By Aaron Wherry - Thursday, May 2, 2013 - 0 Comments
Here is Elizabeth May’s news conference on her bill to amend the Elections Act. Near the end, she claims that another MP might come forward to propose a similar bill.
Colin Horgan noted four weeks ago that the Reform party’s policy book in 1989 contained a similar sentiment.
“We believe in accountability of elected representatives to the people who elect them, and that the duty of elected members to their constituents should supersede their obligations to their political parties,” the 1989 Reform Party manifesto stated.
It also contained a proposal: “The Canada Elections Act must be amended to eliminate clauses which place Members of Parliament in a position beholden to their national Party Executive or Leader rather than their constituents (such as the provisions for the signing of nomination papers). This is essential.”
There is some reason to fret about what such a change might bring about.
By Aaron Wherry - Wednesday, May 1, 2013 at 4:16 PM - 0 Comments
Elizabeth May has just now tabled a bill that would remove the Elections Act’s requirement of a party leader’s endorsement for an individual to run in an election under a party banner, at least in ridings where a riding association exists to endorse the candidate.
Here is the full text of the bill. Bruce Hyer is apparently seconding it.
I wrote about Michael Chong’s suggestion of doing so two years ago. It would be, potentially, a very real and very significant change to the system.
Ms. May has scheduled a news conference for tomorrow morning to discuss her bill.
Update 6:30pm. One caveat: As has been noted, this is not the only bill Ms. May has on offer. She tells me she’s not sure yet if the above bill will be the one she brings forward when her turn arrives.
By Aaron Wherry - Wednesday, March 13, 2013 at 2:34 PM - 0 Comments
Conservative Senator Bert Brown worries about what will happen if the Senate is abolished.
The outgoing elected senator from Alberta and the government’s point man in the upper chamber on Senate reform is adamant that reform is needed instead of abolition because without the Senate, Canadians could become subject to the dictatorial whims of a prime minister.
“It’s one of the five major institutions of the Canadian government and if you were to take that away, you’d just be creating a dictatorship,” Brown said in an interview in his office overlooking Parliament Hill. “Anytime you get a prime minister that won’t listen to anything but his own advice, you get some of the crazy things that we’ve seen.”
The lack of a second chamber, for instance, is why all of this country’s provinces have long since ceased to be functioning democracies.
But then Senator Brown also seems to believe that prime ministers have already carried on like dictators.
“What I’ve finally learned in the last little while is we’ve had too many prime ministers that became their own dictatorship. Take a look at it. When you are young — reasonably young — and you’ve just become an MP, if you have any liking of the job at all, you’re not going to criticize the prime minister of the day. If you get to be a minister, you’re certainly not going to speak even against the prime minister,” Brown said.
So the Senate must be maintained because the House of Commons cannot be trusted to hold the prime minister accountable.
This seems rather defeatist and I’m not sure how much evidence there is to suggest that the Senate has generally acted as a regular and worthwhile check on the prime minister’s power—ironically, in the case of Mr. Harper, the Senate might be preventing him from moving forward with legislation to reform the chamber—but perhaps Mr. Brown’s concerns open the door to a grand bargain on parliamentary reform. To deal with his concerns, let’s amend the Elections Act to remove the power a party leader has over the ability of individuals to run under the party banner, let’s reform Question Period to reduce the power of the parties to determine who gets to ask questions, let’s reform the estimates process and let’s empower the committees of the House. Then, with the House better empowered, we can safely the abolish the Senate.
By Aaron Wherry - Friday, February 15, 2013 at 4:13 PM - 0 Comments
NDP MP Kennedy Stewart has tabled a motion to study opening up the House to online petitions, including the possibility of a mechanism whereby those petitions could trigger debates.
That the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs be instructed to recommend changes to the Standing Orders and other conventions governing petitions so as to establish an electronic petitioning system that would enhance the current paper-based petitions system by allowing Canadians to sign petitions electronically, and to consider, among other things, (i) the possibility to trigger a debate in the House of Commons outside of current sitting hours when a certain threshold of signatures is reached, (ii) the necessity for no fewer than five Members of Parliament to sponsor the e-petition and to table it in the House once a time limit to collect signatures is reached, (iii) the study made in the 38th Parliament regarding e-petitions, and that the Committee report its findings to the House, with proposed changes to the Standing Orders and other conventions governing petitions, within 12 months of the adoption of this order.
It could conceivably be modelled on the White House’s online petitioning hub—and conceivably that could lead to an important parliamentary debate on the feasibility of building a Death Star—or the UK model for online petitions.
The future of government is probably going to involve open data and the future of Parliament should probably involve more direct and open engagement with the public.
By Aaron Wherry - Friday, February 15, 2013 at 2:31 PM - 0 Comments
Tom Clark: But let’s be realistic though, if a backbencher votes against his own government, the future is not terribly bright for that backbencher. I mean the chances of you getting into cabinet or even being a parliamentary secretary become rather limited if you are seen as somebody who’s holding your own executive account and also from time to time, I suppose voting against them.
