Judging by recent conversations on sunny decks with Yukoners of all political persuasions, it seems that your columnist is not the only one suddenly musing about how to get rid of seemingly entrenched leaders. Especially ones that go from being merely a thuggish embarrassment to a menace to future generations.
History shows how fine a line stands between power and oblivion.
The books are full of strong leaders who completely dominate their cabinets, governments and countries, but whose bullied minions unexpectedly cast them from power. Consider supremos as diverse as French King Louis XVI, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini or communist Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu, all of whom went from hero to zero in almost no time at all.
One moment, everyone was agreeing with everything they said at cabinet meetings and laughing at their jokes. The next they were losing their heads (Louis) or being hanged from meathooks on gas station roofs (Mussolini). Ceausescu and his wife were shot by a firing squad selected from hundreds of enthusiastic volunteers, and who were so keen that they shot the former supreme duo as soon as they appeared. The guy in charge still had the blindfolds in his hand and the TV crew didn’t even have time to turn on their camera.
Toppling despots was a theme of the earliest Greek and Roman writers, going back hundreds of years before Julius Caesar and knife-wielding senators. Machiavelli, in his how-to guide to being a renaissance strongman, coolly suggested inviting everyone for a banquet and then locking the doors after a few glasses of Chianti and massacring the leader and his entire entourage. Ever attentive to detail, Machiavelli also warned against getting too greedy and preferred allowing the victims’ sons to keep their fathers’ land and wealth. This created a “win-win” and helped cool off potential avengers.
Since then, deposing leaders has become a finely tuned art. Even Tom Cruise gives us a lesson in his movie Valkyrie.
So much for history. What about getting rid of unwanted leaders in a gentler, more civilized parliamentary democracy like ours?
Paul Martin and Gordon Brown come to mind, but their years of manoeuvring against Jean Chretien and Tony Blair respectively don’t represent sudden and unexpected downfalls
But there are other examples. Neville Chamberlain was ousted by his own party in May 1940 in a high-stakes parliamentary confrontation.
Margaret Thatcher dominated British politics for more than a decade, “handbagging” her cabinet into submission, but was suddenly pushed from office in a cabinet putsch in 1990.
Instead of losing their heads, they survived to write memoirs and embarrass their successors on chat shows.
But, interestingly, they didn’t see it coming.
Chamberlain didn’t expect the 1940 debate to “amount to much.” Many Britons loathed Thatcher, but few thought her time was up in 1990.
So what does this mean to the Yukon?
Something seems to have changed with Premier Dennis Fentie’s bullying blunders on the Peel Watershed plan and Yukon Energy. Yukon Party MLAs are said to be applying even greater energy than usual to not returning constituent phone calls and not talking to the media.
“Hang together, or hang separately,” is how Benjamin Franklin described the dilemma, which now faces Yukon Party MLAs, as it faced Thatcher’s cabinet in 1990 or Romanian ministers the year before. After the leader has become a liability, should cabinet dump the leader or hope that the leader’s unsavoury political skills (which got them all into cabinet in the first place) will enable them to ride out the storm.
Some MLAs, having voted themselves large pension increases, may not run again. For those aiming at another term, or even the premiership, it’s a big question. If they do nothing, they face a number of unpleasant possibilities. Fentie may lead them into the next election and they might lose. Or he will choose a time of his convenience and resign, leaving them positioned as the torch carriers for the Fentie legacy versus other candidates for the leadership (say, the local failed federal Conservative candidate).
Taking action in this situation is risky. But sometimes less risky than doing nothing.
Thatcher’s ministers went on to win the next election under John Major, while Ceausescu’s lackeys kept their man in power … until the revolution did them all in, that is.
So here are some tips for Yukon Party MLAs, assuming that Fentie won’t take your subtle hints to resign and that some skilful political manoeuvring is required.
1) Don’t show your hand too early. Keep agreeing with everything Fentie says as usual. Don’t look nervous.
2) Organize two or three MLAs you can trust. Agree on who will be the new premier, or potentially interim premier until a leadership vote can be held. Divide the other ministers into two categories: hard-core Fentie supporters and waverers. Keep it secret. Don’t meet at the Edgewater.
3) Wait for the boss to go to a summit, hopefully as far away as possible. Thatcher’s trip to a European Summit in Madrid was a key part of her ouster. Encourage the hard-core ministers to go to a photo op in Old Crow. Have their cellphones cancelled. Remember that Tom Cruise bungled this bit in Valkyrie.
4) Pull the trigger. Get the waverers on-side then phone the boss and give him a chance to resign in dignity. Make sure he agrees to announce it right away. No transition period for him to talk the waverers around. Chamberlain even offered his top supporter’s job to opposition politicians as the end neared. Leak the news immediately.
You’ll need to be prepared for resistance. The boss, being used to getting his way, will scream and shout. He will phone waverers and threaten and bully them. Be ready to announce the whole thing to press, complete with waverers’ names to lock them in. Also be prepared to resign from cabinet, since a premier can’t be premier with just a couple of votes in the house.
This is all very difficult. And many things can go wrong. But if you don’t do it, you’ll find yourself going door to door in the next election defending the Yukon Energy deal, Peel Watershed and probably a few other skeletons you don’t even know about yet.
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. His latest book Game On Yukon! was just launched.