National Column: One-member-one-vote selections benefit populists

by Chantal Hebert

Doug Ford was elected leader of Canadaís largest provincial conservative party last weekend with little support from the caucus he will soon lead in an election or, for that matter, from much of the Ontario Tory establishment.

A mobilized so-called Ford Nation and an assist from the social conservative wing of the party helped the former Toronto mayoral candidate secure the leadership.

The grassroots path – for lack of a better word – to political leadership has become a well-trodden one in Canada.

Three years ago, a strong ground game allowed Fordís predecessor, Patrick Brown, to rise from the relative obscurity of Stephen Harper’s backbench to claim one of the top political jobs in the country.

These days Martine Ouellet remains at the helm of the Bloc Quebecois despite having lost the
confidence of 70 per cent of her caucus and in the face of public calls by a long list of Bloc veterans for her to step down. The more militant faction of the sovereignty movement from which she hails has seized control of the much-weakened federal party.

Last fall Jagmeet Singh, who has yet to serve a single day in the House of Commons, easily beat frontline MPs to become Thomas Mulcairís successor.

Singh might have won the NDP leadership without the help of scores of fellow members of the Sikh community but probably not on the first ballot.

Almost a year ago, a coalition of Quebec dairy farmers determined to punish Conservative front-runner Maxime Bernier for his opposition to Canadaís supply management system helped tilt the balance in favour of rival Andrew Scheer.

At the time of Justin Trudeauís 2013 leadership bid, his political rock-star status and the impressive social-media following that attended it made his ascension to the top virtually unstoppable. Like Singh, he might have had a harder run for his money under a system that was not based on winning a membership drive.

For most of Canadaís history, the leadership selection process was essentially the purview of a mix of committed volunteers, the apparatchiks who organized campaigns and ran party backrooms and past and present members of a political organizationís elected wing.

But over the past two decades, Canada’s mainstream parties all adopted some form of one-member-one-vote leadership formula.

The decision to open the process to thousands of members was supposed to breathe new life into party politics.

It may be achieving the opposite.

That is not to say that the previous system was infallible.

To wit, the last main federal leader to be dispensed from fighting for the job in an open contest as the result of a caucus and party brass consensus was Michael Ignatieff.

He subsequently earned his place in the history books for leading the federal Liberal party to the only third-place finish in its history.

Membership-wide votes have dramatically reduced the influence of the partyís elected and non-elected insiders and the self-serving backroom deals that sometimes attended their leadership choices.

But the need to secure as many boots on the ground as possible has also translated into a bias toward populist candidates and/or platforms that can be more reflective of the political flavour of the day than of a party’s core identity.

By encouraging alliances of convenience, the system has also rendered parties more vulnerable to single-interest groups.

In some instances, those groups will mobilize only long enough to achieve their preferred leadership outcome, leaving more committed party members to pick up the post-leadership pieces.

In others, as in the extreme case of the Bloc, a new leaderís followers will stick around long enough to remake the party in their image and in the process destroy it – in whole or in part – from the inside.

The transition to membership-wide leadership selection processes has coincided with a watershed shift in the financing of political parties. One cannot expect to raise the amount of money required to run a party from limited individual contributions without giving donors a voice in the selection of the leader.

If only for that reason, there will be no going back to the days when caucus members and other party insiders had a definitive or even a meaningful say on who would be best to lead them.

But a party can only rent its soul to the latest leadership comer so many times before it loses that soul.

It may not be long before someone somewhere in Canada tries to steal a page off France’s President Emmanuel Macro’s game book and crafts a coalition of the willing that transcends the increasingly meaningless ideological party boundaries.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer.
Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services

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