Brent Rathgeber: Sure but that’s premised on the suggestion that it’s only the executive that’s important in this city or in this country and I dispute that premise. I think legislature is important. We’re the ones that pass the laws. We’re the ones that pass the appropriation for the government to make and that’s Parliament as a collective. So I think the role as being a legislature is being a member of Parliament is important in holding the government to account and to assure that the executive pays attention to the tax dollars that they spend.
At the same time, Mr. Rathgeber acknowledged one of the natural tensions of the party system.
Well it’s difficult to serve more than one master and certainly my primary loyalty is to my constituents; they’re the ones that elected me. But I also have a loyalty to the prime minister and to the Conservative Party of Canada because after all, I was elected under their banner and I have no delusions that I would have been elected had it been under some other banner, certainly not Alberta.
So you have dual loyalties. So you look at it at a case by case basis.
That tension will probably always exist, no matter what is done to reform the House. And the goal of reform shouldn’t be to create 308 independent MPs. Rather, it should be to better balance the power between party and MP. The aim should be to make the individual MP more important, useful and interesting—more than merely a name on a ballot, more than a placeholder and more than a messenger for his or her political party.
Part of changing that is going to involve structural reform (amending the Elections Act, changing the way the House does its business), but another part of that could and should be nothing more than individual MPs acknowledging their individual responsibilities and asserting themselves. Consider Mr. Rathgeber. Why is he receiving attention and praise like this? Because he has a blog, on which he periodically conveys opinions that do not seem to have been vetted by the Prime Minister’s staff and variously expresses himself using phrases that do not seem to have been scripted for him.
This is not quite revolutionary. Or at least it should not seem the least bit revolutionary. But here we are. On the way to fixing everything, perhaps more MPs could start blogs. (Note: Ted Hsu has one too.)
By Aaron Wherry - Monday, February 4, 2013 at 11:03 AM - 0 Comments
Conservative MP Brent Rathgeber considers how to improve the House of Commons.
But since removal of the Cameras in the House is similarly not a viable option, perhaps the methods of covering proceedings should be modified. By allowing the cameras and the microphones to be live only on the person recognized by the Speaker, the result is a highly sanitized version of what is actually going on. Wide angle or even random camera shots would certainly give the public a more realistic display of proceedings including questionable behavior. The advent of camera phones means that a public official’s behavior may be recorded and scrutinized in any public location. Yet, off camera conduct in the House of Commons allows bad behavior to occur with virtual impunity.
But a better solution to improve decorum in the House would be to change the significance of what actually goes on there. A lawyer in a Court of Law would never goof off because he must intently listen to the proceedings in order to prepare his next line of questioning or closing argument. But overreliance on Talking Points in Parliamentary proceedings has made following the previous debate unnecessary and formulating one’s argument essentially non-existent. Reading a prepared text (often prepared by an official) means literacy skills have supplanted actual debating skills.
Moreover, since the votes, almost without exception, break down strictly on party lines, there is even less need for non-participants in the actual debate to follow along. The Whips Office will happily advise them when to stand and how to vote.
Changing the rules that govern TV coverage is within the purview of the House of Commons: although Mr. Rathgeber might have to convince the government side’s deputy House leader, Tom Lukiwski, who, tabling possibly the saddest argument in the history of parliamentary democracy, fretted last year that the current camera angles were showing too many empty seats.
The reading of speeches wouldn’t be so offensive if what was being read wasn’t so seemingly scripted. And scripts would likely be less prevalent if what was being said actually mattered. And the words spoken might matter if the result of the debate wasn’t already determined. And free votes might be more prevalent if party leaders didn’t hold so much power over MPs.
Sooner or later, some MP is going to have to take a real run at the current system and table a bill that amends the Elections Act to remove the requirement that a candidate have the signature of the party leader to run in an election.
By Aaron Wherry - Monday, February 4, 2013 at 8:00 AM - 0 Comments
Over the weekend, the Liberal leadership frontrunner released his democratic reform platform, including measures to “loosen the grip of the Prime Minister’s Office on Parliament.”
Members of a Liberal government caucus led by me would be required to vote with the Cabinet on only three categories of bills: those that implement the 2015 Liberal platform; those that enable budget or significant money measures; and those that speak to the shared values embodied in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
I further believe that prorogation and omnibus legislation have become means for governments to evade scrutiny and democratic accountability. In the case of prorogation, it should never be used to abet governments in their avoidance of difficult political circumstances. As for omnibus bills, they are a simple affront to Parliament and the people who are represented there, and we will not use them.
