Disposing of Leaders

Events in Ottawa have introduced Canadians to the surprising idea that a parliamentary caucus can oust party leaders. And appoint them. Mr. Dion leaves. Mr Ignatieff arrives. In the inkling of a twinkling of an eyelid!

For years Canadian political parties have chosen their leaders at well-publicized gatherings of delegates from ridings across the country: the Party Convention. Candidates for leadership assemble battalions of supporters and recite their qualifications to crowds in vast arenas. Votes are cast in a complicated balloting system; excitement builds, a winner emerges, the former party leader retires. It’s a public event, televised to the nation; it’s a grand junket, with banners and music and fun; it publicizes the party’s history, achievements, hopes, and platform.

Now we learn that all along there’s been this alternative method: parties can depose their leaders and chose them at secret meetings of the parliamentary caucus. Party members from the House of Commons and Senate gather, and after who knows what business, the deed is done. There is no official record of caucus meetings, though reporters buzzing around the event do their best to pick up rumours. No doubt there are speeches. How could there not be speeches! The little we know suggests that there’s not much fun. Selection of leaders by caucus resembles a closeted, “old-boys” affair, from the centuries when the “parliamentary party,” was the whole show. From before political parties had built “extra-parliamentary” organizations. It is a process that originated in past centuries.

Thus: selection of leaders by Party Convention looks democratic; selection by caucus does not. But there’s a reason to endorse the apparently less democratic process.

As many political scientists argue, today’s prime ministers are too independent. They begin to look like autocrats. The PM’s influence over appointments to the Senate, to boards and commissions, and, notably, to the Supreme Court enhance “presidential” powers. He can question or reject candidates put up by the local ridings. In former times he might have been reined in by strong individuals in Cabinet, ministers with local expertise and an independent reputation; but reforms introduced in the higher ranks of the bureaucracy and the Privy Council Office have humbled cabinet ministers.

The fact that a PM is chosen by Party Convention is one more factor strengthening his independence. He’s shielded from fruitful criticism. He’s less receptive to arguments emerging from the backbenches – from the women and men you voted for.

Take a second look at Christopher Moore’s essay, “Our Canadian Republic” in the November 2008 Literary Review of Canada. This is the piece in which he exposes David E. Smith’s ignorance of parliamentary history. It’s also a review of Adam Tomkins’ Our Republican Constitution, which celebrates British parliamentary democracy. Tomkins argues that members of parliament have and should have the power to hire and fire their party leaders. Here’s Moore’s summary: “The familiar confrontation between government and opposition, Tomkins urges, cannot be allowed to obscure … the opposition between Crown and Parliament, between front bench and back, or between minister and parliamentarian.”

I’m familiar with the opposition between front bench and back. It shows up in spades in Canada’s Founding Debates – the debates in the provincial parliaments on British North American union.

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2 Responses to “Disposing of Leaders”


  1. 1 anonymous December 17, 2008 at 5:30 pm

    Janet,

    Did you see that your name is mentioned in the petition (signed by Mansfield, among others) sent to APSA protesting the Toronto conference?

    You should check it out, if you haven’t already…

  2. 2 Craig December 29, 2008 at 9:30 pm

    Would you care to elaborate on your comment about David Smith’s ignorance of Parliamentary history.


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