This article appeared in the December 2015 edition of Inside Policy.
By Jack Stilborn, Dec. 17, 2015
its Speech From the Throne, the new federal Liberal government reiterated campaign promises to make significant changes to both the electoral system and how Parliament works. Not surprisingly, the government has put the focus on practical steps rather than abstract principles. However, commitments to “give Canadians a stronger voice” in the House by expanding the use of free votes for backbenchers (campaign platform), and seek electoral reform “to make sure every vote counts,” (Throne Speech) strongly echo themes of a traditional reform discourse that has dominated Canadian debate since the 1960s.
The Reform Act, 2015 – MP Michael Chong’s attempt to strengthen the hand of MPs in leadership change and candidate selection – is the most significant recent illustration of this Canadian tradition. The tradition holds that responsible government in Canada is on life support, but not yet beyond resuscitation. Procedural changes empowering backbench MPs are seen as the key to restoring the credibility and effectiveness of the House as a representative institution, thereby enhancing the health of Canada’s democracy.
The tradition embodies widely held values but, inconveniently, it does not seem to be working. The long-term impacts of the Reform Act remain to be seen. However, its requirement for caucus votes on reform options at the beginning of each Parliament resulted, last November, in deferred decisions by two and the adoption of only minor elements by the third, hardly a convincing portent of change.
More broadly, the modern standing committee system, election of House Speakers by secret ballot, and other products of the reform tradition over the years have not significantly affected Parliament’s underlying problem. Public cynicism about Parliament and politicians has continued to increase, as has public disengagement, approximately in tandem with reform efforts. It is now time to think critically about the reform tradition itself, starting with its unexamined assumptions.
The conventional parliamentary reform wisdom and its limitations
The modern reform tradition assumes that MPs, by virtue of being elected, remain uniquely qualified to represent local electorates. Party discipline reflecting the centralization of power in the hands of party leaders and unelected advisors is therefore conceived as a threat to democratic governance. However, central characteristics of both party discipline and modern electoral politics conflict with these assumptions.
The capacity of leaders to enforce party discipline is the product of caucus solidarity and support for the party leadership. It reflects caucus perceptions of the effectiveness of the party leadership in maintaining and enhancing the party’s levels of public support and the electoral prospects of caucus members. As periods of discord in national party caucuses, and the more recent provincial examples of Newfoundland and Labrador, Alberta and Manitoba illustrate, caucus support cannot be taken for granted. While individuals MPs periodically protest about party discipline, the maintenance of party discipline ultimately occurs by and with the consent of caucus members.
The collaboration of MPs in the maintenance of party discipline reflects realities that continue to be sublimated within the parliamentary reform discourse. Electoral politics has come to be a team sport in which individual parliamentarians are linked to political parties by powerful ties of affiliation and practical dependence. The central representational function of the individual MP has come to be representing the party within the constituency, not the constituency on the floor of the House of Commons.
The eclipse of the traditional representative capacity of MPs, and the ties of affiliation and dependence between the individual MP and the political party, are deeply embedded within the character of modern electoral politics. The achievement of responsible government itself was an early milestone in this transformation. It made the life of a government dependent on continued support within the House, and thus provided governments with a new and compelling incentive to ensure reliable voting on the part of backbenchers.
The universal franchise was a second major milestone. Combined with population growth, it replaced constituency electorates of two or three thousand relatively homogenous voters in the 1870s (uniformly male, and meeting property/income qualifications) with the modern constituency. Today, MPs face the task of somehow representing on average approximately 80,000 highly diverse electors, most of whom they will never meet.
The more impersonal relationship between MPs and electors in the modern riding, combined with electronic communications technologies, has shifted the focus of voting. In the national communications universe, operating 24-7, the focus on party leaders is relentless and party brands based on accumulated impressions are major influences on public opinion and voting.
Political parties are responding to these realities with increasingly sophisticated applications of marketing techniques to communications, policy-development, fund-raising and electoral campaigning. The importance of centralized party organizations as influences on the electoral future of individual MPs has steadily grown, undermining the capacity for autonomous action.
The rise of the modern interventionist state is also a central part of this story, although its implications are less obvious. It has replaced what would be seen, today, as a form of extremely limited government with something vastly broader in scope and complexity. The modern state operates pervasively across the full range of what are now conceived as abstract and highly technical “policy fields,” and generates a continuous stream of complex decisions for consideration in Parliament. Most of these are remote from local interests or preferences that could be represented in the House. Furthermore, affluence, education and social and economic diversification have contributed to the emergence of an increasingly fractured electorate, sceptical of governmental and political authority of all kinds, and chronically distracted from politics.
In combination, the impact of these changes on virtually all aspects of politics and governance has been transformational, and Parliament is no exception. Disciplined political parties, operating approximately as they do today, are deeply embedded within the structure of modern democratic practice. The modern reform tradition decries the marginalization of Parliament and MPs, but has no credible response to its fundamental causes. Furthermore, its nostalgic fixation on lost independence diverts attention from centrally important dimensions of the modern role of both MPs and Parliament, along with more realistic expectations and reform options.
