Maybe we should switch to a U.S.-style leadership process

By Pat Watson Thursday March 22 2012 in Opinion
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It says something about the late, much admired Jack Layton, sixth leader of the federal New Democratic Party (NDP), that it would take the election of two persons to replace him.



This weekend at Toronto’s Metro Convention Centre, more than 3,500 NDP members are expected to select the new federal leader from among six candidates.



Earlier this week, voters in Layton’s Toronto-Danforth riding chose Craig Scott, a law professor and human rights advocate, as their new Member of Parliament, giving him almost 60 per cent of their votes.



Voters will choose among Thomas Mulcair, MP for Outremont and NDP deputy leader, the man being touted as most likely to emerge as leader, Niki Ashton, Nathan Cullen, Paul Dewar, Peggy Nash, Martin Singh and Brian Topp.



Advance polling began March 1 by mail-in vote and online, with some 37,000 votes already in.



Perhaps it was hard for this important leadership race to engage the interests of the Canadian general public, given the exciting and surreal Republican presidential selection process taking place in the U.S., heading toward the November presidential election. Or maybe it’s just that like sometime hockey fans, many of us don’t start to pay attention until the teams are in the playoffs.



We do need to pay attention though, because the person selected this weekend will also be the next Leader of the Opposition and needs to be an able opponent to our current prime minister and leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, the hyper-partisan Stephen Harper.



In any case, it seems the significance was not lost on the 45,000 new members who have joined the NDP since October last year, pushing membership to a record 128,351.



This whole process leads one to wonder if it is not time to reconsider Canada’s long attachment to the parliamentary democracy system in which party leaders are chosen by members and then become national leaders once their parties win an election.



The problem with the system becomes clear when looking at the current federal leadership. Stephen Harper does not enjoy strong popularity across a significant swath of Canadian voters. Like all others before him in this system, he is prime minister because he leads the team that enough Canadian voters turned to on the rebound from the Liberals in whom they had lost trust after the Quebec sponsorship scandal and the seeming sense of Liberal entitlement that became too much to tolerate.



Even some Conservatives aren’t fond of Harper. When Macleans magazine ran a poll last summer asking Canadians who they thought was the worst prime minister the country has had since 1968, Harper and another Conservative, Brian Mulroney, scored the highest, tied at 19 per cent.



So, yes, Harper was able to help move a certain segment of the country’s Conservatives – mostly those on the far right – into power, but he also had timing on his side, because the wave of voters on the rebound landed in the Conservatives’ favour.



Even so, as long as the federal Conservatives can keep convincing Canadians that we are economically secure as a result of their policies, enough of the electorate will tolerate them. That is clear, since none of the questionable actions of this administration, or current allegations of irregularities during the last federal election – voter suppression, misdirecting voters to wrong polling stations, and harassing campaign calls – have had any effect on the larger public psyche.



Then again it could just be the Republican primaries distracting us.



Maybe it’s time to explore the American way of selecting political leaders. It may even get us closer to choosing the government leader we want, instead of having to settle for the one that emerges if a particular party ends up being first past the post.



One would only hope it would be as entertaining.



A note on media irony…



A local television news network ran a documentary recently on the rising level of chronic anxiety in contemporary society. It ran immediately after evening news reports on violence and massacres carried out in Syria, allegedly by government forces, and the pathetic testimony in a London, Ontario courtroom of a young woman already convicted in the sex slaying of a young girl, among other horrors. The late Lennie Johnston who, along with his wife Gwen, ran the popular Third World Bookstore back in the day, had a saying: “The man offering you the aspirin is the one giving you the headache.”


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