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Media Bites: Wynne Is a Relative Term

01/28/2013 12:17 EST | Updated 03/30/2013 05:12 EDT
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There were angry people outside the arena as the Ontario Liberal Party elected a new boss on Saturday. They filled the streets and created some awesome photos, but as far as protesters go, didn't have much to say. Far from a spontaneous uprising of outraged citizens, most of these walking signposts were members of union rent-a-crowds specifically bussed in for the afternoon -- the latest show of muscle in the ongoing drama between the McGuinty administration and various wings of the Ontario Teachers' Federation.

The absence of any legitimate grassroots outrage was a shame, because what transpired within the Mattamy Athletic Centre this weekend was absolutely worth protesting. Whatever we may think of the Liberals' new leader and her glamorous status as Ontario's first lesbian premier, the fact remains that Canadians have once again witnessed the extraordinarily undemocratic spectacle of a tiny group of partisans installing a ruler over them -- perhaps the single most authoritarian dysfunction of the Canadian parliamentary system.

Kathleen Wynne was "elected" premier (if you can call it that) on her party's second convention ballot with just over 1,100 votes. These votes, in turn, were cast by just over 2,000 Liberal "delegates" and assorted ex-officio hacks, an extraordinarily thin slice of a province of 13 million. Forget the 1 per cent -- Ontario literally outsourced the task of choosing its leader to the 0.01 per cent.

Not that this is some sort of unique Ontario dysfunction. The current premier of Alberta was originally installed by the votes of only 37,104 partisan insiders;  the premier of British Columbia by 28,411. Heck, the 26th prime minister of Canada was awarded his job by a measly 3,242.

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Ontario Liberal Leadership Convention

Since ours is a country with no term limits, it's pretty much taken for granted that a premier has a right to abandon his job whenever pressures get too intense, and his party an equal right to install whomever they want in his place. Unlike Americans, Canadians have similarly been taught to believe that political parties are private property -- literal corporations, in fact -- that have a right to keep a tightly curated membership enforced through draconian tactics of expulsion and censorship. While Americans are given nomination elections open to any voter who merely self-identifies as a Republican or Democrat, Canadians learn that the practice of picking party leaders is not really the business of anyone but a couple thousand obsessive party nerds willing to pay for the privilege.

Once safely installed, our unelected leaders can rule for years exercising the full powers of their office, merrily passing laws, appointing bureaucrats, or proroguing the legislature as if they had any sort of public mandate to do so. Premier Wynne speaks with great excitement about all the cool stuff she's gonna get cracking on following her inauguration, presumably in the style of B.C.'s Christy Clark, who's been running her province for almost two years without facing voters.

And why not! Since a premier decides the date of her own election, there's tremendous incentive for an incumbent installed through backdoor party appointment to run the clock as long as she's legally able; What a great electoral advantage to already be premier before asking voters to vet you for the gig! Though I've expressed worry that Ms. Wynne's homosexuality may be a bigger electoral liability than is currently considered tasteful to contemplate, it's just as possible her flamboyant incumbency will be enough to cancel it out.

I'm not alone in finding all this controversial, but it really says something about Canada's waning democratic passion that many of our most robustly "reformist" commentators confront the crisis of undemocratically selected rulers with demands that the system get even less democratic. Vaguely aware that there's something untoward about living under premiers chosen by tiny cliques of partisan groupies who care more about political strategy than provincial interest, it's becoming increasingly common for analysts to draw the dense conclusion that these leaders are simply being picked by the wrong tiny elite.

It's from this logic we get the small-minded perestroika, pushed by academics like Christopher Moore and Peter Loewen and columnists like Andrew Coyne and Paul Wells, that what we really should be doing is "let the caucus choose." If we don't like the party bosses being chosen by a roomful of, in Dr. Lowen's words, "people of whom you have never heard," the logical alternative is to go back to the 19th century, and let our premiers be picked by the couple dozen men and women who make up their party's parliamentary delegation -- of whom, of course, we have all heard.

A major problem with Canada's broken democratic system is that too many powerful voices care more about that second word than the first. They fuss endlessly about ancient British precedents for coalition governments and the powers of the governor general, dredge up wacky Commonwealth case studies about goofy things that "can," theoretically, happen in the Westminster system when the moon is in the seventh house, but rarely ask the one question that matters most in a democracy: is the preference of the public -- the folks who pay the taxes and bear the real-world burden of government policy -- reflected by any of this?

It's lovely that Ontario has a gay, lady premier, but her status is ultimately cheapened by the fact that almost no one she now rules wanted or requested to be governed by her.

Far more historic would be a premier who finds that troubling.