Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Some (More) Musings on Canadian Democracy

Let me get on my soap box so you can see me better.  I ask that you hold your questions until the end… I can’t promise to answer all your questions or comments but I can assure that I will read them and consider them…

Friends and neighbours, I’d like to speak for a bit on a subject very dear to me, a subject I feel is very important to all of us, the subject of Democracy.

Now I don’t plan on going into a long winded explanation of how we got Democracy from the Greeks or how it was used throughout the ages, I’m just going to touch upon Canadian Democracy.

Our Democracy.

I came across an item while I was looking for something else about how Members of Parliament, prior to the Second World War, were required to  surrender their seat in the House of Commons and run in a by-election if they were deemed worthy to be a member of Cabinet.

This intrigued me.  Imagine, after winning an election the newly minted Prime Minister comes to you and says “I’d like you to be my Minister of …” and then you’d have to decide whether you wanted to be in Cabinet. 

Today it would be a no brainer, a pay raise, a larger staff, a title, it all sounds good doesn’t it?  But back then you’d have to decide if you wanted the headaches and hassle of running again for the seat that you had just won, and the risk that you might lose.

Why would they do such a thing? 

It was tradition, it was the convention, it was done that way because that was the way it was done.

But this wasn’t some strange idea that Canadians dreamed up to complicate running a Country, it was in fact part of the Westminster Parliamentary system.  This was and is the system we inherited from Britain when we became a Country in our own right.

At that time, the Parties didn’t have as much control over the individual or Private Members of the House of Commons.  An MP’s job was to represent their constituency and to hold the Government to account.   The Government being the Prime Minister and the Cabinet. 

Now if you’ve ever watched Question Period from the House in London, you may have seen vestiges of this.  Occasionally a Member from the Government Side of the House will rise to ask a pointed question about policy or a proposed law which would not be a good thing for their home constituency.  As a Private Member, you have the ability to challenge the Government, as a Member of Cabinet, you do not.

You see as a Minister you are required to support any policy or legislation that the Government brings forward even if you think it is a bad idea, even if it is bad for your constituency.

So there was merit in having these by elections back then.  If the people supported Bob Brown because they thought he would do a good job of representing them even if he belonged to the wrong party, the people could toss Bob out and elect someone else if they didn’t like the Party he was affiliated with, the Government he would be representing.

But things certainly have changed.  At least here they have.

It certainly is a rare event to hear an MP stand up to his or her own Party.  It’s political suicide.  At best you’d likely lose any status you have built up with the Party and be a back bencher for life, and at worst you might have your seat taken away and a new candidate parachuted in to replace you.  Today you cannot run for the Party of your choice unless the leader of the Party signs your nomination papers so it is best to keep the leader happy if you want to be an MP.

So whatever happened to this odd rule?  Well after a number of minority governments in the 1920s, it just disappeared in the 1930s.

You see this wasn’t a law that you had to run in a by-election, it wasn’t even a real rule.  It was merely a convention, like saying “Thank you” or “You’re welcome”, you don’t Have to say these things, but we generally do anyway… it’s the way things are done. 

Many of the “rules” we have in our Parliamentary system are just conventions.  It’s part of the way our Democracy works.

Have you ever wondered why when the Speaker of the House is selected, they are escorted to the Speaker’s Chair by the leaders of the Government and the Opposition?  Have you ever wondered why they pretend they don’t want the job?

It’s part of the same thing.  Traditionally the Speaker was chosen from the Opposition side to weaken the Opposition and to show that the Speaker holds no favouritism to the Government.  The Speaker also surrenders their ability to speak for their constituents in the House.

The use of the prorogue is another example.  Traditionally the prorogue was used by the Government to show that they have met the goals they set out in the Throne Speech and to provide a break with which to draw up a new set of goals and a new Throne Speech.  Often a prorogue would be called when there is a normal break scheduled for the Legislature.  This would give the Government plenty of time to set a new agenda, but there are also examples of short breaks as well, such as a prorogue in Ontario’s Provincial Parliament that lasted only a few hours.

It’s kind of handy for historians too.  A prorogue can break up a Parliament into Sessions, so if you are looking for a specific item, you wouldn’t have 4 or 5 years worth of information to go through, but only 2 or 3.  You could look for the 42nd Parliament, 2nd Session for example.

However, the prorogue has also been abused, used as a “get out of trouble card” if a Government is having a bad go of it.

Jean Chrétien prorogued Parliament during the Sponsorship Scandal, but he was on his way out as Liberal leader and Paul Martin could very well have used the same tool to set his agenda as he was coming in to replace Chrétien.

Stephen Harper has also used the prorogue to get out of trouble twice so far.  Once when the opposition parties were lining up to bring down his minority government and then again when the Afghan detainee situation was threatening to boil over.  Lately Harper has said he will prorogue again this summer, he claims it is so he can set a new agenda but the Senate Scandal that is knocking at his door suggests other motives are at play.

Listen, as a people we have seen some great changes in our electoral system.  We have gone from a show of hands at a local beer hall to the secret ballot.  We have gone from a time when only men of wealth or property were the only ones who could vote to a time where virtually all citizens have the right to vote and there are not a lot of places that can say that.

But, while our electoral system has been improved, our governance has gone the other way.  Our individual MPs , our voices in the House are for the most part muzzled.  If you want to be more than a backbencher for your political career  you pretty much have to toe the Party line and that rings true for pretty much all the parties, but even more so for some.

I would love to see at least one backbencher on the Harper side of the House stand up and say "No" to limiting debate, to say "No" to omnibus legislation.

We need our MPs to have voices again and not just parrot the party line regardless which party is handing out the talking points.

So how do we do this?  I don’t know.

I don’t even know If we can do this. 

We have seen the gradual diminishment of the MP to the point where they are little more than place markers in the House of Commons.  After we find out how many seats each party won, we don’t need ‘em any more.

The power in Ottawa appears to be getting so concentrated that we may not even need a Cabinet any more other than to reward good MPs for reading their talking points and not being an embarrassment to the Government.  It seems all they do is read their talking points anyways, and that includes the Cabinet Ministers.

Short of pointy sticks or cattle prods, how do we remind our MPs that we sent them to Ottawa to represent us and not to just send us periodic reports on what a wonderful job their leader is (or would be) doing.

Maybe we should go back through the long forgotten conventions of our Parliamentary system and make them use them again, in the ways they are supposed to be used?  Maybe 39 by-elections for Cabinet appointments would make people wonder what the devil is going on in Ottawa?

So endeth the Rant for Today,

I appreciate your time.

Cheers! BC

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