Thursday, 4 July 2013

Parliamentary Reform from the Cheap Seats

Elizabeth May is perhaps the hardest working Member of Parliament. As a caucus of one, her entire party – its policy objectives, its visibility – depends on her ability to command attention in the House and in the media. However, for all the time she spends in the lower house, she still demonstrates an alarming lack of awareness about the institutions she is now apart of. Her frequently public musing offers a glimpse into a political theory that it is often at odds with itself and its intended aims.

There have been some dramatic examples of May’s complete lack of understanding of responsible government and the role of Parliament. Most striking was a letter to Buckingham Palace entreating the Queen to liberate her subjects from tyranny by launching an investigation into the 'robocall' scandal. This, of course, flies in the face of centuries of democratic development in which monarchical powers – and especially discretionary and arbitrary powers – were wrested from the monarch and placed in the hands of government responsible to a legislature. Indeed, the role of the Governor General (and the Queen in the UK) is to ensure the continuation of a democratically elected government. Asking an unelected monarch to interfere by exercising Crown powers personally and over the head of a Prime Minister with the confidence of an elected House of Commons and his party is antithetical to the ethos of responsible government and, in its entirety, undemocratic.

May’s recent article - What I Would Change About Politics in Canada – offers some thoughtful ideas mixed with the usual claptrap. One fundamental problem is a confusion of correlation with causation. Some of the symptoms May decries are not new and, indeed, quite long standing. Indeed, in some cases – as with the centralization of power in the executive – they are inherent features of Canada’s Westminster tradition. Texts on Parliament ranging dating back to the 1970s and beyond make note of a centralization of power in the Prime Minister’s Office but caution that role of Parliament should not be essentialized or envisioned in idealized terms of a golden age of legislative power (an age when government was small and the impact of government on the lives of Canadians even smaller). The centralization thesis is oft cited but one that needs to be read carefully.  Second, the arguments need to reconcile – again correlation/causation issues – contemporary trends with historical data. To blame outcomes on the electoral system, for instance, ignores high voter turnout with the same system only a few decades ago.

May offers eight fixes for what ails the Canada’s politics. Below I take each in turn.

(1)    First, the tired canard about the electoral system is trotted out. Proportional representation is presented as inherently more democratic, more fair and equitable by ‘making every vote count’. The familiar argument is always couched the same way, but it attempts to frame the argument in a way that ignores that fundamental question about what a vote – and by extension -- democracy means. Advocates of electoral reform argue that only a system that reflects everyone’s interests is valid. This approach sees democracy as something other than decision making or a method to reconcile competing claims. It’s certainly a valid position, but its framing denies that proportional representation is itself a political consideration and normative view of democracy, not something neutral. The idea of fairness and equity it presents is unmistakably political and the argument should be made plain. The ‘proportional representation’ argument also distorts how governments are formed by looking solely at aggregate numbers that are, as a collective, meaningless. There is no ‘popular vote’ in Canadian elections. Canadians do not elect a Prime Minister, Parliaments do.

(2)    Second, May attacks the power of the Prime Minister’s Office. There are clear issues with the PMO and its operations. The growth, especially under Harper, has been problematic. What is missed, however, is the fact the PMO serves a purpose by allowing the Prime Minister to separate his / her functions in the executive (and the Privy Council Office) from the partisan functions of constituency and party work. May’s arguments, however, over reach. First, May writes that the PMO is “an invention, not mentioned in our Constitution”. She is, of course, technically correct. It’s not mentioned along with some of the most important aspects of Canadian government including the office of Prime Minister, the composition and functioning of the Cabinet, the details of the electoral system, the makeup of the final court of appeal (the BNA Act only mandated that the federal government could create a final court of appeal). To suggest that the absence of an institution from the written constitution renders it a bastardization is inherently problematic and ignores the importance of the Westminster heritage and its conventions. Second, May advocates to “restore a healthier Cabinet system of government”. As it is not mentioned in the constitution and works by convention what this means is unclear. Moreover, there is an assumption that Harper runs roughshod over his Cabinet, even though proceedings and debates are secret. Simply put, we do not know what goes on within. Finally, the notion that the PMO is entirely unaccountable is a stretch. Its operatives are responsible to the PM who is responsible to the House. There is a line of accountability.

