Congratulations, Liberals and “supporters” — you’ve just elected the most unaccountable leader in Canadian political history! Give yourselves a round of applause!
But wait, you might say. Didn’t the party throw open the doors to let in all kinds of new ideas and to allow the broadest level of participation in Canadian history? Well, maybe, but when you think about it, not really. Remember, this was a leadership convention and not a policy convention, despite what some of the contenders seemed to believe. And according to the party’s new rules, only paid-up members and not the new “supporters” get to vote on policy, or the “new ideas” that the party hopes to attract, so really, throwing open the doors so to speak didn’t really produce new ideas. What it did do was populate the party’s database, so that they can hope to turn those 300,000 new “supporters” into potential donors and maybe members. Maybe.
As for the “broadest level of participation,” which is often conflated with the term “most democratic,” as though one could effectively rank the level of democracy on a scale of 100, therein lies the rub with the accountability to the leader. In times gone by, and as still happens in a few Westminster legislatures, it’s the MPs who choose the leader. Why is this important? Because when they choose the leader, they can also fire said leader. Witness what happened to Margaret Thatcher in 1990, or the more recent ouster of Kevin Rudd in Australia (and the two subsequent failed attempts to oust Julia Gillard) — it means that the caucus has a hand in the power that the leader has over them, and they can decide when to end it and elect someone new.
Not so in Canada. Since the Liberals first held a delegated convention in 1919 — to make it “more democratic” — it blunted the ability of caucus to hold the leader to account because that leader now had the “democratic legitimacy” to govern. Mackenzie King once reputedly told his caucus, in the wake of a scandal, that they didn’t select him and that they could not remove him. And while most parties have some mechanism for a leadership review at policy conventions — witness that Thomas Mulcair secured a 92.3 percent approval in this weekend’s NDP convention — those reviews tend to only happen every couple of years, and don’t allow for much input by the caucus, despite the fact that they are most affected by that decision. One need only remember the great defection from the Canadian Alliance under Stockwell Day’s leadership to see what happens when the leader and his “democratic mandate” come up against the caucus that he controls.
This new “supporter” system removes even one that level of accountability to party membership, as fleeting as it might be, because as many as three quarters of the people who voted in this contest are not party members, but “supporters.” How can a nebulous group with no actual affiliation with the party be expected to hold the leader to account? They can’t, and if Justin Trudeau turns out to be a tyrant or a giant mistake, he still has the “democratic legitimacy” of over 100,000 voters casting a ballot to justify himself. And think of how much worse it would have been if Joyce Murray had won, and pushed for the verifiably nonsensical notion of “electoral cooperation,” based not on the will of the party, but by the votes of outsiders who wanted to impose this vision of electoral democracy in this country on the party? It would have been a recipe for chaos, and quite likely disaster for the party itself.
And while Trudeau is saying some very smart and civically literate things about getting the party’s grassroots re-engaged in the choice of their own candidates with open nominations, and with the formulation of policy and the party platform in advance of the election in 2015, he still remains wholly unaccountable to anyone, which should be a very worrying prospect. Some people have remarked that these kinds of concerns are “too technical” and hardly matter. But it does matter. If you don’t treat this stuff like it matters, then it is easy to be abused. Understanding the system and what these votes actually mean matters, and hopefully that message will resonate by the time the next leadership contest, whatever the party, happens.