At the time this article was published David
McFadden was President of the Progressive Conservative party of Ontario. This
is a revised version of an address to the Tenth Regional Seminar held in Ottawa
in November 1985.
When I adjourned the Ontario Progressive
Conservative Party's leadership convention on January 26, 1985, following the
election of Frank Miller as our new leader, I was happy to have completed three
and a half months of tremendously challenging work in organizing and then
staging the convention, fully expecting not to have such a responsibility
again. With Mr. Miller's decision to retire as leader in August, I was called
upon to organize a second leadership convention which took place on November 15
and 16 and saw the election of Larry Grossman as leader in a very exciting
Serving as the chairman of two leadership
conventions in one year and having been a delegate to four other leadership
conventions at either the federal or provincial level has given me a unique
opportunity to reflect upon the position and efficacy of leadership conventions
in our political system.
Prior to considering whether or not there is
a better way to choose a leader than through the kind of leadership convention
we have developed in this country, I would like to focus first on the history,
organization and impact of the current convention process.
The use of leadership conventions to elect a
party leader did not start in Canada until after World War I. Before that, all
leaders were chosen by the parliamentary or legislative caucus of the party in
the same way as the British Conservative Party continues to do today. The first
national convention to choose a party leader was held by the Liberal Party in
1919, at which Mackenzie King was elected leader. The first leadership
convention in Ontario was held by the Conservative Party in 1920 when Howard
Ferguson was chosen leader. The first leadership convention called by the
federal Conservative Party took place in 1927 and chose R. B. Bennett as
leader. It is interesting to note that in the case of each of these parties
they went on to win major victories in the general elections which immediately
followed the convention.
While leadership conventions were not
entirely accepted by party hierarchies in the 1920s and 1930s as the best
method of choosing a leader, there is no question today of any party returning
the power to elect a leader to the parliamentary or legislative caucus. The
leadership convention has become a permanent and an essential part of our
political life. There are three fundamental reasons for this.
First, leadership conventions are a
democratic way to choose a leader in which a broad cross-section of the party's
organization can participate. Some observers question how representative
conventions really are of a party or of society as a whole. It is my experience
that the delegates do in fact accurately reflect the broad range of opinions
and concerns within a party. The delegates elected by each riding association
when combined with members of Parliament, members of the legislature, the party
executive and representatives of constituent organizations such as party
campus, youth and women's associations, ensure that a leadership convention is
representative of the diverse elements which make up any major political party.
Leadership conventions are not necessarily
representative of all of society, nor should they be expected to be. All major
political parties seek to encompass as many individuals, groups and interests
as possible, but no party can honestly claim to have the involvement and
support of all groups in proportion to their size and importance in society.
Parties represent a particular political philosophy and approach which may
secure greater support and membership from certain individuals and groups than
others. Leadership conventions provide the opportunity for the supporters of a
party to choose a leader to represent their philosophy and approach to the
electorate. Properly and fairly organized, leadership conventions are an
accurate expression of the popular will of a political party.
The second reason for the central importance
of the leadership convention is its positive impact on a party's organization.
The organizational efforts and campaigning leading up to a convention and then
during the days of the convention give thousands of party members an exciting
and memorable experience. While many party members may be disappointed by the
results when their candidate loses, virtually everyone I have met after a
convention describes it as an exhilarating opportunity to participate directly
in an historic event. Even more than in general elections, party members who
participate in leadership conventions feel they are contributing directly to
the outcome of the results of a democratic process. This feeling of
participation and involvement is essential to the morale of any party
Related to the impact on party morale is the
central and symbolic role that a leadership convention represents for party
renewal. Every leadership convention allows new talented people to assume key
roles in the party. Each convention is an essential point of departure which
inevitably leads to a changing of the guard within the party structure. Such
change is essential to the vitality of any party. A leadership convention gives
party members the opportunity to participate directly and personally in this
essential act of renewal.
The third and final reason for the essential
importance of the leadership convention is its impact on public opinion.
Leadership conventions historically appear to have had either a neutral or a
positive impact upon public opinion. I have found no evidence that public
support dropped for a party as a consequence of the holding of a convention.
Gallup and other polls showed that the conventions which elected Bob Stanfield
and Joe Clark as leaders of the Progressive Conservative Party and Pierre
Trudeau and John Turner as leaders of the Liberal Party all lead to an
immediate and significant jump in popular support for their respective parties.
On the other hand, the convention which elected Brian Mulroney to the
leadership of the party had no significant impact on the party's popular
support based on the polls taken shortly after the convention.
