Leadership Race


Procedure by which a political party chooses its leader, involving some form of voting by party members. A leadership race is triggered when a leader resigns or loses a leadership review. It typically culminates in either a spirited or numbingly boring leadership convention, where the winner is announced to screams, shock or dismay. While conventions once had actual voting and were about raw backroom politics, the advent of ranked ballots and mailed-in votes have made today’s leadership races bland affairs.

Leadership races are uniquely Canadian, unlike primaries in the United States or caucus votes in Australia and the UK. They are often bitter struggles, pitting onetime colleagues (it’s my turn now!) against each other and laying bare intra-party divisions. Discord over the Meech Lake Accord was so visceral in the 1990 Liberal leadership race that some Paul Martin supporters yelled “judas” at Jean Chrétien. Opposition party leadership races are typically more acrimonious than in governing parties’, though in the latter the stakes are higher (as the reward is greater.)

In the 19th and early 20th century, party leaders were chosen by the party caucus (and executed by them as well!) This changed in 1919, when Wilfred Laurier unexpectedly died before a Liberal convention. Aiming to unify the party and broaden its appeal, the Liberals let convention delegates – mostly party supporters (not MPs or Senators), with an equal number from each riding – elect the new leader. As a result, this convention was the first of many to drag on interminably; William Lyon MacKenzie King won on the fifth ballot.

Winning a leadership race demands both (dare we say it) sex appeal and organizational skill. The real fight centers around signing up new party members – not always a shining example of democracy. “I signed up anything that moved,” quipped Liberal MP Jim Karygiannis of his efforts on behalf of Chrétien. Promised free beer, a group of drunk homeless men was bussed from a Quebec shelter to vote for Brian Mulroney in the 1983 PC leadership race, while Christy Clark’s 2011 campaign enrolled a cat as a BC Liberal member.

In the age of delegated conventions, party members elected delegates from each riding who pledged to support a candidate at the convention. University campus clubs and other groups also sent delegates, while MPs and other big-wigs were automatic “ex-officio” delegates. The fight for delegates was intense. Some antics were infamous, including sticking gum in payphones at voting locations to prevent rival campaigns from contacting supporters. John Crosbie’s PC leadership campaign created 19 campus clubs across Canada, including one at a flight school. This became ironic when Crosbie’s campaign unsuccessfully tried launch a blimp over the convention floor during his speech – a total fiasco!

Conventions were often dramatic – an early example of reality television – as a candidate rarely won on the first ballot. Eliminated candidates “threw” their support to others and deals were struck between rivals for their delegates’ votes, with some last minute reversals on the convention floor. The 1996 Ontario Liberal leadership saw Dalton McGuinty – fourth on the first ballot and trailing by double digits on all others – prevail on the fifth ballot at 4:30am. In spite of (or maybe because of) this, the Ontario Liberals are the last major party to still use delegated conventions. Kathleen Wynne triumphed on the fourth ballot at an exciting one in 2013, with much agitated live media commentary over “floor crossing” and other minutiae.

Most parties have now abandoned delegated conventions in favour of one nationwide election by the entire membership. Known as “one-member-one-vote” (OMOV) and first employed by the Parti Québécois in 1985, it is now used by all federal and most (though not allprovincial parties. The federal Liberals and Conservatives “weigh” votes so each riding counts equally regardless of how many members it has, while the NDP once had special votes for unions. While OMOV is considered more “democratic,” it’s also boring. Regardless of how many ballots there are, the computer knows the winner right away – kudos to artificial intelligence! While both tried to “manufacture” some suspense despite using ranked ballots, the 2017 Conservative and NDP conventions had none of the excitement that was once the hallmark of a leadership convention.

Photo: Candidates Peter Julian, Niki Ashton and Charlie Angus participate in a debate during the NDP’s 2017 Leadership Race (The Huffington Post)


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