We will also strengthen the committee system, both in Cabinet and in Parliament. In Cabinet, we will appoint non-Cabinet MPs to committees to ensure that a wider variety of voices are heard as policy is developed. In Parliament, we will strengthen the role of committee chairs and create a more robust system of oversight and review for members from all parties in the House and Senate. Specifically, Parliamentary committees should be given more resources to acquire independent, expert analysis of proposed legislation. Continue…
By Aaron Wherry - Friday, February 1, 2013 at 3:13 PM - 0 Comments
An exchange between Conservative MP Harold Albrecht and Minister of State Ted Menzies from this morning’s QP.
There are at two problems here.
First, the Speaker—in this case, Deputy Speaker Joe Comartin—should have interjected to rule the question out of order. It has nothing to do with the administrative responsibility of government. (It doesn’t even pretend to have anything to do with the administrative responsibility of government. I argued on Tuesday that the moment Mr. Albrecht starts talking about the NDP, the Speaker should intervene. But even if you think it is somehow too overbearing to interject based on the preamble of a question, even the actual question here isn’t about government business—it’s about NDP policy, or at least the version of NDP that Mr. Albrecht has been sent up to read.)
Second, shouldn’t Harold Albrecht have something better to do? Mr. Albrecht is a backbench MP. He could be asking about something to do with his riding. He could be conveying a concern that has been raised with him by his constituents. He could be asking the government to account for something that he is curious about. He could be expressing a concern he has about the government’s actions in some regard. He could be anywhere else doing just about anything other than this. Mr. Albrecht is a former school board trustee, pastor and dentist who has contributed to relief efforts in Honduras, Venezuela, Colombia, Zambia, Nepal, India and the Dominican Republic. He has won three elections in Kitchener-Conestoga. He owns a hobby farm. He is wearing a suit. Why would we ever want such an adult, as part of their duty as an elected representative of their fellow citizens, to stand in the House of Commons, home to the 308 individuals elected to serve and represent us, and read such stuff into the record?
We shouldn’t (as, again, I wrote on Tuesday). Free Harold Albrecht, I say.
By Aaron Wherry - Thursday, January 31, 2013 at 11:24 AM - 0 Comments
The Conservatives approved a motion of time allocation yesterday, this time on debate of Bill C-43.
By the NDP’s math, that was the 28th time the Conservatives have used time allocation to limit debate in the House during this Parliament. According to the New Democrats, the Conservatives have used closure another two times.
A full historical perspective would probably require determining how much debate was allowed on each bill and what sorts of bills were subject to time allocation and closure in the past—it can’t be said that time allocation and closure are inherently bad measures, in many ways they could be defended as necessary.
But the annotated standing orders do provide for a quick and dirty mathematical comparison. If you dig through the notes on time allocation (page 286) and closure (page 214), you get the following numbers for previous Parliaments with a majority government.
2001-2004. 14 uses of time allocation, 4 uses of closure.
1997-2000. “At least” 30 uses of time allocation, 2 uses of closure
1993-1997. “At least” 30 uses of time allocation, 5 uses of closure
1988-1993. “At least” 30 uses of time allocation, 15 uses of closure
1984-1988. “More than” 20 uses of time allocation, 2 uses of closure
1980-1984. “More than” 20 uses of time allocation, 2 uses of closure
1974-1979. 15 uses of time allocation, 0 uses of closure
1969-1974. 3 uses of time allocation, 1 use of closure
(Note: Closure numbers are based on what is cited in the annotated standing orders. We might allow for the possibility that some uses of closure are not mentioned there.)
If the Conservatives are presently at 28 uses of time allocation, that would seemingly put them on pace to smash the acknowledged record. Is that because they are particularly disrespectful of parliamentary debate? Is it because this collection of opposition MPs is particularly obstinate in their desire to fight government legislation on the floor of the House? Is this an efficient and useful approach to parliamentary democracy? Or a worrying trend?
I suspect you will receive differing opinions on all of those questions. Regardless, it’s another issue to throw on the pile of questions we’re building about how the House operates and how the House should operate.
By Aaron Wherry - Tuesday, January 29, 2013 at 12:43 PM - 0 Comments
I can think of nothing worse than changing the rules of a game with the express intention of handicapping one participant. The subject of electoral reform has attracted many intelligent, thoughtful people to discuss its merits; perverting it into another partisan ploy will undo all of that effort if, as we’re claiming to improve the system, we are seen to be penalizing the Tories. If electoral reform comes to Canada it must be at the insistence of Canadians, through a referendum, or with the cooperation of all parties. The idea of explicitly excluding the Conservatives from the process of reform cannot be condemned in harsh enough terms; that we might even consider at all it is a damning indictment of our political conversation.
By Aaron Wherry - Tuesday, January 29, 2013 at 9:46 AM - 0 Comments
NDP House leader Nathan Cullen has now released his proposal for improving decorum in the House. Here is the motion he hopes to put before the House.
