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Culture and Institutions in Canadian Politics: The Rise of First Minister Autocracy and the Russification of Canadian Political Culture

As time goes on, Canada’s political culture and traditions are increasingly divergent from other parliamentary democracies. While some mistakenly characterize this as a reflection of global trends or a result of the Americanization of our political ideologies and brands, it is a mistake to think that the increasing autocracy and centralization in our political system is part of a global trend. Critics of the rise of first minister autocracy, when they don’t blame the US or indict a non-existent global trend, often choose the low-hanging fruit of blaming the shifts in our system on individual bad actors, typically Pierre Trudeau, Jean Chretien and Stephen Harper.

While this comes somewhat nearer the mark, these analyses miss the big picture because they ignore three interdependent variables: (1) the rules political parties adopt for governing themselves, (2) the rules parliament adopts to regulate political parties and (3) the cultural shifts both within parties and among voters generally related to these changes. Based on this emphasis, I date Canada’s divergence from normative global parliamentary practice to the early 1990s.

Three largely unrelated phenomena converged in the lead-up to the 1993 federal election to send Canada on its new course towards first minister autocracy and away from the parliamentary traditions of the rest of the English-speaking world. Ironically, the social movements and ideologies that gave rise to these things were quite similar to movements in other Westminster-descended parliamentary democracies. Canadians did not behave exceptionally or strangely in the early 90s; rather, a set of ad hoc decisions produced a series of unintended consequences that reshaped our political institutions.

First, there was Preston Manning and the Reform Party. Like Ross Perot in the United States, Manning led a broad, incoherent populist coalition of the fringe, absorbing anti-state voters on both the left and right of the political spectrum. While Manning, himself, hailed from the right of the spectrum, there was nothing insincere in his attempts to incorporate left-populists and left-libertarians into his big anti-government tent. His prescription for reforming Canadian democracy was one that sought to renew rather than revamp the nation’s parliamentary institutions. He proposed to end the gratuitous “whipping” of caucus votes on non-spending measures, favouring a return to the more lax party discipline evident both in the British parliament at Westminster and the US Senate and House, where MPs could defy their leaders in large numbers on key issues without calling into question the party’s functionality or the leader’s legitimacy.

Manning also proposed a cultural renewal to recover the original intent of the first-past-the-post voting system: that an MP’s job should be to represent the consensus of their geographic community rather than the ideology of their party on the issues of the day. He proposed informal polling, surveys and other new mechanisms to shore-up the increasingly untenable view of an MP’s relationship to their constituents. While seemingly nonsensical to the residents of Canada’s multi-cultural, ideologically diverse cities, Manning’s views made a kind of sense in his and his party’s heartland: rural Alberta, the one-party state in which a clear majority in every riding voted for the same party, shared a colour and religion and had fairly homogeneous views on the issues of the day.

I remain, to this day, committed to the belief that Manning was absolutely sincere in those beliefs. But the first major challenge his leadership faced required that he make a pragmatic exception to these ideas: Doug Collins. Collins, an avowedly white supremacist newspaper columnist whose nativist views went far beyond nativist rhetoric to encompass genuine sympathy for the Nazi party, sought the Reform Party nomination in West Vancouver-Capilano. Manning’s own anti-immigrant policies and dog-whistles to politically unrepresented racist constituencies had built just the sort of membership base that was dying to choose the last explicitly white supremacist columnist to still be writing for a mainstream regional paper as their representative in Ottawa.

Unlike most party leaders who could show up or send their key provincial lieutenants to a local nomination meeting to twist arms, make calls and dangle rewards to shut down insurgent candidacies, Manning had built an organization that stood for the repudiation of just those kinds of politics. And so he had to use—or, technically threaten to use—a provision of the new Elections Act, one that granted the leader of a party sweeping powers to over-rule local party organizations in the selection of candidates. Whereas candidates had always required a leader’s endorsement, previous versions of the Elections Act were full of undefined grey areas handled by uncodified tradition. In practical terms, the earlier, skeletal versions of the Act had been interpreted to mean that electoral district associations (the members of a party living in a riding) could choose their candidate and the leader had the power to veto.

