Dear Prime Minister- Time for electoral reform, says Rafe Mair

Dear Prime Minister: Time for electoral reform, says Rafe Mair

Dear Prime Minister- Time for electoral reform, says Rafe Mair
PM Stephen Harper addresses a youth delegation (Flickr/Stephen Harper CC licence)

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

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

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

Tom Mulcair supports electoral reform, as do the Greens and Grits

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.


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

14 thoughts on “Dear Prime Minister: Time for electoral reform, says Rafe Mair

  1. There’s much worthy debate about electoral reform, but far to much of it is misinformed. Pro-rep looks like the most popular of a wide range of electoral systems, yet it shares most of the same promotional rhetoric as most of the others: more democratic, more representative, more cooperative, et cetera. Perhaps most peculiar to pro-reppers is the notion that with such-and-such percent of the “popular vote,” ( which, BTW, has little meaning since we don’t tabulate votes at-large, but, rather, by riding) the winning party gets “100% of the power.” How on earth can we have a cogent, informed debate about electoral reform while harbouring such falsehoods?

    Obviously the Commons doesn’t have all the power: the courts, the Senate, the provinces, and even the Governors all act as checks and balances, as was intended. Note that Harper tried, but failed, to behave as if he really did have all the power; if it really was the case, the province of BC couldn’t have blocked his precious bitumen pipelines, the safe-injection facility would have been shut down years ago, and medical marijuana patients would still be considered criminals—to name a few examples. Certainly we live in a federation of eleven sovereignties, and that fact alone precludes any attainment of total power. But of course there are many more.

    My favourite miscomprehended assertion is obsolescence of whipped parliamentary votes by way of implementing pro-rep. I relish every chance I can get to debate this with pro-reppers, many of whom list the death of the whip as one of their favourite system’s greatest benefits. It’s as good a debating exercise as any to leave you with.

  2. I certainly won’t be holding my breath, Rafe, nor will I argue with your allusion to Hitler’s take-over of Germany through means of manipulating the absolutely inadequate electoral system. our PM has entirely too much power, and it’s high times that MPs found their courage. Sure, the PM *could* kick them all out of caucus if they mounted a revolt, but then how would he govern?

    Better still, heave Steve and elect someone who has promised to revamp the system. While they’re at it I’d love to see them ban Omnibus Bills. If a Bill can’t stand on its own merits then it has no business being put to the House.

  3. Gary Young = Troll
    Rafe, considering his previous involvement in Socred government of years gone by, has more than established his credentials in recent years. I’m with Rafe.
    I’m glad that you, Damien, moderate all comments on this site.
    Keep up the good work!

  4. A proportional representation system is one of two things that will save democracy in Canada; the other is reform of campaign financing.

    1. I’m unconvinced democracy is seriously threatened by our electoral or parliamentary systems; rather, IMHO, it’s the abuse and gaming of those and other important systems (like the courts and bureaucracy) that’s the threat.

      Yet there seems to be widespread fixation on the electoral system, much of it woefully misinformed to the extent that calls for “free votes,” “abolishing the ‘party system'” and whipped votes are frequently heard as if MPs aren’t already able to vote freely, or that a parliamentary majority by which bills are passed is identical regardless how the MPs are elected. Nevertheless, even experts have considerable philosophical range of opinion concerning the nature of political representation.

      I think our current single-member-plurality electoral systems is being blamed for voters’ recrimination for electing such a bad government, which Harper certainly has taken the cake. We should remind that he’s had only one majority (his previous minorities were actually more akin to the type of parliaments pro-reppers say they want); he looks unlikely to win another, and could very well lose government altogether under SMP. One disturbing notion is that there’s no point in voting if it isn’t pro-rep—which is unfortunate if true because low turnout only helps Harper win a parliamentary majority with a democratic minority.

      Pro-rep’s talked about a lot, but, as we know, it has failed at referendum in three provinces on four occasions that I’m aware of. Maybe once citizens really examine the details, they realize that much needs to be done in areas like you suggest, and perhaps we should attend to these first lest we throw the democratic baby out with the electoral bathwater.

      1. “I’m unconvinced democracy is seriously threatened by our electoral or parliamentary systems; rather, IMHO, it’s the abuse and gaming of those and other important systems (like the courts and bureaucracy) that’s the threat.”

