Heroin for Political Junkies

6 Feb

For raw political spectacle, nothing beats a good old-fashioned brokered leadership convention. Here in Canada, it is the traditional way our political parties have selected their leaders.

Delegates come from across the country to a hockey arena or convention centre in a major city and, over a couple of days of speechifying and balloting and convincing and cajoling and backrooming, they figure out who will be the next leader of their party. Often enough, the final result is unpredictable and the process to achieve that result is drama-laden.

In 24 hours and four ballots, Stéphane Dion climbed from fourth place to first and became the unexpected leader of the Liberal Party at their last convention 14 months back (a convention I attended as a journalist and blogger.) In 1976, Joe Clark rode a similar path to victory as leader of the Progressive Conservative Party. And then there was the famous written agreement that ended the very last convention of the PC Party in 2003 and made Peter MacKay the very last leader of that party – a job he held onto long enough to break the agreement and dissolve the party.

A dramatic brokered political convention picked Canada’s longest-serving post-War Prime Minister. Another one picked Canada’s first-ever female Prime Minister. And another one set off the feud that would dominate Liberal Party politics for 15 years.

Whether these conventions pick the best leader, or are sufficiently democratic, are open questions… and beside the point, which is – again – that they are like heroin for political junkies.

In recent years, some political parties have opted for different methods of picking leaders. The current governing party, for instance, used a byzantine system of point allocations and preferential ballots to elect Stephen Harper as leader in 2004. He won on the first ballot, the results of which were announced at a glorified press conference.


American politics play out on a bigger stage than those of Canada. The leadership conventions of the two major U.S. parties are big, glitzy, expensive affairs, with massive media coverage. But in modern times, they are also scripted events with predetermined outcomes. Adlai Stevenson won the last brokered convention in the U.S. more than half a century ago.

The convention results are predetermined because it usually doesn’t take too long into the winter primary season for the major party front-runners to be sorted out and guaranteed first-ballot victories months before the summer conventions begin.

This year, of course, offers the best chance in a long time for a brokered convention on the Democratic side. Or at least a more interesting one.

Most likely, the Democratic Party nominee will get sorted out before it comes to that, but in a way the drawn-out, uncertain, exciting primary season itself has served as an extended brokered convention, offering thrill-a-minute jolts to political junkies – no jolt bigger than last night‘s Extra Super Duper Tuesday fight-to-a-draw.

Warning: If you are a Canadian political junkie, standing too close to the U.S. border may give you a contact high.

(Programming Note: I am co-producing an hour long televised discussion on Super Tuesday and the American Presidential race, which will air tonight and be available for online viewing here within a day or two )


4 Responses to “Heroin for Political Junkies”

  1. Bob LeDrew February 7, 2008 at 7:53 am #

    One of my great regrets from my five years in the journalism trade was never covering a political convention. I can still remember watching the ’89 NDP convention, where Simon de Jong forgot he was wired up by the CBC and ended up negotiating a deal in a back room somewhere with Dave Barrett.

    Wonderful political drama.

  2. Alan Echenberg February 7, 2008 at 1:55 pm #

    There was a similar story involving Dwight Duncan – now Ontario’s finance minister – who was a candidate for provincial Liberal leader at that party’s 1996 convention. Duncan agreed to be miked up for a CPAC documentary on the convention, which went all night before Dalton McGuinty won it on the fifth ballot.

    After Duncan got knocked out of contention, he crossed over to support Gerard Kennedy, and apparently forgot about the mike he was wearing. When McGuinty defeated Kennedy to take the leadership, CPAC caught a shocked Duncan on camera saying “We’re f*cked”.

    It would seem as if McGuinty and Duncan have made up since then. But you don’t get fun moments like that with mail-in preferential ballots.

  3. J K Gailbraith February 8, 2008 at 4:49 pm #

    I agree that the American race is very interesting and that is for three reasons. One and two are Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama. Three is that the process has now finally become more democratic by making the process more democratic by getting rid of the winner take all as Roger Simon notes in the link you provided. Why has it taken so long for a more democratic process to take place? Why haven’t the Republicans done the same thing. While the American process seems more exciting there are many drawbacks. Both Clinton and Obama have already raised over $100 million each to just try and win their own party’s nomination let alone how much the eventual winner will spend battling John McCain. Secondly, while the high for political junkies like you and me may be wonderful, this long drawn out process tires the average voter out by the first of March. Having tired out voters by March is not a good thing for democracy and may be one of the reasons voter turnout continues to decline in presidential elections. There just might be too much money and too much “democracy” for the average voter to be excited about or stay interested in for a 12 month period. Less is more!

  4. J K Gailbraith February 10, 2008 at 3:10 pm #

    There was an excellent analysis of the American Primary system in the February 9, 2008 edition of the Globe and Mail by David Shribman, a Pulitzer Prize winner from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. His analysis should given anyone who thinks the process is really better something to think about. Here is the link to that article:

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