The premise on which it is based is that the job of a party leader is to lead his party in Parliament. That presumes that what goes on in Parliament matters, but what goes on in Parliament matters, in large part, to the degree that party leaders are answerable to its members.

Andrew Coyne

A tale of two leaderships

Over the past few days, there have been two quite momentous events in terms of political party leadership. In the UK, under new leadership selection rules, a candidate with virtually no caucus support was the overwhelming choice of the Labour Party’s membership in their first-ever One-Member-One-Vote (OMOV) leadership vote. Meanwhile, in Australia, Liberal Party leader and Prime Minister Tony Abbott was tossed by his party caucus, and replaced in that role by leadership challenger (and former party leader who himself was tossed in favour of Abbott) Malcolm Turnbull. All in the space of a matter of hours. Turnbull is now leader of the party and Prime Minister.

On Twitter, Canadian political commentators have been pondering these two events, particularly the latest Australian leadership spill, and raising questions such as: would Michael Chong’s Reform Act, which (in theory) enables MPs to toss a leader fairly easily result in Australian scenarios in Canada? Would a Corbyn-style disaster be possible if Labour chose their leader using the Australian model?

Both the Corbyn selection and Abbott spill serve to illustrate the importance of having the party leader be accountable to caucus rather than to the party membership, and in ensuring that caucus have significant control over not only removing a party leader, but in the leader’s selection as well. They also highlight the problems with party leader selection here in Canada.

Michael Chong’s greatly watered down Reform Act amends the Parliament of Canada Act to establish processes for, among other things, leadership reviews, the election of an interim leader, and to provide that these processes apply to party caucuses that vote to adopt them:

49.5 (1) In this section, “leadership review” means a process to endorse or replace the leader of a party.

Leadership review

(2) If a written notice to call a leadership review signed by at least 20% of the members of a party’s caucus is submitted to the chair of the caucus, the chair shall order that a secret ballot vote be taken among the members of the caucus to conduct a leadership review.

Notice made public

(3) The chair of the caucus shall make public the content of the written notice immediately upon receipt.

Interim leader

(4) If a majority of the caucus members vote to replace the leader of the party, the chair of the caucus shall immediately order that a second vote be taken by secret ballot to appoint a person to serve as the interim leader of the party until a new leader has been duly elected by the party.

Replacement of leader

49.6 In the case of the death, incapacity or resignation of the leader of a party, an interim leader shall be elected as soon as possible and in accordance with subsection 49.5(4).

While these measures are now codified, parties can opt out of them. Section 49.8(1) of the Act stipulates that at its first meeting following a general election, “the caucus of every party that has a recognized membership of 12 or more persons in the House of Commons shall conduct a separate vote among the caucus members” to see if the various “reforms” the Act provides for will apply to that caucus, including those cited above.

This is one of the main problems with the Reform Act. It is an attempt to get parties to adopt certain rules for their internal conduct by legislating internal party behaviour, and then renders the legislation pointless by including provisions for a party to “opt out”, so to speak. A bigger problem however, is that while the Act gives a party caucus, should it decide to apply the provisions of subsection 49(5), a concrete mechanism to force a leadership review, it fails to give the caucus any control over the selection of a new permanent leader. That remains firmly in the hands of party membership.

So in answer to one of the questions posited on Twitter, would the Reform Act result in Australian scenarios in Canada, some think if could happen here — at least in theory, as Kady O’Malley writes. I however, doubt it very much. First of all, there would be little to gain from the exercise. The only thing a Canadian political party caucus would be doing is triggering an internal confidence vote in the current leader. If the leader in question were still quite popular among the party’s membership (or the general public at large), nothing in the Act prohibits the deposed leader from re-seeking the leadership in a leadership vote.  In fact, there’s nothing in the Act that even forces the leader to actually tender their resignation. And if they knew that they had solid support among the party membership at large, why would they? That’s the major failing of the Reform Act (even in its pre-diluted form) — it doesn’t really empower a party caucus at all because it doesn’t give the caucus control over leadership selection. As Dale Smith so succinctly puts it, “[W]hen it comes to removal, selection matters.