Because previous acts had not spelled-out the sufficient conditions to nominate a candidate but merely some of the necessary conditions, Canadian parliamentary tradition had assumed that an electoral district association’s membership had to sign off on a candidate. With a tradition of mutual veto power, shared between local members and the leader, local associations had been left largely unmolested in their candidate selection practices for more than a century. Sometimes the local party board might choose the candidate behind closed doors but, by the 1920s, this had largely given way to nominating meetings won by whoever signed-up the most party members.

Those who remember the 1980s can recall the world before the 1993 election, the world in which if a party leader wanted to parachute in a star candidate, they sent in organizers, bag-men and local heavyweights to corral enough votes for that candidate to win the nomination meeting. Party leaders still got their way most of the time but they had to do so by maintaining majority support for their agenda amongst party members in ridings where they had a preferred candidate.

One can see how powerful our culture is in shaping our perceptions and recollections when we hear party organizers explaining, today, how the sweeping appointive powers our leaders enjoy to hire and fire candidates at will is something that has always been and always will be a feature of the system. Yet these same hacks should be able to remember the 1989 Oak Bay-Gordon Head byelection where local mayor Susan Bryce won the Social Credit Party nomination on a platform of going to the legislature to depose then-premier Bill Vander Zalm. Even though the laws on the books back in the 80s technically permitted the kind of veto power our leaders currently enjoy, our culture was such that vetoing Bryce would have been viewed by the public not as a demonstration of Vander Zalm’s strength as an autocrat but instead a sign of his weakness and incompetence. Promising to work with and include Ms. Bryce was viewed as less weak than overturning the results of a meeting the premier was too incompetent to control.

But culture is only half the story. Manning, the politician who bottled and sold democratic reform, was not just able to get his way because of his vast credibility on process issues with Canadian voters. He could get his way because the much more detailed Elections Act of 1993, authored by the Mulroney government, spelled-out what electoral district associations could and could not do. The inventory of their powers no longer included any ambiguity. Not only had they lost their prior de facto power to select candidates; they had lost their power to admit members too. Now, head office controlled who could join and the leader controlled who ran. Nomination meetings remain part of Canadian political tradition and remain the means by which most parties choose most of their candidates but, twenty-two years ago, they became what they are today, a moribund political tradition that, if things continue as they are, should be a distant memory a generation from today.

While Manning’s personal brand and sticky situation with Collins added political legitimacy to an increasingly autocratic set of Canadian political practice, it was then-Liberal leader Jean Chrétien whose response to another party nomination crisis who pushed things further. With two leadership contests five years apart, bitterly fought between opposing party factions, the Liberal Party of Canada was the site of the biggest sign-up drives in the nation. In the Toronto area, both the Chretien faction and the Turner-Martin faction had turned to a different group of unpopular far-right zealots: the anti-abortion movement.

Jim Karygiannis, my personal bet for winner of the 2018 Toronto mayoral race (more on that in a future post), cut his teeth in these battles, that vaulted Tom Wappel and John Nunziata into the national spotlight as anti-abortion MPs. While Liberals for Life, the brand name of the conservative Catholic theocrats, had been unmolested under Turner’s leadership, Chretien put an end to their expanded organizing. While not firing any MPs, he too exercised his newfound candidate appointment powers to reshape Liberal nominating practices. By 1997, Chretien was proudly canceling nomination meetings and appointing candidates by fiat, not just in the hotly-contested Toronto area ridings that had created the pretext for using these powers but in any electoral district where Chretien thought Liberal members might make the wrong choice. Accordingly, the Liberal Party amended its own constitution to enshrine and formalize the powers of the leader to select candidates at will and override local members.

This all was only possible because a new Elections Act had to be placed before the Commons. Mulroney, whose popularity had bottomed-out at 14% was widely viewed as corrupt and it was expected that his party would attempt to win the next election dishonourably. This view was not just the result of the series of corruption scandals that felled minister after minister; it was the result of the “free trade election” of 1988, in which unrestricted ad spending by private corporations in favour of Tory candidates dwarfed the budget of all three major parties. The idea that Mulroney might seek to buy the next election by nefarious means had to be dispensed-with, and a comprehensive and transparent Elections Act was the logical solution.

