Perhaps there is more to democracy than a paramount Leader

One of the issues that is developing in the Alberta provincial election campaign is about the role of individual M.L.A.s, and the Party Leader. The issue emerges most clearly with media reports about the P.C. Party, but we can see similar evidence from Wild Rose, Liberals, and N.D.s

Alison Redford, Leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta, said last week that the outgoing Party caucus (including many who are up for re-election) had made a mistake in its handling of M.L.A. pay for the so-called “no-meet committee”, and she announced that all Tory M.L.A.s would return all the pay (since the committee last met) or be excluded from the Tory caucus. Media coverage and public conversation has focused on whether Ms. Redford should have admitted the mistake and changed tack, as she did, or should have done it sooner. Was the admission/correction a smart move? Would it have been brilliant if done two weeks earlier?

For me, the problem with this focus is that it further entrenches the idea of the “paramount Leader”, it further marginalizes collaborative decision-making – in caucus – and it excuses individual members of the Tory caucus from responsibility for fixing what was broken.

In a strong democracy, I don’t think Ms. Redford would have presumed to impose the Leader’s will on caucus: I think she would have canvassed the caucus, made the argument that the public expected a different outcome, and persuaded the caucus – perhaps with the help of some caucus members themselves — that they should collectively admit the mistake, correct it as best they could, and sanction anyone who broke from the consensus.

As it is, we may never know if any member of the caucus agreed with her. Perhaps no member of caucus has his/her own moral compass; perhaps they are all relying on the Leader’s moral compass. Perhaps every member of caucus is simply too cowed by the authority of the Leader to stand up and be counted. Perhaps we can expect a Tory caucus to follow the lead of the Leader on every issue. Perhaps Albertans don’t care about the moral compass, or strength of character of individual M.L.A.s. Perhaps we don’t need M.L.A.s, but only a Party Leader.

Or perhaps many (most, all?) members of the Tory caucus agreed with Ms. Redford’s expressed position. It would have been great to see – or hear – a chorus of them agreeing with her position, and saying they had come to the same realization at about the same time.

In the absence of such a chorus, Albertans may want candidates to make a clear public statement – before election day — expressing agreement or disagreement with Ms. Redford’s solution, and a commitment to making it happen after the election.

This issue – I’ll call it the paramount Leader problem – arose for me just after Ms. Redford was elected Leader of the Tory Party. As a candidate, she had made a commitment that, if elected Leader, she would restore approximately $100 Million of funding for K – 12 education in Alberta. I’m a former Minister of Education who believes that education has been seriously underfunded since 1994. I applauded the idea of restoring $100M of funding. And the money was restored. The problem is, it wasn’t restored because caucus had seen the error of its ways. It wasn’t restored at the end of a heartfelt debate. It wasn’t restored because a majority of the government caucus voted in favour of the restoration.

The problem, for me, is that I believe we are wrong to entrust such decisions to one person. The wrong doesn’t haunt us when we approve of the direct outcome. (I completely approved of the $100M for k-12 education in the example cited.) But what do I say when the paramount Leader unilaterally makes a decision I disagree with profoundly? How can I oppose unilateralism on one issue, when yesterday I approved of it on another issue?

In the same vein, I wonder why we need individual M.L.A.s if one person can make a unilateral decision without reference to M.L.A.s. Why are we going to vote for 87 M.L.A.s on election day if we only need – and value – one decision-maker? Personally, I prefer the wisdom of crowds: I prefer strong democracy.

Do we want to maintain the party culture built on the Paramount Leader and the subservient caucus? Do we want to maintain the party culture in which one person’s moral compass is sufficient for everyone? Do we want to maintain a party culture in which no one else needs to have a moral compass because everyone can rely on the Leader’s?

In summary, I don’t believe that the end justifies the means. Democracy depends upon many people contributing to, contesting about, and collaborating over public policy issues and questions of right and wrong. We are not well served – even when we like the decision — by the hoary political culture that makes a paramount Leader the focus, and belittles the role of M.L.A.s. We are not well served when the decision of one Leader absolves every other politician from their responsibility for not having seen the wrongness of what they were doing.

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