The resignation of Premier Alison Redford last Wednesday prompted Calgary's mayor, Naheed Nenshi, to unleash a national news-grabbing tirade in which he derided the failure of partisan politics. "How did we end up in a place where party and caucus, a bunch of unelected people, a bunch of people who only meet behind closed doors, make decisions about the future of this province? It's a system that's not working," he said.
With due respect to our duly elected mayor, he is mistaken regarding the efficacy of our democratic system in at least three ways.
First, the mayor's comment implies that somehow the premier has a direct personal mandate from the voters and that the party and caucus are inappropriately making closed-door decisions regarding the province's future. He surely doesn't need a civics lesson to remind him that our system is one where voters in ridings elect legislators to a parliament and the executive responsibilities of government fall to the leader of the party that can maintain the confidence of the legislature. We elect mayors directly; we do not elect premiers. And so, not only is the involvement of the party valid but, indeed, it is at the heart of our Westminster system of government.
Second, not only is there a structural role for parties and caucuses but there is also a functional role. Members finding themselves on the Opposition side of the legislature have the responsibility to make themselves ready as an alternative government should the government fall. It's not opposition for the sake of opposition but rather for the sake of presenting alternatives. But backbench members of the government caucus also have a role. They keep the government accountable by ensuring it remains true to the values and commitments made to the electorate. The role of party members, whether they serve in executive capacities or simply support the organization and its work, is vital as well. Indeed, their continued engagement as citizens first is what makes the Westminster model democratically possible. In that model, the government and opposition caucuses and parties provide countervailing gravitational pulls, the theory being that by being pressured from both sides, the government of the day will navigate a balanced middle road.
Which, thirdly, points out that the role of the premier in a Westminster model is not one of celebrity leadership. It's wonderful that Mayor Nenshi was inspired by Premier Redford's phone call on election night and the dreams and aspirations that she had. Ideas and dreams matter in politics and we welcome political leaders who can inspire us through them. But it takes the skills of good governance, the relationships to build consensus, and pragmatic willingness to adapt to changing circumstances to see ideas translated into action. Good governance can never be about the achievement of personal dreams. The moment political leaders think it is about them, their dreams, or their legacies, it is they who are failing us.
On the other hand, the mayor is quite right about the uncivil tone and disrespectful tenor which characterizes political discourse. When political arguments are not dealt with based on their merits or demerits, but branded as glorious or toxic depending on our allegiance or opposition to a party colour, then it is the citizenry that is failing its leaders.
The events surrounding Premier Redford's resignation do point out many of the challenges that accompany our democratic system. Yes, removing someone from a position will always be a bruising process, as anyone who has had to fire an employee knows. And, like the process we witnessed over the past months, it rarely is handled perfectly. However, that doesn't negate the fundamental rightness of removing a leader who clearly lost the confidence of her caucus and the public at large. That isn't the failure of the system. It is its success.
Democracy requires work, on the part of both leaders and citizens, and it needs vibrant political institutions in order to succeed. By all means, let's learn from the process and be ready to have an informed discussion on what changes might improve it. But please, let it be something more than a political rant that pretends it is above politics.