That the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs be instructed to recommend changes to the Standing Orders, procedures and practices to increase the authority of the Speaker in order to impose disciplinary measures against Members who use harassment, threats, personal attacks, or extreme misrepresentation of facts or position in the House, particularly regarding Statements by Members and Oral Questions, including:
i. Revoking questions during Oral Questions from parties whose Members have been disruptive
ii. Issuing a warning to Members for a first offense
iii. Suspending Members from the service of the House for one sitting day for a second offense; five days for a third offense; and twenty days for a fourth offense
iv. Suspending Members’ sessional allowance for the duration of their suspension from the service of the House
And that the Committee report its findings to the House within six months of the adoption of this order.
The penalties are an interesting touch, but ultimately this will come down to a discussion of where to draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour and that gets tricky very quickly (what constitutes an “extreme misrepresentation of the facts” and who will judge that?). Which is not to say that discussion shouldn’t be had. It should be and it will be valuable and I look forward to hearing it.
This is similar, in method, to what Michael Chong proposed for QP reform: charging a committee with studying the issue around certain parameters and suggesting changes. To get the sort of debate, consideration and buy-in from other MPs that is going to be necessary to make changes to the standing orders, this is probably a reasonable way to go about it (as opposed to simply using a private member’s bill to propose changes).
By Aaron Wherry - Monday, January 28, 2013 at 10:30 AM - 0 Comments
An email from the Joyce Murray campaign yesterday: Ms. Murray is pleased with the latest endorsement of a one-time electoral pact.
The Pundits Agree: Cooperation Only Way To Defeat Harper
For several months, Joyce has been traveling across the country talking to Canadians about her plan for political cooperation to defeat Stephen Harper in the next election. Joyce believes that must be the #1 priority of the millions of Canadians who agree that the Harper government is bad for progress, bad for equality and bad for Canada.
Her plan is simple: a one-off approach to cooperation with national progressive parties in ridings in the next election where Stephen Harper’s candidate failed to win 50% support. But she will leave the ultimate decision to members and supporters at the riding level, not a top-down directive.
Her plan has been making headlines across the country and was front and centre at the Vancouver debate last weekend. It is bold and it is clear – two things Liberals know we need to be again.
But here’s the blunt and simple point: Joyce Murray is the only candidate for the Leadership of the Liberal Party with a plan to defeat Harper in the next election.
The National Post’s Andrew Coyne backed her plan in a column on the need for political cooperation and democratic reform. Like Joyce, he thinks cooperation is one of the best ways to defeat Harper.
Take a read of Andrew’s column and if you agree, come join the campaign and support Joyce’s plan.
This is our opportunity to change the political landscape in Canada; don’t miss out.
I’m not sure Andrew and Ms. Murray are proposing quite the same thing though. Ms. Murray’s proposal doesn’t seem to include a particularly quick passing of electoral reform and then immediately calling a new election. In an interview with CP she suggests a blue ribbon panel or royal commission would study possible changes and then the public would be asked for input, possibly including a referendum. That’s not quite the same as turning the next election into a referendum on electoral reform and then calling a new election as quickly as possible.
By Aaron Wherry - Saturday, January 26, 2013 at 9:00 AM - 0 Comments
Andrew Coyne has another go at making the case for a one-time electoral cooperation pact among the opposition parties to achieve electoral reform, as Elizabeth May has also recently proposed. I still think this is a crazy idea.
Andrew notes that the New Democrats, Liberals and Greens are variously interested in replacing our first-past-the-post system for electing MPs. He then builds his case thusly.
It will be objected that much of this is merely an expression of the parties’ self interest, or more charitably that their principles show a remarkable tendency to align with their self-interest: under proportional representation the Greens would win many more seats than the one they have now, as until recently would the NDP, while the alternative vote tends to favour middle of the road parties like the Liberals. Fair enough. I happen to think these are also useful reforms in the public interest. But it is to those parties’ supporters I address myself here: to their self-interest as much as their ideals.
Because none of this is going to happen as things stand: neither the Conservatives’ defeat nor the democratic reforms each proposes would follow. It is not going to happen so long as the Conservatives maintain their apparently unshakeable hold on 35% to 40% of the voters that have stuck with them for much of the past decade. And it is not going to happen so long as the rest is divided up more or less evenly amongst two or three opposition parties…
So the long-term answer to the opposition’s dilemma is electoral reform, based on some form of proportonal representation. But that isn’t going to happen until they can figure out how to beat the Conservatives in the short term. The obvious answer is for the three parties to cooperate in some way at the ballot box: to combine, rather than split their votes.
The premise here seems to be that it is unlikely the Conservatives will win anything less than another majority mandate in 2015. If you were taking wagers right now, approximately two years away from the next vote, the odds would obviously have to favour the Conservatives. But another Conservative majority is not nearly a sure thing. The Conservatives polled at 33% in December. And the two years between now and the next election leave plenty of time for unforeseen developments. Incumbents at the federal level have a tendency to hold power for awhile, but they also have a tendency to eventually lose.
