The era of delegated leadership conventions is coming to an end. Will it be missed?
With the Ontario Liberals' decision to move to a new system of choosing their leaders, the era of delegated conventions in Canada is nearing its end.
After two electoral disappointments, the Ontario Liberals opted to ditch their old way of selecting leaders — where mostly elected delegates had some freedom to make deals and switch support during the convention — to a one-member-one-vote (OMOV) model, where most points are divvied up based on popular support from all provincial Liberals, weighted to constituencies.
The shift is part of a long historical trend and logical flow toward systems that are considered more open, inclusive and democratic, according to John Courtney, professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Saskatchewan.
"The base of democratic theory is the idea of wide participation in open public forum and participation by as many people as possible ... it was just a matter of time until delegated conventions were kind of shunted aside," Courtney said.
It was the federal Liberals who pioneered the basic idea of a leadership convention in 2019, and the same party was the last on the national scene to use a delegated convention model. Their 2009 convention, which acclaimed Michael Ignatieff, was technically held under that system, but you have to go back to 2006 to recall the last true contested convention in federal politics.
Since then there's been a steady stream of parties moving away from the delegated system. The Alberta NDP moved off the delegated convention model in 2014. Their PC counterparts used a delegated model in 2017 — but their UCP successors have a OMOV system. The Newfoundland and Labrador PCs moved to the more open model in 2018.
The Manitoba NDP is perhaps the last major party in Canada that still has a delegate model in their constitution.
Push and pull between openness, engagement
The move by the Ontario Liberals was welcomed overwhelmingly by members at its annual general meeting last week, as well as several prospective leadership contestants.
"This party is no longer an exclusive club of very few people. This is a modern, inclusive party," said current federal Liberal MP Yasir Naqvi.
The new system "will be an incredibly powerful way to engage people in the political process," said caucus colleague Nathaniel Erskine-Smith.
While proponents argue that the OMOV system increases the openness and representativeness of the leadership selection process, Courtney warned that the transition involved substantial tradeoffs. Whereas before highly engaged activists drove the party forward between elections and during leadership races, now the leadership process is open to a wider array of less engaged people, he said.
"Anyone can join the party. Anyone can back a candidate and then not bother with the party anymore," Courtney said. "In other words, what you see with one-member-one-vote is very shallow roots in the party."
Courtney noted that past leaders elected under delegate models, such as Brian Mulroney or Jean Chrétien, were able to reap some future advantage from the system.
"They built up coalitions of interest right across the country, and that served them well in the subsequent election because they already had this built-in kind of organizational mechanism out there."
Leaders may target particular group, instead of wider party
Courtney also noted that a OMOV model could incentivize a different type of campaigning and leadership style.
"Perhaps not always, and perhaps not with all candidates, but it is in the interest of some candidates who may see their way to winning the leadership to focus on a particular segment of society" rather than appeal to a broad centre of voters, he said.
Courtney cited the example of Andrew Scheer's 2017 campaign to become Conservative leader, in which he made serious efforts to court the votes of Quebec dairy farmers, who helped him eke out a win over Maxime Bernier.
Mark Marissen, who was campaign director for Stéphane Dion's successful 2006 bid, argued that a delegated model with more committed activist engagement could actually help to 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 that are in the room, the whole process is more unifying," he said. "It's a lot more democratic have a one-member-one-vote system, but it does involve 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 one moment in 2006 when the Dion camp, playing to their brand as the environmentalist candidate, handed out green scarves, buttons and other paraphernalia to supporters to distribute to rival delegates who may switch sides to Dion. When that happened, he said, it produced quite the visual scene.
"So, basically it looked almost like a green virus that went through the whole convention and it was all extremely exciting. That kind of stuff you just don't get with a one-member-one-vote system," he said.
While Marissen said the level of engagement and grassroots activism suffered under a OMOV system, he added he was under no illusions that there would be any sort of step back to a delegated model.
Courtney agreed, saying that party supporters would likely revolt if there was an attempt to roll back to less open systems and return to the "old boys network, the smoke-filled rooms."
"I think the chances would be about nil of going back in time."