Jean Chretien, Preston Manning and Brian Mulroney did not agree on much. But each man’s response to a different emergency created new legal frameworks, new institutional frameworks and new cultural norms concerning the relationship between leaders and their caucuses. It is in the 1993 election that we see the origins of Canadians’ present-day view that MPs serve at the pleasure of party leaders, in sharp contradistinction to the British and Australian traditions that understand leaders serving at their pleasure of their caucus.

The view that leaders serve at the pleasure of their caucus is a venerable one in British parliamentary tradition. Because parties emerged in the Westminster political system out of voting blocs of elected MPs who coalesced gradually, formal party organizations and mass party membership were additions to a pre-existing party system. The first way parties became real in parliaments was through recognition by the Speaker of a group of MPs as a party. This group had to choose from among their number the first officers parties had: leaders, whips and house leaders. Until the twenty-first century, British political parties chose their leaders in caucus meetings; and that is how it is still done in Australia. Whoever has the confidence of the majority of a caucus serves as its leader, at the pleasure of that caucus. Margaret Thatcher was brought down by a non-confidence vote in her caucus; so were the last two Labour Party prime ministers in Australia.

While this remains the way that party leaders are chosen in the US House and Senate too, the multi-cameral, presidential system of governance down South had to find other ways to select their presidential candidates. In the 1820s, after two generations of dissatisfaction with caucus-driven presidential selection processes, the US Democratic Party became the world’s first mass party to use a system of convention delegates to select party leaders. And about a hundred years later, as a result of cultural exchange, Canada began to follow suit. Of course, by that time, Americans were beginning to tire of the corruption and horse-trading associated with delegated conventions and were beginning their transition to the primary system.

As a measure to counter corruption, American progressives, led by Wisconsin governor and senator Robert La Follette, began to nationalize the process of selecting convention delegates. But shifting the burden of selecting convention delegates from private clubs (because that is all political parties actually are in most English-speaking democracies) that could set arbitrary membership fees to state governments, progressives were able to create a radically more representative system, one that has been crucial in keeping both the best and worst features of American democracy intact. In states with primary systems, parties could no longer charge fees for membership; they could no longer mess with membership rolls; choosing presidential convention delegates and local candidates was a process administered transparently and accessibly by state governments. This slow contagion has spread across the United States, making Americans the most involved of any population on earth in the nomination of candidates for the major parties.

In the mid-90s, most Canadians did not notice the shift that had happened in our laws and culture around the selection of candidates and their relationship to the party leadership. That’s because, like most countries, few Canadians are members of political parties – scholars estimate this figure at 1%. But this is a four-year rolling average that includes the huge influx of instant members who sign up in the year prior to an election.

But while Canadians, as a whole, were not especially concerned about the new powers party leaders had gained—especially given that these powers had initially been used exclusively against racists and misogynist religious extremists, party activists were. The tiny subcultural groups of party members worried that their power as party members was being drained away at the expense of party leaders. And their response, which, like the expanded appointment powers, I supported at the time, seemed eminently reasonable.

“OMOV” was the ugly abbreviation for “one member-one vote,” a series of measures national parties took between 1993 and 2014 to change their leadership selection processes. Long-time party activists who felt disempowered by the draining of authority from their riding associations into the office of the leader saw, as their solution, a more direct and unmediated role in selecting a leader. So, over a generation, one party after another abandoned the old, ethanol-powered, back-slapping smoke-filled convention halls in favour mail-in, internet or phone voting for leadership candidates in which each party member could directly participate.

This put an additional squeeze on the dwindling authority of party caucuses and riding associations. First, members no longer delegated their authority upwards through their MP or convention delegates to choose a leader; in this important role, local party associations and caucus members were far less relevant.

Second, this created an incongruence between the legitimacy of local candidates and the party leader, especially in rural ridings and places where party members had little evening leisure time. While a substantial majority of party members were involved in choosing their leader by mail or electronically, the same could not be said of local candidates, who continue to be elected in in-person meetings. Thus, in nearly every riding, in nearly every party, the number of members who participated in choosing the leader vastly exceeds the number who participated in choosing their local candidate.

