Leadership selection a defining political moment

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TODAY, the mail-in ballot count is expected to reveal that either Heather Stefanson or Shelly Glover will become the new leader of the Progressive Conservative (PC) Party. Shortly thereafter, the winner is to be sworn in by the lieutenant governor as Manitoba’s first female premier.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/10/2021 (336 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

TODAY, the mail-in ballot count is expected to reveal that either Heather Stefanson or Shelly Glover will become the new leader of the Progressive Conservative (PC) Party. Shortly thereafter, the winner is to be sworn in by the lieutenant governor as Manitoba’s first female premier.

These events reveal how political parties are not just campaign vehicles, they are also central to the processes of cabinet-parliamentary government.

Political parties are mainly seen as private associations of like-minded people with a shared goal of winning and retaining power so they can implement their policy agendas. But parties are also public institutions that perform such crucial democratic functions as the generation of policy ideas, leadership selection, candidate recruitment, fundraising and performing the roles of government and opposition within our cabinet-parliamentary system.

Until recently, leadership contests were controlled exclusively by the parties. This began to change when leaders became central to elections and the governing process. Also, money came to play a much bigger role in politics, leading to concerns about unfair competition and potential corruption.

Rules on political financing were initially applied to election spending, but eventually leadership contests were also partially covered by laws enforced by election agencies.

The public purpose of leadership contests is most obvious when the leader of the governing party is being replaced, because the winner of a such contest can step right into the job of premier without a legal requirement that a general election be held.

New leadership in the premier’s office may lead to new policy priorities, and shifts in governing styles that improve the party image and increase voter support. This is the hope of the PCs, who scored two sizeable victories under Pallister but were dragged down in the polls by his budgetary restraint policies that contributed to pandemic tragedies, numerous highly contentious bills, and his highly combative leadership style that turned off many voters.

Leadership contests are not always positive for the governing party. They can be nasty and divisive events, with fights over policy, leadership styles and/or personality clashes. An example is the 2014 failed attempt by five cabinet ministers to remove NDP premier Greg Selinger. The open revolt split the party and contributed to a severe political setback at the next election.

The current contest has been woefully lacking in policy debates. Having served in several ministerial roles under Pallister, and with the backing of most members of cabinet and caucus, Heather Stefanson has mostly avoided policy announcements proposing new policy directions. Her opponent, Shelly Glover, has also made few policy pronouncements, limiting her public comments largely to criticism of Pallister’s leadership style.

The party rules for leadership contests can become a source of conflict as contestants maneuver to gain an advantage. After Aug. 10, when Pallister announced his intention to resign, the party established a steering committee to oversee the contest.

The committee determined that entrants to the race would have until Sept. 25 to register. Eligibility criteria included a $25,000 entrance fee, a requirement for 50 nomination signatures from current members, and the sale or renewal of 1,000 party memberships. The tight timelines and the high thresholds to entry favoured an establishment candidate such as Stefanson.

Voting for the PC leader is based on the one-member/one-vote (OMOV) model, which is meant to allow for more democracy within parties. However. OMOV allows candidates with extreme views and engaging personalities, and without much experience, to compete based on selling new memberships.

An example is Ken Lee, a longtime party insider who entered the contest, sold more memberships than all other candidates combined, and then was declared ineligible, apparently because the steering committee found his views on sensitive issues, such as mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations, too extreme. It is unclear whether Lee supporters were offered a refund once their preferred candidate was dropped from the contest.

Leadership contests are partially regulated by the Election Financing Act (EFA), which is intended to ensure legality and fairness. The act limits individual contributions to one or more candidates to $3,000. The identity of donors contributing over $250 is made public. Audits of contributions and expenses must be filed with Elections Manitoba.

However, there is no legislated limit on candidate spending, and in the current contest the PC party has not set a ceiling. Money has not been a problem for the Stefanson campaign, which has advertised extensively on television and radio and in full-page newspaper ads.

A leadership change in a governing party represents an opportunity to reset its agenda and to refurbish its brand image. If, as seems likely, Stefanson becomes leader and premier, opposition parties will do their utmost to publicize her record of stalwart public support for all the divisive bills and actions of the departed premier.

Paul G. Thomas is professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Manitoba.

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