Lori Turnbull is the interim director of the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University and fellow at the Public Policy Forum
Leadership conventions used to make for tremendous suspense and political theatre, even compared to elections. All of the major political parties used to rely on delegated conventions to choose their leaders, and it made for great television. Delegates would rally around their respective candidates on the convention floor, waving signs and cheering, and as the candidates dropped off one by one, old banners and buttons were tossed as delegates realigned themselves. The optics provided a powerful visual representation of the party coming together again, after being divided for months in support of the various individuals competing for the leadership.
There are problems with this delegate model, of course. It puts a fundamentally important decision in the hands of a group of delegates who make up a very small percentage of the party’s overall membership. Accusations of elitism resonate too well, especially when society is generally moving further towards the principles of inclusion, equality and democracy. Parties have had to sacrifice the pageantry of the old-school convention in favour of more inclusive models of leadership selection that allow all members of the party (and sometimes even non-members, too) to get involved in choosing the leader. As a kind of a hybrid, parties now often hold a convention to announce its new leader, even though the decision was made in advance through mail-in and electronic ballots.
The delegated convention wasn’t just about pageantry though; it provided an opportunity for a political party to start healing itself after a divisive fight. With each ballot, as another candidate was eliminated, delegates made a decision about who was best to lead the party among the contenders who remained. Candidates campaigned aggressively between ballots, offering promises and concessions to woo the support of delegates who initially supported someone else. This forced candidates to accommodate the different constituencies within the party, and whoever was the most effective broker won the race by uniting the party around themselves. The leader had to build a coalition on the convention floor. At the end of the long and taxing day, all of these delegates who were so divided just that morning were now together again, loyally waving the flag of the new leader. These images show voters that the party is united, and ready and able to lead. But, perhaps even more than that, the delegated convention was a necessary bonding exercise for the members of the party and its new leader.
The Ontario Progressive Conservative Party appears anything but united. Doug Ford has been declared its leader with nary a champagne cork in sight. With less than three months to go before the election, the party has little time for wound-licking and fence-mending. Leadership conventions used to unite parties; now they are ripping them apart.
It is useful to consider how things might have been different if this was all happening 20 or 30 years ago, and a delegated convention almost surely would have been used. Instead of an electronic preferential ballot filled out by party members in their homes and communities, delegates would have come together and made decisions collectively as each ballot removed another candidate. At the end of the night, delegates would have gathered around (presumably) either Mr. Ford or Ms. Elliott, even if through gritted teeth on the parts of delegates whose candidates were defeated. There would have been no disputing the results of the vote. And, regardless of who won, the new leader would have reached out to defeated candidates with offers of cabinet posts or other assignments when the party moved into Queen’s Park. These events were essential to party unity and restoration; electronic voting just doesn’t cut it when it comes to rebuilding a party. We can be sure that the Chretien-Martin fault line would have torn the Liberal Party apart completely if the decision was handed to party faithful as an output from a computer.
Let me be the last person to make an argument for a return to elitist institutions that disenfranchised more people than they included. Instead, political parties should be looking for more ways to meaningfully and substantially engage members and to recruit new ones. My point here is to recall a time when parties had effective mechanisms for fostering unity following a leadership race. Without such a mechanism, the Ontario PCs have a big problem.
The party needs a strategy for, literally, keeping it together. Mr. Ford must make clear his genuine desire to build a team around him and to strike a positive, constructive tone with caucus members, who just want to put this whole thing behind them and get to the business of campaigning and, perhaps, governing. If the party itself is divided by Mr. Ford’s victory, it can’t expect Ontario to make him its premier.