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04/01/2014 06:13 EDT | Updated 06/01/2014 05:59 EDT

Redford's Downfall Reinforces the Need for Chong's Reform Act

It has now been almost two weeks since Premier Alison Redford made her surprise announcement that she would be resigning as the Premier of Alberta. For the third time in less than a decade, a PC Alberta Premier was ousted by a process other than a general election. The entire Alberta episode has me thinking about Michael Chong's "Reform Act."

It has now been almost two weeks since Premier Alison Redford made her surprise announcement that she would be resigning as the Premier of Alberta. For the third time in less than a decade, a PC Alberta Premier was ousted by a process other than a general election: Ralph Klein announced his retirement after a dismal approval rating at a mandatory leadership review in 2006, and Ed Stelmach fell on his own sword rather than facing a caucus coup d'etat in 2011.

Premiers Klein and Stelmach stayed on until a new leader could be chosen. Given the outrage at her extravagance and corresponding public disapproval ratings, Premier Redford wisely decided that she was unlikely to weather the storm and announced her imminent resignation.

The entire Alberta episode has me thinking about Michael Chong's "Reform Act." Mr. Chong and I have often lamented that in Canada there is no mechanism for a caucus to fire a leader the way the British Tories ousted Margaret Thatcher or the way the Australian Labour Party ousted Kevin Rudd, replacing him with Julia Gillard and then reversing their decision 18 months later.

Although a Canadian caucus cannot currently officially fire a leader, a caucus revolt can be so unpleasant that a leader might resign rather than attempt to survive it. That certainly is what sealed Redford's and Stelmach's fate and also what allowed Paul Martin to rescue the keys to 24 Sussex from Jean Chretien. So do these caucus revolts strengthen or weaken the arguments in favour of the "Reform Act"? Are formal mechanisms required for firing the leader when informal ones seem capable of ousting a leader who has lost the confidence of his or her caucus?

Mathematically, Chong's reforms would not have facilitated the ousting of either recent Alberta Premier. Only two members of Alison Redford's Caucus resigned, and even if media reports that up to 20 members (or approximately 1/3 of her caucus) were dissatisfied are correct, under the "Reform Act" half of voting members would have to vote to terminate a leadership. Chong has since proposed revising his bill to make the benchmark 50 per cent of the entire caucus rather than merely 50 per cent of cast ballots. Stelmach's detractors were certainly fewer than Redford's.

So it would appear that a caucus intent in dumping its leader is quite capable of doing so even absent the "Reform Act." Perhaps by setting the bar at 50 per cent disapproval, the "Reform Act" might actually help embattled leaders survive -- just so long as they can maintain the support of 50 per cent.

Realistically, no leader can survive if anywhere close to 50 per cent of the caucus wants a leadership review. And that is the Reform Act's charm: it will likely never have to be employed, but its mere presence will remind party leaders that they have to be mindful and respectful of their caucuses.

These Alberta examples also illustrate the foibles in the party leader selection process.

Alison Redford was chosen as the leader of the governing Progressive Conservatives with absolutely no first ballot support from within the PC Caucus. With minimal insider support on the second ballot, her team sold thousands of memberships to non-traditional Tories, including teachers, nurses, and members of other public sector unions.

These rent-a-tories probably did not vote PC in the subsequent election but they nonetheless propelled Ms. Redford into the Premier's Office.

The Alberta leadership demonstrates a fundamental flaw in electing party leaders through mass membership drives. The constituency that elects the leader disappears almost immediately after the leadership contest concludes. As people who buy memberships merely for the opportunity to participate in the leadership contest let their memberships lapse thereafter, the leader is elected by a now non-existent group, making him or her accountable to no-one.

When leaders were chosen at delegate conventions, a stronger argument could be made that the leader is responsible to the party, though this argument is weakened by the amorphous nature of party membership. Regardless, it is unlikely that parties will ever abandon one member one vote leadership contests, as they are, at least notionally, more democratic.

Accordingly, if the leader is not responsible to the caucus that he or she leads, they will be accountable to no one. Certainly, the predictable and systematic mechanisms for turfing a party leader in Chong's Reform Bill are preferable to the chaos and anarchy of the palace coup. While the very threat of triggering a caucus vote to determine if the leader still has the support of the elected caucus is probably enough to force the resignation of an imperiled leader, it remains a necessary tripwire for a leader either too brazen or insular to read the writing on the wall.

This post originally appeared on Brent Rathgeber's website.

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