Could the New Democrats or Liberals win a majority government in 2015? It looks unlikely now, but the NDP was ahead of the Conservatives and in the mid-30s a year ago and the Liberals were ahead of the Conservatives and in the mid-30s in 2009. If the threshold for a majority government is around 39%, the possibility of an NDP or Liberal majority can’t be entirely dismissed.
Eight and a half years ago, the Liberals won a minority government with 36.7% of the popular vote. The Conservatives took 29.6%, the NDP 15.7% and the Bloc Quebecois 12.4%. How possible is it that the New Democrats or Liberals could win 36% of the popular vote in 2015? Could we see something like a 35-30-25 split with the Liberals or New Democrats in first and the Conservatives in second? Maybe you wouldn’t wager your life savings on it happening, but you’d be unwise to wager your life savings on it not happening.
But then, the opposition parties don’t even need to “win” the next election, do they? If the Conservatives are reduced to a minority and the House of Commons math works for the other parties, some combination of the New Democrats, Liberals and Greens could form a coalition government. How possible is a coalition government taking power in 2015? (We nearly had one in 2008. And with that experience, the parties might now be better prepared to pull it off.) Once again, you might not want to bet on it, but you can’t discount the possibility entirely either.
So an NDP or Liberal minority or a NDP-Liberal-Green coalition are within the realm of possibility (and not merely as far-fetched scenarios). And either scenario, I would posit, could result in a government interested in electoral reform. Andrew might be right that the long-term situation seems, right now, to favour the Conservatives. But I don’t think that means the next election result is assured. And therein lies a real opportunity for change.
Andrew proceeds to consider the options. He rules out a merger as unrealistic (I agree). He writes that a “formal coalition” also wouldn’t work (I disagree). He then arrives at his preferred option.
As it happens, however, an alternative has emerged that has found significant supporters in all three parties. It is to forge a purely temporary alliance, a one-time electoral pact. Party riding associations would agree to run a single candidate against the Conservatives, on a platform with essentially one plank: electoral reform. Were it to win it would govern just long enough to reform the electoral system, then dissolve Parliament and call fresh elections.
There are a lot of questions to ask about this proposal. Andrew acknowledges as much.
A favourite counterargument is to rattle off a number of obvious practical questions in quick succession — How would these common candidates be selected? Would this apply in all ridings, or just some? Could voters be persuaded to turn the election into a referendum on electoral reform? — in a tone that implies they could not be answered. Which is certainly true, as long as no one bothers to try.
Let’s allow that some of the finer details could be worked out. I think there are valid questions to be asked about how the parties would sort this out amongst themselves, but let’s imagine that those questions could be answered and those problems solved. Let’s just deal with that third question: could an election be turned into a referendum on electoral reform?
Are enough voters so interested in electoral reform that they would support turning the next election into a referendum on that subject? Could enough voters be convinced to momentarily suspend their concerns about other issues? Could enough voters be convinced to ignore the other policy differences between the NDP, Liberals and Greens? Could enough voters be convinced to ignore the possible ramifications of all other policy debates between the parties to vote with the hope that a real election would then be run in short order?
I’ll try to answer those questions: No. Granted, I can’t predict the future with certainty (and have just finished arguing against making such predictions). Perhaps the New Democrats, Liberals and Greens could persuade voters to make this a singular focus. But this strikes me as implausible. I don’t think voters, in general, are so interested in electoral reform that they’d go along with this. At the very least, it seems like a remarkable gamble for the three parties to make. (And, keep in mind, the Conservatives would be keen to explain, loudly and repeatedly and prominently, why this was such a terrible idea.)
But only here now do we reach what is, for me, the deal breaker. Let’s say another Conservative majority was, under the status quo, overwhelmingly likely. Let’s say voters (or enough voters) were keen (or could be convinced to be keen) to turn the next election into a referendum on electoral reform. Let’s even say that an NDP-Liberal-Green pact would win that referendum.
Fundamentally overhauling the electoral system would probably take more than a couple days. Legislation would conceivably have to be passed through the House. Legislation would conceivably have to be passed through the Senate (how would a Conservative majority in the Senate handle such legislation?).
Even if you imagine this proceeding as expeditiously as possible, this would take some period of time (A month? A few months? More?). Someone would have to be Prime Minister while this was happening. Someone would have to be governing. How would that work? Conceivably they would have no mandate beyond changing the electoral system. Would they promise to not touch anything else for as long as they were in government? Would they promise to just carry on with Conservative policy until another election could be held? (Would anyone believe them if they promised as much?) What if something bad happened? What if something came up that required government action?
This is not a rhetorical device. I’m not trying to bury the idea in questions. I honestly want to know how this would work because I honestly don’t understand how this is supposed to work. What kind of government would we have for however long it took to change the federal electoral system and what would be the ramifications of having such a government?
