A Very, Very Modest Proposal
Can a microscopically small-ball approach accomplish political reform?
Triple E Senate? Dead. Electoral Reform? Moribund. Referendums? Post-Brexit, probably a fool’s errand. Constitutional amendments? Pretty much impossible. Breaking up the country? Never so unlikely in 50 years. Are changes to Canadian governance possible at all?
Maybe. Now that all the big plays have failed, perhaps space has opened up for small ball, even for arguments that the big plays were always a bad idea. Maybe a few parliamentary tweaks will save the country, or at least start to address the democratic deficit. Two recent examples of the small-ball argument for better governance are Turning Parliament Inside Out: Practical Ideas for Reforming Canada’s Democracy, a book of essays collected by a group of sitting members of Parliament, and The Unbroken Machine: Canada’s Democracy in Action, by Dale Smith, a press gallery journalist with a lively online presence.
The prototype for all arguments against large-scale institutional change may be John Pepall’s 2010 Against Reform, which argued nothing should be done. Pepall rejected even the tweaks. He denounced small changes already made (fixed election dates) and ones widely thought harmless (more free votes in Parliament), and systematically undermined justifications for all the larger ones: Senate reform, electoral reform and such populist causes as initiatives, recalls, referendums and citizens’ assemblies.
Pepall opposed structural changes because, he argued, parliamentarians could at any time reassert Parliament’s authority and regain respect and legitimacy by taking action themselves, without formal institutional change. More parliamentary free votes? All votes are already free, he observed, if MPs choose to assert themselves. The prime minister a “friendly” dictator? The fault is in our MPs, Pepall retorted coldly.
Can parliamentarians themselves improve parliamentary democracy? MPs Michael Chong, Scott Simms and Kennedy Stewart wish they could. Finishing Turning Parliament Inside Out just as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau cancelled the electoral reform project, they—a Conservative, a Liberal and a New Democrat—propose that the closing of that option could open room for MPs “to work together to reform other aspects of our parliamentary system” and to explore “how our national political institutions might be improved.” To that end, they and five other sitting backbenchers offer essays on aspects of Parliament they would like to improve.
Elizabeth May, the only party leader among the contributors, retains a backbench sensibility. On behalf of all the others, she begins by setting out the long, sad story of how political parties have eroded the scope of action for individual MPs. May even declares that parties are neither a necessary nor a desirable part of responsible government. May has also been an advocate of proportional representation, by which citizens’ votes are distributed to parties so they can appoint their representatives directly to the legislature. As a struggling backbencher, she is no doubt entitled to try almost anything, but she makes no attempt to reconcile the “no parties” cry here with the “even more powerful parties” project of PR.
Michael Cooper argues that question period is not broken, but offers a familiar list of its shortcomings: scripted questions and answers, failures of decorum and the reluctance of the Speaker of the House to enforce norms. Cooper is prepared to work for improvements through “incremental change,” but his complaint echoes May’s: excessive discipline and top-down control, with every question “scripted in advance and vetted through the House leaders’ offices.”
Michael Chong, seeking ways to improve the workings of committees of the House of Commons, is drawn inexorably back to the same problem. “Committees should be feared by the [Prime Minister’s Office] rather than controlled by the PMO,” he observes, but party leaders appoint all the committee members. We are back to the onerous party discipline under which MPs labour. “Real power … is held by only a few elected MPs, particularly the prime minister and other party leaders.” Kennedy Stewart also decries “the crushing power of Canadian political parties,” complete with statistical tables to support his complaint. Nathan Cullen argues that freer speech in House debates might “cut the umbilical cords to the backrooms.”
Other contributors have fewer specific suggestions for internal reform. Anita Vandenbeld explores ways to bring more women into Parliament, lamenting as she goes how “party gatekeepers” prevent cross-party cooperation among women MPs. Niki Ashton speculates that social media is engaging youth in politics in ways that may actually increase youth voting and influence. Scott Simms abandons small-ball reform entirely. He wants to upend the constitutional division of powers with a whole new level of government, an “Assembly of the Federation,” in which backbenchers from provincial legislatures would gather in Ottawa, apparently to give Parliament a national mandate to pressure provincial governments on areas within their jurisdiction.
The book’s title may promise a parliament turned inside out but, Simms aside, most of these proposals are extremely modest. The essayists wish that MPs could represent their constituents and hold leaders and governments to account. But they offer no program for achieving that, and much of their book seems to have been drafted in a passive voice that removes all agency: reforms are needed, changes should be made. All that Chong, Stewart and Simms can propose in their conclusion is that MPs consider a kind of parliamentary suicide: buck the system, suffer the inevitable riposte from the boss and return to private life, principles intact. This is small ball at the microscopic level.
