Selecting a Party Leader: The New Canadian Normal

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Participation Saturday, May 27, 2017 View Count = 2090

Selecting a Party Leader: The New Canadian Normal

haroutThis week, we feature a guest blog by Harout Manougian. Harout is a former Trustee with the Toronto District School Board and a 2019 MPA Candidate at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He is one of the volunteers counting the ballots for the 2017 federal Conservative leadership race. He can be found on Twitter at @HaroutManougian.

Today, the Conservative Party of Canada elects a new leader for only the second time in its history. Over a quarter million party members are eligible to choose who will be Canada’s next Leader of the Official Opposition. In a country with over 30 million people, that number may seem small but it wasn’t too long ago that leadership races were restricted to only the most elite political insiders.


Delegated Conventions: Political Civilians Need Not Apply

Before the Year 2000, the process to have a say in who will lead a major Canadian party was anything but simple. First, you had to track down your local riding association, which definitely did not have its own website. Then, you would have to convince them to give you a blank, numbered (so it couldn’t be photocopied), paper application form. Most people would stop here as they would be told that the local riding had run out of forms and were waiting for more from their higher-ups (which may or may not be a lie). If you were lucky, though, you may have been granted the privilege of filling one out and having it processed in a timely fashion by the local membership secretary for a nominal $10 membership fee.

Once officially a member, you would be notified by one snail mail letter of the date, time and location of your local riding’s delegate selection meeting (DSM). With about two weeks’ notice, you would be ready to cancel any other existing plans. If you made it to the DSM, which went on for several hours, you had to convince the insiders why you should be given one of the coveted delegate spots for your area. The leadership candidates would have sent proxies to this meeting to make sure their supporters are the ones chosen as delegates. If you were still undecided at this point or wanted to keep your preference secret, you would not be chosen. If your preferred candidate did not have much support in your local riding, you would not be chosen. For the sake of argument, though, let’s say that you were elected by the party members in your riding as a delegate.

Wonderful! Then, you would take out your chequebook and pay the delegate convention fee (in the range of $300-$1000), arrange to take time off work, book a flight and a hotel because the convention is most likely not in your province. If you made it through the obstacle course, you would join the ranks of the approximately 10,000 people who got to decide the options that the rest of the country would be allowed to pick from.

The West Repairs a Broken System

The usual process for selecting a party leader hardly seemed democratic to the western base of the Reform Party. With no challengers, founder Preston Manning was acclaimed as its leader in 1987. When it was reorganized as the Canadian Alliance in 2000, however, the party that was fighting for a Triple-E (Equal, Elected, Effective) Senate and viewed democratic reform as one of its core policies was not going to settle for a delegated convention. Instead, they were prepared to organize a one-member-one-vote election where the party member common folk (still much less than 1% of total voters) would have a direct say in who would lead their movement. No convention costs, no long-distance travel. There would even be a runoff election (and there was) among the top two candidates if none of them received at least 50% support.

When the Canadian Alliance merged with the Progressive Conservatives in 2004, the West rejected the PC proposal of choosing the new leader through a delegated convention. Instead, they used a compromise revised one-member-one-vote preferential system that gave equal weight to every riding (so that Alberta, with the highest number of memberships, would not totally eclipse the rest of the country). It is also the system being used now to choose the next Conservative Party leader in 2017.

Notably, however, it is also the formula that the NDP will use to replace Tom Mulcair later this year and that got Justin Trudeau elected as Liberal Party leader in 2013 (where even the nominal $10 membership fee was removed).

And that is how what was once considered a fringe idea from a western protest movement became the new Canadian normal.

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