Crashing the Party

Andrew Coyne says we should re-think how we choose party leaders. So here are my thoughts.

In a recent column in the National Post, Andrew Coyne argues that “it is time to rethink how we choose party leaders” ― at least if we care about the institution of Parliament, and don’t think that “MPs are nobodies, and the role of the leader is to look good on TV”. As someone who cares about Parliament, he argues that we should go back to “the classic Westminster model”, where party leaders are chosen by the party caucus ― like, say, in Australia. Mr. Coyne is not alone in making this point; Dale Smith has done so repeatedly (for example in this Policy Options post about his new book), and others have too. But, although they are among the more thoughtful observers of the Canadian political scene, their arguments leave a number of significant questions unanswered.

One is simply whether the benefits that they are promising us will materialize if the clock is turned back on the tendency to broaden, instead of narrowing, the constituency that chooses party leaders. Mr. Coyne argues that leaders chosen by their caucus would be “battle-tested and ready to do the job a party leader is supposed to do in our system: lead a caucus in Parliament”, as well as more accountable to the caucus. Moreover, leadership contests would not consume “the vast amounts of time and money” they now do. That last point is no doubt true, so far as it goes ― though while I hope that it’s not an entirely reliable guide to the reality of politics, if you’ve watched the original, BBC version of the House of Cards, you might be a bit skeptical about the intra-caucus leadership contests being any less immoral than the current Conservative leadership race that has prompted Mr. Coyne to write his column. Urquhartian cynicism aside, the frequency of leadership coups in real-life Australian politics seems to disprove Mr. Coyne’s argument that caucus members are be the best placed to chose an accountable and effective leader. If they were any good at it, why would they always be changing their minds?

Part of the reason is that, however much Mr. Coyne may deride this, and however much we may regret this, it really is a very big part of a party leader’s job to look good on TV ― and while caucus members know this, and start worrying when the leader’s polling numbers dip, they might not actually be the best at predicting who will do this job well. In the “audience democracy” described by Bernard Manin in his book on The Principles of Representative Government, leaders are more important than parties, in no small part precisely because of their ability to speak directly to voters through the electronic media. As I explained in an article in the McGill Law Journal, Manin’s “audience democracy” model fits Canada very well (I summarized that part of the article here). Again, this state of affairs may be a cause for regret, but it is a product of technological and social trends beyond our control; changing the way in which party leaders are selected won’t reverse them.

But suppose I am wrong about this, and reverting to having caucuses selecting party leaders would in fact be a useful thing to do. The other question that I have after reading Mr. Coyne is whether he proposes a legal intervention to force parties to adopt his preferred mechanism for choosing leaders. Parties, after all, are not going in the direction he is advocating ― quite the contrary. Delegated conventions used to be the norm, but they are a thing of the past now. Leaders are chosen by membership as a whole and, in the case of the federal Liberals ― as with a number of parties around the world ― it’s not even just by membership, but by self-identified “supporters” too. And though my instinct is to treat this is evidence that the parties know something that Mr. Coyne and those who agree with him don’t, the Tories’ current misery notwithstanding, it at least is conceivable that there is a collective action problem at work. The parties, and the public, would all be better off (let’s assume) with leaders chosen by caucus, but the one that moves to that system first will be criticized for being undemocratic, so no one dares take the plunge.

Would this prima facie case for legislative intervention stand up to scrutiny? One obvious problem might be that such an interference with the parties’ internal affairs might be challenged as a violation of the freedom of association protected by paragraph 2(d) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Even if the courts were to find a violation, there would no doubt be some material for an attempt at a section 1 justification, but I don’t know if it would be enough. I don’t recall any freedom of association cases about political parties, so any assessment as a matter of positive law would be rather speculative. But even putting a possible Charter challenge to one side, interference with the party members’ freedom should count as an argument, though perhaps not a conclusive one against legislation.

Another issue to consider would be the risk of a one-size-fits-all approach, given the vast disparities in the sizes of parties and caucuses. Many registered parties, of course, have no Parliamentary caucus at all; some others have a very small one, perhaps even a single MP. If leadership selection by caucus were mandated, that could create perverse outcomes ― including a party’s lone MP selecting his or her own successor as leader, should he or she wish to resign. Of course, it would be possible to write legislation so that it would apply to caucuses of a certain size ― but that seems to lead to perverse consequences of its own. A party would be forced to abandon an existing membership-selection system in favour of caucus-selection upon reaching a certain size, and possibly return to one upon falling below the threshold again, which strikes me as odd, though perhaps that’s just me.

Ultimately though, the idea of imposing caucus selection of party leaders runs into the same problem as most attempts at regulating parties. Why can’t the voters settle it? If caucus selection causes parties to have better leaders, then people will presumably vote for them ― perhaps especially given that leaders are so important in the “audience democracy”. The prima facie case for regulation assumes that voters would (irrationally) prefer a flawed but more “democratically” selected leader to a better one picked by a caucus. But while the voters’ irrationality should not be underestimated, this seems hard to believe. Would voters ― who do not seem to pay a whole lot of attention to party leadership contests in the first place ― be so beguiled by the claims of the more “democratic”  parties as to overlook substantial differences in leader quality?

It seems to me, ultimately, that Mr. Coyne’s complaint is less about the political parties that have somehow been so naïve as to abandon the virtues of caucus selection in favour of the vice of giving a broader spectrum of constituents a say in how they will be led than it is about voters who fall for the charms of TV-savvy populists. Ideally, he effectively says, we wouldn’t give them the option of voting for these populists at all, leaving them to choose among safe options vetted by the political establishment. The argument has its appeal, during a Conservative leadership race said to be led by a pair of populists, not to mention the Beeblebrox presidency south of the border. But can we count on party caucuses to stem the tide of populism for long? If they are thwarted by these guardians of political propriety, will not the populists launch their own parties (especially if a form of proportional representation, which Mr. Coyne favours, were ever implemented)? I have no firm views on this, but I am skeptical that caucus selection of party leaders, whether voluntarily implemented or enforced, can do us much good.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

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