Rafe: How our “democracy” really works – the charade of party politics and whipped caucuses
Well, it’s the political silly season again, when we democratically come together to decide by secret ballot who will govern us for the next four years. It’s a system we’ve used with minor alterations for as long as there’s been a British Columbia. We pass it down to our children with the clear explanation as to how it works. We ought to be thoroughly ashamed. It isn’t intended to work but only look like it does. It’s an all-time classic in make-believe – it fools everyone of all ages.
You see kids, there are too many of us to all go down to the local hall and make necessary decisions so we select 85 people to do that for us. Every adult person has one vote and once elected these 85 members of our legislature – we call them MLAs for short – go to the legislative assembly to debate and decide the issues of the day in our name and under our delegated power.
Now someone has to be captain, just like baseball; the MLAs used to pick one, usually the personality kid, just like with baseball teams, but groups of them who felt the same about most issues, formed political clubs called “parties” so the party that had the most votes would elect the leader, whom they called the premier. He (always back then a male) then called together the party and appointed specific individuals to look after various jobs like finance, education, agriculture and so on and they, along with the premier, were called the “Cabinet”. Those who didn’t make it were called Government members or backbenchers because they traditionally sat behind the cabinet members in the Legislature. The whole House then chose a chairman called Mr. or Madam Speaker – and they were ready for business.
But what if the government brought a bill before the House and it didn’t pass?
In olden times, the King would say he’d lost confidence in the Tweedledum party and call on another MLA, traditionally from the next biggest party, so the Leader of the Tweedledees would form a government until they lost a vote and the King lost confidence again.
Sometimes the new premier, knowing he would likely lose any vote he held and get the King pissed off again, would call a general election. As long as the legislature didn’t have obstinate parties they didn’t need that election and the Tweedledums would see if they could form a government. If they had enough votes, they would stay until they lost a vote or it was legally time for an election anyway.
As you can see, kids, this was all pretty civilized.
But it didn’t last. Because, you see, we humans are lousy losers and it didn’t take long for premiers with a majority party to realize that if MLAs stuck together as a party they would never lose that vote that forced them to resign. The party bosses and bagmen liked this system because elections cost money, money that could be put to better uses.
How to make MLAs go along?
Easy – premiers had two bags, one full of goodies and one of sticks. They got to appoint and fire cabinet ministers, promote MLAs to parliamentary secretary, send MLAs on neat trips, appoint their law partners as judges – the list is endless. Premiers could also undo the favours but, critically, they soon also got power to fire MLAs who misbehaved – for example, didn’t vote the way they were told.
Now, let’s go back to that point where voters realized they couldn’t all fit into the Town Hall so elected delegates or MLAs. By doing that, the voter transferred all his democratic power to his MLA. Fair enough, because there would no government otherwise. But something happened so that the system still looked the same but the MLA no longer had the voter’s democratic rights in his pocket – he had transferred them all to the premier in exchange for possible promotion and the other goodies I mentioned and for membership in the Caucus.
Now the voter has no rights left except on sufferance of the premier. That is the alpha and omega of parliamentary democracy, Canadian version. As the former Speaker of the US, Sam Rayburn once said, “to get along, you must go along”.
The citizen can, of course, join the party and exercise his rights there. Dream on! For he’ll soon learn that only those tight to the premier have any real power. When the scales are lifted from his eyes, he will see that 99% of party policy is that of the boys at the top. Resolutions at conventions are often exercises in looking good politically, with no intention they’ll ever become party policy.
All of the above is officially denied and children are taught the nicely laundered version which – confining myself to parliamentary language – is pure bullshit.
So in the next 7 months, as the parties nominate their superior specimens, you’ll be assured that so-and-so will make an excellent MLA.
Ask yourself why?
There is only one honest answer to that question: because he/she will always do as they’re told.
And that’s the truth of the matter.