Crash­ing the Party

Our process for choos­ing po­lit­i­cal lead­ers is flawed

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - By Jen Ger­son

When lead­er­ship races favour nar­cis­sism

Long be­fore Pa­trick Brown gained na­tional no­to­ri­ety for re­sign­ing from his po­si­tion as On­tario Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tive leader in the face of sex­ual-mis­con­duct al­le­ga­tions — then en­tered the race to re­place him­self, then ducked out of that race a week and a half later — the thir­ty­nine-year-old bach­e­lor’s per­sonal life had been the sub­ject of ru­mours in po­lit­i­cal cir­cles. The ru­mours didn’t point to any­thing il­le­gal; rather, Brown had a rep­u­ta­tion for wom­an­iz­ing, for car­ry­ing on with in­terns and staffers — that sort of thing. The kinds of ru­mours that in a pre– #metoo era might raise an eye­brow but not bring down an axe in Cana­dian pol­i­tics.

That era came to an end Jan­uary 24 when CTV re­porter Glen Mcgre­gor sent Brown’s chief of staff an email de­tail­ing ac­cu­sa­tions of sex­ual mis­con­duct, at least some of which were both cred­i­ble and spe­cific. Ear­lier that day, af­ter a pre­lim­i­nary in­quiry by Mcgre­gor, party staff mem­bers had combed through Brown’s pri­vate Face­book mes­sages. On Novem­ber 2, 2012, at 11:21 p.m., from Brown (then a thirty-fouryear-old mem­ber of Par­lia­ment) to a young woman he had met while trav­el­ling: “Are you im­pressed I re­mem­bered you [ sic] name?” he asked. “If your [ sic] down­town tonight maybe I will bump into you. I will be out with friends at Kenz, Queens, and the Bank. And if you ever need to skip a line in down­town Bar­rie just text me.” The woman, who would go on to work in his con­stituency of­fice, was eigh­teen years old at the time.

Brown’s staff and ad­vis­ers knew he was doomed. Whether he was guilty of sex­ual mis­con­duct or not, the leader could not sur­vive the al­le­ga­tions. They told him so. As a tele­con­fer­ence later that night would make clear, Brown’s cau­cus had no faith the leader could win the next elec­tion.

Pa­trick Brown led his party thanks to a process that al­lowed him to win the role by, es­sen­tially, sell­ing more mem­ber­ships than his com­peti­tors, rather than earn­ing the re­spect and con­fi­dence of his cau­cus col­leagues. It’s a mech­a­nism that has been clum­sily grafted onto our po­lit­i­cal sys­tem in re­cent decades in an at­tempt to make party mem­ber­ship more open and ac­ces­si­ble. But mod­ern lead­er­ship cam­paigns have their dark side; while they do gen­er­ate in­ter­est in a party and open up the con­test to a wider ar­ray of vot­ers, they can also en­sure a leader is se­lected by peo­ple who have lit­tle vested in­ter­est in the party it­self. They can be gamed by the tal­ented strate­gist, the slick sales­per­son, or the out­right nar­cis­sist.

Tra­di­tion­ally, in the West­min­ster par­lia­men­tary sys­tem Canada in­her­ited from Eng­land, the leader of a party is se­lected — and of­ten un­s­e­lected — by cau­cus, the elected mem­bers of a party who sit in Par­lia­ment or pro­vin­cial leg­is­la­tures. The rea­son for this is straight­for­ward: that sys­tem re­lies on the no­tion of con­fi­dence. A fed­eral govern­ment, for ex­am­ple, must main­tain the con­fi­dence of the House of Com­mons in or­der to pass bud­gets and leg­is­la­tion, and that, in turn, re­quires that a prime min­is­ter hold the con­fi­dence of his or her own party.