Third, it eliminated the role of local party organizers and MPs as brokers of voting blocs. In a delegated convention, the horse-trading that occurs as candidates are eliminated in the multi-round voting system used by Canadian parties was typically brokered by local party organizers or MPs. One came to a convention “with” a leadership candidate, member of parliament or local riding president. As that person made new deals and forged alliances, one followed them from one leadership candidate to the next. With no delegated conventions, preferences encoded before the convention through instant runoff voting or live coverage of the convention via social media replaces these individuals’ leadership in directing delegates’ votes.

As both authority and legitimacy have drained out of local MPs, candidates and organizers into the office of the party leader, this has spurred changes in our public discourse and how leaders are evaluated both by party activists and by the general public. But before I get to that, I want to make a distinction between the argument I am making and the one that many opinion leaders have made about the concentration of power in the office of the Prime Minister.

While it is undoubtedly true that there has been a steady presidentialization of the PMO in the forty years since the beginning of Pierre Trudeau’s third mandate, this is a surprisingly unrelated phenomenon. The phenomenon I am describing affects all political parties, irrespective of their proximity to power through this synergy of law, culture and institution. And, if one looks abroad, it is not to the United States or any similar republic whose course we seem to be following.

No. If there is an international comparison to be made, it is that Canadian politics is become Russified. Those studying the political culture of Russia over the long term sometimes advance the following theory: because of the ravages of the Mongol invasion, Black Death and collapse of Byzantium, we must understand Russian political culture as being forged out of two main traditions, the Byzantine and the Mongol. Both of these systems are what might be terms reverse-feudal. Whether we trace modern Russia to the Byzantine Empire or to the Khanate of the Golden Horde, what we see is a political culture whose accountability structure is not delegated gradually upwards from the micro-local, to the local, to the regional, to the national/imperial, as in societies whose political practices arise out of a Western European medieval past.

Instead, accountability in the Russian system was built through a direct relationship between the peasant class and the Tsar. If a member of the land-owning class was behaving badly, his tenants appealed to the Tsar for relief, including the replacement of the local lord by another member of the gentry class. Because of the lack of a conventionally aristocratic class, the authority of local lords was understood to be contingent upon the Tsar, and not the reverse. And this tradition has continued, de facto and, intermittently, de jure, to the present day: regional governors are appointed by the Kremlin to represent the president’s regime to the local region; authority is delegated upward from the people to the autocrat and thence, downward to members of the national duma and regional governments. When political change happens, it is through seizure of national leadership by a new autocrat.

In Russia, therefore, one of the most important features of the autocrat is their ability to control remote local organizations, party officials and members of the duma. Because government departments and regional authorities are imposed from above and not locally accountable, a weak leader who fails to demonstrate that control produces anxiety in the populace. If the autocrat is the only means by which the branches of the state with which one interacts can be made accountable, a weak leader will produce bureaucratic despotism and corruption while a strong leader will produce democratic accountability.

And, as I first noted in 2008, this is becoming a Canadian political value. Stephen Harper’s performance of strength through a hyper-controlled affect and conspicuous micro-management is resonating with Canadians who now see their only point of access to the political system as their selection of a leader.

In 2010, I became the first candidate for a federal NDP nomination to be barred from proceeding to a nomination meeting in my riding. I was barred on the grounds that I have made four Facebook posts on my personal page that the national office crew deemed unflattering to the party. They found the most egregious to be the one in which I raised the party’s conduct during the Gustafsen Lake siege of 1995. Without getting into the merits of my particular case, I wish to note that since that time, the number of candidates for nomination barred from even subjecting themselves to a vote by local members has grown, not just in the NDP but in every party.

This change in party practices arises, in part, from a misunderstanding of the advice Obama organizers have given the Liberals and New Democrats. “Staying on top of social media” has been misinterpreted as the control and management of party officials’ and candidates’ communication to small online communities. But this is, manifestly, not how the Democrats or Republicans work. In part because they are hemmed-in by a primary system and cannot hire and fire candidates at will but, more importantly, because a US presidential candidate must demonstrate her legitimacy by assembling a large, heterogeneous that is unanimous about very little, legitimacy is associated with showing that your leadership is one of the few things on which your party is in accord.

