Monday, February 02, 2009

Notes on leadership

A reader commenting on my Danny Williams post from last week raises the question of when Canadian parties began holding leadership conventions.

"1919" is the short answer. When Wilfrid Laurier died in 1919 (still leader of the opposition), the Liberals were in the midst of organizing a policy convention. They turned it into a leadership selection meeting and William Lyon Mackenzie King won. The idea caught on.

But the deeper implications are worth looking at. King, the first beneficiary of mass party leadership selection, was the first to grasp the autocratic power it conferred on the successful leadership candidate. The Liberal convention dissolved the day after selecting him (and the Liberal Party did not hold another until he retired in 1948), so he never had to worry about accountability to the party. When the caucus occasionally grew restive, King replied that he had been picked by the party membership at large. He was not accountable to caucus, so it must be accountable to him. It has been that way for Canadian parties ever since. Power corrupts, and absolute power is even better, as they say.

Britain has recently been drifting in the Canadian direction, but in parliamentary nations (other than Canada) all over the world, the rule has always been clear. The people elect their MPs, the MPs select (and deselect) the leader, and accountability is real, direct, and permanent. Nothing has done more to undermine parliamentary democracy in Canada that the system by which party leadership is the fruit of massive competitive vote-buying by self-selected individuals who are accountable to no one and to whom the new leader will owe no accountability the moment their purchased vote has been cast.

Leadership by party membership voting is not a source of democratic legitimacy, but a travesty of it. Indeed, the recent dismissal of Stéphane Dion and selection of Michael Ignatieff was the most legitimate leadership change Canada has seen in ninety years, though the caucus ought to realize and declare that having hired its new leader, it can also fire him. That the caucus action of last December continues to be sneered at as quasi-legitimate by people who ought to know better (I'm talking to you, Jim Travers) emphasizes how degraded our parliamentary processes have become.
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