In Praise of Delegated Conventions

Today, members of the Ontario PC Party meet to hear the voting results of their recent leadership election. Over 60,000 votes will be counted, and a new leader (and party members hope the next Premier) will be announced. One-member-One-vote. And yet, it makes me long for the days of the old-fashioned, delegated conventions where just a small number of the most devoted party enthusiasts would take on this momentous task.

First, props to the party volunteers who planned this entire process in just under two months, following the unexpected resignation in late January of Patrick Brown. No matter how many flaws people reported in this voting system, we have to applaud such a rapid undertaking of what is always a complicated and controversial event.

The leadership process has become more open and democratic. Save for technical glitches this time around, more people than ever before are taking part in the internal machinations of a political party’s biggest decision.

The Ontario PC Party was the first in Canada, I believe, to have a one-member-one-vote system, in 1990. Following their disastrous election defeat in 1985 (and two costly leadership conventions), the party embraced a more grassroots system, where 13,000 members voted in their local ridings, and the results were faxed to the party’s Toronto headquarters. Mike Harris won with 55% of the vote over the only other opponent, Dianne Cunningham (who went on to become a Cabinet Minister in Harris’ 1995 government).

grossman

Ontario PC leadership hopeful Larry Grossman strategizing in 1985

Gone are the days when a couple dozen of the most eager and keen party members would be selected by their local riding associations to attend a two-day convention (usually in Toronto) to hear numerous speeches, meet candidates, discuss party strategy with fellow members and vote on numerous ballots until one leadership candidate won the approval of the majority.

The last time the PC Party held a delegated convention in January 1985¹, it involved about 1,600 voting members. Few who were around then can forget the dramatic victory of Frank Miller, who beat three opponents who were all allied against him.

wynne-supporters

The Liberals 2013 leadership election is likely the last delegated convention we’ll ever see in Ontario.

Was there merit in this old, delegated process? Instead of having a large-scale, publicly-focused campaign, party leaders would be elected by the most stalwart participants. In fact, many of those delegates had to campaign themselves for the honour of being sent on behalf of their ridings to the leadership convention.

Instead of candidates making populist promises and campaigning to targeted, heavily polled demographic groups, leadership votes were based on personality, charisma and wit.

Instead of endless emails and phone calls from candidates to 100,000 members, candidates took the time to meet and have real conversations with several hundred party delegates.

Instead of thousands of “instant” members who will likely disappear after the leadership vote, the old delegated conventions involved long-time, committed and informed members who were often legends in their own right.

And nothing matched the hype and hoopla of a live, televised leadership convention. Similar to today’s reality TV shows, the unscripted, unpredictable chain of events that led to the election of a party leader were filled with suspense, laughter, vengeance and heartbreak.

Democracy, however, is something that is constantly being improved. It has adapted to new technology, such as online voting, and caters to today’s fascination with social media engagement and the hourly news cycle.

Would having a delegated leadership convention change the result? Likely not. We’d have the same four candidates meeting today to see the votes cast and counted. The same eventual winner would probably be elected. The only thing missing today are the backroom deals, nefarious negotiating between party bigwigs, hungover delegates, and the thrill of a small group of political connoisseurs selecting the next party leader, and perhaps the next Premier or Prime Minister.

It may not have been very democratic, but it sure made for good Saturday afternoon television.

Mike Chopowick – Toronto, March 10, 2018

  1. Yes, there was the November 1985 Ontario PC convention. Following Miller’s short-lived, 4-month term as Premier, Allan Grossman was elected leader by the same 1,600 members, though not as fondly remembered, as the Ontario PC’s had just taken their first steps into a decade of political wilderness.
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