Thursday, August 30, 2012

Leadership follies in British Columbia

(Update: I've updated/corrected below.)

Falcon -- he's out
(Stick with me, I'll get to BC, but a little background matters)

There has been some attention in recent years, aided and abetted here for sure, to the idea that Canada should revert to the parliamentary norm and have political party leaders hired and fired by the caucus of elected members, restoring the bedrock parliamentary principle that our political leaders must be constantly accountable to the people's elected representatives.

With some noble exceptions, commentators, political scientists, and political consultants have been pretty consistent in finding this idea "unthinkable" -- and indeed not thinking about it.

But there have been some proposals for a Canadian sort of compromise  -- never do anything by halves that you can do by quarters -- that maybe caucuses could get rid of failed leaders and then the party at large could select the new one. Paul Wells liked this idea a few years ago:
I buy historian Christopher Moore’s argument that MPs should select their leaders. There’ll be people who call that “undemocratic,” so how about this: MPs should at least be able to start a leadership race, by declaring in some kind of qualified majority vote that they’ve had enough of any current leader. [2009]
He has since firmed up his views:
I believe, with the Toronto historian Christopher Moore, that it should be roughly the other way around: sitting MPs should have the power to change leaders, at any time, on any day. Suddenly the choice of a local MP would become very important. Of course this sort of change is usually dismissed as “undemocratic,” which means it is too democratic. [2012]
The political scientists André Blais and William Cross, authors of Politics at the Centre, a recent study of leadership selection processes (my review here), still hold to the two-headed system, with priority definitely given to the mass membership:
Our study leads us to the conclusion that those processes including both MPs and grassroots party members in the selectorate are to be preferred. 
How's that working out?  British Columbia, bless its left-coast freespriritedness, has been testing out this dual-mandate program in the last few years. It boiled up again yesterday.

Recall that late in 2010, beset by a cabinet and caucus revolt, BC premier Gordon Campbell announced he would step down when his successor was chosen. He was close to zero in the polls, anyway, but it seemed to be caucus power (the threat of enough defections to bring down his government) that pushed him out the door.

The caucus, having done in Campbell, declined to take responsibility for selecting his successor.  They had one of those vote-buying orgies that are the rule in Canadian political leadership selection. A radio talkshow host, Christy Clark, with NO support from any member of the Liberal caucus, acquired the party leadership. She won a seat in the legislature (just barely) but, with no support from MLAs and no electoral mandate, she has been premier for more than a year. That parliamentary accountability thing....?  Naaah, this is Canada.

Turns out the leadership convention's choice was not so successful. Clark's Palinesque performance has won few friends, and now she has polling numbers akin to Campbell's. She too faces abandonment by cabinet and caucus members who never wanted her to be their leader.  Latest out the door is leadership runner-up and finance minister Kevin Falcon.

Look where the caucus fire/convention hire system has left the BC Liberals. The caucus could probably muscle Clark out as it did Campbell. Except there must be a provincial election by next spring, so there is hardly time for a traditional leadership race -- even if there was any faith that the hey-I-just-bought-a-vote party masses could make a better choice this time.  The whole convention system is simply too inflexible for the pace of parliamentary politics. Stuck with the leader imposed on them, the Liberal MLAs just have to go down in flames .

Is it possible that the surviving Liberal caucus members could exercise their authority to simply remove their support from Clark today, pick a new leader and premier (Falcon? someone else entirely?) next week, and then carry on with some hope of saving their seats and their party. Probably not. The liberal/conservative factional splits in the BC "Liberal" party seem to be too big to resolve, and the electorate seems to have moved overwhelmingly toward the NDP as their next government. But most important, the imagination, knowledge, and courage for such a move is almost certainly lacking, given the powerful Canadian consensus against it.

But if they could, they could start something that could sweep the rest of the country.  Hell, the federal Liberal caucus might even say, hmmm, why should we hold a leadership race that is doomed to disaster.  Why not just pick our leader, and if necessary, make another change when power is really in prospect?

Why not, indeed?

Update, same day:  I see now that in November 2010 I was not convinced that the Liberal caucus actually pushed Campbell out.  See my 2010 post here and earlier

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