Monday, February 11, 2013

Ontario News Watch Op Ed: Backroom Negotiations By Party Elites Chose Wynne As Liberal Leader. But Is That Really The Best Way To Choose A Premier For All Of Ontario?

I was very proud to be asked by ONW Editor Susanna Kelley to write today's op ed piece on the recent Ontario Liberal leadership election process. Please check it out here today or read below:

Op Ed: Backroom Negotiations By Party Elites Chose Wynne As Liberal Leader.

But Is That Really The Best Way To Choose A Premier For All Of Ontario?

The recent Ontario Liberal leadership convention won by Kathleen Wynne, who is being sworn in today with her new cabinet, was a classic example of the delegated leadership selection process in which the elites of a political party determined the outcome.

The backroom negotiations between the candidates and their senior advisers played a pivotal role in deciding who would be governing Ontario.

Sandra Pupatello is on record saying she had expected rival Eric Hoskins to endorse her after the first ballot (based on a conversation she had with Hoskins and his wife at their home earlier that week).

But something happened to change Hoskins' mind on the Saturday and he endorsed Wynne instead, giving her crucial momentum.

While Harinder Takhar's endorsement of Pupatello gave her a bit of a boost, once rival candidates Charles Sousa and Gerard Kennedy endorsed Wynne, the final result was sealed. Their delegates largely followed them en masse to put Wynne over the top.

The drama made for great television and got a lot of public attention on a cold Saturday in January.

But is this the best way to choose a Premier?

The elites would say yes.

I'm sure the leadership candidates who fell off the ballot early would also say yes.

After all, such candidates spent weeks traipsing across the province meeting party members, spending money and raising their profiles.

After all that, they probably thought, should they not emerge victorious, they should at least have the right to help determine the eventual winner.

If doing so helped ensure a nice promotion in the winner's cabinet, all the better.

But does a political party belong to its members, or to those who happen to put their names forth for the leadership?

Contrast the 2013 Ontario Liberal race with the 2012 federal NDP leadership race, which used a much more open and democratic process.

All federal NDP members got a chance to vote to determine the final outcome, unlike the Ontario Liberal process, which only allowed elected delegates and about 400 party elites to attend the convention and make the final decision.

However, the NDP process was not without its drawbacks. Most votes in the NDP race were cast by members across the country using a preferential ballot in advance of the final convention in Toronto.

Thus, when NDP leadership candidates gave their big speeches to the convention, they had almost no impact on the final results.

Many argue that candidate Nathan Cullen had the strongest convention performance while eventual winner Tom Mulcair had a lousy presentation in which he rushed through his speech.

Indeed, Pundit Guide determined that amongst the votes that were cast live at the convention that weekend, Cullen led on every ballot on which his name appeared. But the votes already cast for Mulcair and Brian Topp outflanked him.

Most of the NDP leadership candidates declined to endorse any rivals after falling off the ballot probably because they knew such moves would have no impact. The power of elites to determine the outcome in the NDP race was completely undermined.

The federal Liberals have also opened up their leadership race this year, with members and even supporters making the final choice.

But instead of repeating the NDP's mistakes, the federal party has wisely decided to showcase the candidates' final speeches on April 6th, with all voting taking place after that date with final results announced on April 14th. The exciting drama of a convention will be lost, but the result will include all Liberals across the country, not an elite of elected delegates and party bigwigs.

While I supported Pupatello, I am now quite happy to fully support Wynne's leadership. Her performance leading up to and since the convention has been stellar and she has won me over. I'll be fighting to ensure she gets re-elected with a majority.

But as a democrat, I'll also be fighting to make sure Ontario Liberals open up their leadership process to allow all party members to have a say in the final result.

For me, delegated leadership conventions make politics more about the insiders and less about the people.

The public hopes and expects political parties to run themselves in open, transparent and fair ways.

It's unfortunate the Ontario Liberals failed to modernize their leadership process in recent years.

I suspect that was largely due to Dalton McGuinty's preference for the system which allowed him to move from fourth place to first with the help of fellow candidates.

The big question now will be if Kathleen Wynne, who was once shunned by party elites and generally is known for her love of fair process, but also benefited from the current system to win power, agrees to keep the status quo for next time, or chooses instead to bring her party into the 21st century.

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