Parliamentary reform is the real change that must come from Canadian election

Rafe: A wild idea to fix Canada’s broken democracy

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Parliamentary reform is the real change that must come from Canadian election
The Centennial Flame on Parliament Hill in Ottawa (Jamie McCaffrey/Flickr CC licence)

Last week I talked about “responsible government” – this is the sequel to that piece.

I’m horrified that we’re not taught that “responsible” nothing to do with civilized behaviour but in fact means that government, i.e. the prime minister and cabinet, are responsible to the House of Commons, which can dismiss them on a vote of non-confidence.

What’s even more horrifying is we’re not told that this simply doesn’t happen to governments with a majority because prime ministers have created ways to nullify parliament’s ultimate power and become virtual dictators.

I stated in a parliamentary democracy the voter transfers his rights to his member of parliament to exercise on his behalf – the trouble is, in Canada, by running for his political party, the MP assigns your rights to the leader for his exclusive use!”

Facing up to the truth

Most of us are in denial and don’t want to believe it and find it far more comfortable and feel warm all over when prime ministers pretend that our MP is critically important to the running of the government.

In order to begin the process of reform, we must disabuse ourselves of this nonsense.   

To learn just how bad it is in Canada, I urge you to read a book called Tragedy in the Commons by Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan (Random House, 2014).

Based on interviews with retired MPs, it tells how useless and powerless MPs have become, down to being ombudsmen for the bureaucracy, ensuring that pension cheques arrive on time and that sort of thing.

Government MPs have absolutely nothing to say about how the country is governed.

The Canadian House of Commons - 41st Parliament
Most MPs gave no real power

The committees upon which they sit, which are supposed to hold government departments accountable, are stacked by the prime minister. If they do show a bit of independence, the PM removes the uncooperative ones and replaces them with obedient ones, often done just before any vote where the prime minister fears the outcome!

As the book makes tragically clear, MPs are ciphers and the government is run by the prime minister and unelected advisors in his office.

No such thing as a “free vote”

One regularly suggested solution is the “free vote” – it’s an illusory remedy. Occasionally there are true free votes on matters of conscience, such as was held on capital punishment some years ago. When, however, the “free vote” is on something that the prime minister wishes passed, the Government MP feels just as compelled to vote for the government as when the whip is on. After all, the MP’s real worry is that the PM records who’s “reliable” and that’s far more important than voting as you wish.

Proportional Representation

Another solution presented is Proportional Representation (PR), which has been demonized by First Past The Post (FPTP) fans because it invariably produces a minority or, more likely, a coalition, as if that were a terrible thing – they say we would have one election after another and nothing would ever get done.

In fact, that’s not the history of PR, with a 5% requirement for a seat, as a glance at 21 European countries, including Sweden, Finland, Germany – plus New Zealand – demonstrate. I support PR but I have another idea which involves no more than altering a parliamentary tradition.

The secret recipe

In the present system, where the PM has the carrots and sticks ours does, you can understand why the lowly MP with his eye on the cabinet benches and fearful of ejection from caucus thinks twice about doing or saying anything that might offend the boss.

If this could be changed, Canada would then greatly enhance its national unity by governing itself in a manner much more suitable to all segments of the nation.

For all that, it’s essential to cogitate carefully on what we want so as not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

We don’t want a dictator, yet we must have a strong executive. We’ve seen in the United States what happens when Congress cripples a president like Obama. I believe there’s a way to get the best of both worlds.

The Mair solution – here’s something to chew on! Are you ready for this? Perhaps a shot of single malt at the ready is in order!

This doesn’t require any amendment of the Constitution and not a nickel spent. It is a very simple solution.

What if we made votes of confidence secret ballots?

You and I as citizens wouldn’t dream of giving up our right to vote privately. If the government tried to invade that privacy we would rise as one. A secret vote is the very essence of our democracy!

Why is it different for MPs? If you think about it, if the PM is going to watch how his MPs vote, why bother voting at all?

The only way to hold the prime minister to account is to deny him certainty of how any MPs will vote on a House of Commons vote of confidence.

This notion is so contrary to the discipline we’ve permitted to be imposed on our MPs, thus on ourselves, it takes the breath away. Yet I haven’t heard a decent, logical argument against it!

