By Aaron Wherry - Monday, May 7, 2012 - 0 Comments
The New Democrats have called a news conference for 10:30am this morning to outline their “plan for ensuring a full study of the Conservative’s omnibus budget bill.” Thomas Mulcair mused this weekend of both “parliamentary” and “legal” options, while environmental groups are planning a national ad campaign.
Meanwhile, the committee system is already strained.
Franks says he’s long been worried about the excessive number of Commons committees. The whole point of the committee system is to allow a small group of MPs to develop expertise in certain areas and, hence, to provide meaningful, quasi-independent input on legislation and important issues of the day. That can’t happen if MPs don’t have time to learn the files.
… That said, Franks believes excessive partisanship is the bigger problem underlying the ineffectiveness of Canada’s committee system. And he doesn’t blame the Harper Conservatives for that, at least not exclusively … The root of the trouble, as Franks sees it, is the inordinate control party leaders in Canada exercise over their MPs, from their ability to dictate who may run in an election to their power to punish those who break ranks.
Mark Jarvis and Lori Turnbull consider how Parliament might be fixed.
See previously: Saving the House of Commons
By Aaron Wherry - Friday, May 4, 2012 at 4:57 PM - 0 Comments
In the House, the prime minister and government have considerable control over day-to-day operations. This allows governments not only to set the agenda, but to carry it out with ease. The prime minister commands the steadfast loyalty of his MPs, largely through a carrot-and-stick approach; co-operative MPs might be rewarded with cabinet posts or coveted committee positions, while rogues can be — and at times are — punished with removal from caucus or even barred from running as a candidate for the party in future elections. All of these are vestiges of prime ministerial power. The party caucus has little leverage with which to counterbalance the prime minister’s power because party leaders are chosen (and replaced) by the party at large, rather than by the caucus. Thus, the government’s MPs have no effective mechanism through which to stand their ground against a very powerful leader or effectively represent his or her constituents.
In a rebuttal, F.H. Buckley argues that the Canadian system is preferable to the current American system.
That Canada’s current economic situation is better isn’t necessarily an argument for our Parliament (as one wag joked on Twitter, it’s actually an argument for adopting China’s system of governance). That the Westminster model is more efficient has been noted by various observers over the last few years as the U.S. Congress has descended into dysfunction. But a simple either/or debate oversimplifies matters. The American system isn’t inherently dysfunctional: one of its biggest problems is a rule that didn’t exist until 1975. (The Senate is ripe for reform.)
Buckley concludes with a nod to Ruth Ellen Brosseau. Continue…
By Aaron Wherry - Wednesday, May 2, 2012 at 9:30 AM - 0 Comments
Last night in Toronto, the Donner Prize for the best public policy book in Canada was awarded to Democratizing the Constitution by Mark Jarvis, Lori Turnbull and the late Peter Aucoin. Mark graciously adapted some of the book’s proposals for a contribution to our series on the House last year.
Congratulations to Mark, Lori and Peter’s family.
By Aaron Wherry - Tuesday, May 1, 2012 at 9:19 AM - 0 Comments
In light of the latest call for civility in the House of Commons, here is what I wrote the last time the issue was raised.
Meanwhile, Steve Murray puts forward a real plan for reform (and by “real,” I mean “includes puppies”).
By Aaron Wherry - Monday, April 30, 2012 at 8:30 AM - 0 Comments
Greg Fingas considers Bruce Hyer’s defection in the context of Thomas Mulcair’s hopes for regional outreach. Brian Topp considers Mr. Hyer’s defection in the context of the “bozo eruptions” that apparently hurt Wild Rose’s chances in Alberta.
Our political system tends towards hyper-centralization, and imposes a discipline on elected representatives that, at least some of them sometimes believe, disrespects and disempowers them. A “crisis of surplus consciousness” can result, in which the few at the top end up with too much to do (and therefore cannot do it well), which the vast majority of other team members end up with too little to do (and aren’t happy about it). This, to be precise, used to be said with reference to the hyper-centralized system in place in the Soviet Union. It could also be said of a number of poorly-led, hyper-centralized private corporations. It may be what parliamentary systems inherently drift into.
But as the Alberta election testifies, our political system also brutally punishes political teams who fail to maintain the tightest possible order in their ranks – at least as far as anyone can see – at every stage of proceedings including elections. “Bozo moments,” policy disagreements, strategy debated in public: Any chink of light is seized on as evidence of unfitness for office.
