Justin Trudeau Liberal leadership bid shows what’s wrong with politics

February 27, 2013 | By | Reply More

Momentum – and money – clearly swinging toward Justin Trudeau

Justin Trudeau

Justin Trudeau seems to be running away with the Liberal leadership race despite his youth and lack of experience.

By Bruce A. Stewart  

George Takach announced on Monday that he was dropping out of the Liberal leadership race in favour of Justin Trudeau.

Before you all go “who?” — not that it isn’t deserved — stop for a moment and think.

Why do leadership races these days mostly contain people who have no chance of winning? Often, people who’ve never been visible in politics before?

Takach is a fine lawyer — if you’re looking for someone to negotiate a complicated business arrangement or settlement. That doesn’t make him qualified (except in his own mind) to develop policy, build grassroots riding associations, shape a caucus, take on the other parties, be the front man for a national election campaign or a host of other tasks.

Before the 1970s, the route to leadership was clear. Serve your apprenticeship.

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You didn’t jump into a leadership race, with the question of getting elected to follow. (Takach says he will run in 2015, in a Toronto riding. Oh? There’s a riding association ready to nominate him? He hasn’t even faced that hurdle yet.)

Instead, you managed to get a riding association to nominate you. You then won in the election. You served as a backbencher. You demonstrated you could lead in committees. You did your time as a Parliamentary Secretary or Minister (if in government) or were an effective opposition critic. You also did your part for the party, helping with the other tasks of getting the party to victory.

Along the way, your qualities were honed and tested. People became your supporters. When you ran, you had proven your readiness. (Oh, and if you won, you already had a seat, so you could start work the next day.)

Starting in the 1970s, some of the phenomena of modern party politics came to the fore. It used to be that you were a delegate to a convention to choose a leader because the coterie of the faithful who keep a party machine running at the grassroots level — the few for whom the riding association is a passion — nominated you to go. Now instant members, recruited by a leadership campaign to simply come out one time and vote for the candidate at delegate selection time, swamp that process.

Or worse, the party goes to online voting, where any member can vote, without going to the convention.

Takach, in dropping out, said he’d support Justin Trudeau. That’s nice. His “delegates” (more accurately, his supporters) are under no obligation to do so. Unlike the old days, when delegates were pledged to a candidate and followed him or her across the floor, today’s conventions place no burdens on anyone.

Want to know how third place finishers on the first ballot become leaders? Want to know how stampedes lead to coronations? Here’s your answer: too many people without commitments in the process.

It’s also how people no one knows populate leadership races.

This game started in 1976, at the Progressive Conservative leadership race to replace Bob Stanfield. Joe Clark came out of the pack to win it. Brian Mulroney tried, unsuccessfully, to buy the crown.

It’s been downhill ever since.

In Britain, the Conservative Party there still avoids the whole convention thing altogether. Leaders can be sacked by their party caucus. The new leader will be chosen from the caucus, by the caucus. You want to be leader? First get to Westminster. In Australia, the Australian Labor Party works the same way — and you may recall that in 2010 Julia Gillard deposed sitting Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in caucus to take his job.

Here, though, we seem enamoured of fake democracy, which explains why the many dwarves in the Liberal race — and, a year ago, most of the candidates in the NDP’s race — thought they can just pop up and run.

It’s a necessary paradox: misapplied democracy damages democracy.

Back in 1968, for instance, when Lester Pearson tapped Pierre Trudeau, a bare three-year MP, as his candidate to succeed him, the Liberals were properly outraged. Trudeau père hadn’t served his time, hadn’t demonstrated his qualities. Almost all the candidates that ran against him had — and it’s why it took him four ballots to get to a bare 51 per cent to win the leadership. (Many today like to remember him as some sort of sweeping inevitability, but his being there at all was a close-run thing, and when one of his opponents crossed over to him, delegates followed. All the “Trudeaumania” in the country — he was the media’s darling — meant diddly-squat in the context of the convention.)

Today, leaders can just buy their way into the job. Enough money means enough instant and temporary voters in some parody of a leadership convention, whether by taking over riding associations or by direct online voting.

That’s why Justin Trudeau getting more money than all the others in the race combined is so meaningful. It’s a sign that he’s got the thing sewn up. (Which then begs the question, why aren’t others simply yielding to the inevitable now — especially the candidates who aren’t sitting MPs and therefore unable to leverage their leadership run into a better critic’s role now?)

It’s interesting, isn’t it? The more the parties have “opened up” and “involved” the ordinary person in their leadership races, the lower voter turnout in elections has gone.

Back when smoke-filled rooms and back-room deals in caucuses and riding association meetings created new leaders, most of us went to vote.

Perhaps one of the electoral reforms we need is to put the parties back behind closed doors?

At least, if we did, there’d be far fewer candidates no one knows running for leadership out of the blue.


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Category: Opinion

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