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Murphy’s Logic: PM and premiers need more accountability

We don’t vote directly for our prime ministers and premiers. The job usually goes to the person who leads the party that wins a general election.

Since the Canadian constitution, and its British progenitor, contain no real job definition, there are no strict restrictions on the powers of the first minister. The style and extent of how it’s exercised is determined by the ambition, personality and values of the person who has the job.

Most of the power flows from his or her prerogative to appoint and fire cabinet ministers.

Cabinets are supposed to make decisions by consensus but as a practical matter, only ministers who promise and deliver fidelity to the premier can expect to remain in the inner circle. So it’s often the premier’s way or the highway, particularly on controversial issues.

We’ve seen a clear illustration of this in New Brunswick lately. Premier Blaine Higgs has been accused of “autocratic leadership” as he pursues controversial policies with single-minded determination. Some of his ministers have quit, others have been replaced. Higgs now faces a leadership challenge.

But once entrenched, removing a premier can be a very complicated process.

The problem with our system, is that people whose powers are not defined, are not easily restrained. It is an invitation to autocracy.

One way to blunt some of that power would be to adopt the recent practice of the British conservative party. It allows letters from only 15% of the party’s elected members to trigger a confidential confidence vote on the leader. If the leader loses, they’re out.

The caucus then nominates two candidates — and all of the party members vote. It’s direct and it’s quick.

Granting such power to caucus members and cabinet ministers would make premiers more accountable to voters, through their elected representatives — and give premiers an incentive to find compromise and consensus — to get along or go home.

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