A different way of picking a leader

You again? Former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd reports for his reappointment as PM by Governor-General Quentin Bryce.

You again? Former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd reports for his reappointment as PM by Governor-General Quentin Bryce.

Australia has traditionally been called “the Lucky Country”, and it’s not hard to see why. Australia finished second, to Norway, in the United Nations’s 2012 Human Development Index (Canada ranked 11th). It finished second again, this time to Switzerland, when the Economist Intelligence Unit ranked the best countries that a child could be born into in the “lottery of life” last November (Canada ranked ninth). The previous year, The Economist described Australia as “the next Golden State” with the potential to become “a model nation”.

Need I mention that its five dominant metro areas are all in close proximity to the sea; and that average daily highs in the depths of the Australian winter — i.e., July — range from 13°C in the southern city of Melbourne to 21°C in Brisbane, the capital of tropical Queensland.

Success has not necessarily translated into political bliss for Australia, however. This week, the caucus of the governing Labor party voted to fire its own prime minister, Julia Gillard, and replace her with Kevin Rudd, the prime minister that many of the same MPs voted to fire in 2010.

In fact, many Labor MPs are said to still prefer Gillard’s smoother management style over the high-handed and bullying ways that got Rudd the sack three years ago. But voters continued to prefer Rudd, whose public image was always more benign, and never warmed to Gillard.

With an expected September election looming, and predictions of a catastrophic loss to Tony Abbott’s conservative opposition that might be mitigated or even prevented if Rudd were restored as prime minister, Labor MPs decided they would be better off tolerating the boss from hell, at least for the time being.

Some recent polls — which, it should be cautioned, have little predictive value — suggested that a Gillard vs. Abbott election would easily make Abbott the next Prime Minister of Australia, while a Rudd vs. Abbott election would be a dead heat.

Australia isn’t the only country where prime ministers have to contend with caucus uprisings. Here in Canada, Prime Minister Stephen Harper faced a revolt of his own this past spring when Mark Warawa, a previously obscure British Columbia MP, rebelled against his party’s strict discipline and was promptly supported by other frustrated Conservative MPs.

Though discipline of the Conservative caucus has been particularly strict under Harper’s leadership, other parties have also tended to be unforgiving of MPs who deviate far enough from the party line to attract media attention.

The strictness of Canadian party discipline prompted some caustic remarks from The Economist, in an April online article titled “Revolt of the bobbleheads“:

In one of his more acerbic comments, the late Pierre Trudeau, a former Canadian prime minister, said that members of parliament were “nobodies” once they were 50 yards from Parliament Hill. These days government backbenchers don’t even have to leave the parliament buildings to fade into the woodwork. They form an appreciative backdrop to ministers during Question Period, nodding and applauding when required. If given a chance to speak, they diligently parrot the party’s talking points. And on all but the most insignificant matters they vote the party line. If they have any original thoughts they keep them to themselves.

Tight party discipline eroded “prime ministerial accountability, and ultimately democracy”, the article noted. But rather than putting the blame on the shoulders of the consolidation of power in the Prime Minister’s Office, as is often fashionable in Canada, The Economist instead criticized the election of party leaders by card-carrying party members in nation-wide campaigns, reminiscent of U.S. presidential campaigns, as opposed to leaving the hiring and firing of the leader to caucus.

While the [existing Canadian] system is deemed to be more democratic, it has had the opposite effect because it makes MPs accountable to their leader, rather than the reverse. The leader can eject MPs from the parliamentary party or refuse to sign their nomination papers for the next election if they don’t follow instructions. This keeps a tight lid on dissent. In Britain and Australia, where MPs can quite easily get rid of the prime minister, leaders have to keep their MPs happy or face sudden demotion, as Margaret Thatcher and Kevin Rudd both discovered.

Thus, while the “revolt of the bobbleheads” is noteworthy by Canadian standards, it is unlikely to cost Stephen Harper the Conservative leadership. Nor would a similar revolt be likely to cost Tom Mulcair the NDP leadership, or Justin Trudeau the Liberal leadership.

After all, party members elected them, not caucus.

Caucus leadership elections are too foreign to Canadian politics, despite its British parliamentary roots, to be adopted here anytime soon. In fact, to even suggest such a change within party ranks, whether as an elected official or as a party member speaking from the floor during a convention, would be tantamount to democratic heresy.

As the Australian experience shows, caucus elections can also lead to brutal political knife-fights and political cynicism, so they are clearly not a magical cure.

But there is also an argument to be made that caucus members see and know things about their colleagues that rank-and-file members from Vancouver, Dauphin, North Bay, Montreal and Corner Brook are largely unaware of.

Would erratic or out-of-their-depth leaders such as former prime minister John Diefenbaker, former B.C. premier Bill Vander Zalm, former Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day or former Liberal leader Stéphane Dion have been hired for the top job by their own colleagues? (Certainly not in the case of Vander Zalm, who became B.C. premier in 1986 with very little caucus support — something party members should have heeded as a warning sign — and then presided over five years of gaffes and caucus rebellions before resigning amid a scandal in 1991.)

Even if they had been, would they have been allowed to remain in office long enough to do as much damage to the party brand as they did? Very unlikely.

Caucus election of leaders would also close off a potential channel for influence-buying in politics, as the cost of running for the leadership of a party would drop to almost nothing.

Despite these merits, shifting the responsibility for hiring and firing the leader from party members to caucus remains an idea that few dare suggest.

Yet the Australians wouldn’t have become “the Lucky Country” without some measure of success in hiring and firing their leaders, even if it was the result of an occasional showdown as we saw this week.

Canada, too, is a lucky country — unbelievably lucky, as a matter of fact, thanks also to good choices made over the years. It is something we will hopefully take time to appreciate this coming Canada Day.

One way for us to remain North America’s Lucky Country, however, is to continually watch and learn from the successes and mistakes of the rest of the world.


Is this passenger speaking with an Australian accent? Certainly sounds like it. This video of a freight handler having a bad day, and the passenger’s snarky off-camera commentary, went viral with three million views to date.

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About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

One Response to A different way of picking a leader

  1. Scotty Rhodes says:

    The brewing internal conflict marks the first time that Harper has failed to keep a lid on caucus dissension since he became prime minister in 2006.

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