John Courtney, a political scientist at the University of Saskatchewan, is the leading authority on national leadership conventions in Canada. Do Conventions Matter? (McGill/Queen's, 494 pages, $49.95 cloth, $22.95 paper) is the definitive treatment of the subject.
The question is timely because most Canadian political parties, both federal and provincial, seem bent on replacing the traditional leadership convention with something that looks and feels more democratic. The universal membership vote (UMV), in some form, looks likely to replace the TV spectacle of 3,500 or so delegates crammed into an Ottawa hockey arena, listening to speeches and then voting for candidates.
Since the Conservative and Liberal leadership conventions of 1983 and 1984, which chose Mulroney and Turner, there has been intense criticism of the method of delegate selection: Tiny Tories, Mission Members, constituency meetings swamped by Right-to-Lifers or members of one ethnic group or another. It has also been a process in which money talked. Aspiring candidates who could not raise $2 to 3 million were effectively prevented from running. And although the parties announced spending limits, they did little to police their own requirements. Kim Campbell resigned her position without ever releasing figures on how much her campaign had cost.
At the same time as the federal Conservatives were choosing a leader in convention who would lead them to oblivion, the Alberta Conservatives were choosing their new leader, Ralph Klein, by UMV. Since the name of the game is success, this coincidence seemed to be the final blow to delegate-chosen leadership.
However, Courtney cautions against swinging over too completely. Under UMV the long-serving cabinet minister counts for as much as the recently signed-up member, who may know little about politics and whose commitment to the party might not last much beyond the leadership election. Ideally, Courtney wants a combination of the two methods, so that individual members have their say, and the political establishment could also play an important role, especially in coalition-building at the convention itself. Besides, conventions make good television and few political parties want to abandon the media attention that a leadership convention brings.
Do Conventions Matter? is an important book for anyone with a serious interest in the structure of Canadian political parties.