Thursday, November 04, 2010

Not quite the right way

Political scientist John Courtney has said there is one constant about Canadian political leaders: they all stay on too long. Stands to reason. Our Canadian political tradition is that party leaders are accountable to no one, except through a mass party revolt that takes years, costs millions, and leaves a party shattered and disorganized. Let leaders themselves determine their own fate, and they will generally tilt toward their own indispensability.

So BC premier Gordon Campbell's decision to go deserves respect. But we need to be clear about the reasons. The Globe & Mail's lead today:
A caucus rebellion among B.C. Liberals has pressured Premier Gordon Campbell to quit abruptly, leaving his party in disarray.
is surely flat wrong. There was concern and criticism in the caucus, but if Campbell had decided to stay, the caucus would surely have backed down to await a mass-party leadership review. When did a Canadian caucus last force out a leader against his will? (Hint: not in your lifetime.) As BC Liberal Party caucus member John Van Dongen said of his premier on The National last night: "He makes the decisions."  There speaks the Canadian backbencher.

Gordon Campbell accepted he was not semi-divine and went before the bitter end, but the polls (9% approval rating!) and the upcoming mass-party convention were surely more compelling than a paper-tiger threat from caucus members who do not really believe they have the right (the duty, really) to remove leaders and select their replacement.

Campbell's departure also highlights the problems with taking the timing of elections away from the legislature. With a fixed and distant election date, the new Liberal leader will be premier for as much as two years before meeting the electorate. How do you like that result, democracy wonks?

And recall? Recall is pretty crazy in the Canadian system: backbenchers will be removed from office by their leader if they do not obey the leader and simultaneously removed from office by their constituents if they do not follow the latest polls. Talk about double-jeopardy. Canadian backbenchers need to be empowered, not further weakened. Still, it is impossible to deny that the recall/referendum hoopla in BC did help keep up the pressure that killed Campbell's credibility and made his survival impossible.

Real parliamentary democracy, where leaders are accountable on a daily basis to the elected representatives of the people, would be more effective. In real parliamentary democracies, failed leaders are automatically held accountable, and so are their successors. Now the BC Liberals and the province will have no leader for several months. The party will blow all its funds on an expensive vote-buying war. And who knows who might sweep to (unaccountable) power as the new premier?

But until Canadians grasp the idea of accountability in a parliamentary system, we'll have to make to with the expedients at hand.

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