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Rules of the game in BC prevent the new approach to politics he advises.

Former Gordon Campbell chief of staff Martyn Brown’s much ballyhooed book about the Campbell/Clark government pleads for a new approach to politics in B.C. So does Gary Mason in a recent column in the Globe and Mail. Meaning no disrespect, these two eminent political commentators are missing the point, but then so do 35 million other Canadians. For we are taught exactly the opposite from what is reality.

Our system is called “responsible government” — the word “responsible” has nothing to do with the behavior of MLAs, but refers to the type of system we have where the premier and cabinet are responsible for their jobs to the whim of the legislature. If they displease the legislature it can turn them out of office.

(I will be referring to the provincial scene but the same remarks, and then some, apply to the feds.)

This system, on paper, looked as close to perfection as you can get. There you have the government under constant fear of political execution if they don’t measure up.

Are you ready for this?

There will be no improvement, none, of our political culture until this farcical system is tossed out and replaced by something that works!

History lesson

“Responsible government” started in Britain as the parliament gradually increased its power over the public purse. As the king lost his power to legislate, parliament took over and MPs inevitably differed over policy, thus “parties” came to pass with leaders who in the case of the leader of the stronger were known as the First Lord of the Treasury. The rest were His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.

The colleagues of the First Lord of the Treasury became the cabinet.

When the actions of the “government” displeased the House as a whole, they could and often did vote non-confidence in them and they would resign. The king would turn to other MPs starting with the leader of the opposition, though in the earlier days he could call upon whomever he wished until he found a leader who could form the new government. (In those days the life of the parliament was seven years and only occasionally would a vote of non-confidence bring about an election.)

Within that parliament, standing committees of MPs would act as watchdogs over various “portfolios,” which meant that ministers were under constant surveillance by the House of Commons. In those days of little party discipline this was a good tool for the backbenchers.

Over the years the system changed, and in order to sustain himself in power the prime minister had to be sure of parliamentary support, thus a need for a “party” morphed into just that: political parties that either supported the government or banded together in a mutual desire to throw the rascals out.

As time passed, loose party discipline became iron clad.

In the UK, two strong party disciplines joined in the early 20th century to give better backbench power over their betters. In the Labour Party all MPs have the right to elect who will be in cabinet though not their precise position, while the Tories have the 1922 Committee which goes back to the days after the coalition government of the First World War when the entire parliamentary party voted to abandon Lloyd George and seek election on their own ticket. To this day these two weapons operate as a check on the government. Moreover, that the MPs number more than 600 means that the PM or party leader must constantly watch his backside.

Canada copied this system as did all of its provinces, thus accepting a parliamentary straitjacket for all MLAs but especially backbenchers.

‘Winner take all’ in BC

Now to the case in point. How does the system work here?

Well, the only thing that keeps the system alive and evil is that the public generally believe that when they elect an MLA he or she will represent their wishes in the House.

Ponder this. Since Confederation, only once has a majority been tossed out of office. That was in 1873, when Sir John A. Macdonald was caught up in the “Pacific Scandal” and forced out. It must be noted that Macdonald had a razor thin majority and party discipline had not yet become iron clad as it is today.

What, then, do we have today in B.C.?

We have a “winner take all” political system where every four years (so far) the public decide who will be their dictator.

How does the premier retain absolute control?

Through a system of the carrot and the stick.

On the carrot side, the premier decides who will be in cabinet, who will become a parliamentary secretary to a minister, who will be the party whip (even when the Liberals had a 75-2 majority there was still a party whip!), the chairman for committees of the “whole” (all paid an extra stipend), what patronage will go where and what legislation and policy will be brought in.

The premier also decides which government MLAs will be on which committees.

On the stick side, he can and does use the appointments he has made as an enforcement. I can tell you from personal experience that the mind of most ministers is always on retaining his seat at the cabinet table.

The main stick is a terrible power. The premier can toss an MLA in cabinet or on the backbench out of caucus, and deprive him or her the right to run again under the party banner. This power makes the premier judge, jury and executioner.

The bottom line is that MLAs do not in the remotest way represent their constituents, only their own interests.

We often hear “so-and-so would make a good MLA.” In fact, a fencepost with hair makes as much sense (or, in my case, a fencepost with a beard)!

Bring in secret ballots

What can we do?

We lost our chance in 2005 when we rejected STV, for the solution is in allowing political parties of all stripes to get seats in the legislature consistent with the percentage of votes they receive. Those who like “first past the post” elections, STV or an equivalent see a minority or coalition government as a terrible result, whereas this is the great reform we need.

Why shouldn’t the minister of finance have to ask the legislature to pass the budget instead of being able cram it through with the loyal support of the government lackeys?

Why shouldn’t ministers be forced to consult with the entire legislature, absent his loyal bloc of hirsute fenceposts?

It’s not my wish today to debate the various options to break up “responsible government” and replace it with a system that empowers MLAs, but to make the point that until we do we will have a poisoned political culture.

There is, however, one change we could make in the present system right now that would go a long way towards the goal of giving MLAs the power they should have — secret ballots.

I would strongly urge the use of the secret ballot even on money matters, it being understood that except for the budget, a lost vote would not mean the government must resign. As now is the case in the UK, a lost vote is no more than the loss of a vote.

One of the cornerstones of our democracy is the right to a secret ballot. Why should MLAs suffer the burden of the watchful premier noting who didn’t vote the “right” way?

Proponents of the current system are usually party hacks who say, “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”

Well folks, it is broke and has been for 150 years.

Martyn Brown and Gary Mason are quite right in their conclusions but we will never meet their terms unless and until we change the system.

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