Lots of the debate around Michael Chong’s proposed Reform Act to, among other things, allow a federal parliamentary caucus to fire the party leader, has taken place in the abstract. We need to do something, it’s better than nothing, you're with reform or you're with the terrorists, and so forth. Let’s take it into the real world though. If Chong’s legislation was in place in British Columbia, who would be Premier today: Christy Clark, the NDP's Adrian Dix, or some other BC Liberal?
That’s the question I found myself mulling in a Courtenay, BC Dairy Queen over Christmas, as I read the Times Colonist’s year-end interview with Clark while enjoying a chicken strip basket. While Clark is now triumphantly in the driver’s seat after an unexpected majority victory in last year’s election, her pre-election position was tenuous at best.
She won the leadership in 2011 on the third ballot with 52 per cent of the vote over Kevin Falcon. While she may have enjoyed a measure of support from BC Liberal party membership, she inherited a decidedly skeptical caucus from Gordon Campbell – just one sitting MLA had supported her leadership campaign, and he wasn’t exactly one of the heavyweights.
Clark was very limited in her freedom of movement as Premier, with a caucus that hadn’t supported her, was skeptical of her political acumen after a stint on the sidelines in talk radio, and didn’t think she could lead them to re-election. Losing caucus support was constantly a very real concern, and reports of caucus rumbling and possible revolt were frequent.
She hints at the difficulty of the situation in the Times Colonist piece:
Beset by a cantankerous cast of Liberal MLAs, some of whom worked to undermine her leadership, Clark started the year struggling to pass her spring legislation.
One of her most trusted lieutenants was forced to resign in an ethnic outreach scandal, and Clark seemed dogged by several months of bad news, apologies and barely concealed infighting.
“It’s like you are lost in the woods and you get up and you think, ‘OK, the only way I’m going to get to where I need to go is by walking. I’m not exactly sure I’m going in the right direction, but I am going to keep moving, damn it.’ So there were a few days like that.”
Half the caucus wasn’t convinced she had the right plan to win the May provincial election, Clark now admits.
“There were some days I was being pretty publicly attacked by our own caucus members,” she said.
“Some of them seemed to want to get rid of me more than they wanted to get rid of the NDP. That’s not easy to deal with.”
We know how the story ended, of course. She put together a team and strategy, recruited new candidates, called an election, ran a strong, aggressive campaign, benefited from a shaky NDP performance, and won a majority that surprised the hell out of nearly everybody.
However, what if Chong’s Reform Act had been in place in BC, and that restless BC Liberal caucus had the ability to a) trigger a caucus vote on her leadership with 15 per cent signing a petition b) fire her with a majority vote? How would the story have played out then?
Given the restlessness within that caucus – focused on their own re-election concerns and having wanted someone else for leader -- there’s a very good chance it would have gotten cold feet at some point between her February 2011 election as leader and the May 2013 election, I’d put the odds at better than even that they’d have fired Clark and put someone else up as leader. Even putting it to a vote in the first place – the 15 per cent threshold would have been laughably easy to meet – would have undoubtedly leaked, and would likely have been fatal to her premiership.
As it turns out, while the caucus Clark inherited from Campbell may have had its doubts about her, British Columbians obviously felt otherwise, giving her a strengthened majority. And her vision and campaign style was key to that victory. How would the election have gone if the Campbell caucus had replaced her with someone more to their liking? We’ll never know, but with where the polls were going in, it could well have been the NDP’s Dix doing those year-end interviews.
To bring it back around to Chong’s Reform Act, I think what this shows is that caucus doesn’t always know best. The caucus perspective tends to be insular, and focused on things that don’t necessarily mirror the concerns of the public – will I get re-elected, who will give me a cabinet or critic portfolio. Party leaders are elected by a broader constituency with a broader perspective – party members – and that’s a positive thing. Would it have been democratic for the caucus to fire the leader elected by party members? In hindsight, it certainly would have been electorally foolish.
When they elected Clark as leader, party members obviously saw something different on the ground than most of the caucus saw from Victoria, and that was vindicated in last May’s election in a big way.
So let’s be careful before we jump into bed with the first piece of parliamentary reform that comes along, and instead consider how it’s likely to play out in the real world. Because we may not like how it would.Recommend this Post on Progressive Bloggers