Tuesday, March 01, 2011

President Clark

On Saturday radio talk show host Christy Clark was elected leader of the BC Liberal Party, selected by 52% of the 56,000 party "members" who had purchased votes for the process.  It was generally accepted that the victory entitles her automatically to become premier of the province with a mandate that lasts until the spring of 2014 -- though apparently she may choose to seek election sooner.

What has this to do with parliamentary democracy?

It is a fundamental principle of parliamentary democracy that a government must be constantly accountable to a majority in the popularly elected legislature. During the vote, Ms Clark had the support of just one of the 47 Liberal party MLAs. She specifically disagreed with the caucus consensus on several vital issues, and she now assumes that her preferences will become the policy of the government.

The leadership convention terminated as soon as the votes were counted, so Ms Clark has no more accountability to the people who chose her than she does to the elected MLAs.  Should not a premier be accountable to someone? Evidently not. Canadians accept that the purchased votes of 29,000 private citizens (the ones identified in the press include "condo developer" Bob Rennie and "property developer" Ryan Beedie) trump the will of the elected representatives of the people of the province or the voice of the legislature of the province.

This is not a problem with Christy Clark specifically.  Every party leader in Canada owes his or her position to the same corrupt processes, and each is similarly free of accountability to anyone.  But seeing her face all over the media, and seeing all the reporters and analysts accepting without question her unaccountable authority, rams home once again the extraordinary crisis of accountability we have in Canadian political leadership -- and how almost no one ever wants to think about it.

Could the BC Liberal caucus, 47 presumably serious men and women, all legitimately elected to represent the people of British Columbia in the sovereign legislature of the province, do something about being saddled with an unaccountable leader whose selection they actively opposed and whose policies they do not support?

Well, sure.  They could pass a caucus resolution declaring they accept Christy Clark as their new leader but stipulating that, in keeping with the tenets of parliamentary accountability:

  1. all policies of the BC Liberal party will require majority support of the party caucus, 
  2. that in the event of a disagreement between the leader and the caucus, the leader must defer, and 
  3. that in the event of an irreconciliable disagreement, the caucus has the authority to remove its support from Ms. Clark as leader and to choose who will be the replacement leader.

Don't hold your breath.  Such resolutions would seem revolutionary in Canadian context. Even in situations -- like the BC NDP, where the caucus successfully drove a failed leader from office, it is accepted that the new leader will not be chosen by or accountable to them.  If the Liberal caucus passed such a resolution, serious reporters would talk of "coups"  and bleat about democracy, as if democracy were simply about how many people vote.

But such principles are so unremarkable in the rest of the parliamentary world that they are rarely even articulated. The sitting prime ministers of Australia and of Ireland were recently removed and replaced by caucus vote, and it happens routinely in all the other parliamentary democracies of the world, except ours.
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