Leadership selection changes should be at top of provincial Tories’ to-do list
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Candice Bergen’s resignation Wednesday as the Conservative MP for Portage-Lisgar was a friendly reminder to Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative party that it may want to change its leadership election rules before the end of the year.
Bergen, 58, a Member of Parliament of 14 years who served as interim leader of the Conservative Party of Canada last year, has not revealed her plans post-federal politics. In 2021, after former Tory premier Brian Pallister announced his resignation, Bergen — a fierce opponent of vaccine mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic and a supporter of the Ottawa “freedom convoy” — was thought to be interested in replacing him as the leader of the provincial PCs.
She wasn’t, or at least she didn’t express an interest at the time. Perhaps the timing wasn’t right, especially under a rushed leadership process that didn’t give candidates much time to organize.
Whatever the case, there is a possibility that Bergen — once photographed wearing a Donald Trump “Make America Great Again” hat — has her eye on the position. If not her, someone of similar political ilk may take a crack at it. The job could be available as early as Oct. 3, the date of a scheduled provincial election, when the embattled party will likely return to the opposition benches. Premier Heather Stefanson may step down as Tory leader that evening, or shortly thereafter.
That means the party has to prepare for another leadership race. The last one, in 2021, was no picnic under the party’s one-member, one-vote system, which allows almost anybody — including candidates with extreme views or questionable ethics — to hijack a party by selling bucketloads of memberships.
The PC party replaced its delegate system in the early 2000s in an effort to create a more “grassroots” approach to leadership races, and to sign up more members. So far, it’s been a disaster. It allowed former Conservative MP Shelly Glover to nearly win the race in 2021 by exploiting anti-vaccine and anti-public health measure sentiment (and by promoting a conspiracy theory that COVID-19 treatments were being suppressed). She won 49 per cent of the vote compared with Stefanson’s 51 per cent.
Many of the people Glover signed up likely had nothing to do with the party in the past. Despite that, their vote had the same weight as dedicated party members who have a long-term stake in it, including current and former MLAs, party executives and volunteers who have devoted years to the organization.
Under current rules, where candidates can sign up new members up to 30 days before a leadership convention, the party could see a repeat of that, under Bergen or someone else. No doubt Bergen, a strong supporter of Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre and his U.S. Republican-style, populist approach to politics, could draw from the same rural base as Glover. A Bergen victory would be a losing strategy for a provincial party that requires the support of moderate voters in Winnipeg to form government.
The provincial Tories have a few options to reform their leadership rules. It’s unlikely they would return to a pure delegate system, where constituency associations send representatives to a leadership convention to vote. That has its downsides, too.
The most obvious solution is to extend the minimum voter eligibility period to six months or a year to avoid last-minute membership sign-ups. Greater weight could also be placed on the votes of some party members, such as MLAs and constituency association presidents.
There was a time in Canadian politics when elected members of caucuses chose (and sometimes dismissed) their leaders. In many ways, it wasn’t a bad system. It ensured those with a long-term stake in the party chose their leader, who would ultimately face voters in a general election. No one is returning to that approach. But political parties should have some way of ensuring leaders reflect the values and beliefs of their organization. They need a means to insulate themselves from hostile takeovers by rogue candidates.
The PC party is currently reviewing its leadership process. It’s unclear what will come of that exercise. However, it has the opportunity to propose changes at its next annual general meeting, expected in the spring. It would be well advised not to get caught with its pants down, as it did in 2021.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.