This isn’t as dangerous for the PM as appears at first blush. The chances are excellent that the prime minister’s caucus will support him. It will act on the PM like the old strap when we older folks were in school – it was the fact it was there, in the principal’s desk, that kept us on the straight and narrow. In other words, the ability to punish has an effect often more efficient than the punishment itself. It would provide a brake on the PM and an ever present warning.

The back room boys

I am not through, however! What if we made the budget vote secret?

The back room boys will throw up their hands in horror! Do you mean that a government can’t even pass its budget without the danger that it could lose by a secret ballot?

I’ll answer a question with a question. Why should a government automatically get its budget passed, just because it has a majority that the prime minister can force to obey?

Shouldn’t the wisdom of how a government spends our money be the responsibility of every member of Parliament?

The end of omnibus bills

PM Harper enters the House behind Governor General David Johnston for a Speech from the Throne (Flickr/Stephen Harper CC licence)
PM Harper enters the House behind Governor General David Johnston for a Speech from the Throne (Flickr/Stephen Harper CC licence)

Before we pay too much attention to the back room boys –  lets examine what would probably happen. I know that’s a novel notion but let’s give it a try anyway.

If the budget bill was by secret ballot, there is no likelihood is that a PM would do as Stephen Harper did in his famous C-38 in 2012, when 70 unrelated bills were bundled into one as part of the budget. Not only did the multiplicity of bills make any sort of rational debate impossible, but, because it was part of the budget, government MPs dared not say a word of criticism, even outside the House.

Today, the Finance Minister can table a budget saying, “Like it or lump it, this is the way it’s going to be. Oh, of course you’ll be allowed to fart against thunder and make some speeches to make it all look good, but here’s the budget and, with our majority, it will pass.”

What if he had to say, Here is the budget, that you all had a say in while it was being prepared, for your consideration and secret vote?”

All MPs know there must be a budget, or nothing, including their salaries, gets paid, which would assure responsible behaviour.

What if the vote failed?

The Finance Minister would have to try again, with provision mandated to provide interim supply in the meantime. If it failed twice, that would be taken as a vote of non-confidence and the government, whose members were likely part of the dissidents, would have to resign.

How can that be bad? What are we afraid of? That our MP might actually participate in governing the country?

The same protection as the public has

The original idea of parliament was its members control of the public purse. It was certainly not intended that one man with unelected back room boys would make those decisions, to be rubber-stamped under duress by government MPs.

Some lament that they want to know how their MP voted. Surely, this is ridiculous! We know how our MPs vote — exactly as they’re instructed to by the party whips on orders from the Prime Minister!

Would we rather see our MPs meekly do as they are told or go to a ballot box and do what they think is right? All I suggest is that the MP have the same protection when voting that we the public does.

I doubt that any budgets would be lost. The majority of all budgets in made up of routine expenses that don’t change from year to year. It’s the discretionary spending that’s invariably the issue.

Parliament would very quickly get used to this idea. It wouldn’t be the huge danger traditionalists fear. In fact, it would make governments careful to be sure that proposed policies would be supported by a majority of MPs, including its own members – meaning consultation with all MPs in its preparation. 

A real threat

No party wants an election before it’s time. MPs want to serve the full term for the same reason everybody wants to keep their job. For the party, elections are enormously expensive and the people who finance them aren’t impressed by premature elections.

What would happen is that the present, illusory threat that Parliament might rise against a prime minister now becomes a real one – perhaps remote, for the reasons I had just mentioned, but, nevertheless, very much there and something that no prime minister could afford to overlook.

There we are.  We now have a parliament truly involved in decisions now entirely made by the Prime Minister. He would retain considerable power but, for the first time, would have to care what we, the voters, think. Your democratic rights would remain entrusted to your member of Parliament and not assigned to the Prime Minister for his exclusive use for four years.

Perhaps, most importantly of all, your Member of Parliament would now have a real role, bringing with it respect.

How can that be bad?

