Power and politics

Tom Parkin is described in his Sun News bio as having “a social democratic perspective.” He is said to have “politically cut his teeth as a student working to convince the University of Toronto to divest from apartheid South Africa, he later worked for social democratic governments in Ontario and Saskatchewan. He has worked in the labour movement supporting collective bargaining and public policy campaigns.” It should not be surprising, then, to read a column of his in the Toronto Sun and discover that he believe that “our electoral system creates false majorities. The DNA of our Parliamentary system gives excessive power to a majority PM.” That is the traditional cry of the underrepresented left. He goes on to say that “The electoral system that creates false majorities has to end. But the ballot ranking idea that would count second-choices is a non-starter. It would create more false majorities, starting at even lower levels of vote support.” But he doesn’t say what he wants … PR, which would give us Israeli style democracy where government have to be crafted after days and even weeks of behind-closed-door deal making and power brokering and where big, popular party platforms have to be watered down to accommodate the views of small, often extremist parties who hold the balance of power?

(I did a rough statistical survey of first past the post election results (nationally and in most provinces) a few years ago and demonstrated, to my own satisfaction, that:  a) the first past the post (FPTP) system we use does, indeed “reward” the most popular party and “punishes” the least popular ones; and b) is reasonably fair in its treatment of second and third parties. Is that so bad? In my opinion majority government are good things: they allow parties to implement the agenda on which they were elected by a good plurality (typically, over the past 30 years, 37 to 45% of the vote). Minority government, in contrast, require constant compromises ~ often in areas where the electorate’s preferences are quite clear ~ in order to placate minority opinions.)

But he’s not totally wrong. He has a small litany of complaints, including:

  • A prime minister can shut down debate. Ram through bills. Direct government MPs like little soldiers. Treat opposition MPs with disdain and arrogance.Yes, that’s true and several have done just that since about, say, 1968 …
  • Last week Trudeau used his majority to end the assisted dying debate on Bill C-14. A week before, he shut down debate on Bill C-10, to allow Air Canada to move prime-minister-justin-trudeau-receives-applauds-from-the-ben2600 skilled maintenance jobs off-shore … It’s not because he needs to rush debate – his government has introduced only 15 bills, far fewer than at the six month mark of the last Parliament. And many are routine money supply, repeals, Supreme Court issues, or reintroduction of bills not passed before the last election.Yes, again, and also common practice since, oh, about 1955, I think;
  • It’s the same rush as always – to adjourn Parliament early and run from the scrutiny of the opposition and media. That’s the genetic deep code that drives majority governments.But that’s not just a majority government phenomenon, Pierre Trudeau and Stephen Harper did the same when they had minorities, too;
  • In the Commons last week the government was asked about a promise to reduce small business taxes. The response rambled on, never once veering close to an answer. A Minister, when asked – yes or no – if there’ll be a referendum on a new voting system had many words – robust! open! consultation! – but no answer. Where’s Cabinet accountability to the Commons?Another qualified yes, from me, but as a Speaker quipped a few years ago, “that’s why they call it Question Period,” not “Answer period;” and
  • senateThe Senate continues to be unaccountable. Yes, the PM now indirectly appoints Senators. And yes, some Senators are now independent (though, bizarrely, an independent Senator is now the PM’s Senate whip). But the Senate’s DNA hasn’t changed. People with no democratic mandate still vote on laws governing – supposedly – free people.Agreed!

Those are all real, valid issues and, mostly, fair complaints about the state of our democracy, but, as an old Army instructor used to say to us after we had listed all the factors that might impact upon the plan we were trying to make: “So what!?!”

What should, what can be done to correct those problems, most of which I agree are real?

Besides wanting some new form of elections ~ a position with which I strongly disagree and with which I am fairly sure a lot of very senior Liberals disagree, too ~ he says: “Critically, the power of the PM over the Commons needs to be reformed. Commons committees should be respected and resourced. They need more time in Canadians’ towns and cities. Their findings and recommendations should have a strong effect on Cabinet. Their amendment debates should be real.” Now it says in his biography that he has “worked for social democratic governments in Ontario and Saskatchewan,” so we must assume that he knows that the only situation in which the “power of the PM over the Commons” is curtailed is a minority government so that, combined with his (undefined) preference for electoral reform, suggests that he sees some sort of fairly “pure” proportional representation as the answer to the litany of problems.

CRI_rS4UAAA9H9WWhat is really needed is some new, “out of the box” thinking about how politics is practiced … that’s what many Canadians thought they were getting when they voted for change in 2015. Instead they got Stephen Harper’s tactics all wrapped up in a “Sunny Ways” disposition … some change.

The “out of the box” thinking is taking place, but it’s not being done in the ranks of the progressive parties: the Conservative Party of Canada is examining real, practical ways to constrain the leader’s powers in the party and, consequentially, in parliament, too. I’m not sure where I stand, yet, on those issues but they are better and more practical that proportional representation.

Preston+ManningChanges are needed ~ not actually required, the system can “muddle through” as it is ~ but I well remember the 1980s when Preston Manning came to Ottawa promising to “do politics differently.” How well did that work out? The system needs some tweaking, some pretty large tweaks, to be sure, but not major surgery … incremental, step-by-step changes are more likely to work than any attempts at wholesale change. I think the Liberals, the party insiders if not the PMO,  understand that and that’s why I also think that we will not see big electoral reform changes. Power matters more than politics.

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