04 January 2011

Leadership by fiat

The Telegram editorial last Friday took issue with the upcoming coronation of Kathy Dunderdale as leader of the provincial Conservatives and, by default, the Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Check it out. 

You won’t be disappointed, right down to what appears to be the date code buried the editorial’s URL – 1969-12-31.

December 31, 1969.

There is, however, one small issue that deserves some comment:

There is an unwritten code of leadership campaigns in governing parties: a departing premier will seek a capable senior caretaker who is not interested in the leadership, so that no advantage will be conferred on the person holding the office in the upcoming leadership race.

Since 1949, there’s only been one case in which an incumbent Premier resigned and left behind a caretaker leader in his place.

Brian Tobin high-tailed it back to federal politics in October 2000.  he left with such speed that the Liberals had no choice but get someone in the job while they organized a party leadership fight.

In 1978-79, Frank Moores stayed in the job until his party found a successor.  As it turned out, that was Brian Peckford.  In 1988-89, Peckford did the same thing.  The Conservatives turned up Tom Rideout.

On December 28, 1995 – 15 years ago last month – Clyde Wells announced he’d be leaving politics.  He’d stay on only as long as it took the party to sort out the leadership.  By the end of January, Wells handed over the reins to Brian Tobin.

And that’s it.

Look across the country and you’ll see the same pattern.  Go back into the pre-Confederation history of this place and you’ll find Premier handing off to replacement, not to some sort of stand-in.

There’s another part to this, as well.  The outgoing leader left it to his or her party to figure out who would replace him. And in each instance, the party leadership did their job.  

In some respects it shouldn’t surprise anyone that a guy who wanted to abolish free speech in the province’s legislature took it upon himself to anoint his replacement. 

Through all of this, there is a thread that runs very deep.  It is the thread the Telegram’s editors found:  it’s the thread of democracy, of the fundamental belief that ordinary people pick who gets to lead. Ordinary members of political parties should get to pick the leader from choices at a contest.

And then later on, in a general election, ordinary voters who may not belong to that political party get to make a choice about who runs the whole place.

There’s more to this than just a nod to some mouldering and out-dated idea:  a party leadership contest helps to sort out the poseurs from the people with the gravitas to do the job of representing the entire province and all its people as the head of government.

Kathy Dunderdale’s coronation continues a tradition alright, the sad tradition begun in 2003 that undermines the province’s democratic institutions.

- srbp -