Two weeks ago, delegates to the P.C. Convention and those listening in, via radio and television, got to experience their first delegated leadership convention in 20 years. Some had previously participated in one or more. They likely took for granted Steve Kent’s move to Paul Davis following the first ballot results. Not so the newbies who seemed quite surprised by the drama that unfolded. For them, it seemed, shifting loyalties produced a range of emotions.
Welcome to the delegated convention!
Imagine there were five or six contenders or more; think the surprise, the sense of excitement, disappointment, as hopes are dashed and promises once assured are replaced with those to higher placed and more likely successful contenders. Think of the sense of fear when the votes of a candidate who is dropped are up for grabs. Will candidate X ‘release’ his delegates? Will he deliver his (sic) delegates to another contender, as did Steve Kent asked his supporters? How many will follow? (In case you were wondering, Kent’s arrival on the platform to thank his delegates and encourage their support of Davis constituted a breakdown in the protocol of Convention management.)
As the day wears on you want it all to be over; but you also want your candidate to win. After weeks of meetings, nights that go into days, hours of being lobbied by friends and complete strangers, after waving placards, and saying the most ridiculous things you have ever said in your whole life, the count is announced….followed by the joy of victory or, in as is often the case, the disappointment of what you think is a lost opportunity. Even if the Chief Returning Officer has screwed up, it’s an experience that will be remembered. It is not merely an adrenalin rush for political junkies; it is an important political event, a life experience.
How could you possibly not love a delegated convention!
But the last Tory Convention may be the end of an era.
The Liberal Party has embraced the direct vote concept which is easily facilitated by new technology. The event that gave rise to Dwight Ball’s election was deemed a success having attracted over 20,000 voters.
The ‘truncated’ delegated process that featured Frank Coleman and Bill Barry captured little attention and few attendees to district selection meetings.
After Bill Barry pulled out of the race and Frank Coleman walked away, I suggested in a Post that the P.C. Party might want to hold the Convention anyway, as an AGM, and seek the approval necessary for a direct vote.
Who can argue with ideas that promote and accommodate inclusiveness? The Party might actually make contact with the very people from whom it is disconnected; though the current problems of the Party speak less to process than to leadership.
I had come to the conclusion that social changes had made such political meetings passe, that, if people wanted to embrace participatory democracy via the internet, they ought to be accommodated. Who would not be concerned about the behaviour of an overbearing Danny Williams and the corruption of a process in which the Caucus played a lead role?
There is nothing wrong with sober second thought and, accordingly, I would make two observations:
1. Recent reports of Liberal candidate nomination meetings which have attracted crowds, in excess of 2000 (Port de Grave) suggest poor attendance at Tory delegate selection meetings may relate entirely to the Party’s poor current standings and for no other reason. When the Tory tide returns, if it is not permanently injured by the unwise sanction of Muskrat Falls, such meetings, again, will be well attended. At 24% in the Polls, the figure is clear evidence the public is in no mood to be associated with the Tories right now.
2. Delegated Conventions, like many other practices that may seem arcane and old-fashioned, serve a specific function beyond facilitating the election of a leader; one who must have the support of a majority of delegates. Arguably, they allow the better talents to be exposed. Real people get close to the real candidates. That is important. Often delegates already have some familiarity with the candidates on a personal level. The interaction, as well as the experiences shared with fellow delegates, becomes an integral part of the assessment. In short, Delegated Conventions provide opportunities to look beneath the ‘gloss’ of the contenders; one not available to the larger body politic. That evaluation may be far more challenging via Twitter, Facebook or even T.V. and radio. If a candidate communicates well, a key requirement to his future success, it is still no guarantee that he possesses energy, intellect, attitude or policy skills.
Alternatively, no one can say that Dwight Ball won the Liberal Leadership because he is imbued with ‘slick’. Fears that future Premiers will all look like the “Man from Glad”, if Delegated Conventions disappear, are likely unwarranted.
Of course, winners of delegated conventions do more than impress a few hundred delegates up close. Don’t forget the campaign teams, solid organization, marketing, money and the pre-vote speeches. I cannot help but think that John Ottenheimer’s poorly crafted final address to the delegates possibly robbed him of the two votes he needed to go over the top. But he is not the first to have forgotten the importance of making a good last impression.
The direct vote process will still provide an opportunity for candidate appraisal but it won't be up close and the process will be far more scripted than than what is often evident on a convention floor. Will we be left only ask, then, why it took the computer 20 minutes to process the delegates’ second or third choices which ought to have taken a nanosecond.
Of course, no system will work well if it has been robbed of integrity.
Democracy is an incredible process and not just because it is often unpredictable and messy. Allowed to work, it can accommodate a range of voting systems that are effective, efficient; some are downright exhilarating.
While never forgetting that its purpose is to elect a viable leader, we will miss the wheeling and dealing, the switching of loyalties, the surprises, the heartache and the other emotions created by the drama.