbial nuclear option. Previous leaders had made it clear they would not look kindly on such a measure, or on anyone who voted for it.
Indeed, no other federal caucus currently has that power. Only two, the Conservatives and the Bloc Québécois, have formally assumed even one of the four powers.
So dominant are the party leaders, and so habitually cowed are their MPs, that it was something of an achievement in some cases even to get them to hold the votes – that is, to obey the law. The Liberals held no such vote after the 2015 election; the NDP did not hold theirs until the following year.
That should suggest what an important precedent has just been set. Henceforth, whoever is Conservative leader will hold his or her job, quite literally, at the pleasure of caucus. All it will take is the signatures of 20 per cent of Conservative MPs to trigger a leadership review; a majority, voting by secret ballot, would be enough to force him out.
To say this is a revolution greatly understates matters. Party leaders in Canada are accustomed to unquestioned control of virtually every aspect of party business, in large part because it is so hard to remove them.
The Conservative platform in the recent election, for example, with all of its many and flippant departures from party doctrine, was not the work of the party, or even the caucus. It was typed up in the leader’s office, then handed to Conservative candidates to defend, in its entirety.
So while it was gracious of Mr. O’Toole to lend his support to the motion giving caucus the power to remove him as leader (in fairness, he had voted for it before, as a caucus member), caucus might well have voted for it if he hadn’t. Whether or not members want Mr. O’Toole to stay on as leader, they do not want any leader ever again to do to them what Mr. O’Toole did to them. Now that the leader is a little more accountable to caucus, chances are none will.
And yet, the revolution is at best half complete. It is unclear whether any of the other parties will follow the Tory lead, but even if they did, the presidentialization of our politics would remain all but absolute.
Caucus may now have the power to remove the leader, but the power to elect a new leader remains with the membership at large. Dump the leader, then, and you tip the party into a costly, months-long bloodletting, with no guarantee the new leader will be better than the last. That suggests caucus’s new power will remain the nuclear option: so awful as to be unusable.
Only when caucus also has the power to elect a new leader will the balance between caucus and leader have been more fully restored. Too radical? It’s no more than the way Westminster systems are supposed to work – the way our system did work, for much of our history.
Indeed, it’s no more than the way democracies are supposed to work. In a democracy, leaders govern with the consent of the governed. But a Canadian party leader, though he holds the power of virtual life and death over caucus members, is chosen by an altogether different group, the fabled “grass roots,” many of whom join just long enough to vote for a leader and then are gone.
After which he is accountable to no one. If anything, caucus answers to him: in Canada, as in no other modern democracy, the party leader holds a personal veto over every one of their nominations. That, too, needs to change.
There are any number of other reforms that could be made to our democracy, but they all depend on ordinary MPs having the pluck to vote for them. So long as they remain in thrall to the leadership, they never will. The Conservatives have just taken a big step toward fixing that. But many more such steps are needed.