It seems to me there’s a distinction to be made between a candidate saying something that a significant number of voters find offensive and a candidate expressing a different opinion on policy or strategy, but it’s certainly the case that any break in unity is first and foremost discussed as a potential crisis of leadership.
Brian thinks “it is possible to have a respectful, deliberative, democratic political team that then presents a united front,” but the question remains, what does that look like? Continue…
By Aaron Wherry - Tuesday, April 24, 2012 at 3:45 PM - 0 Comments
On the occasion of his departure from the NDP caucus, Bruce Hyer and I chatted today via telephone.
Q: So I guess first off, when did you start to think about becoming an independent MP?
A: I first started to think about it under the whipping by Nycole Turmel after Jack’s death … Immediately after Jack’s death, I was very concerned about his—however it came about—choice of interim leader. I knew it would not be good for the party, which it was not. I was concerned for a variety of reasons.
Q: You were concerned specifically about Nycole Turmel’s leadership?
A: I was concerned about Nycole. But it really became very difficult when I and my constituents were muzzled after the long gun vote.
Q: What were your concerns about Nycole Turmel?
A: There’s no point in going there now … although she is still the whip, which I find quite ironic. We’re into an issue about whipping and Nycole has moved from the head whipper to the assistant whipper now.
Q: So just to clarify, you had two concerns: one, you were concerned about her leadership in general and two, you were bothered by the fact that you were punished after the long gun registry vote?
A: Absolutely. And it’s not about me or my ego, it’s about many things. It’s about my ability to do my job to which I was elected. And so my effectiveness was curtailed during that very long period. Continue…
By Aaron Wherry - Tuesday, April 24, 2012 at 10:30 AM - 0 Comments
Bruce Hyer expands on his reasons for leaving the NDP caucus.
In the 1960s, the ballots were changed to include the party name alongside the candidate’s. The bureaucrats were concerned that some interloper might claim to represent a party, so they changed the rules so that the national party leader had to sign and approve the nomination of all candidates running for their party. It could have been just as easy (and in my mind better) to have the riding president do that, but in one fell swoop the national leaders had a sword of Damocles to hold over every MP. And they use it. Pierre Trudeau described his own backbenchers as mere “trained seals.”
Now leaders rule with iron fists. We are told daily what to say, when to say it, and how to vote. Mr. Mulcair has now made it clear he will bring back the long gun registry, and will use the whip. This flies in the face of both current NDP policy and my commitment to constituents. Another example is how parties are hopelessly locked to polar positions on climate change, making compromise to achieve even piecemeal progress impossible. And parties rarely, if ever, co-operate, with Mr. Mulcair already indicating he is unwilling to co-operate with other parties.
Mr. Hyer mentions a few ideas for reform, including his proposal for random seating in the House. In addition to removing the power to approve candidates from party leaders, he advocates giving a party’s caucus more say over the leader.
By Aaron Wherry - Monday, April 23, 2012 at 11:19 AM - 0 Comments
Stephane Dion proposes a preferential voting system that would expand the size of ridings and elect three to five MPs per riding.
The great advantage of preferential voting is that it promotes cooperation among the parties. It is actually in each party’s interest to persuade those who support other parties that it represents a second acceptable choice … voters should be allowed not only to rank parties by preference, but also to select a candidate. They would choose the candidate they prefer from among those put forward by the party they select as their top preference. In other words, voters would choose only one candidate in the party of their first choice. This would allow Canadians to continue voting for real live candidates, not just for parties. Hence, voting would remain personalized.
This is how the ballots would be counted. First, the voters’ first party preferences would be counted. If one or more parties failed to obtain enough first choices to win a seat, the party that got the smallest number of votes would be eliminated and its voters’ second choices would be transferred to the remaining parties. The second and subsequent choices of the eliminated parties would be allocated until all of the parties still in the running obtain at least one seat. This would produce the percentages of votes that determine the number of seats obtained by the various parties. Then, the voters’ choices as to their preferred candidate among those attached to their preferred party are counted. If a party obtained two seats, that party’s two candidates who received the highest number of votes would win those two seats.
By Aaron Wherry - Tuesday, April 17, 2012 at 4:29 PM - 0 Comments
Italian researchers posit that legislatures would be better off if some members were selected at random from the population.
The scientists made a simple calculation model that mimics the way modern parliaments work, including the effects of particular political parties or coalitions. In the model, individual legislators can cast particular votes that advance either their own interests (one of which is to gain re-election), or the interests of society as a whole. Party discipline comes into play, affecting the votes of officials who got elected with help from their party.