(3)    Third, May argues for a restoration of a ‘respected, professional civil service’ and a return to ‘evidence-based decision making’. This is nice in theory, but it ignores the political nature of the policy process, a process that cannot simply be reduced to value-neutral evidence. Some policies cannot be divorced from an ideological context. To assume that somehow governments should only follow evidence-based processes that are somehow neutral is simply facetious. Parliament is a political forum, not a technocratic one. There needs to be room for disagreement. More to the point, the cult of neutral evidence is a dangerous one. No facts speak for themselves.

(4)    Fourth, May rightly points out that media concentration is a problem in Canada (although not a recent phenomenon). One of the problems is the assumption that less concentration – especially in corporate news – leads to better coverage. It also ignores the reality that news is commodified and consumed. The CBC's own hit or miss journalism and programming indicates that it’s not necessarily the result of media concentration. Moreover, smaller alternative media outlets do exist (Rabble, for instance).

(5)    “Restore the supremacy of Parliament”. There are numerous problems with this. First, it’s over simplistic and ahistorical. It’s also not particularly well suited to Canada’s federal Parliament. For one, the institution was designed in a centralized fashion – as David Smith notes, with the monarchical principle firmly entrenched – and therefore the strong executive was intended. The strong Parliament reform-era Britain is no longer possible or desirable. A balance should be struck, but screaming supremacy helps little. Moreover, the constitution tempers supremacy, most notably through the Charter and judicial review. In short, the era of parliamentary supremacy in Canada was short lived if it existed at all.
The argument here that makes sense is not one of supremacy, but of oversight of the public purse. Parliament should be better placed, especially in the estimates process, but this is a complex issue. Additionally, parliament alone lacks the expertise for such oversight and, as a result, it requires assistance from auditors and bureaucrats.

(6)    “Remove the power of leaders of federal parties to sign the nomination forms for their party’s candidates. Allow the caucus members of parties the right to trigger leadership reviews.” Actually a good idea.

(7)    Senate Reform. Here May doesn’t have a statement of intent but a series of hypothetical questions. “Is abolition possible”? Under only the most unlikely of circumstances (so no). “Could a council of the federation with more effectiveness representation from municipalities, provinces and territories bring something useful to Parliament”? A council in place of the Senate? Certainly the provinces will not bring a third order of government into being. In short, more representation is good, but it’s not going to happen under the rubric of Senate reform. More fundamentally,  it also ignores what the Senate is for: its institutional and representative roles and its repository for institutional memory with a longer time horizon and perspective beyond the short-term of electoral politics.

(8)    “And perhaps most important of all – re-assert the constitutional requirement that MPs are elected to represent their constituents, not to be mere ciphers of the back-room hyper-partisan spin doctors who call the shots”. This is the kind of statement that a spin-machine comes up with. First, if this is a constitutional requirement, it’s not in the text and, as we know from May’s dismissal of the PMO above, it shouldn’t exist. This notion of “represent their constituents” is odd. What is the content of this ‘representation’? Certainly the notion that MPs are all marionettes (excepting a single Green, of course!) is insulting. One of the continuing problems (as Samara studies and David Docherty’s research indicate) is that there is no clear definition of the role of an MP. A mix of constituent work as well as party representation appear on the list. What should be front and centre, however, is that one of the primary jobs of an MP is to hold the government to account. This should be emphasized, not some sound bite about ‘representing constituent interests.

May is certainly passionate and, by all accounts, represents her constituents well. It is commendable that she is attempting to move the democratic reform dialogue forward. None of her best ideas, however, are her own. They are borrowed and longstanding demands, incorporated from a long list of political scientists, partisans, parties and pundits. Her worst ideas simply replicate false assumptions and demonstrate a continued lack of knowledge about what Parliament is, its history and its functions. Tired tropes about the electoral system or the Senate fail to advance the agenda. Unfortunately May is emblematic of a problem inherent in many Members of Parliament. They confuse their roles – the most important of which is holding the government to account – and fail to grasp the institutions on which their hands are firmly fixed on the levers of power. It eschews understanding of underlying causes and instead reaches for the low hanging fruit. Democracy’s malaise is much deeper, however, than first-past-the-post or the growing power of the PMO. Both existed forty years ago when voter turnout was robust and confidence in public officials higher. 

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