Needed: An alternative approach
Today, Parliament continues to play a central role in catalyzing democratic governance, and the individual MPs who bring a passionate interest in public affairs and opinions about the public interest to their work in Ottawa remain an invaluable part of the political process. But the central political role of Parliament is now as the location for a virtually continuous election campaign among competing political parties that occurs between the formal campaign periods. Party activity inside and outside the House is directed by party leaders and their advisors centrally on the basis of public opinion trends, party databases and electoral calculations.
The new role of Parliament is readily apparent in daily conduct within the House, from the speeches to empty House of Commons benches typical of the legislative process to the theatrics of Question Period. The traditional legislative and expenditure-related functions remain as constitutional formalities, but the critical decisions are made outside Parliament. What happens inside Parliament is all about media attention and public perceptions; about responding to the imperatives of the permanent election campaign. The conduct of parliamentarians and the character of Parliament can only be understood when that is recognized.
Instead of focussing on the restoration of responsible government and exploring how backbench MPs can be “empowered,” reformers need to accept disciplined political parties operating approximately as they do today as permanent features of parliamentary government. But this opens the door to a new reform objective: maximizing the contribution to democratic governance of political parties, party competition and the continuous election campaign that occurs within the House of Commons.
Unique advantages of the parliamentary forum can be leveraged in support of this objective. These include the capacity of the House to provide a level playing field for party competition, relatively impervious to differences in financial resources or even current popularity, and to expose parties and leaders to direct public questioning by competitors. As well, parliamentary proceedings catalyze public interactions between parliamentarians, the media and citizens, contributing to government responsiveness, public education and political engagement.
Reform inside Parliament
A comprehensive review of internal procedure is needed to respond to what is, in practical effect, a new role for the House of Commons. Three examples illustrate the scope of reform implied in this task.
Debates typically consist of repetitious exchanges scheduled over weeks or even months. This approach responds to the needs of deliberative debate, but its primary contribution today is to discourage consistent media attention and foster public boredom. Alternative models such as the nationally televised leaders’ electoral debates, especially when accompanied by pundit panels and real-time audience feedback, are far more successful in attracting attention and stimulating public engagement. Nationally marketed and televised debates of a limited number of bills or major motions selected by the parties could help to adapt Parliament to its new role.
Oral Question Period is now orchestrated by the political parties. This has made the opposition parties the public accountability agents of Parliament while the role of government backbenchers is to absorb time and impede discussion. The procedure employed by the National Assembly of Quebec provides for a weekly scheduled interaction between a designated minister and opposition representatives on a single issue. It is sometimes praised as a more constructive alternative to Question Period. It also illustrates the potential of procedural reform.
Consistent recognition of Parliament’s new role provides a basis for addressing a range of contested issues. For example, since most electors now vote on the basis of party brand and leadership, crossing the floor to join a different political party needs to be ratified by electors in a by-election.
Also, op-ed columnists need to stop delegitimizing coalitions by describing them as exercises of a discretion allegedly conferred upon individual MPs at election time. Most electors do not choose local representatives as independent agents, but rather vote primarily for parties and the leaders who actually make the coalition decisions.
Finally, prorogations for the purpose of deferring uncomfortable proceedings in Parliament are unacceptable for approximately the same reasons that would apply to the unilateral suspension of an election campaign. Restrictions on the use of prorogations therefore need to be developed (perhaps by subjecting them to an all-party consent requirement outside a routine “prorogation window” in the fall of each year).
Electoral reform issues have been closely linked to those of parliamentary reform, although the reforms proposed above are more about adapting the House of Commons to current electoral realities.
If we are to consider options for electoral reform, we need to think about the resulting effect on the incentives governing MPs and political parties, especially for accountability, responsiveness, and public engagement. Preferential voting systems, for example, heighten incentives for courting supporters of competing parties, rather than the micro-targeting of potential supporters that is currently fostered by the first-past-the-post system. Potentially, preferential voting could have wide-ranging impacts both on the character of party messaging and the substance of public policy.
The importance of an informed and educated public in the achievement of democratic governance has been recognized since at least 1861, when John Stuart Mill wrote Considerations on Representative Government. Paradoxically, however, democratic reform proposals typically pay much more attention to relatively fine degrees of difference among procedural and electoral options than to the roots of democracy – the information base used for democratic decision-making and the skills needed in order to make full use of it. An understanding of politics, institutions, public policy options and the increasingly sophisticated political marketing techniques being used to influence electors is now an indispensable basis for effective public engagement. Education has the potential to do what procedural change can never do: foster understanding and realistic expectations, increase overall legitimacy and, ultimately, shift power from governments and party leaders to citizens.
Parliamentary government in Canada and elsewhere appears to be undergoing profound transformation, perhaps akin to the great historical shifts to constitutional monarchy and cabinet government. In response, parliamentary reformers continue to focus on empowering backbench MPs through House and caucus procedural change without exploring the causes of disempowerment, much less providing plausible remedies.
It is entirely possible that specific reforms, when they occur, will transcend the limitations of the assumptions underlying them. If they are to be effective, they will need to move beyond the generalized nostalgia that, among too many parliamentary reformers, appears to substitute for thinking. Effective reform, today, needs to focus on realistic strategies that can strengthen democratic practice in an evolving world, not on the revival of parliamentary functions that have already disappeared.
Jack Stilborn writes, teaches and consults on democratic governance issues. Until 2008, he worked for Parliament as a Principal Analyst in the Parliamentary Information and Research Service of the Library of Parliament.