I basically agree that the way in which we elect MPs could be improved (I recently came down with a crush on the ranked ballot). But I don’t like complicated solutions. Complicated solutions are usually the least achievable. Which is not to say they shouldn’t ever be pursued. But, in this case, I think there are less complicated options that might be entertained first.
By Aaron Wherry - Wednesday, January 23, 2013 at 8:00 AM - 0 Comments
Tim Harper notes the eerie silence around the nation’s legislatures.
Anecdotally, it appears Canadians don’t much care about this and that’s why leaders feel they can get away with it. Prime Minister Stephen Harper brought prorogation back into the vernacular and was re-elected with a majority in 2011. Anyone who spends any time in Ottawa knows that too much time is wasted here on picayune partisan posturing and MPs do have responsibilities in their constituencies. But these 1,066 men and women are elected to represent our interests in a Parliamentary forum…
Canadians are disengaging from politics. That could be because they rarely see their representatives in action. Or perhaps our politicians are using this disengagement as cover for their empty legislatures. Neither conclusion is good news for those who lament the erosion of democracy in this country.
Tim notes Mark Jarvis’ writing on the BC legislature. Here again is my post on the gradual decline of sitting days for the House of Commons. Ned Franks wrote a paper a few years ago on sitting days and parliamentary productivity and you can download that paper here.
Of course, this isn’t purely a mathematical exercise. It is easier to argue that the House of Commons should be sitting more often if what goes on when it is sitting is widely regarded as meaningful. And so this is a two-part argument: the House would likely be more meaningful if it sat more often and if its proceedings were made more meaningful there would likely be more reason for it to be in session. What goes on when the House is sitting is a problem. Here is what I wrote two years ago. And here is what Ned Franks wrote around the same time. It’s all related to the question I asked then: does this place still matter? I argue it should. But that it doesn’t presently matter as much as it should.
For further reading, here is a list I compiled in putting together my piece in 2011.
By Aaron Wherry - Friday, January 18, 2013 at 11:01 AM - 0 Comments
In December, Elizabeth May apparently wrote a letter to New Democrats, Liberals and independent MP Bruce Hyer to discuss ways that opposition MPs might cooperate for the purposes of electoral reform. Ms. May won’t release the letter—she says it was not intended to be released publicly—but she seems to have described the gist to the Hill Times.
“What’s clearly public is that the Green Party is the only party that is fully committed to finding ways to cooperate before the next election with any party that’s prepared to work with us to get past the first-past-the post [election system],” Ms. May said … “That’s really the goal and my public and private views are that if we could find a way, and there’s a big if, in the next election to cooperate with the goal, and we would only cooperate this one time, in order to get rid of first-past-the-post so that in the next election campaign nobody would be worried about, which I think are fairly bogus concerns, about vote splitting,” Ms. May said.
Andrew Coyne floated a similar idea last month and I still have a hard time wrapping my mind around the idea of a one-time electoral pact.
Thomas Mulcair responded to Ms. May on behalf of the NDP on December 19. Here is the text of his response.
Dear Ms May,
Thank you for your December 10th letter regarding democratic and parliamentary reform. I agree with you that the main challenge for parliamentarians and political parties is to encourage the forty percent of eligible citizens who do not vote to do so, and especially to push young Canadians to become engaged in political affairs across the country.
We must also provide to Canadians opportunities to get directly involved in the debate on overdue reforms to our voting system. As you know, the NDP was the first party to make proportional representation a priority in the 1970s. And that is why, the NDP, with Democratic and Parliamentary Reform Critic Craig Scott leading the way, is pursuing consultations with both voters and experts across the country on reforms needed to achieve more adequate representation of the Canadian population.
In September, we were able to meet and discuss topics of importance to all Canadians, and I look forward to continuing these discussions in the near future.
In closing, in the name of the New Democratic Party of Canada and all its members, I would like to wish you a happy holiday season and all the best in 2013.
By Aaron Wherry - Thursday, January 17, 2013 at 10:20 AM - 0 Comments
The Liberal leadership contender writes to party members with his thoughts on democratic reform.
If elected, my proposal would be to reform Canada’s electoral system by changing our voting process to a preferential ballot, or a ranked ballot. Used by many other nations, as well as the leadership races for the Liberal Party of Canada, the federal NDP and the Conservative Party of Canada, a preferential ballot better reflects the will of the people.
Using a ranked ballot, Canadians would no longer tick only one box indicating their first and only choice. Rather, they would rank their choices and tick not only their first choice, but their second, third, fourth, etc. choices. If no candidate wins more than 50 per cent of the votes when the first choice votes are tallied, the bottom candidate is dropped and his or her second choice votes are allocated to those who remain. The process continues until one candidate has achieved at least 50 per cent plus one of the support from that riding. The preferential ballot fundamentally addresses the challenge of vote splitting. Parliament will better reflect the real preferences of its people.