But even this mistaking of advice is significant. Canada’s new autocratic political culture is doing one of those things that culture does: constrain our ability to imagine a place or time different than the one we inhabit. Just as we forget nomination meetings like Oak Bay’s in 1989, we also misinterpret people from other countries when they try to tell us about how things work there. The Democrats must mean that that they obsessively surveil and silence minor party officials, because we cannot imagine that what they are really doing is conducting social media like an orchestra, deftly signaling one section to speed up, to slow down, to play louder or softer, to transform the cacophony of the party base into harmony.

And so it becomes necessary for leaders to demonstrate their authority with increasing severity whenever a candidate goes off-message, publicly sacking people for minor remarks to small audiences. To do otherwise would be to show weakness, in the Russian sense, imperfect control of one’s minor officials who are only accountable through you, the leader.

For this reason, it is only natural that more and more candidates should be personally appointed or removed by the leader, arbitrarily and at will and party organizations have fallen over themselves to rewrite their constitutions and bylaws so that, even if the Elections Act were amended to limit leaders’ sweeping powers of appointment, as Michael Chong attempted to do through the failed Reform Act, our march to autocracy would continue apace.

Unfortunate reality of modern Canadian politics is that we are approaching the point of no return. Whereas Margaret Thatcher, in the Britain of 1989, could be fired by her caucus, this is only barely possible in today’s Canada. First of all the position of “party leader” has now been legally severed from any role in the House of Commons. Were Stephen Harper’s caucus to fire him, here is what he could do:

As Prime Minister, Harper could visit the Governor General and ask him to dissolve parliament, a request with which he would be almost certain to comply. Once parliament was dissolved, Harper, as the head of the Conservative Party of Canada, could appoint 338 new, loyal candidates by leader fiat and his current caucus would find themselves running as independents or saddled with the problem of building a new political brand and party infrastructure, new lists, new members, new donors in a matter of weeks. And, because nine in ten Canadians vote based on party platform or party leadership, the overwhelming majority would likely be defeated by newly-minted appointed MPs.

In the 2007 referendum on proportional representation in Ontario, the Toronto Star warned that if we did not stick with first-past-the-post, we would live in a Canada where leaders directly appointed their entire caucuses. Yet the reality is that, without changes in Canadian political culture, this is the direction we are heading. As I observed in 2008, it is the absence of proportional representation that is helping to increase leader-centred autocratic control:

In most countries, the increasing diversity of political opinion has resulted in more proportional voting systems and coalition-building; it has reinforced deliberation and negotiation in politics. These changes have been made not simply out of respect for diversity but out of a growing demand for social and political order in the face of an increasingly diverse and atomized society. Yet Canadians, motivated by the same anxieties, have chosen a different response. We seek to vest power in the person who is most capable of fusing a subset of these atomized groups and individuals back into some kind of unified formation.

In our voting system, the most successful party is one best at reducing the number of choices its potential voters feel that they have. A look at Liberal messaging shows that Jean Chretien became increasingly reliant on his ability to convince potential NDP and Green Party supporters to vote for his party. And despite his antipathy for Chretien, Paul Martin intensified this approach. What we missed during that time was how this change in Liberal tactics helped to change Canadian ideas of what made a legitimate government. As the Liberals lost their capacity to intimidate left-of-centre voters, they lost power. And Canadians learned a lesson: a government’s legitimacy comes not from its ability to appeal to the majority but instead from its ability to control and discipline its own supporters and potential supporters.

Supposedly, Canada’s dwindling newspaper and TV news sector are worried about this. And yet, when a candidate displays any originality or distinctiveness at all, they rush to report that a party has suffered a “bozo eruption.” They begin hounding the leader, demanding what he will do about even one of the party’s 338 candidates expressing a difference of opinion from the leader. And if the leader does not immediately and publicly punish or, better yet, summarily fire the candidate, we might as well be reading Russia Today: the leader is portrayed as weak and unable to exercise the kind of control befitting the occupant of 24 Sussex Drive.

Every time another candidate is fired or summarily removed, Canada’s new authoritarian political culture becomes more entrenched; and every time a leader is made to look weak and suffers an electoral setback because they have been portrayed as weak, it also becomes more entrenched. And so, when it comes time to replace that leader, it seems only logical to choose someone more like our current Prime Minister, an unapologetic authoritarian and micro-manager.

Because, increasingly, that is what Canada’s unique, new political culture demands.

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