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About Rafe Mair

Rafe Mair, LL.B, LL.D (Hon) a B.C. MLA 1975 to 1981, was Minister of Environment from late 1978 through 1979. In 1981 he left politics for Talk Radio becoming recognized as one of B.C.'s pre-eminent journalists. An avid fly fisherman, he took a special interest in Atlantic salmon farms and private power projects as environmental calamities and became a powerful voice in opposition to them. Rafe is the co-founder of The Common Sense Canadian and writes a regular blog at rafeonline.com.

24 thoughts on “Rafe: A wild idea to fix Canada’s broken democracy

  1. OCCUPY DEMOCRACY

    written 1/11/2011 on mwpr.ca – Rafe you have finally accepted what I have been writing for years

    I absolutely trust that 70% of all men and women will make the right decision. I also have no doubt there are corrupt people, but they are the clear minority. It is the majority of my fellow citizens who I trust completely, without reservation. This is the foundation of the “Occupy Democracy” movement I am launching today.

    This past month, across the globe, we have heard and read reports of many ‘Occupy’ movements. These are titled with the name of the City where they are being held. It began with ‘Occupy Wall Street’. The common theme however is they have no clear defined goals or demands. They are simply a gathering of people mad at the economic situation of their lives, their country and maybe the world. Most are blaming the banks but can not identify a single target. It is almost like hunting for a moose while shooting a small shotgun at a forest. Today I am narrowing this target, identifying the problem and (continuing the analogy) selecting a high velocity sniper rifle.

    I have written about this issue before and will simplify the solution in three short paragraphs.

    Just like we vote in secret at a curtained ballot box on voting day for our representatives, those we elect need the same privilege; to vote in secret on every issue of legislation or law. The leader of every democratic institution will then need to be certain he or she has considered the opinions of the majority before holding a vote. He or she will not know who voted yes or who voted no. Therefore their can be no bribery or retribution issued, hence, no corruption or excessive lobbying by corporate interests. In British Columbia alone this would have halted numerous bad government decisions. The Banks would likely not be tax free corporations. BC Hydro would not be gutted and Smart meters might not be installed. BC Rail might still be BC Rail and the harvesting of trees might still be tied to a Mill in the region. The HST (Harmonized Sales Tax) would never have passed and “Orders in Council” (the passing of a legislative act simply by the Premier signing a document without debate) would be a thing of the past.

    Today, with majority governments, we have dictatorships dressed up as democracies. It is why hundreds of thousands of people have quit voting and have given up on democracy. It is why hundreds of thousands are taking to the streets. It is why living conditions and wages have consistently gone down while corporate and bank profits have gone up. Governments borrow money to function and to get this money at a reasonable rate the banks (and the IMF) issue the orders on how the government is to perform. All of this happens because we live in dictatorships, not democracies. Today those we elect must stand from their seat and have their name called out publicly indicating how they are voting. Bribery and retribution are the absolute result. How can anyone then call this democracy? A democracy requires a secret vote at every level.

    I trust absolutely that 70% of every man and women will make the right and just decision. I trust you will take the time to consider who you select to represent your community and I then trust the person you select will act in your best interests. You may not like the decision. You may want to know how he or she voted on a particular issue, but for the sake of democracy we must demand a secret vote in every legislative house. Trust is the foundation of all interpersonal relationships. For over 50 years, ever since corporate and banking lobbying interests were allowed to influence our elected governments, our social structure has been failing. We live in the wealthiest country in the world. In a real democracy, a government run by the people for the people, we wouldn’t have hundreds of thousands of citizens pouring into the streets in anger and protest. The title of the protests needs to be unified;

    Occupy Democracy

    I demand a Secret Ballotin all Legislative Houses – I trust you will make the right decision!

    UPDATE – Join the LAW Part to make a real change – The Land Air Water Party of BC – these issues and those of the Leap Manifesto are all borrowed from our published Party Platform

  2. Rafe – I found both articles very enlightening and now wonder how, we the voting public can have these recommendations implemented. I’m sure, given the choice, the PM would put the kibosh on this before the ink was dry.

  3. While Rafe’s idea is well presented, it is not the solution he promotes in his article. But before I point out the flaw in his suggestion, I want to draw the reader’s attention to what Rafe called, “… an illusory remedy,” when analyzing the effectiveness of the ‘ “free vote” ‘. When leaders present ideas for the public’s consideration, such as Rafe Mair has done with this current piece, the public supports enthusiastically as noted above. It engages the voter/taxpayer, it takes up time and energy of uniformed, frustrated, and distrusting people.

