City & Politics, Columns, Politics

The NDP’s leadership crisis

Greg Selinger is making history. And not just in Manitoba. The current crises of leadership and governance that have beset his administration are without precedent in Canada, or indeed in any modern Westminster-style parliament. How the beleaguered Premier has chosen to respond to the situation at 450 Broadway also speaks volumes about his political acumen (it is terrible) and his ability to lead the government (he cannot).

Despite repeated claims to the contrary, it is neither acceptable nor factual for NDP brass to insist the situation is run-of-the-mill party politics. Ministerial resignations are a rare thing, especially in Canada. Having five of a cabinet’s senior-most ministers resign en masse is rarer still. That they do so because they’ve lost confidence in their prime minister is unheard of. This alone ought to have compelled Selinger’s resignation. Ought to, but didn’t.

No, Greg Selinger soldiers on — or so he would have you to see it. The plucky premier weathering the storm! Rising to the occasion! Showing strength in the face of adversity! Pick your metaphor, they’re all delusions. Never before has a sitting prime minister held a leadership contest in which he or she themselves will compete. It isn’t just bizarre, it’s idiotic.

The questions Selinger’s contest raises are many and worrisome, especially since he has already made plain he won’t be resigning from his own cabinet post (as leadership aspirants were required to do in 2009) while running for the job he already occupies.

Will his Ministers be required to pledge their loyalty, or at least their neutrality in this contest? If not, how can our Cabinet Government possibly function? If so, doesn’t that only reinforce the weakness of his position?

For the New Democratic caucus, surely every vote his government brings forward in the legislature is a vote for or against his continued leadership. For those who no longer have confidence in Selinger, why wait until March of 2015 to register their displeasure? Party loyalty? That went out the window when Oswald, Swan, Struthers, Howard and Selby violated the principle of cabinet solidarity. Fear of losing confidence of the entire legislature, triggering the dissolution of the parliament and a snap election? Exactly.

Therein lies the rub. It isn’t just Greg Selinger who thinks he can have it both ways. His party also seem to be of the mind they can continue to claim the moral authority to govern whilst holding a contest that cuts to the very heart of their ability to do so: who should lead them. Which is why it is no longer acceptable to treat the imbroglio on Broadway as a party matter; it’s a parliamentary matter and, in the absence of an election, ought to be dealt with by that body.

Regrettably, while Canada has imported most of its parliamentary conventions from the Palace of Westminster, it neglected to adopt one of its most crucial: the ability for a party’s parliamentary caucus members to oust their parliamentary leader.

Some, no doubt those loyal to Selinger, would argue this would be “undemocratic” — that it isn’t for the caucus to determine who should lead the party; it should be the members. Except what’s democratic about party members determining who should be premier? Sure, during elections in a roundabout way voters get to make that determination, but what about in between them as in now during this extraordinary situation unfolding in Manitoba?

The problem, it would seem, is that we do not draw a distinction between party leader and parliamentary leader — even though, for the purposes of governing, the distinction is profound.

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Had the NDP caucus had the authority to remove Selinger from his post, the current crises would likely have been over by now. Either Selinger would’ve been removed and a new parliamentary leader installed, or he would’ve remained and any further questions about his fitness to lead put to rest until the general election. Instead, we are now faced with the prospect of four more months of further speculation, doubt, instability and drift until the NDP party holds its conference in March. Then what? The noblest thing Greg Selinger could have done — and should have done — is call an election now. Even more democratic than allowing his parliamentary caucus to determine his fate would have been to allow all Manitobans to do so.

It should be said: the NDP alone can’t be blamed for the way in which this situation is being managed. It’s not entirely implausible another party would have handled it any differently, especially if the alternative for that party was being relegated to the opposition benches (as it is for the New Democrats). No, it has been in every major party’s interests, in the provinces and in Ottawa, to exert maximum control over the functions of parliament.

What this situation further demonstrates, however, is that Canada’s major political parties can no longer be trusted to manage the affairs of the nation’s parliaments. Consider how the House of Commons is choosing to address serious allegations of sexual harassment between sitting MPs: behind closed doors. As with the Selinger fiasco, the situation in Ottawa isn’t an internal party matter; it’s a matter for us all.

Sadly, unless or until Canada’s political parties agree to divest themselves of at least some of their authority over their own affairs, the situation — be it in Manitoba, or in Ottawa — will not change. Perhaps voters in Manitoba and across Canada will take up the charge in 2015. They would be wise to do so.