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)

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Reform Act: Canada’s way to confuse an effective democracy

There isn’t a Member of Parliament that publicly embraces the 18th-century limited government ambitions of the American Tea Party. Some MPs must be republicans and others must think that Canada’s federation is too centralized. But none of them would say that a fraction of Parliamentarians should see it as their proper place to severely weaken the executive branch of the federal government or that, after each election, the winning caucus should mull over who they want as prime minister.

Not one of them would quote the Tea Party. Nevertheless, a well-intended, reactionary proposal is enjoying a ridiculously gentle reception in the Canadian press and with too many Members of Parliament.

On behalf of a 19th-century precept that puts elected and unelected British parliamentarians in charge of who ran Britain’s government, Conservative MP Michael Chong’s Reform Act proposes that a faction of each party caucus (15% to 20%) should, by statute, have the power to force a leadership review and that a clear majority of each caucus should be sufficient to fire their leader.

Cutting to the chase: Chong’s bill would trim the powers and legitimacy of prime ministers who win majorities. Here’s how a Globe and Mail editorial puts it:

“It’s reasonable to debate the right figure or mechanism; the principle is what’s most important. And that principle is that party leaders, including prime ministers, rise out of the body of MPs, and are something less than the MPs’ lord and master.”

The bill’s core principle, in fact, is the problem.

With all due respect to the wit and intrigues of the Disraeli and Gladstone parliaments, prime ministers in Canada today don’t “rise out of the body of MPs.”

They lead registered national political parties. And because they lead winning national election campaigns, with constituency candidates representing that party, prime ministers stand well above others in Parliament. This isn’t arbitrary or fueled by patronage. It expresses the way the people believe their democracy works; it informs how they vote and drives them to the polls. And, as important, it’s that contract with the person that makes surefooted public administration possible.

It is breached by MPs in dire circumstances, but it isn’t a corruption of the way things should normally work. It only offends a bygone era of serial governments and powerful scheming backbenches.

For the opposition, Chong’s bill offers another dandy opportunity to fuel their ballot question: Do you believe we still need to be bossed around by Stephen Harper? For numerous Conservative backbenches, it helps separate them from Harper and identifies them with "grass-roots democrats" who believe representative democracy was once actually more accountable to the people.

The alliance that could pass this bill — like most political alliances — is fragile. Opposition party leaders Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau will live with it if they think it will get them closer to power. After all, destroying a popular prime minister would be inconceivable for Liberals, and having a popular prime minister is hardly a disciplining objective for New Democrats.

So, like making promises to balance a budget in seven years or to cut the emission of greenhouse gases in 10 years, what’s the harm? It doesn’t force me to do anything. For a moment, for fun, however, let’s imagine hiring and firing prime ministers became normal caucus business.

In the "dysfunctional" American legislative system, Congress can block, amend, and defeat the president’s legislation, budgets, treaties, and executive appointments. A super majority can throw the president out. And none of these powers requires that US legislators secure the consent of the voters who sent them to Washington.

However, in return for all that power over the Executive, they must deliberate and vote in public and respect the written terms of their constitution. And unless he’s impeached, he keeps his job and all the awful power and legitimacy that that office provides to help him fight back.

Does Chong envision Canada’s Parliamentary caucuses holding these revolts and exercising their new statutory powers in public, or in the grand ol' fashion of colorful leaks to CTV’s Craig Oliver and the Post’s John Iverson?

For conservatives who want to implement controversial changes, for liberals who are concerned that the Executive maintains fiscal powers and the flexibility necessary to manage the economy in emergencies, and for social democrats who wish to legislate comprehensive new national programs, the bill makes zero sense.

Even for no-name democrats who want to encourage more people to vote in federal elections, the bill makes no sense.

American election data provides decisive evidence about what happens in national elections that elect legislators and not also the president. US voter turnout shows that approximately another 15% of eligible voters don’t bother to turn out. Indeed, having the presidency at stake in the 2012 election pulled out 40 million voters who didn’t bother to vote in the 2010 midterm elections.

Mr. Chong may believe he pulled his vote, won his election, and represents his voters. Those notions may inspire him to be a superior MP. But they are not and have not been true for nearly a hundred years. His prime minister also won in his vote and is privileged and obliged as well to try to represent them.   

No comments:

Post a Comment