    The flaw I see in Rafe’s solution is the absence of freedom voters need to choose their own candidate. The facade is present if the voters choose the person who is acceptable to the party leader, but if he/she is not on the team, the party leader or PM can disqualify that person immediately. Rafe’s idea will force party leaders to do extraordinary due diligence in order to assure obedience from an chosen elected member.

    This practice has been a well-known by political experts and knowledgeable party leaders for many years. Some politicians have even boasted about it. An example was William Magear Tweed, a.k.a. Boss Tweed. One of his most famous quotes was: “I don’t care who does the electing, so long as I get to do the nominating.”

    It is my hope that Rafe will consider this flaw and find a logical way of incorporating it into his next piece on ‘broken democracy’ which I call, No Democracy.

    1. Liz – how could you prevent groups, call them parties, from using the Election Act to nominate someone for parliament? I scarcely deny the obvious abuses nor do I deny that they could be and should be addressed. But before that, surely we have to develop a House of Commons made up of people holding our political power and having a reasonable opportunity to use it. Then they can address your concerns that will never ever be addressed if the Prime Minister and the backroom boys -and girls – have the power to prevent it. It is so much in their interest to prevent it they will.
      I don’t quarrel with your call for reform, Liz, but just say “first things first”.

  4. Thanks for writing articles about our democracy issues, Rafe. Good points.

    My biggest peave with the environmental movement as a whole is they hate talking about democracy and parliament and constitutions and stuff. In my opinion, this is the biggest problem of our day. I have many friends in the environmental movement and have found this to be a serious problem. My work now as an activist is dedicated to figuring out how to create a space for democracy activism, and before that even, figure out how to get people engaged on the subject at all. Easier said than done. Herding Canadians around democracy issues, Rafe, is kinda like your metaphor for “herding cats.” lol. Please keep making more articles like this.

  5. I think this is a brilliant idea. Our MP’s have been starved of any real power for too long. This rather minor change to parliamentary tradition would go a long way towards giving them some teeth.

  6. Why do so many people miss out on the obvious? The reason the party leaders have so much power is because they are elected by the party membership. Have the caucus elect the party leader and their power disappears. Sure, on paper they can still appoint people to various roles but if they can’t convince their caucus that they are acting in the party’s best interests, they can be replaced.

    That’s real responsible government – the leader is directly responsible to the people who elected him and he can be turfed without any great fuss if he doesn’t perform up to expectations.

    Of course we still need proportional representation so that we can vote freely for whoever we want without fear of wasting our vote. That makes the MPs responsible to us, the voters. If they fail to perform, they too can be replaced.

  7. I hate that phrase “common sense”. It’s been used by right-wing politicians to defraud the populace of long fought for rights and privileges. I see “common sense” used by political activists and immediately equate it with fascism.

    1. The term has meant many things to many people over the centuries. For Ontario Conservatives and others, it was indeed used to justify an anti-public agenda. For this publication’s two founders, Rafe Mair and myself, it is most closely and fondly associated with the great 18th century writer and revolutionary Thomas Paine – the title of his bible for early American democracy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_Sense_(pamphlet) Paine himself essentially co-opted the word from the ruling class and turned it on its head, authoring an entirely new meaning. Once a pejorative, belittling the “sense of commoners”, it became a powerful idea of the rights of the people in the face of tyranny – one that reshaped the 18th century. But for us, it has a double meaning: the notion that public policy should not be a matter of left or right dogma – rather a matter of what makes the most sense for the public and environmental benefit. We are not partisan; not lefty tree-huggers or bleeding-heart liberals; nor “free-market” capitalists. The label we and our collaborators choose is “Common Sense Canadians”. Alas, one thing is clear, especially amongst our political landscape today: common sense is all too uncommon.

