As the Progressive Conservatives attempt to turn on the page on what might have been the most stressful stretch in their history, they can at least take comfort in one way that their recent experience could serve as an example for other political parties to follow rather than a cautionary tale.
They managed to prove, as definitively as anything in politics can ever be proven, that it’s entirely possible to choose a new leader over a matter of weeks, and not stretch the process over months, or even years, as has recently become the trend at the federal level.
What? Why are you giving me that look? Yes, the 44-day campaign that started with now former leader Patrick Brown’s post-midnight resignation after he was hit with allegations of sexual misconduct and ended with the election of Doug Ford was… well, whatever the metaphorical opposite of a well-oiled machine is. But it’s worth noting that none of the controversies that cropped up over the course of the race were caused by the tight time constraints.
If anything, the rapid-fire led those subplots to play out on fast-forward — so, for instance, Brown’s bizarre attempt to rewind recent history and retake the leader’s office lasted just 10 days, not 10 months, as might have been the case in a more leisurely paced contest.
As for the standard handwringing about divisiveness, such concerns — justified or not — are effectively inevitable in any race with more than one viable candidate on the ballot, and they frequently emerge even when there isn’t more than one in the running for that very reason.
Those last-minute tensions over reported glitches in the online registration system might have been exacerbated by the short turnaround time for assembling, verifying, and processing the voter list, but it’s not as if such complaints haven’t been heard at the end of marathon campaigns (like, most recently, the federal Conservative leadership contest).
And honestly, at this point, actually announcing the results of a leadership vote at — or even within an hour of — the scheduled time would be so unprecedented as to seem downright suspicious, although the 12-hour delay in getting runner-up Christine Elliott to concede the results was, admittedly, not ideal.
Still, by Sunday afternoon, it was clear that the Ontario PCs had successfully pulled off what many saw as an impossible task: they’d installed a new leader with little notice and just months to go before hitting the hustings to take on Kathleen Wynne.
In fact, they could have saved themselves from that worst-case-scenario Saturday afternoon by simply pre-scheduling a press conference to announce the winner on Sunday morning.
Instead, the party followed the now widely practised tradition of trying to engineer the excitement of a classic, delegated leadership convention by gathering their members in a single spot to reveal of the result, which nearly always leads to exactly what happened last weekend: unexpected delays in the process, an increasingly impatient and frustrated audience, and maybe 10 minutes of feel-good visuals to weave into a future campaign ad.
There are many compelling arguments to support the shift away from delegated conventions to ones that give every member a vote in the leadership race, but ultimately, it requires a trade-off that most parties have thus far been reluctant to make: namely, more direct democracy for three days of unscripted drama that plays out not just on the convention floor, but in the corridors, in hospitality suites, and in every other corner of the temporary pocket universe in which such events take place.
If you’ve read this far, you’ve doubtless discerned a bias: yes, I think it was a mistake to drop those sprawling exercises in live-action political chaos theory in favour of an anodyne one-member-one-vote — and not just because, as a journalist, I thrive in situations where no one has a clue what’s actually going on but everyone has a theory that they’re frantically trying to spin to the press.
That particular debate, however, seems to have died down; as yet, there’s no sign of any surge in support for a return to the delegated system, and even if there were, it’s hard to see how any party could take away its members’ voting rights without losing a good chunk of those members in return.
In any case, if the parties decide to stick with one-member-one-vote — which, as noted, they almost certainly will — they should at least consider dropping the faux-convention grand finale.
Not only would they be able to leave a sizeable chunk of cash in the party coffers — even a modest venue generally costs thousands of dollars to rent out, after all — but it would also allow for a much more flexible timeline, as such spaces tend to be booked months, if not years, in advance.
In fact, the difficulty of rescheduling such an event was among the reasons given by Ontario Superior Court Judge Archibald in his rejection of a last-minute request to extend the vote: doing so, he noted, would force the party to postpone — and, most likely, relocate — the reveal, which could take considerably longer than the one-week delay the applicants were proposing.
Given the sheer geography involved in running for a federal leadership, it would likely be unrealistic to expect future contenders to muster up the hoped-for cross country support over the course of just 43 days, but six months should be more than enough time to make the rounds on the hustings.
And before anyone brings it up: yes, that might mean fewer all-candidates’ debates, but it would also force the party to make sure those that do take place offer a far higher signal-to-noise-to-boilerplate-stump-speech-blather ratio, which its members would almost certainly appreciate.
If the party had already been planning to hold a convention within that time frame, they could add the results reveal to the programme, and virtually guarantee a standing-room-only crowd. Otherwise, they could forego the live event and save themselves considerable time and money without actually sacrificing all much in the way of party-morale-boosting momentum.
Kady O’Malley writes for iPolitics.ca, and also appears regularly on television and radio.
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