Never mind a united right if it canít decide how to pick a leader
by Margret Kopala

Published by the Ottawa Citizen, October 4, 2003

As a political party governs itself, so will it govern the nation. The Tory/Alliance unity talks are important not only because they will create one national party from two based in the regions, but also because they have the opportunity to create new standards of self-governance. Invoking the emissary process is itself an auspicious beginning.

From the time the United Alternative failed to unite the Tories and Reformers in 1999, itís been apparent the emissary process is the logical way to get the job done. Party elites have too many vested political interests, while the memberships of both parties are too divided for any other process to work. The emissary process, on the other hand, draws on the expertise of elder statesmen who have none of these problems.

Apart from agreeing to timelines, making appointments and issuing a mandate, the party leaders arenít needed. Indeed, as recent events demonstrate, their presence can be detrimental. More important than individual personalities, their involvement creates a conflict of interest because any deal must concern itself with leadership selection. Unless they are prepared to declare their non-candidacy for the leadership of any future party, they simply shouldnít be there.

Not surprisingly, the talks have stumbled over the issue of leadership selection. An Alliance candidate, lacking a base east of Ontario, knows he canít win under a weighted riding system; a Tory candidate facing superior Alliance membership numbers knows he canít win under one-member one-vote. The fact is, both systems are deeply flawed. One-member, one-vote, a system most famously deployed by Alberta Tories, saw Rod Love, Ralph Kleinís then Svengali, sell massive numbers of memberships to win a run-off vote. This might work in a small area with a homogeneous population, but it is hardly suitable for Canada where disparate interests must be balanced and reconciled. On the contrary, and as Peter MacKay has indicated, it is a recipe for swamping the party with regional or special interests.

But MacKay is in no position to crow. The delegated convention process (also used by the Liberals) that elected him leader allowed the special-interest group led by David Orchard to become the tail that wagged the Tory dog. Under this system, convention delegates vote their ridingís wishes on the first ballot, then they are on their own. In Orchardís case, he organized an anti-free trade voting bloc whose terms MacKay accepted in order to win. A combined Alliance/Tory convention using the delegate process could similarly unleash delegates to form similar, even bigger blocs, calling into question the partyís integrity in legislating on those issues.

The 1998 Tory leadership-selection process, dumped for the glitz and hype of a full-bore media event, was effective against special-interest takeover. Tories then used the Canadian electoral system as their model. Votes were weighted on a riding-by-riding basis. Like a federal election, a candidate had to win a majority of ridings to win the leadership. It was impossible for special interests to hold significant numbers of ridings. Deal-making, too, was impossible. The bottom line, though, was the system simply made sense. Any future prime minister has to win a majority of ridings. Any party leader should do the same.

Of course, and as those of us who yawned our way through the 1998 race that elected Joe Clark leader will recall, that process was hardly great political theatre. Neither was it transparent. To this day, the number of individual votes cast for Clark is not public knowledge.

With 20/20 hindsight and frank discussion, the emissaries can craft a fair, transparent and exciting leadership-selection process that gives its leader the moral authority to govern a new conservative party and, eventually, Canada. One such process could see a ridingís ďcompetent authorityĒ (the sitting MP, candidate of record or president) vote its membersí wishes on the first ballot, with freedom to vote his judgment on subsequent ballots. Such a contained and intense convention would showcase party talent, while giving caucus a much needed say in leadership selection.

In the meantime, it is clear that Harper and MacKay must remove themselves from the process. The emissaries, with help from party operatives, should decide the unity projectís feasibility and the terms on which it is to proceed. A Thanksgiving combined press conference could kickstart a new party in time for the next election.


Margret Kopalaís column on western perspectives appears here weekly.

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