Rafe: How our “democracy” really works – the charade of party politics and whipped caucuses

Christy Clark being sworn in as Premier of British Columbia in 2011, surrounded by her cabinet (Province of BC/Flickr)
Christy Clark being sworn in as Premier of British Columbia in 2011, surrounded by her cabinet (Province of BC/Flickr)

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.


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.

13 thoughts on “Rafe: How our “democracy” really works – the charade of party politics and whipped caucuses

  1. Our system gives the leader dictatorial like power. If you vote the way the people who elected you want to but goes against party leader your done. Really all not that different than North Korea, except here your not shot or sent for re education. Just booted out of caucus, no committee appointments and sit as a lonely back bencher (if not kicked out of party) until next election where the leader will not sign your nomination papers….

  2. There are many folks describing the issues with the current democratic processes but I did not see anyone suggesting a better choice. I admit I do not have an answer either.

  3. OK…”lobbyists that PAID for the election” in that last post could keep us going till Christmas….so let’s stick to Rafe’s theme of democracy…well it “can” work and we “can” have accountability….if we have real competition at elections….YES RAFE…the party democracy crap is just that….so I’ll stick to the bigger theme of elections and accountability…. we’ve got only two choices in May 1917…. “Christy” or “John Horgan”…Weaver can’t really figure out all the rules still and can’t seem to get the bus moving….so only two choices….I like Horgan myself…. BUT WHAT HAPPENS to the system if the “people’s voice” of a true INDEPENDENT stepped forward in each riding with no political (fantasy) party behind him or her???? Just asking…. By the way…I can assure you it’s not too late for this to happen….Horgan needs to fill out his platform and get it presented soon….or nothing is for sure. If that guy TRUMP can get as far as he has in a few short months…. the rules are all changing.

    1. “…”lobbyists that PAID for the election” in that last post could keep us going till Christmas….”

      Good one.

    2. Unfortunately the “theme” of Rafe’s arguement is this.
      There is no democracy if whoever is in power must use party Whips to STAY in power.
      The current rules dont foster a lot of debate or “independent voting”.
      Capital Punishment would have been implemented 25 years ago if the public and their individual MP’s were allowed a free vote.
      A failed vote on a Bill introduced by a ruling party is grounds for an election.
      So…….if you were to start a 3rd Party as an alternative and IF you were elected by a landslide and ruled as the Majority Party……Heaven forbid a contencious Bill came before the house……cause the Ruling Party would be “whipping” its members into voting for its Bill in order to stay in power…….

      Nothing would change….status quo.

      4 more years of Christy…..Ugh.

      1. And Lobbyists are the largest single factor for unpopular decisions being made by the govt.
        Dont need a Dam ? Who cares! Build it anyway.
        Dont need a new roof on a Stadium? Who cares! Build it anyway.
        Needed a new South Fraser bridge to replace the Deas Tunnel 4 years ago? Who cares. Make ’em wait 4 years until the Election.
        Need new hospitals? Schools? Ferries?
        Who cares. Make em wait til election time.
        Make no mistake.
        The craven opportunists that run every level of govt are in it to make themselves and their lobbyist cronies rich.
        And then they vote themselves raises and juicy pensions.
        If it wasnt so pathetic…..it would be criminal.
        Pssssst. When does Christy get her $50,000.00 cheque from the Liberal party for her “private dinners” with……….lobbyists?
        At the beginning of the year or the end?

  4. Rafe, please use “queen” instead of king. A little gender balance not that Crispy is doing us any good at all.

    1. Seriously? This keeps you up at night?
      Scouring the internet for politically incorrect “gender bias”?
      With all the other problems world wide?

      Reminds me of a plumbing supply shop in England that was charged for using “sexist and gender demeaning words ” when labeling their plumbing parts… ” a ball cock valve” was considered demeaning to the microscopic customer base that would be offended by such a sexist name.
      Their solution that was accepted by the Court.
      They offered two aisles.
      One with the original part names that had existed for over 100 years without any complaints or the other aisle with the new pc correct gender neutral (neutered?) name.
      But since it took more time and extra labour to rename existing products….The “pc aisle” cost twice as much…… 🙂
      You want pc….ya gotta pay extra for it.
      Welcome to the real world . Its cold , cruel and not very pc.

      And this childish drivel is what keeps people up at night.

  5. In my memory, Paul Nettleton is the MLA who did not toe the line for Gordon Campbell and was sent to pasture for opposing the breakup of BC Hydro.

    Can this be turned into a naming session for BC MLAs who had the courage to stand up and be counted?

    1. Paul’s problem was that he was rather a straight-laced kind of guy and discovered he had issues with Gordo’s lifestyle. Further, he had the nerve to go and discuss it with ‘his highness’ which infuriated Gordo. After all, he had been leading that lifestyle for many years without any of his lackeys questioning his activities. Paul most certainly paid the price, which was too bad because he was a hard working MLA and highly respect. But….whatever, he wasn’t ‘his highness’.

  6. Yep.
    That about sums up “democracy” in modern times…….
    But Rafe, you left out the real power behind the Leadership.
    The Lobbyists that PAID for the election.

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