How Political Parties Select Their Leaders

Canadian political party leaders play a large role in Canadian politics. These political leaders are the people who strategically lead their respective party either into power or into failure. The party’s image of either success or failure tends to be blamed on their leaders. This is because both the media and the public view the leaders of the political parties as the people who represent the party’s ideologies. However, we must consider what political process these leaders have followed in order to become the leader of their respective political party. The three main political parties[1] have chosen the convention method. At these conventions we see large crowds of people trying to influence delegates to vote in favour of their candidates. These delegates, we must consider, “to whom are they responsible?” (Courtney 4) and what are the advantages and the disadvantages of the political process the delegates were chosen by. This question can be answered when we investigate the advantages and the disadvantages of the processes that the Liberals, the Conservatives and the New Democractic Party, undertakes in order to hold a leadership convention.
The Liberal Party of Canada’s process of selecting a leader can be found in the Constitution of the Liberal Party. As stated in the party’s constitution, “in the even of the resignation or death of the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, the National Executive[2] shall call a national leadership convention to take place within twelve months from the date of such resignation or death” (“Constitution of the Party”). After this has occurred, the National Executive appoints an interim leader. The interim leader is appointed in order to ensure the day to day operations of the party are completed.
After this process has occurred, a resolution is “placed automatically on the agenda of the convention following a federal general election” (“Constitution of the Party”). Citing this fact, that means the interim leader must endure a federal election. This causes a problem because the public will notice that the party has only selected a temporary replacement until after the federal election. Therefore, some voters may be a little reluctant to vote for a party whose leadership comes into question just after a federal election. This clause in the Liberal Party’s Constitution may need to be revised to enable a new leader, if there is sufficient time before the next election, to be elected.
At “the next convention following a federal general election” (“Constitution of the Party”) the delegates, as elected by the constituents, will either vote in favour or against a resolution of a leadership vote. As the constitution states, “if such resolution is agreed to by a majority of members, voting by secret ballot, the National Executive shall call a leadership vote” (“Constitution of the Party”). The problem with “Constitution of the Party” is it fails to set out the political process if the resolution for a leadership vote fails at the convention. After the leadership vote fails, what happens to the interim leader that the National Executive appointed, does he/she continue on? Does the party go on without a leader? These questions need to be addressed and enshrined into the constitution in order to prevent confusion among party members.
Presuming the resolution passes, the leadership candidates then must file papers and a refundable or non-refundable deposit as determined by the National Executive. This undetermined amount of the deposit is a positive aspect. This is because if the amount of the deposit were enshrined into the constitution of the party, it would be hard to change the amount by a consensus. The reason that the deposit amount would be amended is because of the usual inflation rate[3] that occurs in the economy over time. The deposit is meant to ensure that the Candidates have enough financial support to run a successful campaign. Therefore, after time has passed, the deposit amount that is enshrined in the constitution would not be found to be prohibitive because of the standard inflation rate. Also, as mentioned before, changing the constitution would require be difficult because, as the constitution states, it requires a consensus of the constituencies (“Constitution of the Party”). The constitution, therefore, allows the National Executive to designate what the terms of the deposit will be. This allows the National Executive to change the stipulations of the deposit to be prohibitive to candidates without the financial support to run a successful campaign and still be easily changed in light of the natural inflation rate that occurs in the economy.
The filing of papers is to ensure that the candidates for the leadership convention have enough political support. This is to ensure that only the top candidates are allowed to attend the convention, otherwise a very lengthy balloting system would result and the costs of such a balloting procedure would be extensive. There is also a minimum amount of support required. The “Constitution of the Party” states that the nomination papers “shall bear the signatures of not less than 300 members of the Liberal Party of Canada, numbering at least one hundred from each of three different provinces or territories” (“Constitution of the Party”). These details are important because they ensure that the political support is there and not just regionally but nationally.
The National Executive of the Liberal Party then designates a leadership expenses committee. The leadership expenses committee is responsible for enacting “regulations regarding a maximum limit for candidates’ spending prior and at the leadership convention, as well as a procedure to supervise compliance with the limit and a procedure to ensure full and complete disclosure of all contributions to leadership campaigns” (“Constitution of the Party”). This clause allows the candidates to be on even terms financially. The cap on spending is meant to prohibit the possibility of one candidate from outspending his other candidates and then winning the leadership election. Also, by disclosing the financial records to a non-partisan governing body this prohibits the possibility of fraudulence (e.g. bribery, etc.).