I have lately taken a liking to the idea of a ranked ballot: far less complicated than the various proportional representation scenarios that have been proposed in the past (and thus, I suspect, easier to convince the general public to support), but likely to produce a more representative result.
Mr. Garneau also says he would, as leader, only appoint candidates in exceptional circumstances. Fair enough, but why stop there? Why not go all the way and propose that the requirement that a candidate have the endorsement of his or her leader should be eliminated? If empowering local riding associations is a worthy goal, commit to it fully.
By Aaron Wherry - Wednesday, January 16, 2013 at 8:00 AM - 0 Comments
It is unfortunate when Members of Parliament are reduced to automatons, dependable and loyal above all else. It is not easy to get elected to the House of Commons (or to win a Nomination for that matter). Everyone there brings unique experience and qualifications. In the CPC Caucus, there are lawyers, surgeons, soldiers, cops, teachers, a dentist, businesspeople and farmers. I suspect the other caucuses are similarly diverse and the members qualified.
The Public Service holds no monopoly over expertise in the policy making process. And the Ottawa mandarins are certainly much more removed from a diverse population than MP’s, who live in their ridings and return there every weekend. Our system would benefit if the experience and qualifications of Members of Parliament were given greater emphasis and if Members paid as much deference to their constituents as they do to their whips. Continue…
By Aaron Wherry - Saturday, December 1, 2012 at 11:17 AM - 0 Comments
Chris Selley calls for a move to a ranked ballot.
In the longer term, however, there is a simple and bloody obvious solution to all of this, which is to hold an instant runoff election, using a ranked ballot, in each riding. Non-winning candidates are disqualified in succession, and their votes redistributed, until one has 50%. That way, everyone who goes to Ottawa does so with a majority mandate from his or her constituents. No partisans need be denied their candidate. Citizens needn’t be denied a robust debate between as many different views as desire to be heard. And people who don’t want to vote for anyone but the Greens, or the New Democrats or Conservatives, needn’t do so: They can mark a single X and head home.
No new electoral districts or ridings. No “list members,” who represent nobody but their party. Just the same old House of Commons, but populated using a fuller, more thoughtful, more pragmatic and more democratic expression of voters’ wishes.
By Aaron Wherry - Tuesday, November 6, 2012 at 11:04 AM - 0 Comments
Michael Ignatieff worries.
“I think something really bad has happened to parliamentary democracies all over the world — not just in my country, Canada. What’s happened is increasing power to the prime minister, increasing power to the bureaucracy, and the legislature — parliament — is a kind of empty, pointless debating chamber because it’s all stitched up in advance by party leaders,” Ignatieff said during a weekend panel discussion, aired by the BBC during its annual Free Thinking Festival.
“Honesty requires me to say I was a party leader once,” Ignatieff quickly acknowledged, “and my instincts were always to shut those people [dissenting Liberal MPs] down wherever I could. So I’m completely, flagrantly contradicting what my interests were not two years ago.” Ignatieff, appearing as part of a public panel alongside former Irish President Mary Robinson and Israeli author and journalist Amos Oz, said: “I do think we’ve got to have more free votes in parliament.” He conceded that such a change “will make it much more difficult for prime ministers and party leaders,” but better for citizens if they are “represented by MPs who can think and act on their conscience and on your interest.”
I can’t entirely disagree with Mr. Ignatieff because I basically wrote the same thing two years ago. But the “free vote” is like Westminster democracy’s unicorn: an idealized dream that would apparently make everything better if only we could somehow get it. (Fun fact: The Conservative party’s 2006 platform promised that a Conservative government would “make all votes in Parliament, except the budget and main estimates, ‘free votes’ for ordinary Members of Parliament.”)
If every vote was a free vote, our party system would probably collapse. Maybe that’s what some of us desire, but if we’d still like to maintain the basic parameters of the Westminster system, we need to find a balance between the unicorn that is dreamed about and the beached whale we have now. For the most part, I think, that means shifting some of the power that has congealed around the prime minister back to individual members and the legislature. On various fronts, consider the reforms suggested here by Peter Aucoin, Mark Jarvis and Lori Turnbull. As to the power of the individual MP, I’d start with rewriting the Elections Act to remove the veto that party leaders effectively hold over who runs under a party’s banner. That’s probably a private member’s bill waiting to happen. Or a leadership campaign proposal (if only there was a leadership candidate who was promising to do things differently).
So here are my questions. If Michael Ignatieff had it to do over again, would he propose rewriting the Elections Act to remove one of his greatest powers as party leader? And, if so, why didn’t he propose it at the time?
(The latter question is not meant to suggest he’s a hypocrite. I think there is probably a valuable conversation to be had about the very real pressures on a party leader that make it difficult to enact reform.)
By Aaron Wherry - Wednesday, October 10, 2012 at 4:08 PM - 0 Comments
Conservative MP Dan Albas suggests the government side needs more time in QP to respond.
