Garneau, Trudeau, and the presidentialisation of leadership

At a press conference in Ottawa Wednesday morning, Marc Garneau laid down a marker in the leadership campaign between himself and Justin Trudeau. Essentially, Garneau called out Trudeau for not having enough solid policy positions, never mind that Trudeau has consistently said that he doesn’t want to come out with a full platform because the last thing the party needs is another top-down leader making pronouncements.

Without inserting myself into one camp or the other, it seems to me that there is a much bigger question at play here about the direction that Canadian politics has been taking, and it does bring me back to a basic discussion around civic literacy. Moreover, it’s a discussion about the role that parties play within our democratic system, and the way in which the grassroots interacts with those parties. With power ever increasingly centralising in leaders’ offices, this is probably a discussion that more people should be having.

The way in which the system is supposed to work is that the electorate joins parties. They sign up, pay their membership fee, and then they get to have input into the system – they help to nominate the candidate for the next election, and they have policy discussions, which they vote on and send to the party’s next policy convention, where the rest of the delegates get to vote on their adoption. Policies that get adopted form the basis of party platforms. This is how democracy works at a grassroots level in a Westminster system. And yes, its general health is determined by how much input it receives at the grassroots level.

But the centralising of powers at the leadership level is a danger to that grassroots engagement. It was disturbing enough that after a Liberal policy convention that then-leader Michael Ignatieff immediately nixed proposals that the party membership had adopted, which included a carbon tax. Yes, it would have been a more difficult sell in an election, but there is a constituency in the country – including a lot of corporate interests – that believe in it, and the challenge for the leader would have been to craft the message to support the policy that the membership agreed to. But instead, it was flat out no, the wishes of the membership be damned. Add this de facto veto power along with powers to appoint candidates without nomination races and to sign nomination papers (originally seen as a quality control measure so that people couldn’t claim party status on the ballot when it they didn’t actually have it, as well as to protect against hijacked nominations by pro-life groups), and there is already an inordinate amount of control in the leader’s hands.

Now, take this inordinate concentration of powers, and couple it with the fact that we’ve changed leadership processes in Canada to remove accountability measures from leaders. Where once upon a time, the caucus would choose the leader – and then fire said leader when the time came – there instead grew a move to have the broader party membership elect the leader in a convention, first as a delegated affair, now largely one-member-one-vote under the guise of it being “more democratic,” and leaders became immune to being held to account by those who are most affected by their decisions. With the claim of “democratic legitimacy” to shield them, party leaders have been able to wield the fact that the caucus did not choose them and could not remove them. That the Liberals have decided to take this to the next step of throwing open the floodgates to a new class of “supporters” who are not party members, but simply anyone who totally swears that they’re not a member of another party – really! – and you get a leader who is wholly unaccountable to anybody, and with no real mechanism for removal other than their own sense of shame if they are trounced in an election or maybe popular opinion, or possibly a backbench revolt. But in the meantime, they claim an even greater “democratic mandate” than other leaders, and because it’s a ranked ballot, they can essentially say that every single person voted for them without being too far from the truth.

So why, then, when you start adding these various ways in which party leaders hold the levers of power, would we want to also give them the power for policy-making? Which is essentially what we are seeing leadership contests increasingly becoming, what Garneau is tacitly endorsing by demanding that Trudeau produce a policy platform, and what many of the pundit class are similarly signing onto. If we go along with the notion that leadership candidates should be the place for policy pronouncements to be born, then what role is there for the grassroots membership anymore? Will policy conventions simply become a hollow exercise for them to express some vain desires for policy direction that the leader, who holds all of the power, might or might not consider? Why bother holding policy conventions at all if that is the case?

We talk about “democratic deficit” in this country, and the need to get people engaged in the process, but if we continue to see the power that the grassroots membership has continued to erode and find its way into the leader’s office, is it any wonder that people are getting discouraged with the process? Trudeau, to his credit, seems to be cognisant of that fact, and is looking to avoid that top-down style in favour of having the membership come up with the platform between the leadership race and the election in 2015. Perhaps this is a development that merits further discussion rather than a blanket condemnation that he is somehow without substance, when he may in fact be looking to slow down the trend towards the presidentialisation of our political system.

One thought on “Garneau, Trudeau, and the presidentialisation of leadership

  1. I’ve heard this argument before regarding how the centralization of power in the hands of party leaders affects their parties and can contribute to the democratic deficit. It’s a powerful argument but it can’t reasonably be conflated into an excuse for letting Justin Trudeau off the hook for failing to discuss policy.

    Those who will be voting to choose the next Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada need to know if Justin has the capacity to think through the issues of today and has a grasp on those facing the country tomorrow. Policy discussions have a way of doing that.

    Can Justin foresee consequences? Does he have the capacity to deal with complex issues in a comprehensive and coherent way? In other words, can we trust his competence and judgment? Liberal members and supporters need answers to these questions before voting on the leadership, not after.

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