The machinery of government needs a tune-up, not replacement

Should We Change How We Vote: Evaluating Canada’s Electoral System edited by Andrew Potter, Daniel Weinstock, and Peter Loewen (McGill-Queens University Press, $19.99 paperback, 230 pages)

Turning Parliament Inside Out: Practical Ideas for Reforming Canada’s Democracy edited by Michael Chong, Scott Simms and Kennedy Stewart (Douglas & McIntyre, $22.95, 165 pages)

The Unbroken Machine: Canada’s Democracy in Action by Dale Smith (Dundurn, $21.99, 151 pages)

should-we-change-how-we-voteIn Should We Change How We Vote, Andrew Potter, Daniel Weinstock, and Peter Loewen have collected 17 short essays looking at electoral reform, some in favour of one of the myriad changes or another, some looking more askance at change. Most are thick on political science jargon and concepts. Two essays stand out as important.

Lydia Miljan, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Windsor, wonders what problem(s), precisely, reformers are attempting to address. She warns that no system is perfect and that most will not address all the problems they purport to and may present unforeseen consequences. Miljan reminds readers that the onus is on reformers to make their case (which she doesn’t think they do) and correctly insists simply that because a system is old does not mean it’s outdated or requires a massive overhaul.

Emmett Macfarlane, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Waterloo, says the essential question about electoral reform is “how should an electoral system translate votes into seats?” While this might be about fairness, he criticizes the idea that electoral reform is a rights issue as “an attempt to end the debate before it begins.”

Most of the other essays make one case or another for change (diversity in representation, fairer or more accurate representation, lessen the power of political leaders). Should We Change How We Vote is not quite the introductory volume on electoral reform that many are looking for.

In Turning Parliament Inside Out: Practical Ideas for Reforming Canada’s Democracy, a number of MPs offer suggestions for changing how our members of Parliament should work in Ottawa. Some ideas – such as NDP MP Nathan Cullen’s call for unscripted speeches in the House — are worth debating. Others, such as the introduction of electronic petitions, have already been implemented. This slim volume is uneven, but some contributions are themselves uneven. Conservative MP Michael Cooper calls for a ban on clapping (I’ll cheer that!) and sees merit in allowing longer questions and answers (which would probably improve the substance of both), but also reiterates what is already expected such as having the Speaker maintain decorum. Green Party leader Elizabeth May’s contribution, which examines the threat to democracy from controlling Prime Minister’s Offices, correctly identifies the problem but is intemperate in her remarks. Worse still, she recognizes that the primary role of parliamentarians is to keep the government accountable, yet she proposes reforms that would not further that goal.

turning-parliament-inside-outThe best of the books looking at fixing what’s wrong with Canadian politics is freelance journalist Dale Smith’s The Unbroken Machine: Canada’s Democracy in Action. Smith says the system is just fine, thank you very much, and many fixes proposed by reformers are based on civic illiteracy. He maintains that most problems with the system flow from a misunderstanding of how the Westminster system works, with widespread ignorance caused by a combination of woeful civics education in schools, shoddy coverage by Canadian political journalists, and conflating the American political system and tradition with our own. As an introduction to how Canadian government works (and doesn’t), there is no better book than Smith’s.

Smith reminds readers repeatedly that in our parliamentary system of responsible government the primary duty of MPs is to keep the executive (government) accountable. He points to a Samara study that found most MPs themselves do not even know what their role is. They and an ignorant public falsely believe MPs are lawmakers or service providers – that they create laws and serve the needs of constituents. Smith says this is mistaken and such incorrect views undermine the ability of MPs to keep government accountable.

Smith says that if the right, knowledgeable people work the machinery of parliament, the machine works well. The problem is that most of the participants do not remember William Gladstone’s admonition: “You are not here to govern; rather you are here to hold to account those who do.” Many Canadians suffer the misunderstanding that all MPs are part of government. They are not. The government is the executive, the cabinet (MPs and sometimes senators) and the public service (bureaucracy).  MPs are supposed to hold the government accountable – even MPs who are from the same party as the prime minister and his government – mostly by scrutinizing spending.

Over the years, changes to the standing orders of Parliament (its rule), the evolution of the way parties work, and general civil illiteracy have neutered MPs’ abilities to keep a close eye on public accounts. Smith’s most serious weakness is not taking into account that institutions can change, and he is so busy defending the way the system used to work — and he and I would agree should work – that he does not consider whether some of these changes are necessary or at least defensible evolutions. For example, how did 24-hour news coverage and the emergence of social media change the way politicians behave or what voters expect from their elected officials and government? Nor does he take into account the effects of partisanship both from MPs and voters. Smith focuses on systemic changes as explanations and ignores cultural changes. Acknowledging the multiple causes of changing practices and attitudes rather than dismissing change as a produce of ignorance would have strengthened Smith’s argument.