The individual constituencies then choose the delegates of the leadership convention. The delegates, before their selection occurs, must either declare their allegiance or can remain as an undeclared delegate as stated in the constitution. After the delegates have been selected, they then deemed to represent the constituency at the National Leadership Convention. For the delegates who have been declared their allegiance to a candidate, they must, “if they vote on the first ballot, do so in favour of the candidate that they have been elected to support” (“Constitution of the Party”). This allows the constituencies to elect delegates in a similar fashion to that of MPs (Members of Parliament) in a federal general election. In a federal general election, MPs are elected based on their party status. The party with the most MPs elected then is invited by the Governor General to form the Government of Canada. The leader of the victorious party then becomes the Prime Minister of Canada. This is similar to the leadership process of the Liberal Party of Canada. The delegates are similar to MPs because the delegates are elected by constituencies in a similar fashion to that of the MPs. The delegates, like MPs, have usually declared their party status. Therefore, if a majority of delegates are elected to support a specific leadership candidate, it is most likely that the leadership candidate will win the leadership of the party. Undeclared delegates are similar to that of an independent Member of Parliament who does not have official party status. Usually these types of delegates and MPs are elected when the other candidates are viewed as not being suitable. Therefore, a constituency may elect an undeclared delegate based on the fact that most voting members[4] are not satisfied with the delegates that have declared officially their allegiance to a party candidate.
At the leadership convention, the candidates must accumulate a majority of the votes. Unlike in a federal general election in Canada, candidates must amass more than fifty percent of the votes of the delegates. This system of balloting occurs in all conventions of the major political parties. The process, as stated in the Constitution of the Liberal Party, requires that if “any leadership candidate fail to win a majority on any ballot, the leadership candidate who received the fewest votes on that ballot shall retire, and a further ballot shall be held. Successive ballots shall be held until one candidate receives a majority, and is thereby elected leader” (“Constitution of the Party”) of the political party. This prevents what is called split voting. Split voting occurs when two candidates share the majority of the votes, however, because the other candidate accumulated a higher percentage of the votes than the other candidates individually, this candidate wins the election. The convention method, therefore, ensures that the concept of ‘vote splitting’ does not occur.
The Progressive Conservative Party of Canada has a different method of electing its leaders. Instead of a rigid structure of electing a new political leader similar to the Liberal Party, the party’s by-laws set out a structure to allow an appointed committee to invent the structure. In order to format an election process in order to elect a new leader, a Leadership Selection Committee (LSC) is appointed by the party’s Management Committee.4 The Leadership Selection committee is comprised of, as stated in the ”Progressive Conservative Party of Canada By-Laws”, “the Chair(s); the Chief Returning Officer (CRO); the Caucus Liaison Representative (CLR); the Candidate Liaison; and any other person(s), up to a maximum of five (5), whom the LSC Chair(s), in consultation with the Management Committee, may deem necessary to implement the Leadership Selection Process (LSP)” (“Progressive Conservative Party of Canada By-Laws”).
Also, the Leadership Selection Committee is “also comprised of the following members: the National President of the Party; the National Treasurer of the Party; the Secretary of the Party; and, three (3) representatives of the Management Committee as may be determined by the Management Committee” (“Progressive Conservative Party of Canada By-Laws”). The membership of the Leadership Selection Committee is designed to promote accountability to the party executive with the inclusion of the Party President, Treasurer, and Secretary.
Each of the positions of the committee are designed to serve a purpose. The inclusion of the Candidate Liaison Representative allows for communication to take place between the candidates and the committee. This allows the candidates to have input on how the they want to see the selection process formed. The Chief Returning Officer is responsible to ensure that all those in involved follow the election process correctly. Therefore, by having this Chief Returning Officer on the committee it will allow the officer to make recommendations to the selection committee on how enforcement of the election rules could be implemented. The Chair(s) oversee the committee members to ensure that the process of drafting and then overseeing the process is operating smoothly. The other appointed representatives are probably people with some past experience in the leadership process. These people could include past Chairs, past Chief Returning Officers, past leadership candidates, and past Progressive Conservative Party Leaders. These additional appointed representatives can be utilized to gain insight of past errors that occurred in past leadership campaigns. All of the representation on the committee is to ensure that there is accountability, experience, and responsibility in the drafting and the operational aspects of the leadership selection process.
