Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Drivel Watch: Simpson on Australia

Jeffrey Simpson wrote a book, The Friendly Dictator, about unaccountable leadership in Canadian politics.

From the title, you wouldn't have thought he was in favour of it.

But look at Simpson's panicky, almost hysterical column today about the Australian election that followed the removal of Kevin Rudd from the leadership of the governing Labor Party. Simpson raves about coups and knifings.
One day, a leader, even a prime minister, is running the party; the next day, he’s out..... Can you imagine how the Jean Chrétien-Paul Martin rivalry inside the Liberal Party would have played itself out under Australian political rules?
Well, yes, actually.

In reality, it's not Aussie rules at all. It's parliamentary democracy rules. When a leader loses the confidence of the majority caucus in parliament (as Australia's Kevin Rudd did, and Jean Chrétien did here), parliamentary democracy requires that he or she go. It's the fundamental principle of the constant accountability of the executive to the legislature. It happens in Britain, it happens in Ireland, it happens in Sweden and Japan and ... well, in pretty much all the parliamentary democracies of the world.

The Australian situation today -- the leadership change clearly did not help the ALP electorally, shall we say -- confirms how the system of caucus accountability has its own internal controls. Should a leadership review appear too ruthless, driven more by personal ambition than by the needs of the party or the nation, the public reacts negatively, and the new leader suffers, as Ms. Gillard has. But in most cases these removals respond to the public will by removing a failing and unpopular leader and rejuvenating the party. (Recall Mrs. Thatcher, and the re-election of the Conservative Party that removed her?) Surely having a system of leadership accountability is always better than the constipated system we suffer in Canada.

But Jeffrey Simpson -- and Canadian politics in general -- continues to find the idea of party leaders being accountable to the elected representatives of the Canadian people "almost inconceivable" (it's Simpson's phrase, though why he includes "almost" escapes me.) It's this failure of imagination that is perhaps most depressing in Canadian political analysis. Not only are we in denial about how the whole parliamentary world operates, panic seizes even our leading commentators the moment they even start to imagine parliamentary democracy working here.

"Can you imagine....?" As John Lennon says, it's easy if you try.

Two small addenda. An Ontario poll suggests Ontarians have become bored and dissatified with Premier Dalton McGuinty. Wouldn't you think it would serve the Ontario Liberal party to at least have a process available by which the party could determine whether having Premier McGuinty lead them into the next election would serve the party's (or the province's) interests? I guess not.

And where Jeffrey Simpson cannot even conceive of parliamentary accountability, an Australian commentator thinks boldly about an even greater asserting of authority by parliamentarians. The Australian electoral deadlock seems to be inspiring creative thought there. Too bad ours mostly inspires drivel.

Update: Robin Mowat comments:
You write: "When a leader loses the confidence of the majority caucus in parliament (as Australia's Kevin Rudd did, and Jean Chrétien did here), parliamentary democracy requires that he or she go." Undoubtedly true. It would be impossible for a leader to continue if he'd truly lost the confidence of his caucus.

But to my knowledge there really isn't a formal mechanism for a caucus to remove a leader in Canada and replace them with another leader. Arguably, the existence of such a formal process would quicken caucus revolts, as within political parties in the UK and Australia (See for instance the brief discussion of Margaret Thatcher's ousting in 1990).

So I believe Simpson's argument would be that if such rules existed within the Liberal Party, Jean Chretien would have been ousted by Paul Martin far sooner. And that, in general, such a formal process would be a formidable check on a Prime Minister's power (which is debatable).

An interesting comparison is the replacement of Stephane Dion with Michael Ignatieff. This was essentially a caucus decision, although backed by the party structure. Nevertheless, the decision was required to be validated by party members at the following convention.
Thanks Robin. I'd only suggest that the caucus itself is the "formal mechanism"; it may make what rules it chooses to guide the process, but it already has the authority if it chooses to use it. Or not to use it, as when the Liberal caucus allowed final authority over the Dion/Ignatieff switch to be retained by the party apparatus and the self-appointed convention.
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