The biggest challenge to question period that many in the public are unaware of is that questions and answers are time limited, currently the amount of time a Member of Parliament is allowed to ask a question is 35 seconds. Likewise for a member on the Government side of the house, 35 seconds is also the time limit for a response. Members can at times ask a supplemental however it is again subject to the same 35 seconds as is the response from Government.
While it is possible to ask a meaningful question in 35 seconds, I am certain most would agree that when it comes to governance, very few answers can be given in such a short timeframe. As a result often questions become comments or statements and the responses follow a similar pattern, all of course with a very political theme. Typically the thirty five seconds in many cases ends up being utilized as an effort to score political points often with quickly delivered commentary that often is more frequently evaluated by the performance of the orator then the actual content.
Of course, no matter how much time is available, the quality of the response still depends primarily on the responder’s willingness to engage the question asked, but let’s go along with both Kady’s proposal and Mr. Albas’ complaint.
At present, the House is getting through 39 questions and responses in about 45 minutes each day. If members’ statements were moved and those 15 minutes between 2pm and 2:15pm given to Question Period, each of the 39 questions and 39 responses could be given about 45 seconds. Still not enough time? If the House went with 35 questions per day, each question and each response would get 50 seconds. Cut it back to 30 questions per day and each side gets a full minute for every question and every response.
Personally, I’d be happy to cover an hour-long QP that covered 30 questions and responses.
By Aaron Wherry - Monday, August 20, 2012 at 2:17 PM - 0 Comments
Stephane Dion’s speech on electoral reform to the Green party convention this past weekend.
By Aaron Wherry - Thursday, June 7, 2012 at 11:38 AM - 0 Comments
After Michael Chong’s motion to reform QP was passed at second reading during the last Parliament, the Procedure and House Affairs Committee began a study—transcript here—of his proposals. Unfortunately, that study wasn’t completed before the government was defeated and Parliament dissolved.
Mr. Chong is currently 123rd in the order of precedence for private members’ business, so it will be awhile yet before he can put a motion before the House again, but his proposals are apparently still lingering somewhere in the Procedure and House Affairs Committee’s review of the standing orders. Here’s how Joe Preston, the committee chair, explained it to me in an email this week.
During this current session of Parliament, we have had the opportunity to discuss some of Mr. Chong’s proposals further by incorporating his thoughts into our review of the standing orders. This study is still ongoing and the committee as a whole has agreed it will return to this discussion once the items at the forefront of our agenda are completed.
That review has been taking place in camera, so it is difficult to say where things stand, but it is apparently unlikely that the review will be completed before the House rises for the summer.
By Aaron Wherry - Friday, June 1, 2012 at 4:13 PM - 0 Comments
“We would no longer be sitting in hockey teams, with our coaches dying to send us over the boards for a brawl,” Hyer said. “We’d get to know them as people.” The MP, who is now free to speak and vote as he wishes, thinks the move would end the “mindless solidarity and tribalism” he sees around him and improve cooperation and decorum.
I am legitimately intrigued by this idea, even if I think there’s nothing particularly bad about the traditional setup. I think I’d just like to see what Mr. Hyer’s House would be like.
By Aaron Wherry - Monday, May 28, 2012 at 8:00 AM - 0 Comments
In interview with Tom Cark, Bruce Hyer says he is enjoying independence, he’ll never go back to a party that whips votes and he has sympathizers.
Well, I certainly do know Tom that since I decided to become an Independent not only can I say what I want, think what I want, vote the way I want, but I’m finding myself already more effective. I’ve got more questions in Question Period. I’ve got more statements. I get to give more speeches. I get to be my own person and more importantly, I get to stand up for my constituents as well as my conscience …
You know it’s quite interesting Tom that many of the caucus members, I’m not going to identify them individually, but well over a third of the caucus members have expressed considerable sympathy for why I did it and kind of agree with me. And interestingly, many of those are the young Quebecois MP’s who believe more in democracy than they do in party discipline.
Without names or corroborating evidence, it’s difficult to know what to make of Mr. Hyer’s claim of support. Quebec, though, would seem to demonstrate how the party system and the focus we place on the party leader serve to get candidates elected. To look at it one way: Of the 1.6 million Quebeckers who voted for the NDP in the last election, how many would’ve voted for the New Democrat candidate if that candidate had been running for a different party?
Of course, Quebec in the 2011 election is an extreme example. But the general idea still holds. Our elections are contests of potential prime ministers and their parties. Is that because voters want it to be so or because they see it to be so in Ottawa? Do voters want party and leader to be what matters or do they simply understand our politics that way because of how subservient the average MP is? Which came first: the system or the public’s understanding of the system?
As for Mr. Hyer’s claim to be more active, I count 12 interventions in his first three weeks of independence versus three interventions in his last three weeks as an NDP MP. Perhaps he’s adopting Elizabeth May’s approach to the House.