But when some legislators are selected at random – owing no allegiance to any party – the legislature’s overall efficiency improves. That higher efficiency, the scientists explain, comes in “both the number of laws passed and the average social welfare obtained” from those new laws.
Efficiency is generally a nice thing, but I’m more interested in what this could do to remedy everything else that ails the modern legislature and answer those nagging questions of relevance, discourse, openness, purpose and meaning. (At the very least, wouldn’t it be an interesting idea for Senate reform?) Continue…
By Aaron Wherry - Thursday, April 12, 2012 at 8:35 AM - 0 Comments
Here is the text of a speech delivered Norman MacLeod, a member of the parliamentary press gallery, to the Empire Club of Canada in 1938—just about midway between Confederation and the present.
What I will suggest during the next few moments and endeavour to support with some argument can be summed up broadly as follows: That the democratic National legislature of this Dominion, which is the House of Commons, is undergoing and has been undergoing for some time a process of progressive weakening..
Sound vaguely familiar? MacLeod spends a number of paragraphs reviewing this “weakening.” Continue…
By Aaron Wherry - Tuesday, February 21, 2012 at 12:13 PM - 0 Comments
The ideas, amendments and complaints raised are likely all worth consideration, especially for fans of such stuff, but various matters of general interest came up: including time allocation, Question Period, petitions and statements by members.
Below, some chosen highlights. Continue…
By Aaron Wherry - Thursday, February 16, 2012 at 1:23 PM - 0 Comments
Kennedy Stewart wants to bring parliamentary democracy into the social media age.
Brought forward by Burnaby-Douglas MP Kennedy Stewart, the motion seeks to amend standing orders so that petitions brought forward by constituents and approved get put online so the public can see them and sign them. The motion also calls for automatic debate on those petitions that generate more than 50,000 signatures … Stewart is calling for a dedicated website where petitions could be posted for public viewing and electronic signing. They’ll be closed and archived after six months and those that receive significant support will be debated for one hour, after regular parliamentary business.
By Aaron Wherry - Tuesday, January 31, 2012 at 10:18 AM - 0 Comments
The Conservative backbencher deviates from the script.
In a recent commentary aired on News Talk 650 CKOM, Trost said other western democracies such as Britain and the United States are mature enough to have more vigorous debates within parties. “Contrast that to Canada, where party discipline is ironclad,” Trost said. “If everyone in a party thinks the same on every issue, not a lot of thinking is going on.”
… Trost said he admires politicians of all stripes who have voted according to their conscience or the will of residents in their ridings, rather than blindly following the national party line. “We need to have a cultural change. I think it would relax everybody,” Trost said. “The (party) whip needs to have less authority over members.”
At least for those who disagree with his views on abortion, Mr. Trust is becoming a fun test of democratic principles.
See previously: The meaning of Brad Trost
By Aaron Wherry - Sunday, January 15, 2012 at 10:24 AM - 0 Comments
Liberal delegates voted in favour of a policy resolution this morning that recommendation the legalization and regulation of marijuana. So there’s your easy headline.
But, shortly before that vote, delegates endorsed an idea that one can actually imagine seeing in the next Liberal election platform: preferential balloting.
WHEREAS it is recognized that first past the post voting systems do not properly reflect the will of the people in a multiparty country;
WHEREAS the current system does not produce clear electoral victors (candidates seldom win with more than 50 percent);
WHEREAS the Liberal Party of Canada already uses a preferential balloting system in its own leadership and riding nomination contests;
BE IT RESOLVED that the Liberal Party of Canada implement a preferential ballot for all future national elections.
By Aaron Wherry - Tuesday, January 10, 2012 at 9:30 AM - 0 Comments
Brian Topp’s latest policy paper covers democratic and parliamentary reform, including a move to mixed-member proportional representation, limits on the prime minister’s ability to prorogue Parliament and the Senate.
I propose that our party ask for a mandate in the next election to abolish the Senate. I then propose that an Act be introduced early in the life of the next Parliament amending the constitution to do so.
The urgency with which this matter is then pursued with provinces (who will have to consent to this modernization, which was adopted in all provincial legislatures long ago) should then depend on the conduct of the Senate during the next Parliament. If the Senate provokes a constitutional crisis by blocking a budget or other important legislation, Senate abolition should be pursued as an immediate and urgent priority. If the Senate returns to its traditional role and subordinates itself to the House of Commons, then the matter can be pursued more deliberately over the course of the next Parliament.
