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Iain Hunter: Caucus should choose the party leader

Members of the Liberal Party of Canada appear poised to make Justin Trudeau their leader. Generously, or because they’re looking for scapegoats if things go wrong for them again, they’ve invited total strangers to help them do it.

Members of the Liberal Party of Canada appear poised to make Justin Trudeau their leader. Generously, or because they’re looking for scapegoats if things go wrong for them again, they’ve invited total strangers to help them do it.

I know that there must be some of them who think he’s the lad to put them back where they belong: in government. There must be a few, though, who realize that most Canadians, even those invited to the leadership party, might not be ready for a New Trudeaucracy just yet.

Surely it has occurred to some of them that this may be their last chance — that if Trudeau stumbles over the same path stumbled over by Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff before him, they’ll all end up in a political swamp from which they’ll never rise.

The way that political parties in Canada have chosen their leaders often has led to surprising outcomes and dashed hopes.

Frequently, they’ve chosen the wrong ones for the wrong reasons. Frequently, they’ve chosen them for their “electability” rather than for any qualities they have for sustained leadership, what they stand for or where their moral compass is pointing.

The ability to win elections is thought important because it puts or keeps parties in power and, presumably, gives party members an influence that other Canadians can’t enjoy.

That last bit, though, isn’t true at all. Leaders who become prime minister or premier are beholden to no one. Some can become one-person bands, abandon all pretence of collegiality, strike out on their own and just plain strike out.

If MPs are nobodies once they step off The Hill, as Trudeau’s pappy said, or MLAs are nobodies outside the legislative precinct that makes premiers sick, what are party members who choose leaders in a few hours of voting and then retreat to their log cabins and cardboard condos for another four years or so?

Perhaps the Liberals who would allow New Democrats, Conservatives or what-have-you to put in place a leader for whom they probably won’t vote in a national election think that they’re democratizing the practice of choosing leaders. This time, both party members and “supporters” who aren’t members will be able to vote for the leader.

Perhaps they think that they’re opening the tent, holding the partisan umbrella higher, offering political ecumenicity for which they’ll be rewarded at the polls.

But putting the choice of leader into the hands of more people doesn’t guarantee more openness or fairness, both of which are so lacking in the processes that we have in Canada.

The 3,400 convention delegates who selected John Turner as Liberal leader in 1984 were no more prescient than the 120,557 Canadian Alliance members who chose Stockwell Day as leader in 2000 on the basis of one member, one vote.

The Liberal party has been the most reluctant to abandon the leadership convention, with delegates — selected sometimes by busloads of instant party members — making surreptitious deals. That way produced Dion in 2006 and Ignatieff in 2009.

Liberals this time, with a star in their eyes, have gone beyond one member, one vote to an absurdity where party membership counts for nothing.

A system where the party leader is selected by elected members of caucus, as it was in the land of the mother of parliaments until electoral-college procedures began to develop in the mid-’70s, is not considered “democratic” enough.

I don’t know why. It would have spared British Columbians from Christy Clark, for one thing.

It would be cheaper than all the campaigning and costly hype that attaches to popular selection. And it would increase the accountability of party leaders to elected members of parliament and legislatures and through them to the electorate at large.

Britain’s William Hague, who was elected by the Tory caucus at Westminster in 1997 and who quit in 2001, knowing he’d lost caucus confidence, still defends that system: Where party conventions choose leaders, individual MPs have less influence. Where leaders are elected in parliament, parliament itself is strengthened.

Who, indeed, is a better judge of leadership quality — professional politicians who have won elections themselves or party members with fingers crossed?

And how does a vague pledge to “reach out” and “reconnect” promise either leadership or electoral fortune?

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