  8. When did we have a referendum deciding to form this nation called Canada? Here’s the problem:
    First, in order to form a federation (a unified country), a condition of sovereignty and independence must exist in the Provinces before they can federate, or form a unified whole (i.e.: a nation called Canada). It was, therefore, necessary that the British government relinquish its authority over them. On December 11, 1931, the Statute of Westminster did just that. Section 7, paragraph 2, set the Provinces of Canada sovereign, free and independent so that they could legally form the federal union which they had desired since 1867. (At that time, the Imperial Parliament (i.e.: British Government) would not permit them to do so.)
    Second, in order to form such a nation, the consent of a majority of the people of each province (rather than a collective majority) must be gained, and this must be done in a popular vote (i.e.: a referendum) with a question such as “Do you wish (name of province) to join together with other provinces in confederation to form the nation of Canada?”
    Third, in a free and democratic society, governance comes by the consent of the People. When were the People of Canada consulted (via referendum) as to what form of governance was to take shape, if any?
    We have had only three referendums:
     Referendum on Prohibition In 1898
    Are you in favour of the passing of an Act prohibiting the importation, manufacture, or sale of spirits, wine, ale, beer, cider, and all other alcoholic liquors for use as beverages?
    (Approved by 278,380 votes out of 543,073 votes cast or 51.3%).
    (The Government did NOT bring in prohibition, against the wishes of the People of Canada).

     Referendum on Conscription In 1942
    Are you in favour of releasing the Government from any obligations arising out of any past commitments restricting the methods of raising men for military service?
    (Approved by 2,921,206 votes out of 4,529,815 votes cast or 64.5%). (The Government only brought in conscription out of desperation in November, 1944, having resisted the will of the People of Canada as long as possible).

     Referendum on the Charlottetown Accord In 1992
    Do you agree that the Constitution of Canada should be renewed on the basis of the agreement reached on August 28, 1992?
    (Defeated by 7,550,732 votes out of 13,731,634 votes cast, or 55%).
    (The Government acts as if this had been ratified, which it NEVER has).
    Therefore, one must ask, Does Canada really exist as a nation?

    1. That’s a difficult one for most Canadians to wrap their heads around, Kirk. I remember my ex NDP MLA Corky Evans referring to our “colonial” form of governance in Canada, and when you start digging under layers it’s absolutely true. A complex web of “uncodified” Constitutionally recognized documents, unwritten principles etc spanning centuries which all tie into the British Crown. I have come to recognize our existence as a nation is definetley not free like in the context of America who have their own constitutional system. we don’t here. Not even close. Brittania never gave up its vested interests in the colonies, only its responsibility to govern them. I have nothing good to say about the monarchy.

  9. Interesting proposal. But would it not force MPs to be duplicitous with their fellows — to openly display solidarity with them, but when called to vote, to conceal from them their true dissenting views? Sounds unbearable to me. Moreover, would this not foment distrust in the ranks?

    1. “MPs to be duplicitous with their fellows…..”

      You mean like politicians currently do with their constituents without batting an eye?

      They will say ANYTHING to get elected and when the truth of the matter hits home with the wide eyed neuveau politician….
      ie
      YOUR MP is powerless.
      They will nod and vote as they are told……..
      Then back to their constituency to “meet and greet” with the “sheeple” who actually think they can “change things”.
      Other than the rare MP’s office phone call to perhaps expedite an MRI at the local hospital for a sick voter……..good luck getting revolutionary changes from ANY MP.
      ‘democracy” at its most craven worst……..

  10. The problem is well defined and the suggested solution is interesting and original. That said, it is a solution which would remove public accountability from our MPs and would force us to trust our politicians absolutely, blindly. Raise your hand if you think power without accountability is a good idea….;-) We voters could, of course, simply choose independents or a party which doesn’t whip its elected representatives. But under fptp we tend to vote ‘strategically’ against what we don’t want, instead of for what we do want. Perhaps the new electoral system will not only allow us voters to finally choose what we actually want, but also re-balance power in Ottawa in favour of MPs. One can hope, eh?

    1. Quite the opposite! Your MP is utterly unaccountable to you now! That’s the problem. He/she, if on the government side, is accountable to the Prime Minister first, last and always. The accountability of the PM to the House of Commons is theoretical only unless my suggestion is followed whereupon he becomes instantly accountable and because he/she now has this power in real terms, is truly accountable to the voter for the government’s actions.

      Please sir, read both articles again because you couldn’t have understood what was said to be able to write as you did.