This is where the Jeremy Corbyn selection as Labour leader comes into play. As I’ve explained in other posts, Labour changed how it selects a party leader in 2014, replacing the electoral college it used with a move to One-Member-One-Vote (OMOV), which is what Canadian parties use. It also expanded the concept of membership by introducing a “Supporter” category by which anyone willing to pay £3 could vote in the leadership election, without having to become a full member of the party. There is a great similarity here with what occurs during leadership races at all levels in all provinces in Canada. Because party leaders in Canada are elected by party members, the election teams of each candidate race to sign up as many new members as possible. However, it is impossible to know if these new members have any real interest in the party, or if they are simply bigger fans of that particular candidate. Will they stick around as members of the party if their candidate of choice doesn’t win the leadership? Simply put, these new members are long-standing party faithful — many of them will be fly-by-night members — signed up for one purpose, to back one particular candidate.

Thousands of new members (and supporters) joined the UK Labour Party during the leadership race, but the difference there is that it wasn’t the candidates themselves scurrying around trying to sign up new people.

I know from previous posts on this topic that many in Canada believe our system of choosing party leaders to be better because is it “democratic”. It might be democratic, but not everything is better because it is democratized. As Andrew Coyne explains:

The premise on which it is based is that the job of a party leader is to lead his party in Parliament. That presumes that what goes on in Parliament matters, but what goes on in Parliament matters, in large part, to the degree that party leaders are answerable to its members. An Australian party leader knows that he can be deposed at any time by his caucus. That’s not only a strong incentive to treat them with respect. It makes each of them more important figures in their own right.

That may seem less democratic than our own system. In fact it is rooted in unassailable democratic principle: government with the consent of the governed. Before one presumes to lead a caucus, to hire and fire its members and order them about, it would seem only democratic to first obtain their authority.

Whereas in our system the leader of the party in Parliament is chosen by an entirely different group of people, most of whom he has never seen, nor ever will: a body that is brought together for the sole purpose of voting, and having voted, disappears. Under the Westminster model the leader is accountable to caucus; under our system, the leader is effectively accountable to no one.

Coyne posits that the Australian model is better than ours, since the alternative is to be stuck with a leader for an eternity because the caucus has no way to get rid of them. He points to Labour, stating that they now find themselves in such a situation because they have no mechanism for dumping Corbyn. This isn’t exactly true. It is possible for a leadership challenge to be mounted. The current rules for the election of the party leader are set out in Chapter 4, Clause II of the Labour Party Rule Book 2015. Section 2(B) outlines the process to challenge a sitting leader:

ii. Where there is no vacancy, nominations may be sought by potential challengers each year prior to the annual session of Party conference. In this case any nomination must be supported by 20 per cent of the Commons members of the PLP. Nominations not attaining this threshold shall be null and void

In other words, if the Labour caucus does not warm to Corbyn as leader, a challenge can be mounted. Potential challengers must be nominated by 20% of the the caucus (which in the current Parliament would mean they would need the backing of 46 of their fellow Labour MPs).

What is overlooked in all of this is that Corbyn should not have been on the ballot paper in the first place. Any MP interested in running for the leadership when there is a vacancy must be nominated by 15% of the caucus (which in this case was 35 MPs). Corbyn couldn’t find 35 MPs who supported his leadership bid. It was only in the dying days/hours of the nomination period that several MPs “lent” him their support and signed his nomination papers. They didn’t agree with Corbyn, they didn’t want him as leader; they thought it would be good for debate because his views differed so much from those of the other three candidates. Maybe they even felt sorry for him. They didn’t think he had a chance of winning, so it thought it safe to nominate him. I’m sure they’ve all learned their lesson on that front.

Of course, one of the biggest issues Canadians tend to have with the Australian approach to party leadership selection and deselection is that it leads to “unstable” government and politics. It is true that Abbott’s dumping was the third such spill in five years (Rudd 2010, Gillard 2013, Abbott 2015); however, this recent flurry of spills distorts the real picture. As Antony Green’s helpful chart demonstrates, over the course of its history, only one in five of Australian premierships ended with the PM being deposed by his or her own party.

While I am a fan of ditching leadership selection by party membership, I do find the Australian approach (at least the Liberal Party’s approach) makes it a bit too easy to dump a leader. There are alternatives. I do strongly believe that candidates should be sitting MPs. There is some merit to Labour requiring that potential candidates be nominated by a certain percentage of the caucus; after all, if you can’t find any colleagues to support your bid, why should be entitled to lead the party? I don’t mind if, once caucus has had its say over who should be candidates for the leadership, that choice is put to the membership at large — as I’ve previously written, this process is not incompatible with OMOV. It backfired on Labour because some MPs broke their own rules — a candidate couldn’t find actual support among his colleagues, so some took pity on him and backed him without really backing him just to get him on the ballot paper. You can bet that will never happen again.

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