Experience shows, however, that a convention
is only a useful launching pad. Once the warm glow of the convention dies away,
it is up to the new leader to move quickly to consolidate and build on the new
level of popular support or it may disappear quickly, as Bob Stanfield found
out in 1968 and John Turner discovered in 1984.
This natural desire of parties to use their
conventions as a means to reach out to the public and increase popular support
inevitably causes convention organizers to accommodate the communications media
to the greatest extent possible. Newspapers and radio can provide coverage relatively
unobtrusively, with minimal disruption to the convention. The extensive
requirements of television coverage can come into conflict with the comfort and
even safety of delegates and potentially alter the format and program of a
convention. At our convention in November 1985, we had some 1,400 accredited
representatives of the news media, a remarkably high number when you remember
that we had a total of only 1,686 voting delegates.
Television had a major impact on the floor
of the convention. Four television networks built their own studios on
scaffolding some 30 feet above the ground. The television networks and stations
then built a total of eighteen separate camera locations on scaffolding about
eight feet high at various locations across the middle of the convention floor.
In addition, all of the television outlets had a large number of remote
handheld cameras which were employed during the broadcasting of the convention.
When you add to these television studios and
camera locations the presence of seven radio booths on the convention floor,
the convention site almost took on the appearance of a broadcast studio in
which the candidates, campaign organizers and delegates were players in a live
drama. While television has covered political events for over thirty years,
technological developments combined with the increase in the number of
television outlets over the past 15 years have made television a much more
potent and exciting medium for covering conventions.
Every party wants to use the power of television
to bring their convention directly into the homes of hundreds of thousands of
voters. The challenge is to accommodate the needs of television while
remembering that the fundamental reason for having a convention is to elect a
new leader. Consequently, the need of the delegates to be able to see and meet
the candidates and then vote in peace and the right of the leadership campaigns
to reach the delegates without obstruction must remain uppermost in the minds
of convention organizers. It is a difficult task to balance the contending
interests of the convention itself and the broadcast media.
There are some people within our party who
have started to advocate the election of party leaders directly by the party
membership following the example of the Parti Québécois and the Social
Democratic Party in Britain. The most compelling reason for the direct election
of leaders is the involvement of every party member fully and equally in the
selection of a new leader. While this proposal has a real philosophical
attraction, it has some major fundamental flaws.
First, as noted, earlier, the intense media
coverage of the exciting events of a leadership convention reaches the voters
in a concerted way over several days. People with only a limited interest in
politics often follow a convention with great interest. The process of party
members going to a hundred or more meeting places to cast their ballots lacks
the kind of intensity and drama which the voting process at a convention holds.
Such a loss of media impact would clearly limit the positive effect which the
process of leadership change has on party support.
The second flaw is the vulnerability which a
party could have to various interest or lobby groups or opposition parties.
Unless there were a membership cut-off date upon the resignation of a leader,
special interest groups and even supporters of other parties could sign up en
masse and have a major impact upon the ultimate outcome of the leadership vote.
Today, such an attack is difficult to mount since outside groups would be
forced to move from riding to riding, sign up members and then attend various
delegate selection meetings. Under a system of direct election, such groups
would simply have to secure memberships from one or more ridings and then turn
out to vote on the appointed day. With enough organizational muscle, outside
groups could even put up their own leadership candidates. One can imagine the
destructive effect which such an invasion by hostile or single interest groups
could have on the strength and unity of a political party.
The final flaw in the concept of direct
election is the potential monopoly of power which one or more regions or types
of ridings could seize. It is easier, faster and cheaper to sign up new members
in large urban centres such as Toronto than in rural or northern areas.
Consequently, in the province of Ontario for example, it is very possible that
well over 50% of the membership of a party could be located in the Toronto area
while only a third of seats in the legislature come from there. Through a
membership drive, the Toronto area could dominate the choice of leader, which
is not allowed under the current system.
Moreover, strong ridings with a large
membership would overwhelm weaker ridings. For example, my riding has 4,500
members which would be equal to the membership in several other seats. Under
direct election, the strong ridings would simply get stronger and the weaker
ridings weaker within the party since leadership candidates would inevitably
concentrate their efforts on the areas where the votes are. This is not the
pattern today, of course, since all ridings have the same number of delegates.
Such potential concentrations or monopoly of power by certain regions or by
strong ridings would hurt a party and undermine its ability to speak
effectively for all regions.
Leadership conventions have evolved over the
years to reflect changes within both parties and society and to reach out more
effectively to the general public. After over 65 years of use in Canada I believe
leadership conventions remain the best way to choose a party leader.