How do we fix our parliamentary problem? Just look down under.

Australian backbenchers can vote out their party leader

How do we fix our parliamentary problem? Just look down under.

Scott Barbour/Getty Images

You can make a long list of things that Canada and Australia have in common. Both countries share colonial histories and federal systems. Both are small, open economies heavily dependent on trade and resource extraction. Our demographics are similar, and our geography, too, in that we both have huge tracts of untamed wilderness that play a central role in our national mythologies. We both share a passion for sports the rest of the world considers obscure, viz. curling and Australian-rules footy. The list goes on.

And yet there’s one way in which we diverge sharply from our Antipodean cousin: picking political leaders.

Last week, Australians found themselves with a new prime minister, despite the lack of an election or leadership convention. Kevin Rudd, who’d previously won the 2007 federal election as leader of the Australian Labor Party, returned to the top spot after Julia Gillard was ousted as party leader. Gillard had become prime minister in June 2010 when Rudd was similarly tossed.

Such a swift change in the top job is possible, because leaders of Australian political parties are not chosen by party members, as is the case in Canada, but by the elected members of their caucus. And Aussie MPs can hold a leadership vote whenever they want. Under such a system, even sitting prime ministers such as Gillard (and Rudd before her) can be fired by their backbench.

The most recent swing of the revolving door at Canberra’s Parliament House is the result of calculations by Labor MPs that Gillard had become unelectable due to her lack of public appeal. With an election possible at any time in a precarious minority situation, the government caucus figured their odds were better with the populist Rudd back at the helm. Gillard had previously fought off a challenge from Rudd’s supporters in February 2012.

From the perspective of the Canadian party system, which emphasizes stability and security for its leaders, the Australian model seems downright medieval, encouraging as it does political backstabbing, backroom plotting and constant uncertainty. All this is true. The Rudd-Gillard-Rudd affair is not the first of its kind in Australian politics. And yet there are also some important strengths to the Australian system, not least of which is that it improves parliamentary democracy.

Putting leadership decisions in the hands of an elected caucus inevitably strengthens the position of backbenchers by giving them real clout. This is significant for Canada, since the biggest problem with our current system is the dramatic centralization of political power in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). Individual MPs have become entirely emasculated.

Consider Brent Rathgeber, the Alberta MP who recently resigned from the Conservative caucus after the PMO demanded substantial changes to his proposed “sunshine law.” He had no other way of expressing his displeasure. Then there’s the Prime Minister’s handling of the Senate expenses scandal. In May, at the peak of the outcry over the alleged wrongdoings, some of which involved his own office and most of which involved senators he personally appointed, Harper claimed to be “very upset” by the issue and then promptly left on a South American tour.

Putting leadership-review abilities in the hands of backbenchers would dramatically alter the Canadian power dynamic. Backbench priorities would suddenly have real weight. And rather than the PM simply skipping town, it would have been possible under the Australian system for MPs to demand a more fulsome and immediate answer from their leader. The Prime Minister would suddenly be accountable to his caucus. As things stand now, power goes only one way: from the PMO down.

And without belittling the decisions of party members, the Byzantine machinations of traditional Canadian leadership conventions have been known to produce some strange results. Would a vote of election-minded federal Liberal MPs, for instance, have installed Stéphane Dion and his Green Plan at the head of their party in 2006?

On close consideration, both the Canadian and Australian methods provide their own particular advantages. Canada is better off for avoiding rampant outbreaks of Australian-style ambition. On the other hand, there’s a real benefit to weakening the unbridled power of the PMO. Perhaps a compromise can be found?

Recent British innovations that give both elected officials and party membership a say in leadership decisions are worth a look. The Conservative Party there, for example, permits party members at large to vote on leadership contests, but the convention itself is triggered by a caucus vote. In this way, individual MPs hold a lever that keeps the prime minister attentive while the membership makes the ultimate decision. Perhaps we could consider this system, combining as it does the best of two different leadership selection methods, the duck-billed platypus of party politics.

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