The only surprise in Tuesday night’s announcement that Patrick Brown had been tossed out of the Conservative leadership race over alleged election law violations was how unsurprising it was.
Mr. Brown himself, of course, is no stranger to ethical controversies: It would be more surprising if he had not been accused of some sort of impropriety in the course of the campaign than if he had. But even without the accusations against Mr. Brown, the race already gave off a distinct odour of low doings, with claims of duplicate memberships and the like.
Indeed, something of this sort – illegal fundraising, faked memberships, or bulk purchases of memberships on others’ behalf (sometimes with illegally raised funds!) – happens in virtually every Canadian party leadership race. And it will go on happening, so long as the parties persist in using leadership elections as membership drives.
The very nature of such a race, in which the prize goes not to the candidate who can win the support of the party’s existing members but the one who can sell the most memberships, is to invite such shenanigans. If the abbot of a Franciscan monastery were chosen in the same way, I dare say we’d see a suspicious increase in the number of monks admitted to the order. But to dangle such temptation in front of politicians – not often mistaken for Franciscan monks – can lead nowhere good.
A leadership race organized on the same lines as the Louisiana state lottery will produce much the same results: brief euphoria, followed by years of whiskey and regret. Even if the candidates are not themselves corrupt, the process is corrupting, producing very different candidates, and leaders, than would be the case otherwise.
Why, after all, was Mr. Brown even in this race? It wasn’t because of his vast experience in high office, or his sterling record of accomplishment, or his following in the party, or his ideas. God knows it wasn’t because of his character. It was solely because of his peculiar talent for selling memberships – in part, apparently, because he is none too choosey about whom he sells them to.
Suppose none of this were true. Suppose Canadian party leadership races were fought on the highest of ethical planes, and not by the usual means, with busloads of elderly drunks and lists of names collected from cemeteries. It would still be a terrible way to choose a leader.
The sudden expansion in membership rolls that attends every leadership race is simply a statement of how the party’s existing members – the volunteers, the long-loyal, the people who attend party conferences and vote on resolutions, who lick envelopes and knock on doors and all the rest – have been shoved aside, displaced by people with no history of involvement with or commitment to the party, most of whom will have no further association with it beyond the time it takes to cast their ballot.
They are not party members at all, really, but leadership tourists. Some may be caught up in the personality cult that surrounds a particular candidate. Others, like the Quebec dairy farmers who put Andrew Scheer over the top in 2017, may be special-interest or single-issue voters – entryists, as they are sometimes called, whose membership is strictly tactical. But what is common to all is that they have no particular attachment to the party or its principles. They may even be hostile to them.
The leader who surfs in on this wave is, from that day forward, accountable to exactly no one. Certainly, he is not accountable to the party’s MPs, the people it is his job at most times to lead: Though they are obliged to obey his every command, they have no say in choosing him. Indeed, party caucuses in Canada are regularly saddled with leaders they cannot abide and would not have chosen if it were left to them. Government with the consent of the governed is democratic holy writ, everywhere except in the seat of democracy, Parliament.
To be sure, a leader who remains repugnant to caucus will at some point receive his comeuppance, though most of the parties have contrived to make this as opaque and painful an experience as possible. But one of the chief impediments to removing a leader, even by the relatively swift process laid out in the Reform Act – activated for the first time earlier this year by the Conservatives – is the knowledge that this will simply plunge the party into a long, costly and divisive leadership race, with no certainty that the new leader will be any better than the old.
That, too, is a consequence of the elephantine leadership selection process we have adopted. The current Conservative leadership race began officially in February. It is to conclude in September. This is, what is more, the third leadership race the party has held since Stephen Harper stepped down in October, 2015. By the time the new leader is chosen, the party will have been without a permanent leader for almost exactly three of the nearly seven years since then. Its ability to hold the government to account has suffered accordingly.
By contrast, Margaret Thatcher was removed and replaced inside of two weeks. Why? Because the leader of the Conservative Party in Britain at that time was still chosen according to the classic Westminster model – that is, by a vote of the parliamentary caucus: the people elected to represent the party in Parliament, who are probably best placed to consider which leader is most likely to help them get there.
That is how party leaders were chosen in this country for the first 50 or 60 years after Confederation. The shift to delegated conventions in the first half of the last century began the presidentialization of our politics, accelerated by the more recent move to one member, one vote. But at least the U.S. has a system of registered voters – not the free-for-alls that are Canadian party leadership races.
At the very least, the choice of party leader should be restricted to the party’s existing members at the start of the campaign. In the best of all worlds, they would be elected by the parliamentary caucus. Perhaps these could be supplemented by the candidates of record in ridings not held by the party. Or perhaps, for those who object to the choice being left to mere MPs – those nobodies, as our quasi-presidential system makes them out to be – some hybrid scheme could be adopted, like the one now used by the British Conservative Party: The caucus narrows the choice to two, on which the membership votes.
Or we can stick with the present system, and endure more scandals, more takeovers by single-issue zealots, and still greater marginalization of MPs under leaders chosen not by them, but by a phantom electorate bought with gobs of cash.
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