Canada be­gan to shift away from this sys­tem a cen­tury ago. In 1917, the Lib­er­als, then led by Wil­frid Lau­rier, were deeply di­vided about whether to sup­port con­scrip­tion for the First World War, ex­plains John Court­ney, a se­nior pol­icy fel­low at the Univer­sity of Saskatchewan. They saw a pol­icy con­ven­tion as a novel way to in­vig­o­rate a party in cri­sis. Con­ven­tions are ex­cit­ing — more sim­i­lar to the the­atrics that dom­i­nated much of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. Lau­rier was in­flu­enced by O.D. Skel­ton — a prom­i­nent civil ser­vant who at­tended party con­ven­tions in the United States

and re­turned home an ad­vo­cate of demo­cratic re­form.

Af­ter Lau­rier’s death, the pol­icy con­ven­tion mor­phed into the del­e­gated lead­er­ship con­ven­tion of 1919, at­tended by MPS, se­na­tors, pro­vin­cial party lead­ers, pre­miers, heads of pro­vin­cial party as­so­ci­a­tions, and three del­e­gates from each rid­ing. Pre­vi­ously, only se­na­tors and MPS — the mem­bers of cau­cus — could se­lect a leader. That con­ven­tion fun­da­men­tally al­tered the re­la­tion­ship be­tween leader and cau­cus. The Lib­er­als elected Wil­liam Lyon Macken­zie King, who went on to win the next elec­tion in 1921. There was un­rest from time to time, Court­ney says. But “King said to cau­cus mem­bers, ‘You didn’t choose me, I was cho­sen in 1919 by the party in con­ven­tion. Those are the men to whom I am re­spon­si­ble.’” It worked — King didn’t step down un­til 1948. Mean­while, says Court­ney, the Con­ser­va­tives, ob­serv­ing the suc­cess of their ri­vals, also in­tro­duced a del­e­gated con­ven­tion in 1927.

The temp­ta­tion to bring ever more bod­ies into the process grew over time — three del­e­gates from each rid­ing be­came six, then twelve, for ex­am­ple. More re­cently, the del­e­gate sys­tem has de­volved even fur­ther, lead­ing to one-mem­ber-onevote races that open lead­er­ship elec­tions to any­one will­ing to chip in a small fee for a party card. “The whole idea came in for one per­son one vote, [which] be­gan in the late ’80s and early ’90s,” Court­ney says, “with the pop­ulist re­form no­tions that the power re­sides with the peo­ple, not with the party, not with the party elites or the ex­ec­u­tives, not with the cau­cus.”

Today’s one- mem­ber- one- vote lead­er­ship races are won by a process of “rack ’em, stack ’em, pack ’em,” says Goldy Hy­der, ceo of pub­lic-re­la­tions firm Hill+knowl­ton Strate­gies Canada, who spent some time with Brown the night of his res­ig­na­tion. “Does that nec­es­sar­ily lead to the best-qual­i­fied per­son win­ning?” he says. “No, it leads to the best or­ga­nizer win­ning.” In or­der to be­come leader, Brown had sim­ply out-or­ga­nized ev­ery­one else: be­fore his 2015 win, Brown’s team claimed that the PCS lan­guished, with only 12,000 mem­bers; af­ter­wards, he would claim the party had closer to 200,000. (Af­ter his res­ig­na­tion, party of­fi­cials started dis­put­ing that fig­ure but agreed it was likely more than 100,000.) In sign­ing up thou­sands of new party mem­bers to back his lead­er­ship bid, Hy­der says, “Pa­trick beat the es­tab­lish­ment.”

Ten­sions would per­sist, how­ever. In a con­fer­ence call held by the PC cau­cus the night the al­le­ga­tions against Brown broke in the news (the call was se­cretly recorded and pro­vided by a con­fi­den­tial source), the cau­cus came to the con­clu­sion that the leader must step down while also ac­knowl­edg­ing that the party’s con­sti­tu­tion had no mech­a­nism by which they could force him to do so. “If we call for his res­ig­na­tion unan­i­mously, it doesn’t mat­ter what is in the con­sti­tu­tion,” mem­ber of pro­vin­cial par­lia­ment Ted Arnott said on the call. “He will have to re­sign.” In fact, this was not clear.

