False populism and the Conservative leadership vote

  • National Newswatch

The federal Conservative party will choose a new leader in a matter of weeks.The ballots have already gone out to thousands of party members, and responses must be received by September 6, 2022. The results of the vote will be announced on September 10, 2022. This method is presented as a more "democratic" way to choose a leader, since it provides the opportunity for anyone taking out a membership to vote. Candidates are actually awarded "points" based on their ability to sell as many party memberships as possible. As an exercise in pure salesmanship, the process may be argued to be a success. By one count the Conservative Party boasts some 675,000 members- at least on paper. I offer the counter view that by virtually eliminating the role of political parties and Members of Parliament in the leadership selection, the process provides a badly distorted and highly misleading notion of openness and a Trojan Horse which invites extremism under the false claim of "populism".At one time, the choice of a party leader was the sole prerogative of the parliamentary caucus. The current Conservative Party selection process, using a ranked ballot voting system, is a far cry from the classic party convention model by which all major federal parties (Liberal, Progressive Conservative, New Democratic) chose their leaders through much of 20th century Canadian political history. The first Liberal Party leadership convention was held in 1919. Liberal leaders William Lyon Mackenzie King (1919), Louis St. Laurent (1948), Lester Pearson (1958), Pierre Elliot Trudeau (1968), John Turner (1984) and Jean Chretien (1990) all won their party's leadership in a delegate convention. The first Progressive Conservative Party of Canada leadership election was held in 1927. PC party leaders John Diefenbaker (1956), Robert Stanfield,(1967) Joe Clark (1976) and Brian Mulroney (1983) emerged victorious from these conventions.These were delegated conventions, whereby party members in each constituency across the country elected delegates to attend the convention and choose a leader. Under this system, convention delegates were by and large dedicated party volunteers who performed the necessary but thankless work of supporting the party at the local level, raising money and recruiting new members both between and during elections. Parties mattered as organized vehicles of participation in the political process. They also served as an important social vehicle in the local community, a means of building relationships and reinforcing the legitimacy of our political institutions. Members of Parliament played a key part at the local level in drumming up support for leadership candidates. Regional Ministers in particular often played a decisive role. This made perfect sense since the operation of the parliamentary system itself is based on parties. These "classic" conventions involved genuine engagement and often high drama, both for the party and for the general public, a tangible expression of party unity and renewal and potentially a popular "boost" in advance of a general election.Regrettably, the delegate convention model has since fallen into disfavour. The 2009 Liberal leadership convention was the last based on party delegates. The Progressive Conservative Party first used a "one member, one vote" system in 1998, a process continued in 2004 when Stephen Harper was chosen as the first leader of the Conservative Party following the merger of the Progressive Conservative and Reform Party. The notion of "one member, one vote" sounds terribly egalitarian in theory. But who is voting and why?At least in delegated conventions, those chosen to vote had to demonstrate some tangible connection to the party. This is not to suggest that the system was foolproof, as any system is vulnerable to manipulation. Yet the approach now employed by both the Liberal and Conservative Parties allows virtually anyone to join and vote. In this free for all, parties are effectively sidelined as vehicles of political participation and legitimacy. Members of Parliament have likewise been marginalized, even though it is these same MPs who must live with the result. The parliamentary caucus must work with the leader in the day to day work of Parliament, either in government or opposition. The direct vote effectively detaches the leader from caucus, encouraging the false idea that the leader has a "mandate" separate and apart from his/her role as a Member of Parliament. That was the erroneous argument put forward by former Prime Minister Harper during the 2008 prorogation debate when he claimed to have a "mandate" to govern and could not be defeated by the combined Opposition parties in a confidence vote on his minority government.The fear of creating what amounts to a "presidential" Prime Minister is not unique to Canada. In a recent essay ("The rotten presidency", July 16, 2022), the highly respected Economist expressed the same concern. Whereas at one time the choice of the Conservative Party leader in Britain rested with the parliamentary caucus, Boris Johnson was elected leader in 2019 by some 92,000 members of the Conservative Party. In the current race to replace Johnson, the role of the party caucus has been reduced to selecting two finalists and then allowing some 180,000 party members to vote. As in the case of the Conservative Party in this country, anyone paying a nominal party membership fee can join the party and vote for the new leader. That a candidate is supported by a majority of caucus members is helpful but not necessary. According to the Economist "outsourcing the decision of who enters Downing Street {the Prime Minister's residence} is a dereliction of duty by MPs". Under the Trojan Horse of "populism", Members of Parliament have been effectively silenced, leaving it to highly motivated factions to use the party as a convenient vehicle for their own agenda.The parallels to our own Conservative Party are striking. Like its British counterpart, the federal Conservative Party's parliamentary caucus is now largely an afterthought in the leadership selection process. Selling party memberships like so many chocolate bars and raising money are the only real criteria for a successful candidate. Experience means little. The fact that many of these newly won memberships may prove ephemeral appears to merit no consideration. Instead, the method encourages the mobilization of single issue zealots and idealogues without any thought as to whether the candidate may prove unpalatable and unelectable by the general public.If current predictions hold, the likely winner of the September vote is a candidate who has made himself the darling of the far right, notwithstanding his modest resume as a career politician and the fact that his views are deemed by many as extremist. As for the record number of new "members" who have joined the Conservative Party, one should hesitate before trumpeting this as an example of increased participation in the political process and/or support for the Conservative Party. Given the laxity of the membership rules, I suspect that many with no previous connection to the party have joined for the sole purpose of supporting Pierre Poilievre. Perhaps almost as many joined for the sole purpose of opposing him. In the case of the latter I can offer a specific example - myself.I believe that Canada needs healthy, broad-based political parties at the federal level. I fear that will not be the case if Pierre Poilievre becomes leader of the Conservative Party. His toxic brand of extremist rhetoric, his pandering to conspiracy peddlers and his abusive personalization of politics are anathema to me. With that in mind, I took out a party membership in order to vote in the leadership election. I have never been a member of the Conservative Party, nor have I ever voted for that party. Yet with no questions asked, and after paying the membership fee, I was deemed eligible to cast a ballot for a party to which I have no previous connection or investment. I received my ballot in the mail and promptly sent it in with one mark supporting one candidate, Jean Charest. If, as many anticipate, Mr. Poilievre is selected as leader, I will immediately resign my membership.My own case illustrates how the way in which an allegedly more democratic process of leadership selection is in fact a highly misleading exercise. How is this a better or fairer process? What are the long-term consequences for the Conservative Party if it allows itself to be effectively hijacked by factions bent on polarization and division, using "populism" as a megaphone and a weapon? How can removing the role of parties and parliamentarians from the process be viewed as anything other than an abdication of their proper role, while leaving the critical issue of leadership selection to a narrow collection of instant "members"?Political institutions matter. The devaluing of political parties as agents of engagement in civil society and the marginalization of Members of Parliament is a "canary in the coal mine" that should concern us all. We should start by rethinking the way parties choose a leader.
Michael Kaczorowski is a retired senior policy advisor, Government of Canada.