The era of delegated management congresses is coming to an end. Is it missing?
With the Ontario Liberals’ decision to move to a new system for electing their leaders, the era of delegate assemblies in Canada is drawing to a close.
After two disappointments in the election, Ontario’s Liberals opted to move their old way of selecting leaders – in which most elected delegates had some freedom to do business and switch support during Congress – to a model with a Member and one vote (OMOV) to waive Most points are distributed based on popular support from all provincial Liberals and weighted by constituency.
According to John Courtney, professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Saskatchewan, the shift is part of a long historical trend and logical flow towards systems perceived as more open, inclusive and democratic.
“The basis of democratic theory is the idea of broad participation in open public forums and the participation of as many people as possible … it was only a matter of time before delegated congresses were kind of pushed aside,” Courtney said.
It was the Federal Liberals who pushed the basic idea of a leadership convention in 2019, and the same party was the last nationally to use a delegated convention model. Your 2009 convention, which hailed Michael Ignatiev, was technically held under this system, but you have to go back to 2006 to remember the last truly embattled convention in federal politics.
Since then there has been a steady stream of parties moving away from the delegated system. The Alberta NDP left the delegated convention model in 2014. Their PC counterparts used a delegated model in 2017 – but their UCP successors have an OMOV system. The Newfoundland and Labrador PCs switched to the more open model in 2018.
The Manitoba NDP is perhaps the last major political party in Canada to retain a delegate model in its constitution.
Push and pull between openness and engagement
The Ontario Liberals’ move was overwhelmingly welcomed by members at their annual general meeting last week, as well as by several potential candidates for leadership.
“This party is no longer an exclusive club of very few people. This is a modern, inclusive party,” said current Liberal MP Yasir Naqvi.
The new system “will be an incredibly powerful way to get people involved in the political process,” said parliamentary group colleague Nathaniel Erskine-Smith.
While proponents argue that the OMOV system increases the openness and representativeness of the executive selection process, Courtney cautioned that the transition would involve significant tradeoffs. While previously highly committed activists drove the party between elections and during the campaign, the leadership process is now open to a broader spectrum of less committed people, he said.
“Anyone can join the party. Anyone can support a candidate and then forget about the party,” Courtney said. “In other words, what you see with one member, one vote, are very shallow roots in the party.”
Courtney noted that past leaders elected under the delegate model, such as Brian Mulroney or Jean Chrétien, were able to extract some future benefits from the system.
“They built coalitions of interest across the country and that served them well in the subsequent elections because they already had this built-in organizing mechanism.”
Leaders can target a specific group rather than a broader party
Courtney also noted that an OMOV model could incentivize a different type of campaign and leadership style.
“Maybe not always and maybe not for all candidates, but it’s in the interests of some candidates who see their way into leadership to focus on a specific segment of society,” rather than appealing to a broad constituency, he said.
Courtney cited the example of Andrew Scheer’s 2017 campaign to become Conservative leader, in which he made serious efforts to win the votes of Quebec dairy farmers, which helped him win a victory over Maxime Bernier.
Mark Marissen, who was campaign manager for Stéphane Dion’s successful bid in 2006, argued that a delegated model with more committed activist engagement could actually help bring parties together after divisive leadership races.
“Because there’s so much more in-person activity going on, and because you need the support of real-life people who are in the room, the whole process is more unified,” he said. “It’s a lot more democratic to have a one-member-one-vote system, but it involves a lot less active people in a meaningful way.”
Marissen also noted that delegated conventions can be more dramatic and therefore more engaging. He described a moment in 2006 when the Dion camp, in a nod to his brand as an environmentalist candidate, distributed green scarves, buttons and other paraphernalia to supporters to give to rival delegates who might switch sides with Dion. When that happened, he said, it created quite a visual scene.
“So basically it almost looked like a green virus that went through the whole convention and it was all extremely exciting. You just don’t get stuff like that with a one-member-one-vote system,” he said.
While Marissen said the level of engagement and grassroots activism had suffered under an OMOV system, he added he had no illusions there would be a move back to a delegated model.
Courtney agreed, saying that if there was an attempt to return to less open systems and return to the “old boys’ network, the smoky rooms,” the party’s supporters would likely rebel.
“I think the chances of going back in time would be nil.”