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Letter: Political parties need clear rules for interim leaders

Progressive Conservative Leader Paul Davis.
Progressive Conservative Leader Paul Davis.

Last weekend, the Progressive Conservative Party of Newfoundland and Labrador held its annual convention, and showed some affection for how its federal cousin elects leaders ... to a degree. Members voted to adopt a ranked ballot system like that used to elect federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer just two weeks earlier.

What the N.L. PCs did not do, however, is adopt another process used by the federal Conservatives — that of making interim leaders ineligible to run for the party leadership. A committee had been working on such a rule, but no measures were brought forward for a vote.

This matters as the PCs prepare for 2019 with precisely that situation shaping up. Paul Davis, who led the party through the 2015 election, told media in early 2016 that he intended to remain leader for 2019. But Davis is now essentially an interim leader because he then proceeded to resign rather than face a leadership review vote of the party’s members that same year.

Davis remains until a new leader is chosen, but is also currently permitted to be a leadership candidate again. As leader, he also holds various positions within the party’s governing structure. For example, Davis is a member (one of many, granted) on executive council, which discouraged proceeding with constitutional rules for interim leaders this past spring. The obvious problem is that without rules making him ineligible to also seek the leadership again, Davis may be making decisions for his own benefit rather than for the party’s.

Should Davis decide to run, he would be attempting to construct the best circumstances for his own leadership campaign, and aiming to maintain his then-stated intention to be PC leader in 2019.

In the meantime, Davis gets the best campaigning position possible. He gets to be spokesman for the party. He determines the positions for other caucus members — allowing him to both curry favour with MHAs, and diminish the roles of other potential candidates. He has communications staff working to promote him. He gets media coverage and name recognition, and he gets to decide if and when he’ll step aside from all those benefits.

The problem with all this, again, is that as a leader who no longer holds the support of the membership, Davis may well make decisions to suit his own interests rather than his party’s. This is a key reason that other political parties adopt specific rules to avoid this — it is not about any single person or leader, it is simply the best practice for any party to do so.

Of course, other party leaders in N.L. have done this as well. Both Kathy Dunderdale and Dwight Ball could not have gone on to be their respective party’s leader under a rule making interim leaders ineligible to seek the permanent leadership. This would have been a good thing, in that both would have had to decide to pursue one or the other, not both. In each case, these leaders were able to use the benefits of the interim position to set up their own ability to win elected leadership.

Had either of them simply started from a fair position, as all other potential candidates must, it remains an open question as to whether the outcomes would have unfolded as they did. The competition that resulted may well have differed.

Which brings us back to Davis. As it stands, he’s simply following the rules that exist, like Ball and Dunderdale before him. He may succeed or fail if he pursues his earlier pledge to be leader in 2019, but the fact remains that the party is not well served by having a leader who has not stated unequivocally that he will remain out of the leadership race in order to focus solely on the party’s interests.

If I were a member of the PC party, I would strongly urge Davis to step down or confirm he will not seek the leadership. I would also make it known to the party’s executive that a mature political party requires rules regarding this matter, and they should make implementing such rules a top priority.

 

Kelly Blidook
Associate professor of political science
Memorial University of Newfoundland
St. John’s
Twitter: @kblidook

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