By Aaron Wherry - Monday, January 9, 2012 at 2:59 PM - 0 Comments
Kathryn Blaze Carlson’s consideration of an elected Senate includes an intriguing anecdote from Senator Bert Brown.
Mr. Brown recalls how he and Mr. Harper discussed at Caesar’s how a reformed, elected Senate and an unchanged House of Commons might interact: A Senate with newfound democratic legitimacy might rival the House in ways never before seen, and both men knew there was nothing in the Constitution preventing a deadlock or even a Senate-sparked government shut-down.
The prime minister asked Mr. Brown to come up with a mechanism that would protect the supremacy of the House of Commons. But that safeguard would require the sort of stand-alone constitutional amendment Mr. Harper knows would be a nightmare to attempt.
This begs various questions: Is the government going to act to protect the supremacy of the House of Commons? If so, how? And if the Senate is to remain secondary, why not just abolish it?
By Aaron Wherry - Monday, January 9, 2012 at 2:11 PM - 0 Comments
From the latest issue of the print edition, 1300 words or so on the permanent campaign that is our politics (including a bit about something the NDP has been up to that I don’t believe has been reported elsewhere).
Consider one of the otherwise inconsequential portions of the parliamentary day—the time allotted for “statements by members.” These 15 minutes immediately before question period are generally reserved for the recognition of favourite causes, honoured constituents and notable world events, but in recent years this time has also allowed for free political advertising. Faced with a Liberal opposition, the Conservatives took regular pleasure in using those 15 minutes to mock Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff. After barely two weeks of relative quiet this spring, the Harper government duly turned on the NDP—backbencher David Wilks stood up on June 15, nine sitting days into the new Parliament, to decry the dangerous policies of the “radical hard left NDPers.” Five days later, Conservative Blake Richards ventured that the NDP was “not fit to govern.” “With its high tax plan, the NDP is not fit to govern or to lead Canada through the fragile global economic recovery,” Richards informed the House. That particular phrase—and its cousin “unfit to govern”—have since been committed to Hansard, during members’ statements, question period and otherwise, a total of 37 times.
This is the embodiment of the permanent campaign—a constant, unrelenting and tireless approach to politics. And it is this idea of the never-ending election that now dominates Ottawa. What might have previously been dismissed as an unfortunate side effect of minority Parliament is now foundational to modern Canadian politics. The practice–in discourse and tactics alike–prevails even after the obvious political necessity is gone.
Why does this matter? Good question. Continue…
By Aaron Wherry - Friday, December 16, 2011 at 1:16 PM - 0 Comments
The Ottawa Citizen editorial board challenges MPs to save themselves.
Minority or majority, the constant is the lack of honour and civility in Parliament. What hasn’t changed is the reduction of the role of elected members to bit players in hackneyed political theatre. Every MP, of any party, who acquiesces in this must answer for it to his or her constituents.
The holidays should be a time for every MP to consider this problem and how he or she might contribute to a solution when the House reconvenes. The caucus is ultimately the only source of authority for any party in the House of Commons. MPs should demand a greater role in question period than that of heckler and, occasionally, script-reader.
By Aaron Wherry - Wednesday, December 7, 2011 at 12:30 PM - 0 Comments
Most crucially, those calling for the creation of a “Canadian cabinet manual” have overlooked the existence of the Manual of Official Procedure of the Government of Canada, which the Privy Council Office produced under Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson in 1968. At the time of its production, no other Commonwealth country had ever produced a handbook on constitutional conventions of the Manual’s breadth and depth – a staggering 1,500 pages over two volumes. Sadly, as the Public Policy Forum pointed out in one of its reports, the Manual has since been “shrouded in secrecy and kept from all but a few senior officials.” It was likely kept in cabinet confidence until at least 1988 and never generated much interest, until the wake of our latest cycle of minority parliaments.
By Aaron Wherry - Wednesday, December 7, 2011 at 9:30 AM - 10 Comments
When asked whether Parliament is in need of reform, the short and universal answer from the Parliamentarians with whom we spoke is: yes. In their view, the institution has, in a sense, lost its way.
