How to make Parliament healthy, so MPs actually work for you and me.
Listen my children, and you shall hear (apologies to Longfellow) kindly old Doctor Rafe as he cures our political ailments.
I have a Doctor of Laws (albeit honourary) from SFU — any university who would present honorary degrees to Alexandra Morton and me should get a medal — and if Samuel Johnson called himself “doctor” with his honourary degree, why can’t I?
These ideas of mine are not new. I have mentioned them elsewhere. It seems to me, though, that with a new majority government, we should discuss these matters in order to understand if not why we’re being screwed, how it is happening and why we can’t do anything about it.
I start with the fact that Parliament (though one can fairly include the B.C. legislature) is broken — badly. The entire place is run out of the Prime Minister’s office (PMO) with MPs, in or out of government, toeing the official line.
Assuming we must retain the same highly unsatisfactory election system, here are a couple of changes that, in themselves, would work wonders in bringing us, for the first time, to democracy in our Parliament.
Three doses of medicine
First, amend the Elections Act and remove the right of the party leader to withdraw his support from a candidate he doesn’t like, and replace this with the right of a Constituency President to certify a nomination. This would very seriously restrict a leader’s ability to ensure he has only obedient little girls and boys in his caucus. The present system assures the prime minister, no matter what the views of the constituency in question, will always be obeyed.
Second, bring the secret ballot into the Chamber. It’s said that the problem of unbending party loyalty is abated by “free votes,” but this is nonsense, for the leader sees how MPs vote and disciplines accordingly.
A third reform would be to let various caucuses select who sits on various committees, to at least moderately take away from the PM the power to make members toe the party line.
But let’s go back to the secret ballot. This should be initiated by a certain percentage of the members, say 30 per cent, upon motion to the Speaker. Now the MPs have real power, but only a lost vote on a money bill or a vote the PM declares to be a “confidence” issue will force the government to resign if it loses a vote. By this reform alone, the MP has his inherent but stolen power to represent the people restored.
It is said that this would result in chaos, and I ask why.
If a Parliament must be bound to its leader, why bother with a Parliament at all? Why not just elect a “glorious leader” every four years and save the money we pay for MPs?
People say that they want to know how their MP voted, but there’s nothing to see since the vote is already committed.
If an open vote in Parliament is democratic, why should we not pass this benefit onto the public and require that they vote in the open as well? If open votes amongst the public would result in coercion, surely it does the same thing in Parliament.
Prescribed: proportional representation
Here comes my main point, and one that has changed over the years.
I believe that we should go to proportional representation (PR) with no ifs, ands, maybes or restraints.
In our present system, 60 per cent or more of those who vote are disenfranchised because their vote was a waste of effort. Moreover, if all votes count, surely the turnout would be considerably enhanced.
To change, one must have a different attitude. We would be moving, in golf terms, from match play to medal play. In medal play, everyone gets the same chance while in match play, there’s the luck of the draw. PR means that every political party puts forward a list of 302 candidates, being the number in the House of Commons, and obtains seats through its percentage of the votes cast. Usually there is a floor a party must rise above — five per cent for example — so no party gets a seat unless it gets five per cent of the vote.
Under our present system, only two out of five at best affect the makeup of the House of Commons — the rest might just as well have stayed home. How can anyone defend such a system unless, of course, they have a seat under the current system and are afraid they’ll lose it.
Why shouldn’t every voter have an influence on the makeup of Parliament? If, as in my case, you think that the environment is a large issue, why must you vote for someone that doesn’t share that priority because your favourite candidate can’t possibly win?
Minority governments are good for you
The main argument against PR is that there will no longer be constituencies and thus no MP’s office to go to with problems. But that argument lost its force when the Internet arrived. Moreover, what party would dare not have representation throughout the country? In fact, I would argue that under PR, not only does the citizen have greater access, he has access to an MP who actually counts in Parliament.
How would Parliament work?
Governments would inevitably be minority ones or coalitions formal or informal. This does not mean that they would be constantly changing, for MPs like risking elections as much as you and I want to risk being laid off. Elections put all of them temporarily out of work and unsure if they will get their jobs back.
Most democratic countries have PR and do just fine.
The main consequence is that most if not all MPs are consulted on policy, because they have to be. Of even greater significance, the government must consult the House when bringing in its budget, lest it be toppled. This is a huge benefit when compared to the present system, where the finance minister tables his budget and says “if you don’t like it, get stuffed.”
But, it is said, nothing will get done!
That’s simply not true. The government has plenty of muscle because (see above) no one wants an election and if the law proposed is a good one, the government has a good issue to fight an election on. In practice, the government gets its way but only after consultation and accepting appropriate amendments.
Perhaps it’s the “Peace, Order and Good Government” clause in the Constitution which has Canadians content to have a majority jamming their programs at them, with Opposition reduced to making useless speeches in hopes the press gallery and the hometown newspapers will print something nice about them.
A government with vim and vigour
Here is a profound change for the better. The House of Commons has committees which are designed to question government policy, which they do by holding hearings with witnesses. As it presently stands, these committees have a majority of the MPs, meaning that the agenda and operation of that committee is set by the government members who toe the party line. With PR, the proportions of committee follow the party’s share of MPs. This could be an enormous tool in the hands of the public, who will see these committees as windows into the House of Commons and its workings.
The real issue here is whether or not the public wants a Parliament of debate, compromise and sensitivity to the wishes of all parties, or the present four to five year dictatorship.
There are, of course, challenges, the principal one being the selection of candidates by the party. The tendency, one fears, is that the top selections on the list will go to party hacks and, frankly, that has been the experience of New Zealand under their system of mixed representation, half “first-past-the-post” (our system) and half off the party list.
I should add that my version would have provinces put up the number of candidates, making that number the total of that province’s MPs. The votes would be province by province. B.C. parties, therefore, would put 37 names forward and they would be elected on the votes of British Columbian voters.
This problem of candidate selection, therefore, is fixed by compulsory primaries where the party members have the opportunity to put forward names to go on the list with the 37 top names being, in order of the number of votes they get, selected by all of us.
Bad for your political health
Who doesn’t like this system? Those who benefit from the present system, including the backroom boys, who love the status quo. Some parties — the NDP for example — are often run by those who will lose three elections in order to get one term to do everything they’ve always wanted to do. One hundred per cent of power is worth waiting for. But the question shouldn’t be what the parties want. The question should be what the people want.
Change is always difficult. The devil you know, it’s said, is better than the one you don’t know. Thus perfection prevents reform.
All this, the good doctor says, is fodder for debate, the winning of which should be up to the people, not the folks behind closed doors.