By Mark D. Jarvis - Sunday, January 13, 2013 - 0 Comments
Why we should be worried about a government that sits for only 19 days in a full calendar year
Mike de Jong, the Government House Leader and Minister of Finance, announced last week on Twitter that Christy Clark’s Liberal government in British Columbia planned to recall the Legislative Assembly on February 12 for a speech from the throne and to sit until March 14.
The legislature would then be dissolved on April 16. How do we know this? Basically, it is a matter of counting backwards. The province’s Constitution Act requires a general election to be held on the second Tuesday in May every 4 years. That falls on May 14 this year. And, the province’s Election Act requires a 28-day campaign period.
Taking into account that the B.C. legislature doesn’t sit Fridays, and the usual spring break, the parliamentary calendar shows a maximum of 24 sitting days before dissolution. But there is a report that the legislature will not sit at all in April. That would mean there will only be 19 sitting days before the election in June, one of which will be the speech from the throne and another the budget, assuming the current plan holds.
Why is this important? Why should we care about the technical minutiae of the B.C. parliamentary schedule for the upcoming weeks?
Because the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia has already not sat since May 31, 2012. The cancellation of the fall sitting by Premier Clark, left open the question as to whether the legislature would sit at all before an election this May.
It is not simply that the legislature will have only sat for 19 days this spring, it is that B.C. legislature will have only sat for a total of 19 days in nearly a full calendar year (between May 31, 2012, when it last rose and the election on May 14, 2013).
This would appear to fit the trend I wrote about previously of first ministers seeing legislatures as an undue burden, whose work they are free to inhibit as they fancy. And yet, there has barely been a murmur of discontent.
As part of its year-end wrap-up, the CBC nominated 10 stories for the B.C. news story of the year. The 10 stories offered up are fine; many even very important, like the pipeline debate, the Haida Gwaii earthquakes and Amanda Todd’s tragic death. But that the B.C. legislature had not sat since May (and, at that time, had no timeline for sitting again) did not even make the list.
Some might suggest this is much ado about nothing. After all, British Columbia is heading into an election in a few months and elections have long been celebrated as the ultimate accountability mechanism—the chance, as they say, to “throw the bums out.”
While elections are an important mechanism of accountability, accountability also requires compelling the government of the day to provide information about its decisions, behaviour and policies—in short, holding government to account. Members of legislative assemblies who are not part of the executive have a responsibility to ask questions, extract those accounts and to scrutinize them. Because we do not expect governments to commit political hara-kiri, parliamentarians’ primary responsibilities include holding government to account: scrutinizing government performance and administration and either withdrawing or extending confidence. The government’s capacity to disrupt its ability to do so undermines the efficacy of our parliamentary system. As Peter Aucoin and I have argued:
Without robust parliamentary scrutiny the system can easily slide into what commentators like to label an “elected dictatorship,” namely, a parliamentary government where the Prime Minister operates without significant checks and balances from the legislative assembly of the people’s representatives.
When a legislative assembly can be sidelined—in addition to normal concerns about opposition incompetence or ineffectiveness—the government is able to operate in greater secrecy. As Stephen Harper put it so clearly in an op-ed on government transparency and potential reforms to the Information Act that was published by the Montreal Gazette when he was leader of the opposition:
Information is the lifeblood of democracy. Without adequate access to key information about government policies and programs, citizens and parliamentarians cannot make informed decisions, and incompetent or corrupt government can be hidden under a cloak of secrecy.
While Harper did not address the sitting of legislatures in the essay, the same principle applies: a robust democracy requires that governments must not be able to unduly interfere with the flow of information to citizens.
Voters rarely, if ever, have full information when they cast their ballots. This means citizens vote in in a state of relative darkness, inhibiting their ability to fully hold the government to account. Worse still, they can be seen as conveying electoral legitimacy, when, had they been better informed, they might well have voted differently, even to the point of the election a different government.
Having severely limited the legislature’s ability to hold it to account, the government will effectively be asking the citizens of British Columbia to cast their ballots in the dark this May. These are dark days for democracy indeed.
Mark D. Jarvis is a doctoral candidate at the University of Victoria. His 2011 book, Democratizing the Constitution: Reforming Responsible Government, co-authored with Lori Turnbull and the late Peter Aucoin, was awarded both the Donner and Smiley book prizes. Mark adapted some of the book’s proposals for a contribution to our series on the House last year. You can find more information about the book here.
By Colby Cosh - Thursday, December 16, 2010 at 11:03 AM - 70 Comments
Does B.C. Liberal leadership candidate Mike de Jong think you should take Drano for heartburn? Does he think the Canucks would win more often if the Sedins were traded for magic beans? Anything’s possible. Literally anything.