Electoral reform

the-unbroken-machineWhile The Unbroken Machine is a more general defense of our Westminster system, the timeliness of the book is connected the on-going debates on electoral reform. Even if Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government has set-aside its promise that 2015 was going to be the last election under the first-past-the-post system (FPTP), this issue is not going away any time soon. At the very least, the NDP and voters who supported the Liberals in 2015 based on its promise to study and enact electoral reform will make it an issue in 2019.

Smith criticizes proponents of electoral reform for their ignorance. Most proponents of electoral reform find FPTP, in which the candidate with the most votes in a given riding becomes its MP and the party with most MPs forms government, unfair because, they argue, it’s unrepresentative of the vote. For example, most majority governments are won with about 40 per cent of the vote, and most of the time the percentage of seats won by each party fails to reflect the percentage of the vote a party wins nationally.

None of this matters, though, because it looks at elections all wrong. It is based on the common fallacy that “treats a general election as a single event when it is, in fact, 338 separate and simultaneous elections.” The popular vote is an irrelevant  measure; the majority that a governing achieves is not of the total number of votes cast across the country but rather reflect whether a party can win a majority of the 338 elections occurring across the country at one time. Smith says the focus on “horse-race” numbers in political coverage distorts public understanding of the election(s), as well as the intellectual misunderstandings equating democratic legitimacy with majority support.

Voter ignorance is at root a problem here. Most people believe they are voting for a political party or the party leader when in fact they are voting for their local candidate. There is no popular vote for individual MPs beyond each constituency, so the makeup of the House of Representatives is, in fact, an accurate reflection of an election; it is comprised of the winners of 338 individual elections.

Smith warns that devising new systems to address non-existent problems are likely to create real, new problems of their own. Proportional representation is unlikely to result in majority governments and the horse-trading that takes place among minority partners may be as undemocratic as critics claim FPTP is; Canadians who voted for particular parties will have no say in the partners their parties choose to work with to form government. Smith also correctly questions the legitimacy of any coalition that includes parties that were strong enough to win seats in the House from the proportional representation side of elections but not have MPs elected in ridings anywhere in the country.

Every reform risks creating a new set of problems. Smith points to changes in ballots in the early 1970s when party labels were added as an example of a well-intentioned reform going awry. To ensure that candidates were the actual candidate for each party, rules were enacted to have party leaders sign off on every nominated candidate. The problem eventually arose that party leaders could punish MPs and candidates by not signing off on them. This helped enforce party discipline, which is problematic for any number of reasons, most of all MPs who are members of the party in power who are less inclined to hold the government accountable.

Political parties

Some people see political parties and not the stringent party discipline as the problem, and Smith comes to a rousing defense of the party system.

First, maintaining the confidence of the House of Commons becomes nearly impossible without political parties. How is a group of MPs going to form government without some organizing structure? In the best case scenario factions would arise and those factions would require discipline to maintain confidence. In the worst case scenario, government would become about buying the support of a majority MPs rather than governing in the public interest; MPs would get the best deals for their ridings and themselves, caring not at all about what is good for the country in the long-term.

More importantly, political parties are vital vehicles for citizen participation.

“The heart of our civic illiteracy,” says Smith, is the “belief that elections are the be-all and end-all of participation in our system of democracy.” At the heart of our civic engagement and democracy are political parties. As Smith says, “parties link people to power.” Parties are means of organizing people with similar beliefs. That much is obvious for MPs but it is also true for citizens. Through the party system, all Canadians can have input on leadership (although Smith sees downsides to direct election of leaders by party membership), local candidates, and party policy. Smith says party members contribute to party platforms by suggesting policy ideas at the local level which make their way to party conventions to be voted upon by delegates chosen by the party members at the local level.

Smith rightly deplores party leaders interfering in this process and notes examples that even when the membership has expressed support for a particular set of policies, there is no guarantee a party leader will campaign or implement them.
Parliamentary democracy is a “machine that requires human input and that input comes from political parties and their members.” If the machine is not working properly, we as citizens are at least partly responsible for that. Some of that is civic illiteracy, but some of that is rooted in cynicism and laziness.

Pro-life and pro-family Canadians should heed Smith’s call to all citizens to get more involved in the political process. Fixing what ails our system of government and politics starts with us, not electoral reform or new rules to make politics cleaner or more democratic. Democracy begins with citizens getting involved, long before general election day.

 Paul Tuns is editor of The Interim and author of The Dauphin: The Truth about Justin Trudeau and Jean Chretien: A Legacy of Scandal.

 

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