        Any system that allows the “gaming and abuse” to the extent that FPTP allows is a threat to our democracy.

        Why are there only 2 countries left that use the old British Parliamentary system. Everyone else has changed to another model.

        When will Canada and Canadians decide to grow up and mature instead of getting up every morning and saluting a family that lives in a castle somewhere?

        It is childlike to continually cling to the skirt of some old women who lives there.

        This country has become a shithole and there is not one person who cares to fix the actual problems.

        There is of course a lot of continual excuses and obfuscation.
        Canadian politicians are the most gutless cowards I have ever come across.

        All of them.

        I wouldn’t spend one second of my valuable time place an X for any one of them.

        Think I am alone? At election time look at all of the non-participants. We only get 50-60% participation from eligible voters.

        Why don’t the politicians ask them why they don’t vote?

        Could it be that the gutless losers are afraid of the truthful answer?

        See truth does not sell to the Canadian voter. The Canadian voter has an unending desire to be lied to so they can have something to complain and bitch about.

  5. The electorial system in Canada seemed to work pretty well from 1867 up to about 2007. Not bad for about 140 years.
    Perhaps rather than attempting to “change the constitution” and create endless meetings between federal and provincial lawyers, politicians and the seemingly endless govt beaurocrats. We could realize where the real problem lies(Lays? What the hell, we’re talking about politicians. I’ll stick with “lies”).
    The leader….. The PM…… Mr Harper.
    His “style” of leadership has become possibly one of the most draconian, dictatorial, obsessive embarassments to walk the halls of Parliament.
    How do we ensure that his leadership “style” is restrained or refuted?
    Obligatory Free votes on major issues( capital punishment, war, Quebec seperation, etc) such as would be a start. No party whips involved.
    Term limits. No Prime Minister should be permitted more than 2 terms in office. ( I recall Mr Cretiens veiled threat to the Paul Martin camp, ” If you try and push me out… I’ll stay and run again!”). Two terms is more than enough time to “get things done”. Any leader that stays longer than 2 terms runs the risk of emasculating other leadership hopefuls in the eyes of voters.
    And finally the most difficult , insidious, multi headed hydra of all.
    Ban Lobbying. All the parties do it, unfortunately the conservatives are just better at it.
    Lets look at the millions of dollars that large, special interest groups ( Pharmaceutical, military, petroleum, financial, China?) donate to render elections into a dismal, blatant prostitution of the political system.
    Voters and their votes dont matter. Whoever is in power is in the back pocket of their election campaign contributors. The money involved has grown exponentially as these organizations have realized if they arent pumping money for “their” industry or company, their competitiors certainly will. Dont want a pipeline? Too bad. Its getting built. Dont want tankers on the West Coast? Too bad . They’re coming. Dont want new military fighter jets? Too bad. You’re buying them. Paying too much for drugs? Too bad. The price is going up.
    Lobbying. It should be illegal and it should be stopped.

    None of these ideas requires a constitutional change.
    Just imagination, foresight, empathy for voters and intestinal fortitude.
    Unfortunately Mr Harper lacks in all four.

    P.S. Rafe. Its 24 Sussex not 34 ( unless Mr Harper has built an extra ensuite for his lobbyist pals to spend the night)

  6. A man who gained office in arguably three corrupt elections and only got thirty something percent of the vote to win a majority.

    Who then went on to protect his party from further investigation by dis empowering Elections Canada’s investigative process.

    Who now is attempting to retain his dictatorship by disenfranchising reams of voting Canadians along with gerrymandering thirty or something new riding’s, is not about to change… anything…

    Why would he?

    It’s the corrupted system that allowed a man like this to rise to power to begin with, that needs changing.

      1. Ahhhh, but now we have the media focusing, not on the economy, environment, refugees or recession.
        What are they all running about in a tizzy for?
        Seriously, the MSM is pathetic..
        A Tempest in a pee cup

  7. All fine and so much blather but ZERO solutions are proposed… NOTHING… just the usual blather… Rafe, do you actually get paid for this non-info of “no hope” and “totally ineffective” diatribe… come on…

    1. What the devil are you talking about, Gary? It’s a very clear solution: electoral reform – the entire point of the piece.

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