Dale Smith’s The Unbroken Machine starts with a bold argument that Parliament is not where change needs to start. It is we the public who are misinformed and need to clean up our act. We are victims of “inadequate education in the primary and secondary levels” and our demands for “reform” are making things worse, not better.
Smith is a fan of the parliamentary system, with something of a convert’s passion. He is intolerant of the errors and backsliding he finds in other writers and commentators and he can be carried away by his enthusiasm, declaring it “one of the biggest misnomers in Canadian politics” to call MPs “lawmakers.” (But who legislates if not legislators?) He even declares monarchy essential to parliamentary democracy, although non-monarchical examples thrive around the world, and he salutes the “Maple Crown,” a phrase that evokes something sticky and sweet coming down over our ears. Still, The Unbroken Machine is a lively primer on the Canadian parliamentary system—although Smith might get more takeup from educators were he less quick to blame them for Canadians’ failure to accept the true faith.
Smith’s reform agenda for Parliament mostly lists small matters (banning prepared speeches, abolishing speaking lists, tinkering with schedules, even removing desks from the Commons chamber). These, he predicts airily, could be done immediately “if there is the willingness to do so.” More importantly, however, Smith is much more ready than the authors of Turning Parliament Inside Out to advocate one big, bold solution to what he—and they—accept is the fundamental problem of Canadian parliamentary democracy.
The MPs mostly accept it would be impossible, even illegal, for them to do what is needed: wield control over their parliamentary leaders. (May: “A parliamentary caucus in Canada cannot replace its leader.”) Smith, however, insists that the essential function of MPs, indeed of Parliament itself, must be to hold the government constantly to account (hence his impatience with the lawmaker tag). More to the point, he accepts the corollary that the MPs mostly flinch from: MPs can only hold governments to account if they hold their own leaders to account. “By restoring to MPs the ability to appoint and dismiss their leaders,” Smith declares, “leaders would again be accountable to their caucuses.”
Everything else in both books pales in significance. As the Supreme Court of Canada once said, today in Canada “except in certain rare cases, the executive frequently and de facto controls the legislature.” In coldly practical terms, the only force that can reverse that situation and impose parliamentary accountability upon a leader, including a prime minister at the head of a majority government, is his or her own caucus. Once the MPs of Turning Parliament Inside Out accept they cannot do that, their other ideas become mostly wishful thinking.
Dale Smith comes very close to grasping that caucus control of leaders is neither illegal nor impossible. MPs, he writes, “have the power to change the rules to re-empower themselves.” But he also has a fixation on political parties. In an era when parties have become little more than leadership vehicles and party membership is mostly a squalid exercise in leadership vote-buying, Smith believes we Canadians betray Parliament itself if we do not personally join and support one or other of the parties. This case for the necessity of strong mass-membership parties leads him to a robust defence of party discipline—and to accept, without quite saying so, that discipline will always be the prerogative of a party leader, unless a lot of laws are changed.
Smith is right enough about the importance of discipline in a party caucus. Little good comes from the isolated rebel MP forever chasing his or her own whims. But he never quite reaches the idea that the power to discipline belongs to the parliamentary caucus, not to the leader. So he recommends legislative changes to bind leaders’ power—changes leaders are unlikely to accept or permit (as the MP authors of Turning Parliament Inside Out know well).
But once a caucus asserts that caucus discipline applies to the leader as much as to any other caucus member, a leader who threatens, say, to abuse the Elections Act power to deny renomination to critics within caucus would be deterred by caucus’s disciplinary power. Discipline can—indeed, must—apply to party leaders whether or not the Elections Act or the small print of political party bylaws is changed.
Both Smith and the MPs blame lousy civics teaching in Canada for Canadians’ failure to understand that governments are accountable to legislatures. But surely ordinary Canadians are being realistic when they observe that no Canadian legislature has held a government accountable in that way for about a century. Why blame hardworking grade five teachers when most of our politicians, most of our political scientists and most of our commentators accept it has to be that way? In any case, leadership dominance is a worldwide problem for parliamentary democracies, not a Canadian aberration. Both Dale Smith and the MP contributors to Turning Parliament Inside Out are groping for solutions to a crisis in parliamentary legitimacy. But they and we still have some distance to travel.