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A note on selecting leaders

Kent Verge
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Kent Verge looks ahead to the upcoming Conservative leadership race – and hopes the party takes a lesson from France.

Andrew Scheer has stepped down as leader of the Conservatives. Kudos to him for reading the writing on the wall and accepting that the party needs him to be the fall guy for the last campaign. Whether another leader could have beaten Justin Trudeau is unknowable; what is known is that Scheer didn’t, so go he must.

The next step for the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) is to select a new leader. I’m sure there are plenty of qualified candidates who will step forward in the coming weeks –  both the usual suspects from within the party and outsiders. I look forward to learning their platforms and evaluating their worth as potential leaders.

What I don’t look forward to is a repeat of the wretched process Canadians use to select political party leaders. This isn’t only a CPC problem; most political parties in Canada use a ranked ballot to pick their leaders. Ranked ballot contests require different strategies to win than general elections, which use the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system.

To win under FPTP, a candidate needs to find a way to connect with voters directly as the first, best choice. This system rewards making bold choices and highlighting a strong vision that resonates with voters. FPTP campaigns are characterized by contrast and stark choices.

Ranked ballots, on the other hand, reward bland and inoffensive positions. Winning a deep ranked ballot in the absence of a clear front-runner means working hard to be voters’ 3rd, 4th or 5th choice.

That means running a “nice” campaign that doesn’t make hard choices or set up stark contrasts. The deeper the field, the greater the incentive to stay away from controversial positions and occupy the “mushy middle” in policy debates.

In a general election, most voters have long decided how they are voting before the writ is dropped; only 10 to 15% of votes are really up for grabs. Often the election boils down to a ballot box question that appears to be driving those undecided voters. Successful campaigns spend most of their time and effort on encouraging known supporters to actually vote and trying to sway undecideds.

In a leadership race, it’s the other way around. Only a minority of minds have been made up before the contest starts. Moreover, most voters already largely agree on a wide swath of issues; they wouldn’t have joined the same party otherwise. There’s usually no single ballot-box question in a leadership race. Instead, lots of voters adopt litmus tests; they won’t support a candidate who offends a core belief. Candidates who skip over debating that belief, or appear to be ambivalent, won’t be the first choice…but they also won’t be the last. In a deep contest, that’s a path to victory.

Canada needs a CPC with a strong vision, clearly articulated by a passionate advocate. It needs a leader who will proudly outline values, principles and a vision for the future. While there’s a large segment of the population who will never vote Conservative, a whole lot more will sign on to a solid vision, backed by conviction and inspired leadership.

That means changing the process to select a leader so that the winning strategy isn’t offending the fewest and hoping for down-ballot success. How?

Personally, I’d love a return to the old-school drama of a delegated convention. Floor-crossings, instant alliances and momentum visibly shifting in real time. This system has worked for political parties for decades, but may no longer be practical today in a country as big as Canada.

Another option is online voting in rounds – a virtual delegated convention. There are reasonable concerns about logistics and security with this method, these can be easily surmounted in this day and age.

Look at France, where they use a two-round election for their president. Let’s adopt a version of that system: an initial deep ballot with all comers; if no one gains a majority on that ballot, a run-off with the top three or four candidates a couple of weeks later.

To get past the first round, candidates would have to create emotional connections to voters. To get past the second, they’d have to defend their positions in open combat.

No way the party ends up with bland that way.

Kent Verge is the founder and principal at Verge Consulting, focused on government affairs and stakeholder relations. Feedback welcomed to kent.verge@gmail.com.

SWIM ON:

  • You’ve seen Kent Verge on these pages before – here, he sits down with Rick Cluff to break down the then-just-concluded referendum on electoral reform.
  • Whoever emerges as the new Conservative leader, Michael Taube says they face a steep climb.
  • George Affleck and Jody Vance weighed in on Andrew Scheer’s resignation – and much more – in UnSpun 49.
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