The Weekly Writ for Oct. 19
What might fix our broken leadership contests; tight polling races federally and in Alberta; and a trip back in time to Yukon.
Welcome to the Weekly Writ, a round-up of the latest federal and provincial polls, election news and political history that lands in your inbox every Wednesday morning.
The system we use to choose party leaders is broken.
And here’s how it might be fixed.
First, the problem. In Canada, we leave the choice of who should lead our political parties to people whose attachment to those parties can be non-existent. Candidates, who themselves need little connection to the party they seek to lead, sign up new members who might be getting involved with their new parties for the first time. Most of them will disengage from the party shortly after the race is over.
It turns our leadership races into sales drives targeted at a tiny — often unrepresentative — minority of a party’s electoral base and an even smaller minority of the country as a whole. It can result in party leaders, premiers and prime ministers rising to the heights of power without the support of the parliamentary caucuses that give them their legitimacy in our parliamentary system.
I’ve written about this issue before. Rather than lay out the problems all over again I invite you to read my last post on this:
We have a few recent and ongoing examples of what dysfunction this model can produce.
Albertans have a new premier in Danielle Smith who won her job thanks to the votes of some 42,000 UCP members but despite lacking the support of all but a handful of United Conservative Party caucus members. Her first days in office (an office voters denied her in the 2012 provincial election) have been marred by controversial comments she made about how the unvaccinated have been the people most discriminated against in her lifetime and past comments she has made about this and other issues, such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine (which she apologized for last night), that are, to say the least, troubling.
In British Columbia, the governing B.C. New Democrats were at risk of being completely taken over by Anjali Appadurai, a climate activist with enough backing from environmental groups that she could theoretically swamp the small pre-existing base of 11,000 or so members of the NDP. As of Tuesday evening, the party appeared set to disqualify her, a decision which, legitimate or otherwise, could taint David Eby’s acclamation. Eby has the endorsement of nearly the entire NDP caucus.
Over in the United Kingdom, we have the example of the unfolding catastrophe that has been Liz Truss’s prime ministership. The U.K. Conservatives use a hybrid leadership model that reduces the list of potential candidates to just two that are chosen by caucus. On the final ballot that produced the top two finishers Truss had the backing of less than a third of Conservative MPs. Rishi Sunak had the most support, but 81,000 members chose Truss instead and made her the prime minister of a nation of 67,000,000 people.
With the rise of social media and the decline in active party membership, what we have now is a system of choosing leaders that is easily gamed and manipulated. Voters, and those they elect to represent them, are left by the wayside.
One solution to this problem would be to leave the choice of who leads our political parties entirely to caucus. That would be the purest distillation of the spirit of our parliamentary system, which gives leadership of the government to the person who commands the confidence of parliament. Indirectly, that is still what happens as caucuses who have a leader foisted upon them by party members have the option to revolt or leave their parties, but political and electoral pressures that have reduced the power of individual MPs and provincial legislators usually keep them in line.
However, directly giving caucus the power to choose leaders would rob political parties of some of the advantages of these membership sales drives, such as the influx of cash and personal data and the notion that these are grassroots organizations. There is probably no going back.
So, here’s a simple solution that might provide the best of both worlds: to be eligible to run for leadership, parties should require that candidates get a majority of their party’s caucus to sign their leadership nomination papers.
It wouldn’t mean an explicit endorsement or that caucus members would be limited to signing just one candidate’s papers. The list of signatories wouldn’t even need to be made public. But it would serve the purpose of signaling that the candidate, if they win the leadership race, would have the confidence of a majority of the parliamentary caucus they would lead.
It would leave the final decision in the hands of party members but ensure a leader that is at least acceptable to caucus. It would give caucuses a little more of the power they have forfeited over the years and take the decision of qualification out of the hands of unelected party officials, while also not shutting the door entirely to party outsiders.
Otherwise, with the direction that things are heading in, parties risk becoming nothing more than brand names and logos that are temporarily owned by whoever has the biggest social media following.
Now, to the Weekly Writ — but let me know if you agree or disagree. You can let me know in the comments!
This week, we start with the results in British Columbia’s municipal elections on the weekend before getting into a series of polls. Things are tight between Pierre Poilievre and Justin Trudeau, as well as in Alberta between the NDP and UCP. We also have some new municipal numbers out of Toronto and Hamilton, a poll out of B.C. and a post-election survey from Quebec.
Also this week, I profile the Alberta riding decided by the thinnest margin in 2019 and mark a couple of milestones for New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs.
Finally, the #EveryElectionProject takes us up north.
Let’s get to it.