Friday, November 05, 2010

Not quite the right way -- sequel

In response to my post yesterday, Mark Reynolds writes:
In your post on Campbell's resignation, you said (paraphrasing) no leader had been forced out by caucus in living memory: but wasn't that how Stephane Dion left? Am I misremembering the circumstances, or does your readership skew much younger than I'd thought?
Fair point. Dion does come close to being a leader forced out by his caucus's dissatisfaction. I'd add a few qualifications, however. Dion, having recently led an unsuccessful election campaign, was under pressure from more than the caucus. His successor, Michael Ignatieff, was installed not by the caucus but by the national executive of the party (later ratified by a party convention). Dion had not been chosen by the caucus, and caucus did not actually claim the authority either to remove him or to name his successor. His willingness to go was the crucial factor. I'd say that if Dion had chosen to stay, he could have successfully faced down the opposition at least until a full leadership review was imminent (just as Chretien did earlier). Dion wasn't getting much love from his caucus, I'll accept, but they had not supported him from the start, and that had not stopped him from accepting the leadership. I'd argue Dion chose to resign. In strict point of fact, he was not forced.

But did-he-jump/was-he-pushed is very much to the point today, because today the Globe & Mail reporters Francine Bula, Justine Hunter and Robert Matas have a story that leads:
A large part of the B.C. Liberal caucus was preparing to force Premier Gordon Campbell to step down as leader in a emergency meeting Thursday, but that move was headed off by the Premier’s snap resignation one day before.
If this were true, I would say it would be historic: the first time in most of a century that a Canadian party political leader has been removed from office and replaced against his or her will by a vote of caucus.

But it does not seem to be true. The Globe reporters' claim is not borne out by the well-connected reporters and columnists in the Vancouver Sun. Indeed, even the Globe's own story does not bear out its opening claim that the BC Liberal caucus was claiming the authority to remove and replace its leader. Further down in the story, "a Liberal caucus source" is quoted as saying talk of a caucus revolt
“would be an exaggeration and premature” because it never got that far. “There was a heightened level of anxiety, but how that manifests itself in group settings is virtually impossible to predict.”
They also quote Solicitor General Rick Coleman as saying of the caucus meeting:
he did not think there would have been a vote on Gordon Campbell’s leadership had he not resigned.
Vaughn Palmer, the Sun's lead political columnist, reports that, despite having resigned, Campbell expects to continue playing an active role in BC politics until his replacement is chosen and maybe even beyond.
He's preparing to leave office and still trying to make them follow his policies down to the last jot and tittle. Indeed, he gives every indication of intending to dominate the coming legislature session with a Gordon Campbell-crafted throne speech and budget.

No wonder some of the Liberals wish he would resign as premier sooner rather than later, allowing the caucus of government MLAs to name one of their number to take over as premier until the party holds a formal leadership convention.
According to Palmer, "Premier My Way or the Doorway" even believes the new leader must sign on to Campbell's own policy preferences, virtually as a condition of taking the job. That does not sound like a leader forced out by a caucus confident in its own authority.

These details are important, because journalists (see the Globe reporters above) and political scientists in Canada do tend to inflate any tentative sign of caucus restiveness into evidence of a leader being "forced" out. I'd argue that in both the Dion and Campbell cases, the leader was only forced to the extent that he was willing to accept the message he was getting.

That matters, because it is a vast contrast from how accountability works in virtually every parliamentary democracy in the world. From last summer's removal of Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd back to the fall of Margaret Thatcher, by way of many prime ministers and party leaders in Japan, New Zealand, Ireland, and many other parliamentary governments, it is the rule in parliamentary systems around the world that leaders truly are removed when the caucus decides (no matter what the leader him- or herself is willing to do). It is the caucus and the caucus alone that makes the decision who the new leader will be. And that process is a keystone of the constant accountability of the executive to the parliamentary majority. Except in Canada.

I'd welcome evidence that the BC Liberals were groping toward the idea that they could depose and replace Premier Campbell by their own decision and on their own authority. Maybe some of them were. I think that would be a significant step forward for the Canadian political process. But on balance it does not look like that happened, and it didn't really happen in the Dion resignation either. If Gordon Campbell had wanted to stay on, he'd still be there. Those caucus members would grumble and submit.

November 8, 2010: Stephen MacLean responds:
I agree entirely with your recent blog assessments of St├ęphane Dion and BC's Gordon Campbell: it staggers imagination to think that they were rejected and forced out by their caucuses--telepathically, perhaps?

By that logic, both men were confirmed and endorsed by their caucuses during the time of their leaderships, and that was clearly not the case.
November 9, 2010: West Coast history blogger Daniel Francis linked to these two posts of mine on BC politics and got a couple of comments. Since one is anonymous and the other pseudonymous, they probably would not have been published here, but if you are interested you can see them at Daniel's Know BC.  BTW, Daniel has a big new book just out: Seeing Reds on the Red scare of c1919, in which Dan finds a precursor to today's anti-terrorism security state.
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