Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Monday, November 15, 2010

Restoring two-party parliamentary government

Canadian politics should be crackling. Unaddressed issues should have the Harper government on the ropes. And at least one national leader should be offering a way to restore effectiveness and accountability in our national politics.

Yet, the outstanding question is for us: after 143 years, do we still have enough confidence in our democracy to decide clearly who will govern? Whether nationalists in Quebec, environmentalists on Vancouver Island, industrial workers in Hamilton, or entrepreneurs in Surrey, do we want to elect a majority in national elections?

Policy piles up and is written everywhere—in government, in think tanks, in the mainstream and social media, and, intermittently, in political parties. Establishing a new policy or venture doesn’t need an autocrat or high polling numbers. Change, however, often does require audacious leadership that is able to renew the architecture of decision-making, the task of making tolerable solutions the law of the land.

For some time, interest in the old norm of majority government has been replaced by calls for proportional representation and the far-off European virtues of coalition government.  Each favours representativeness over effectiveness and insists that’s more democratic. North America’s great accomplishment in governance—very large, diverse, and representative national parties—would be outsmarted by a system that would include both winners and numerous losers in daily governance as well as in legislative deliberations.

However, political competition—without clear-cut winners and clear-cut losers—may not best serve our circumstances. When it comes to the price of carbon and new initiatives to balance the budget, we ask not only whether the proposal reflects our interests but whether anyone can get it done.

In a representative democracy, dissent is recognized; it needn’t be jailed or bribed before we move forward. The opposition in the House of Commons is free to oppose and strive to bring the winners to account. The losers are respected and put to use. As important, with two competitive national parties, we find out which ideas are broadly acceptable and, crucially, who won.

The Bloc Quebecois didn’t prevent the election of three majority governments and needn’t now. Today, its appeal as a safe harbour for regional ambitions stands, largely, on being inside the system, as well as being outside trying to bring it down. The wisdom of voting regionally will only successfully be challenged when federalist parties again can assemble national majorities—can govern without the daily consent of a special interest caucus.

In part, tolerance for minority government is borne of fear for what a strong majority government might do. Yet, the status quo makes marginal parties, not moderates, the king makers. A two-party system would keep both national parties—and their leaders—in the center, busy attracting and then holding the support of an increasingly pragmatic electorate.

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