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Unwrap to reveal a solution to 'Tragedy in the Commons.' Gift image: Shutterstock.

Unwrap to reveal a solution to ‘Tragedy in the Commons.’ Gift image: Shutterstock.

Rafe Mair’s cost free way to fix our democracy deficit.

Two weeks ago, I confessed on these pages that I was a British Columbian first and a Canadian second. One of the major reasons is that I have always felt utterly disconnected from the federal government. Even when one knows one’s member of Parliament, that really doesn’t give a sense of connection to the governing process.

This is unlike the United States where congressmen and senators have enormous power, which is a reflection of the voter’s power. (As you will see, I do not suggest that Canada adopt the American system.)

Canada has lots going for it. It’s generally peaceful and prosperous. Despite our best efforts, we have no immediate enemies ready to do us harm. It’s mostly a neat place to live (especially if you live in British Columbia).

One way we can substantially increase the contentment of our citizens is to reform the operation of our federal government. The present process is not only antiquated, it hasn’t progressed a whit since 1867 when we simply imitated the U.K. system. In fact, Great Britain’s Parliament has changed much for the better since those days, and now operates much differently, while we have retrogressed.

In the early 1900s, the United Kingdom developed the same problem that we now have, namely, dictatorial domination of the House of Commons by the majority party.

It did something about it.

I’m not sure that reform was deliberate — the solution came about after the First World War when the Conservatives, in a 1922 meeting, decided to break away from the Lloyd George coalition government. This meeting, since commemorated as the “1922 Committee” of backbenchers, continued and has since wielded considerable power. No prime minister, not even Churchill, not even Thatcher, has dared to defy it.

Where backbenchers matter

The 1922 Committee has often defied “the whip,” and Tory governments have had to learn to live with lost votes, frank and public criticism from its own backbenchers, and to just get on with it. Only a lost “confidence” vote requires the government to resign.

The Labour Party developed the custom of the caucus electing its cabinet. While the prime minister selects the individual posts, the cabinet itself owes its existence to the backbenchers.

Moreover, historically, there has always been a much higher degree of independence in Labour Party MPs than in other parties. Labour backbenchers also often defy “the whip” and don’t hesitate to make their own views, and those of their constituents, forcefully and publicly known.

This means that backbenchers in general enjoy considerably more power in the House of Commons in Westminster than in Ottawa.

To learn just how bad it is in Canada, I urge you to read a book called Tragedy in the Commons by Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan.

This book, based on interviews with retired MPs, tells in all its sorrow how useless and powerless MPs have become. They are really down to being ombudsmen for the bureaucracy, making sure their constituents get their pension cheques on time and that sort of thing. Government MPs have absolutely nothing to say about how the country is governed.

The committees upon which they sit, which are supposed to hold the government’s feet to the fire, are stacked by the prime minister. In the event that they do show a bit of independence, the prime minister simply removes the unco-operative ones and replaces them with ones that will do what they’re told. This is often done just before a committee is going to vote and the prime minister is told that he will not like the outcome!

Myths of caucus

MPs will often say in their own defence that “you should hear me speak out in caucus.” They will tell you that often times Prime Minister Harper will get a consensus in caucus.

I can tell you from personal experience that a member “speaking out” in caucus does so with considerable care and tact.

It is not surprising that the prime minister can get a consensus considering that he holds political life and death over the members, as well as being able to promote them or demote them according to his whims. He can even kick them out of caucus, a political death sentence — a power that ought to rest with caucus alone. He can and does legally prevent them from running on the party ticket even if they have been properly nominated.

As the book makes tragically clear, MPs are ciphers and the government is run by the prime minister and unelected advisors in his office.

If this could be changed, Canada would then greatly enhance its national unity by governing itself in a manner suitable to all segments of the nation.

Learning to love minority governments

After thinking about this over many years, I don’t believe that real reform can take place simply by MPs passing motions for reform and having the prime minister agree to honour them, as is now being feebly tried. They will only be half measures at best and the PM will only honour them so long as it suits him.

The problem is the party discipline that our system requires in order to maintain a majority government.

Canadians must get used to the fundamental idea that minority or coalition governments are not bad things. We are told, by those who favour the present system, that minority governments and coalitions bring uncertainty, and for want of a better word, wobbly government.

Dictatorships, you see, are very popular with those who do the dictating. In truth, many democracies in the world have minority or coalition governments most of the time and do just fine.

Minority or coalition governments do not crumble and fall regularly. There is a strong sense of self-preservation in every MP, and elections are very expensive to both members and parties.

What does happen — what must happen — is that minority or coalition governments actually consult all MPs before bringing in budgets or legislation, thus every MP has power and dignity.