    2. Sjeng – your comment surprises me. What would you call every candidate who runs for parliament or the legislature who promises to represent his constituents faithfully then spends 4 years doing precisely what he is told even though it’s against what he believes his constituents want? What do you call this MP/MLA who won’t report back to his leader that the government is, in his opinion, flouting the wishes of his constituents because he’s afraid to lose favour? Be overlooked for the good things that come to obedient members?
      The word “duplicitous” springs to my mind. I want to give him a bit of independence, a position where the leader still calls the shots but now has to care, if only a bit, what MP thinks and is now speaking up a bit.

      1. Hi Rafe, thanks for your reply. Politicians promise to represent the constituents of their ridings, but once elected behave like ‘trained seals’ (as our friend Corky Evans put it) for their party leadership. I think we agree that is a serious problem, that it undermines our democracy. While your suggested solution would make it easier for parliamentarians to (secretly) vote against their party leadership, it would do nothing to help them speak more freely and honestly. I also worry that secret votes in parliament would remove public scrutiny, and therefore public accountability. How can we possibly judge what we can not see?
        Einstein said something like “If I had one hour to solve a problem I would think 55 minutes about the problem, and 5 minutes about the solution”. Your ‘wild idea’ is original and thought provoking, but perhaps a bit too hasty to be the whole answer. That said, I really appreciate these articles and look forward to the next installment. To solve any problem, including hyper party discipline, we have to start with recognizing that there actually is a problem. Thanks for using your megaphone to point this one out and for starting the discussion.

  11. This idea is too simple and too prone to enhance real democracy.

    I never have been convinced that ‘confidence’ votes are needed. Real debating does not imply a ‘my way or the highway’ conclusion. When debates are held with the goal of reaching a concensus, the idea of a confidence vote is completely out of place. There is no reason to believe every argument of the opposition is wrong and must be rejected. There is no reason the believe every argument of the government is right and must be accepted.

    1. Steve, every democratic system in the world is adversarial. Men and women simply do not sit down and spend hours and hours trying to find compromise. Moreover, if you get into the game, as I did, you start as you would like people to be but you quickly learn that most big issues can’t be compromised. The issue then becomes, who will decide and how?
      If you read the first paper you’ll see that at present it is the PM, without any actual restraint. That’s scarcely compromise!

      If you read this paper you’ll learn how without cost or substantive change the PM is forced to consult with all MPs or be subject to a vote of confidence by secret ballot.

      Please re-read, Steve, without stars in your eyed, and grt involved wit meaning?

    2. Steve – I deal in reality, not dreams. I deal in what really happens at annual meetings of golf clubs, curling clubs and meetings of the College of Cardinals, not with what should happen in a perfect world.

      We live under a system where the emperor has usurped all the power- all of it Steve – and you want to senf him bouquets of flowers!

      1. Line number 9 from Salt Spring here Rafe.
        Thanks for all the entertainment over at CKNW and thank you for these insights on the electoral process. Never went to that radio station after you left. Bill Goode?.. Bill not so hot.

        I believe the basic problem is the the complete lack of accountability that permeates government at all levels.

        Does it not strike you as obscene that politicians and in particular our new sunny ways PM can just flat out lie their way into public office with impunity… effectively defrauding people of their vote?

        Don’t you think it would be just as expeditious to hold political liars to say the same standards as any other liar and fraud artist? After all aren’t we all (alleged to be) equal before the law in Canada?

        So wouldn’t it be just as effective to mount some kind of legal or public process in the form of a plebiscite or some embarrassing hairball of a legal process based on something heinous like the site C betrayal demanding truth and accountability in the election process perhaps based on a specific criminal or civil complaint, signed by several thousand angry defrauded voters?

        And even if it wasn’t effective first time through wouldn’t it be interesting, entertaining and enlightening to see the little prince or Christie Clark or fill in the blank …… trying to lie their way out of their fraudulent behavior? And couldn’t that put a real chill into future would be political fraudsters?

        Now before you say great go for it. I am also getting long in the tooth and flat out don’t have the skills. But there could be some firebrand legal or other wise out there looking to make a name or career fighting this political oppression.
        So whaddaya think?

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