But is it actually less democratic? Remember in the Westminster system the Prime Minister is the person who can form the government by holding the confidence of the elected MPs. If a Prime Minister doesn’t have the support of his own MPs, how can he have the confidence of Parliament? But there is no system to replace a sitting leader if he doesn’t want to go – at least until the next leadership convention. Michael Ignatieff only become leader of the Liberal party because Stephane Dion agreed to resign. Then it had to be confirmed at the subsequent convention.
It should also be noted that no less an icon than Margaret Thatcher lost her job because of a caucus revolt. She was voted out by sitting MPs and replaced by John Major. More recently, Tony Blair left before he was really ready because of a threatened caucus vote. So Australia (despite its republican leanings) is more in line with the “mother country” than Canada. The Canadian practice of electing party leaders – and therefore Prime Ministers – by party members is a weird blend of British and America processes.
In the USA, presidential and other candidates are selected by each party through the primary process. Every registered voter (who are seldom party members or activists) can vote in the primary of their choice: republicans for republicans, democrats for democrats and independents for either (or in some case both). Tens of millions of Americans vote in primaries to select the candidates for various offices from President on down. And then they vote in the election for the candidate of their choice (who may well be different from the person they supported in the primary). And in the US, Presidents don’t require the support of the Senate or House of Representatives to stay in power and often govern with their direct opposition.
But in Canada, we let our leaders be chosen strictly by party members. In other words, roughly 200,000 political activists (roughly 0.6% of the population) choose all the party leaders (as well as candidates for all the other offices.) Because the leaders can claim to owe their office to aparty members, they can largely ignore the grumblings of discontented MPs who have few options to express their discontent – other than crossing the floor to another party or sitting as an independent, both of which are drastic and politically costly actions. And if that isn’t elitist enough – only about half those activists make political contributions, which means they have a lot of influence over what their parties stand for.
Recently, Alberta Conservatives experimented with letting everybody in the province vote for their leader in a multi-round process similar to American primaries. They wound up with Ed Stelmach – but that wasn’t the worse choice they could have made. I’m not sure if that system would work elsewhere in Canada (remember over 60% of Albertans routinely vote Conservative so the party was pretty sure an actual Conservative would be elected leader) – but it might be worth considering if we ever get around to real electoral reform in this country.
In the meantime, I’m not opposed to letting caucuses choose their own leaders. MPs are elected by a lot more people than party leaders (despite media spin, none of us actually vote for a PM – just for the MPs in our ridings) so it can’t be less democratic than our current system. Imagine what a change it would make in our current PM if he actually had to listen to someone else, even if it was only other Conservatives.