Watch a revolutionary idea! The people elected to govern the citizens’ affairs actually get a voice in how those affairs will be conducted! And through them, voters actually know what the hell is really going on!

Somehow, traditional supporters of our present system find this to be an unattractive idea.

What would Kiwis do?

Let me pose here what the real problem is. We constantly tend to make “perfection the enemy of improvement.” Because changes may not bring about a perfect result, we are afraid of change.

Over the years I have spent a lot of time in New Zealand and watched them change from our “first past the post” system to a “mixed” system, where essentially, one half of Parliament is elected the traditional way and the other half off party lists, with the members of Parliament being distributed in accordance with the percentage of votes the party received.

This change was made after a couple of referenda and a great deal of thought. It has now been in place for some 25 years and has invariably produced a minority or coalition government.

When I ask my friends now how they like the new system, they say it’s terrible.

When I ask them if they would then go back to the old system, they throw up their hands with horror and say “never!” They have not allowed “perfection” to prevent “improvement.”

I think it can surely be said that no one is ever very enthusiastic about the way they are governed.

Canadians deserve proper representation

Basically, changes put forward by reform-minded people and groups in this country boil down to some variation of proportional representation (PR) where the members of Parliament are selected based on the percentage of votes their party obtains.

The principal objection to pure PR is that it eliminates constituencies, and how could we exist without them?

In fact, we could exist very nicely without them in this day and age of modern communications.

Moreover, it would be quickly discovered that under PR all areas would get much better service from MPs than ever before. For example, no party could afford to avoid an area just because it was unpopular there. All the votes there count just as much as votes from areas where they’re more popular. Every vote is the same wherever located and every citizen must be counted.

The beauty and the strength of PR is that all parties have an opportunity to elect MPs subject to a minimum number of votes, for in order to elect an MP, you usually need about five per cent.

Why shouldn’t parties like the Greens have the number of members of Parliament their popular vote indicates? No matter what the party in question, and regardless of the fact that it may never get a majority, why should they not be represented? Why should people of a certain persuasion have to rely upon political parties that won’t even listen to them, represent them in Parliament?

Personally, I think getting rid of constituencies would be too big of a pill for most Canadians to swallow. I don’t know why this should be, because constituencies reflect an age long gone. I fear however that it is so. There is, it seems, a strong resistance to PR because of this.

This takes us back to consideration of the New Zealand/German “mixed” system. I believe that it is a good one — probably the best option available.

I hope that, if nothing else, I have made the point that not only does our present system not work, it is grossly undemocratic. Members of Parliament we have elected to do our business are utterly powerless and remain so through their term. The Prime Minister has become a dictator subject only to the rule that he must hold an election every four years.

Surely to God this means we must do something!

The Mair solution

Well, here’s something!

Are you ready for this? Perhaps a shot of single malt at the ready is in order!

There is a solution that doesn’t require any change of system whatsoever and not a nickel spent. It is a very simple solution.

What if we made votes of confidence in the House of Commons secret ballots?

It is said that we can accomplish the same thing by having “free” votes, but that is nonsense. In a “free” vote, the prime minister and his whips see who votes how and the penalties are paid. In fact, no government MP dare oppose the government just because it is a “free” vote.

The only way to hold the prime minister to account is if he doesn’t know in advance how the MPs, even his own, are going to vote.

Some lament that they want to know how their MP voted. Surely, this is ridiculous! We now know how our MPs vote — exactly like they are instructed to by the party whips!

Would we rather see our MPs stand up and do as they are told or go to a ballot box and do what they think is right? All I ask is that the MP have the same protection when voting that we the public do.

Of course, care must be taken. The only secret votes would be ones of “confidence” or the budget, where, upon a loss, the government would fall. But I can assure you that all other debates and votes would open up considerably if this reform was adopted.

Minority parties would no longer be seen as dangerous to elect — no longer could the “don’t split the vote” bogeyman be pled by old line parties. The voter’s only consideration would be to elect the best candidate.

Old line parties throw up their hands in horror! Do mean to say that a government couldn’t even pass its budget without the danger that it would lose by a secret ballot?

Let me answer that question with another question. Why should a government automatically get its budget passed just because it has a majority that the prime minister can force to obey? Shouldn’t the wisdom of how a government spends our money be the responsibility of every member of Parliament?

Parliament would very quickly get used to this idea. It would not be the huge danger traditionalists think it would be.

In fact, it would make a government careful as to how it proceeded and assure itself that it proposes policies that a majority of members of Parliament, including its own members, can support. What the devil is the matter with that?

There you have it — the simple, cost free change that would make the prime minister responsive to a majority of members of Parliament, no matter of what political stripe, and would give to your member of Parliament — the person you elect to represent you — actual power.

Think about it.

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