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Tom Flanagan

Tom Flanagan


This is no way to choose a leader Add to ...

Michael Chong’s proposed Reform Act has attracted a lot support from pundits and politicians. They seem to like Mr. Chong’s idea that 15 per cent of caucus should be able to demand a review in which the leader could be unseated by a majority vote. The proponent and supporters are doubtless well intentioned, but this is a bad idea and Parliament should take a pass on it.

The fundamental problem is that all national parties have constitutions requiring their leader to be chosen not by their parliamentary caucus but by party members, either voting directly for a leadership candidate, or indirectly through delegates to a convention, or through some combination of the two. It makes no sense to have the leader chosen by a democratic process involving tens or even hundreds of thousands of people, but then allow a few dozen caucus members to fire the leader when they feel like it.

But, one might ask, why must the leader be chosen by the party members? Why shouldn’t the caucus elect the leader, as used to be done in the 19th century and is still done by some parties in Australia and New Zealand? The answer is that we have moved on from the “Golden Age of Parliament” to an era of mass democracy. Voters now expect to take part in choosing the country’s chief executive officer. Indeed, most voters, when they mark Liberal or Conservative or NDP on their ballots, are thinking mainly of the party and the leader, not of the local candidate. That is, they are thinking about choosing an executive government.

There was a time when conventional wisdom held voters to be incapable of making such a momentous choice. That led to the American Electoral College as a mechanism for indirectly electing a president, and the early parliamentary system of responsible government as a way of indirectly electing a prime minister. But that time is long gone.

A system in which Parliament acts as an electoral college for the prime minister is highly conducive to what Marx called “parliamentary cretinism.” Exhibit A is the caucus of the Australian Labor Party, which overthrew prime minister Kevin Rudd in favour of Julia Gillard in 2010, then overthrew Ms. Gillard in 2013 and reinstated Mr. Rudd to lead them into the impending election. Labor now has to reap what it sowed – three years of Liberal majority government.

Or consider what happened in New Zealand in 1997. When prime minister Jim Bolger was out of the country attending a Commonwealth meeting, one of his ministers, Jenny Shipley, organized a caucus coup against him that made her prime minister. Fittingly, she led the National Party to defeat by Labour in the next election.

Australia and New Zealand are wonderful countries (especially at this time of year), but such Third World antics are unworthy of a mature democracy. Canadians would be rightly appalled to see prime ministers overturned by caucus cliques in such a cavalier way.

Empowering party members to choose the leader builds popular support, thus giving the leader not just legal but also political authority to lead the party and the elected caucus. This is critical to giving voters a meaningful choice between parties with different policies, programs and personnel. Otherwise, elections would just mean choosing representatives with little idea of what comes next. Look at the factional, personalized politics of many city councils (not just Toronto) to get an idea of what democracy can be like without responsible political parties. The House of Commons should discuss the Reform Act seriously to expose the fallacious thinking that underlies it, then let it die on the order paper.

Tom Flanagan is a distinguished fellow in the School of Public Policy, University of Calgary, and a former campaign manager for conservative parties.

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