B.C. teenagers should be able to vote in provincial elections when they are old enough to drive, Liberal leadership candidate Mike de Jong said Wednesday.
De Jong said if elected premier he would introduce legislation to lower the voting age to 16 from 18 in an attempt to interest teenagers in the democratic process before they graduate high school.
“What happens now is Grade 12 students leave and the vast majority of them never vote, or if they do, they are 40 or 50 by the time they get around to it,” he said.
Lowering the voting age could also help boost low voter turnout, he said. Only 51 per cent of 3.24 million eligible voters cast ballots in the 2009 B.C. election, down from 58 per cent in 2005 and 55 per cent in 2001.
The most natural next sentence, you’d think, would mention that the figure was a miserable 27% with the youngest voters, those aged 18-24. Numbers from the last couple of federal elections suggest that even within that 18-24 cohort, younger voters are less interested in voting; in the ’06 election, eligible voters aged 18-19½ (many still in high school) turned out less than voters aged 19½-21½, and those voters, in turn, were less likely to show up than voters aged 21½-24.
You’ll notice that those figures are irreconcilable with de Jong’s just-so story of eager schoolchildren instantly losing interest in voting when we open the gates and turn them loose for the last time. But who’d buy that anyway? Kids who leave high school either take up post-secondary education, and enter the most politically engaged space they’re likely to occupy in their entire lives, or they start earning paycheques—a moment at which government policy becomes frighteningly real, as if a monster in a children’s book had suddenly leapt off the page and started devouring the furniture.
De Jong is proposing a “solution” that helped cause the problem he is addressing: the Western world already essentially made a collective decision to sacrifice voter turnout on the altar of youth when it lowered voting ages to 18. It’s not clear why higher turnout ought to be considered a virtue in itself, but if it is, then that’s the dumbest move we could possibly have made. As André Blais observed in 2006, it’s hard to pin down the variables that influence turnout, but the effect of adding young voters in the ’60s and ’70s is pretty much the most unambiguous factor of all:
It is a well-established fact that the propensity to vote increases with age (Wolfinger & Rosenstone 1980, Blais 2000), and so we would expect turnout to be lower when the voting age is 18 instead of 21. Research that examines turnout in contemporary advanced democracies does not incorporate that variable for the simple reason that the voting age is now 18 almost everywhere (Massicotte et al. 2004), and there is thus no variation.
Blais & Dobrzynska (1998), whose sample of elections starts in the 1970s, do include a voting age variable and they find a relatively strong effect; their results suggest that lowering the voting age from 21 to 18 reduces turnout by five points. Voting age is also a key factor in Franklin’s (2004) study of turnout dynamics. He estimates that the lowering of the voting age in most democracies has produced a turnout decline of about three percentage points.
Leaving aside the Mike de Jong-bashing for a moment, what hardly anybody ever asks when discussing turnout is whether it might be rational for young people not to vote. An economist, after all, would start with the presumption that since they don’t, it must in some sense be rational for them not to. Political reporters and columnists, unless their names rhyme with Bandrew Boyne, do not tend to take an economist’s attitude toward social questions; but I would argue that these people have the strongest reasons of all to suspect that young people are right to re-enter the voting pool one toe at a time.
I was first put on a political beat at the age of 24 or 25. I had an education and plenty of information, but I was still at sea nine-tenths of the time, simply because I had only followed electoral politics for about seven or eight years (since the federal election of 1988, really). I didn’t know the personalities; I hadn’t amassed a store of anecdotes, tall tales, and gossip; I had no personal memory of what had been tried and untried, what policies and political strategies had a tendency to work or not to work, what promises are almost certain to be broken. I hadn’t been surprised a hundred times and just plain gotten things wrong another hundred.
There is no substitute for living through history. The older I get, the more I notice how much of my wisdom comes from simply having hung around a while and watching old friends climb the ladders of power and wealth. And the older I get, the less qualified I feel to have secure opinions about horserace politics, even though my profession requires me to feign omniscience. I defy you to find any political journalist who doesn’t feel the same way.
In this case, what’s true of an occasional political feuilletonist must surely be true of the ordinary citizen, who is (presumably) absorbing practical political knowledge even more passively, slowly, and intuitively. And if the vote is important primarily as a sign of humanity, or of being bound by the social contract, then there can be no argument for any voting-age limits; let’s have Fisher-Price design a ballot interface for infants. How could de Jong possibly object? What could he possibly say, even now, to some other thumbsucking pseudo-innovator who made the argument that the limit really ought to be 15?