Dear Prime Minister: Time for electoral reform, says Rafe Mair
To: The Rt. Honourable Stephen Harper, Prime Minister
Dear Prime Minister,
Most issues we face today we’ve faced before.
For an older person like myself there is a strong sense of déjà vu. We’ve been through deficits and surpluses; prosperity and recessions; government overspending and government parsimony; and there’s always a list of special issues to be replaced by new special issues in time for the next election.
The sign of a great leader is one who takes a very large, seemingly insoluble problem and deals with it in the interests of the nation. Not many have done that in our history – mostly we just muddle along, watching the United States and the UK, and keeping our heads down.
Canada stingy on constitutional reform
We’ve been shockingly inattentive to our corporate make up, or Constitution. The United States has amended its constitution 33 times since 1787. Great Britain, through its flexible constitution, is constantly amending theirs. We act as if to do so would be like performing self surgery without an anesthetic.
In our recent history the only major constitutional surgery was done by Pierre Trudeau in 1982 when the Constitution was patriated from the United Kingdom to Canada. I was a member of Mr. Trudeau’s Cabinet Ministers on the Confederation (2 from each province, 2 from the federal government) and watched the process unfold. Much was done during those years to address difficulties but since the deal breakers were the Amending Formula and The Charter, most work was there, with other matters to be dealt with in due course.
MPs are powerless
Since then – and much of the blame for this has been deservedly laid at your feet – the Commons has become a nest of political eunuchs where no longer men and women meet to deal with issues of their choosing but a place about as democratic as the Reichstag in the 1930s.
I do not exaggerate, Mr. Prime Minister. The plain fact is that a government MP has no power whatsoever and is now your pet poodle. He says what you tell him to say, asks what you order him to ask, and otherwise keeps his mouth shut. No Tory MP dares question a government decision on the Commons floor, even if it’s vital to his constituency.
One example: You have made it abundantly clear, in the House, that LNG tankers are far too dangerous for the EAST coast and are forbidden, but you can’t have enough of them on the WEST coast!
On behalf of many in our community on Howe Sound, where tankers are proposed, and approved by you, I asked your MP, John Weston, in writing, to explain this dramatic discriminatory practice. He refused to do so!
Why, Prime Minister, why? Are you actually ashamed of your untenable Eastern bias but not man enough to admit it?
Committees’ role disappears
On another matter, The Parliamentary Committee, which we inherited from the UK House of Commons, is supposed to be the way backbench MPs can hold the government’s feet to the fire.
As you know, Sir, this simply doesn’t happen. The Committee has been stolen from the backbencher and made a dummy, with you the ventriloquist since you, not the MPs, select the Chair and no uncomfortable agenda arises without you stepping in to stop it.
Independent thinking: a political death sentence
It goes much further – I fear I have only scratched the surface. If a Tory MP does what his conscience dictates and it crosses your policy, he risks of being tossed out of caucus, the party, and never again allowed to run for the party – a political death sentence. Your MPs know that and it assures you 100% control of their minds and souls, never mind their actions! How the hell can such a person be my Member of Parliament?
The consequence of all of this is that the Tory MP, elected by citizens to represent their issues, at all times does precisely what you tell him to do.
There are also the practical considerations of the carrot and the stick. It’s entirely in your hands as to which MP is promoted to parliamentary secretary or cabinet minister or any other office. It is up to you alone whether they’re fired – no cause need be shown, there’s no severance pay. You have unconstrained control, a privileged hitherto reserved to God.
Even lesser matters such as going to a warm island in the winter to attend a useless conference is yours to offer the MP who behaves himself.
UK MPs far more rebellious than Canadians
What are you afraid of? In the Mother of Parliaments, Prime Ministers often lose votes, even “three line whip” votes, and life goes on. They don’t resign but call a confidence vote which has been the practice here since Lester Pearson.
Here’s some history of lost major votes in the UK:
- In the 1st Harold Wilson government (1965-70) – six times
- In the Edward Heath government (1970-74) 6 times
- In the 2nd Harold Wilson government, (1974-6) – 25 times
- His successor, Jim Callaghan (1976-9), 34 times
- Margaret Thatcher (1979-1990) 4 times
- John Major (1990-97) 6 times
- Tony Blair (1997-07) 4 times
- Gordon Brown (2007-11) 3 times
- In the last 4 years, David Cameron was beaten 6 times
Remember, in all of those defeats, a “three-line whip” was in effect and members were ordered to vote for the government, “or else”.
Opportunity for a positive legacy
Now, prime minister, you can go down in history as a great prime minister if you sincerely commit to serious reform and are reelected.
I should note that your NDP, Liberal and Green counterparts have each backed proportional representation or some variety of serious electoral reform should they form government this October. Change is clearly in the air on this front. My concern here is what happens should you defy recent polls and form government again yourself.
Nobody expects you to have the magic bullet. To redo the way we elect MPs and the powers we give them is open to many options which must be thrashed out. The power of the PM and the cabinet is another matter of debate. There are those who stand firmly for proportional representation or a combination of that and first past the post and there are those who want transferable ballots and so on. I daresay, however, you will be hard-pressed to find too many, excepting party hacks, supporting retention of the present system.
There must be Reform! The stakes are very high, sir, since despite what you might think from 34 Sussex Drive, there is a lot of unrest in the land. Surely, the days when less than 40% of the popular vote achieve 100% of the power must be put behind us. Is there any wonder so many Canadians don’t bother to vote?
I close by saying this, prime minister: I don’t think you want to do this. I believe that you enjoy your position as a dictator, with everyone around you obeying you in all matters, large or small. I don’t think you could stand your own MPs being critical of your policies, much less voting against your wishes.
You, sir, are quite prepared to put the ego of Stephen Harper ahead of the best interests of the country.
Prove me wrong by pledging major reform to Parliament and the voting system.
I’ll not hold my breath, nor, I daresay, will many other Canadians.
Editor’s note: This letter is open to republication by any group or individual, without permission required from the author or publisher.