The Leadership Selection Committee has several options that it may include when the committee formulates the selection process. The options include: deposits and the filing of papers, the amending the rules of the selection process, and to appoint the necessary people required to carry out the leadership selection process once the process has been approved by the committee. The filing of papers, as mentioned above, is to ensure the right amount of political support is present. The requirements of the papers are not set out in the By-Laws, but are left up to the Leadership Selection Committee to determine. The deposit, as mentioned above, is also required to ensure that there is enough support for the leadership candidate. The Progressive Conservative Party’s By-Laws state that all the candidates must forward the “prescribed deposit upon filing of papers” (“Progressive Conservative Party of Canada By-Laws”). The amending of the rules of the selection process is crucial to the committee. This is because if there are any conflicts that arise their needs to be a way of amending the rules of the selection process in order to rectify the conflicts. The right to appoint additional people ensure that selection process operates smoothly. These people include ballot box attendees and security personnel for the convention.
The leadership selection process of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada has some advantages. By drafting the process every time there is a leadership convention impending the Party is allowed to control the financial costs of holding the convention. If the party is relatively low on finances, a more simpler convention and voting process could be included, rather than a lengthy selection process. This is especially evident when the number of signatures of supporters is drafted. This prevents the possibility of the leadership candidates of not being able to find enough supporters because a lack of membership within the party. However, in contrast, if there is strong support for the Progressive Conservative Party, the numbers of signatures on the papers can be increased. If the party is low on finances, the signatures of support required can be set on a high level in order to discourage some members of the party from seeking a position as a leadership candidate and removed before the convention. Therefore, the required number of signatures of support on the papers can be formulated to reflect the current supporters of the Progressive Conservative Party and the length required to elect a leader.
There are also negative aspects to the process the Progressive Conservative Party utilizes to select a leader. An example of this is the right of the Committee to enact the rules and change them as the Leadership Selection Committee sees fit. This is especially true when we consider the process of filing of papers and the deposit. At any time the committee may change the amount of membership and financial support required to become a leadership candidate at the convention. Therefore, candidates may find enough membership and monetary support as originally set out by the Leadership Selection Committee, but may be forced to find more support because of a decision by the committee to increase the support required to advance to the balloting process.
The New Democratic Party has yet a different process of leadership selection. As Communications Officer Wayne Harding explains, the party holds a leadership convention every two years at the party’s convention. Every two years at the convention “members are allowed to challenge the current leader for the position based on the fact that challenger has enough support from the constituents” (Harding Interview). The challenger must submit papers bearing the signatures of at least two hundred members before the convention is held (Harding Interview). This ensures that a candidate who only has marginal support from a few of the party’s members does not challenge the leader. By having a convention every two years, this ensures that the confidence in the leader is still there politically from the party’s members. This is especially important to the leader who must ensure that the party supports them when they make key political decision. Therefore, this voting “is similar to that of a vote of confidence” (Harding Interview).
If the leader of the New Democratic Party resigns, a leadership convention is scheduled within the following year. Also, to avoid transportation costs, the New Democratic Party schedules and pays for the meetings with the constituents by the leadership candidates. This is to ensure that leadership candidates are able to meet constituents and delegates and not be penalized for not having the financial resources to do so on their own. Also, by only requiring membership signatures of support and not deposits (Harding Interview), this relieved the burden of the leadership candidates from having to pay money to a deposit. This is because, as Wayne Harding explains, the New Democratic Party traditionally does not have the financial support of large corporations similar to that of the Liberals and the Progressive Conservatives (Harding Interview). Therefore, the party does not expect the leadership candidates be able to find corporate donors willing to support them financially. Also, by having the party pay for transportation costs and arranging meetings, the leaders are able to place the financial resources available to them for their own personal costs (Harding Interview).