Parliamentarians feel that the House of Commons and the Senate are no longer places in which meaningful debate occurs. The impetus to get the government’s business through and the strongly enforced party discipline have combined to limit the number of voices heard in Parliament … Parliamentarians feel they have not the information, the support or the expertise to hold the government to account effectively … By and large, Parliamentarians do not feel their work as legislators has a significant impact on public policy decisions in Canada. By the time issues and ideas are brought to either chamber, positions have by and large been set, partisan lines drawn, and the outcomes determined. What is more, Parliamentarians feel they have little, if anything, to show for those occasions when they have come together on issues, be it a committee recommendation or motion passed in the chamber. Put simply, decisions are made elsewhere.
By Aaron Wherry - Monday, December 5, 2011 at 12:01 PM - 4 Comments
-Adopt legislation limiting the size of ministries to a maximum of 25 individuals and the number of parliamentary secretaries to eight.
-Use secret preferential ballots to allow committee members to select Commons’ committee chairs for the duration of the parliamentary session.
-Adopt a set schedule for opposition days in the House that cannot be unilaterally altered by the government.
-Reduce the partisan political staff complement on Parliament Hill by 50 percent.
-Restore the power of party caucuses to dismiss the party leader.
-Remove the party leader’s power to approve or reject party candidates for election in each riding.
That last one goes hand in hand with amending the Elections Act. It also fits with what I tend to think should be the focus right now: changes that can be made with (reasonably straightforward) legislation and amendment. And, as noted by a few readers, I’d add one other: changing the guidelines to allow for CPAC to show more than the individual speaking. In the interests of objectivity, assigning television directors to show a “televised Hansard” makes a certain sense, but, at the very least, stationary cameras should be setup that feed live shots of the government and opposition sides to CPAC’s website. You shouldn’t have to go to the House of Commons to see what goes on there.
By Aaron Wherry - Wednesday, November 30, 2011 at 2:30 PM - 62 Comments
Nathan Cullen puts democratic reform on the agenda.
As Prime Minister, Nathan Cullen would: Work to improve how our democracy reflects the will of voters, by making voting reform a priority. Proportional representation is already used in more than 75 democracies around the world, putting Canada in the minority.
Hold a national referendum on voting reform, asking Canadians if they a) want to change the voting system; and b) which new model they prefer. Nathan supports mixed-member proportional representation based on the German, Scottish and New Zealand models, which: Ensures every riding has a local MP, elected as they currently are, while ensuring the total composition of the House reflects each party’s share of the national vote; Avoids instability and fragmentation by requiring parties receive broad support—five per cent—before being awarded proportional seats.
Also: abolish the Senate, restore public financing for political parties and hold a plebiscite on the monarchy.
By Aaron Wherry - Monday, November 28, 2011 at 11:27 AM - 47 Comments
The 2012 prorogation would be substantively different. First, there is no obvious political land mine to avoid. Second, the Conservatives have demonstrated how majority status confers an immunity of sorts from even the most scathing criticism from the opposition benches. These factors make a potential upcoming prorogation less necessary from a political standpoint, but the fact remains: We live in a country where a prime minister can shut down the House, the pre-eminent institution of our parliamentary democracy, on a whim, for no particular reason.
In our new book, Democratizing the Constitution: Reforming Responsible Government, we argue that prorogations should occur only with the consent of a two-thirds majority of the House. This would place the balance of power in the hands of elected representatives, where it belongs. The House would have to consent to turning the lights off. If we allow the prime minister to unilaterally decide whether and when the House can perform its scrutiny function, we reverse the basic logic of responsible government, which dictates that the government must be accountable to the House. The two-thirds majority threshold is high enough to nearly always necessitate multiparty support.
Lori and the Globe make the common error of actually shortchanging Mr. Harper in this regard: as noted earlier this year, he has prorogued Parliament three times already, not twice.
By Aaron Wherry - Thursday, November 17, 2011 at 9:00 AM - 7 Comments
With all the countries in the world yearning for free elections and representative democracy, I refuse to seriously consider cost as an impediment to fairer representation…
I would truly love to see the Liberals be bold here and get serious with an agenda for democratic and parliamentary reform; let’s throw in looking at voting reform at the same time. It’s all part of the wider puzzle, and it’s time we stopped nibbling around the edges and got serious about this. But in the mean time, please stop complaining about the cost of democracy.
By Aaron Wherry - Wednesday, November 16, 2011 at 2:30 PM - 22 Comments
A judgement in favour of pro-PR side would likely spell the doom of the current voting system for not just Quebec, but every province. Here in Upper Canada, we rejected electoral reform by a direct vote. If you’re trying to enhance democracy, you shouldn’t do things that will that will directly thwart the will of the people. If you want PR, get it back on the ballot. Don’t turn to the courts.