In 2013, Con­ser­va­tive MP Michael Chong be­gan an ar­du­ous leg­isla­tive jour­ney to re­jig the im­bal­ance of power be­tween leader and cau­cus. A wa­tered-down ver­sion of his bill passed the House of Com­mons in 2015 as the Re­form Act. Chong notes that many of the rules that gov­ern par­lia­men­tary life, such as the process by which party lead­ers are cho­sen, are de­rived from tra­di­tion and prece­dent rather than cod­i­fied in law. “That un­writ­ten sys­tem worked in the gen­tle­manly, clubby world of the nine­teenth cen­tury,” he says. “But it doesn’t work today in a mod­ern democ­racy.”

Some par­ties have taken the logic of one mem­ber one vote to a fur­ther ex­treme, de­nud­ing the idea of a party “mem­ber” al­to­gether. Ahead of the ap­point­ment of Justin Trudeau, for ex­am­ple, the fed­eral Lib­eral Party cre­ated a new “sup­porter” class of party mem­ber­ship — avail­able free of charge — which has largely re­duced party mem­ber­ship to a data-min­ing op­er­a­tion, gath­er­ing po­ten­tial donor names to be used for sub­se­quent fundrais­ing drives. Any­one could vote for Trudeau to be Lib­eral leader in 2013. Mean­while, life­long Lib­er­als are now more dis­em­pow­ered when it comes to ques­tions of process and pol­icy. Real de­ci­sion-mak­ing power is cen­tral­ized in the party elite and the Prime Min­is­ter’s Of­fice. “What hap­pens when it’s a govern­ment party?” Chong asks. “What hap­pens if it’s the min­is­te­rial party in the House of Com­mons and we’re talk­ing about chang­ing the head of govern­ment, here?”

Pa­trick Brown is not the first leader to have been brought down of late. In the spring, seven of the ten Bloc Québé­cois MPS aban­doned leader Mar­tine Ouel­let over con­cerns about her lead­er­ship style. In 2014, cau­cus forced the res­ig­na­tion of Al­berta premier Ali­son Red­ford, who was fac­ing al­le­ga­tions of en­ti­tle­ment and mis­use of pub­lic funds. Cana­dian pol­i­tics seem to be in­creas­ingly driven by civil wars, im­plod­ing par­ties, and kneecapped lead­ers; dra­matic and chaotic cau­cus re­volts can drag out for weeks or months. As lead­er­ship races them­selves have opened, the line of ac­count­abil­ity of the leader to cau­cus has grown weaker.

There are a few op­tions for re­form: re­turn to a cau­cus-se­lected leader, amend party con­sti­tu­tions to clar­ify the pow­ers of elected mem­bers, or com­plete what Chong set out to do with the Re­form Act and cod­ify the un­writ­ten rules of par­lia­ments and leg­is­la­tures. Un­less one of these al­ter­na­tives is im­ple­mented, opaque, closed-club par­ties will re­main the gate­keep­ers to the en­tire po­lit­i­cal sys­tem. The prob­lem, as the de­bate over the Re­form Act demon­strated, is that power rarely likes to check it­self. Par­ties tend to re­sist re­forms that limit their mem­ber­ship, or base, or that force power to be de­cen­tral­ized rather than kept in the leader’s of­fice.

When Brown stepped down as On­tario PC leader, the party’s cau­cus se­lected MPP Vic Fedeli to be in­terim leader. Shortly af­ter tak­ing over, Fedeli said he would “root out the rot” that had set­tled into the party un­der Brown; with the sup­port of cau­cus, he promised to lead the party through the up­com­ing elec­tion in June. His ap­point­ment was quickly un­der­mined: the party mem­ber­ship de­cided to hold a lead­er­ship race be­fore the pro­vin­cial cam­paign. The opin­ion of the cau­cus that just ousted its last leader was ir­rel­e­vant. The lead­er­ship race that fol­lowed was one of the most chaotic in Cana­dian his­tory. The win­ner was an­nounced March 10; it was Doug Ford.

Lead­er­ship con­tests can be gamed by the slick sales­per­son or the out­right nar­cis­sist.

Pa­trick Brown, then the On­tario Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tive leader, ges­tures to sup­port­ers as he ad­dresses the party’s con­ven­tion in Toronto on Novem­ber 25, 2017.

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