The number of delegates is based on the number of constituents within a constituency and union. The unions are allowed to elect a certain number of delegates to the convention based upon the number of members within the union. The New Democratic Party tends to be the leading party for partnerships with unions because of that that the unions and the party have a tendency to share similar political ideologies (Harding Interview). In order to encourage more unions to join the New Democratic Party of Canada, the party has allowed unions, similar to their constituencies, to have a number of delegates have input at party conventions (Harding Interview). The number of delegates based on the number of constituents is also important. This rule is designed to encourage constituencies and unions to seek more members in order to gain further influence in the political process. The delegates that are elected to the convention to represent the constituencies are not required to declare an allegiance to a leadership candidate (Harding Interview). This is designed so that a trust is placed on the delegates to support the appropriate leader that they vote for. Also, this trust is placed to ensure that privacy may occur in the secret balloting that occurs at the conventions.
There are disadvantages to this type of campaigning are mainly fiscal. The corporations, as pointed out by Wayne Harding, tend to support the Liberal Party and the Progressive Conservative Party, leaving the New Democratic Party with little financial resources (Harding Interview). Therefore, the New Democratic Party must ensure that the money spent on campaigning by the leadership candidates and the money spent on the conventions is used to the fullest potential. The financial constraints are also reflective, as mentioned before, in the number of delegates that each constituency is allowed to elect in efforts to increase membership and, therefore, financial resources. Also, the financial resources required for each leadership candidate can be focused on the campaign staff themselves and not have to concern themselves with the costs incurred by travel.
There are advantages to running a financially constrained leadership campaign process. Advantages include the financial savings of pooling the resources of the candidates and the party. By having the New Democratic Party assume some of the financial cost, unlike the other main political parties, leadership candidates can focus their energy on running a successful bid to become the leader of the party. By transporting the leadership candidates from constituency to constituency by the party, group rates are lower than if the individual candidates were to invest in their own transportation. Also, the constituencies only have to arrange to meet the candidates once instead of having to arrange with each individual candidate to speak to their constituents. This reduces the costs required to in rental fees for meeting halls for the constituents to meet the leadership candidates. Overall, this saves the both the constituencies and the leadership candidates’ financial resources that are in short supply because of the lack of corporate donors.
All leadership selection processes have advantages and disadvantages. These processes are the parties’ attempts to try and produce what it thinks is the most democratic process for selecting a leader. By supporting the convention method of selecting a new leader the parties are saving money and avoiding the problems that seem to erupt in federal general elections. By having numerous balloting systems, the parties avoid the possibility of vote splitting by candidates that usually occurs during a federal election. Also, by choosing the convention method, the balloting required to ensure vote splitting was prohibited would be astronomical when contrasting the costs of other methods such as mail in voting by party members. The use of delegates also saves the political parties time and money. This is because it would be impossible for each member to attend the convention and vote. This is because the number of members’ voting and then tabulating these votes would be prohibitive in both time and the cost required to ensure each member follows the leadership selection process. The convention method overall, despite its advantages and disadvantages, is perhaps the best way for parties to select a leader. This is because not only do the parties get needed media attention for their ideologies, but the parties also save crucial money and time in selecting a leader. Those are the main reasons why it seems that political conventions will continue to be the preferred choice as the process of selecting new leader.
Primary Sources
“Constitution of the Party.” Liberal Party of Canada. On-line. Internet. 20 Nov. 1999. Available:
Harding, Wayne. Personal Interview. New Democratic Party of Canada. 20 Nov. 1999.
“Party Constitution.” Progressive Conservative Party of Canada. On-Line. Internet. 21 Nov. 1999. Available:
“Progressive Conservative Party of Canada By-Laws.” Progressive Conservative Party of Canada. On-line. Internet. 20 Nov. 1999. Available:
Secondary Sources
Courtney, John C. Do Conventions Matter?: Choosing National Party Leaders in Canada. Kingston, Ontario: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1995.

[1]The New Democratic Party, the Liberal Party of Canada, and the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada.

[2] The National Executive, as stated by the “Constitution of the Liberal Party of Canada” is general responsibility for the affairs of the Liberal Party of Canada between national conventions” (“Constitution of the Liberal Party of Canada”).

[3]The natural inflation rate occurs when both wages and the cost of living rise over time.

[4] Voting members, as set out in the Constitution of the Liberal Party of Canada, are a “current or immediate past member of the Liberal Party of Canada for the period of 90 days immediately preceding the general meeting” (“Constitution of the Party”).