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Monday, December 08, 2008

time for a little thing called 'reform.'

Putting all of the pro- and anti-coalition rhetoric aside, I am sincerely hoping that the situation in Ottawa over the past two weeks spurns some serious national debate about parliamentary democracy in Canada, and more specifically, the separation of powers in our system of government.

Anyone who pays attention to Canadian politics (both federal and provincial) should have no problem recognizing the political authority held by the executive (cabinet) over the elected legislatures (MPs, MLA, etc). The ability of the Prime Minister to request the Governor General to prorogue Parliament raises some concerning questions about the power that the occupant of Prime Minister's Office holds in our system of parliamentary democracy.

It's not a radical concept that executive should govern at the behest of the elected legislature, not vice-versa, and the executive branch should never have the ability to shut down an entire house of elected representatives; this is undemocratic at the core. Though Prime Minister Stephen Harper was perfectly within his legal right to request the proroguement, this move highlights the critical flaws within our system and political culture that allowed and accepted this move.

Though the proroguing of Parliament will likely create short-term stability in Ottawa, Canadians should be concerned about the long-term repercussions of this move. By requesting the Governor General prorogue parliament, Harper was able to avoid facing an unfavourable vote by our elected representatives in the House of Commons. Will this clear the way for future Prime Ministers or Premiers to effectively shut down the elected legislatures when things aren't going their way? Will it marginalize the already marginalized culture of independent thought and actions in the backbenches of our House of Commons?

This is only one of the ways in which the essence of our parliamentary system needs a complete overhaul, and creating clear separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches -- allowing checks and balances that help keep each branch accountable -- would be an excellent point to begin a national debate.

Last week, a friend (h/t A.A.) sent me an article on this topic from one of the key players in government today. Then President of the National Citizens' Coalition Stephen Harper made a similar argument for government reform in a May 2001 article in the Alberta Report:

Anyway, the question is: how do we fix the system? Over the years we've proposed many solutions: free votes, direct democracy, Senate reform, and on and on. But since no one in Ottawa seems to be listening, Link asked me to come up with a new one.

So how about this: why haven't any of the advocates of so-called "parliamentary reform" suggested that the essence of the parliamentary system itself needs to be fixed? By this I mean disconnecting the executive (cabinet) and legislative branches of government. Maybe what Canada needs is a system that separates the two branches of government along the lines of the American model,

To some, any such suggestion is an attack on Canada's British tradition of parliamentary government. I believe they are mistaken. Indeed, in British history the legislative branch of government evolved as a separate and essential check on the unbridled power of the Crown. The original concept of executive "responsibility" to the legislature was not a complete fusing of the branches because, until at least the early part of the 20th century, the concept of an impotent Crown (if one defines this as not just the monarch, but her wider family and segment of society) was unthinkable.

Just as importantly, it was inconceivable to British voters that members of their legislature (let alone the cabinet) might one day become mere "voting machines" for a single first minister, a man deriving his power from an institution (the party) operating largely outside of Parliament.


Anonymous said...

Now if politicians could only remember the things they say before they get into power....putting the constitutional difficulty of such a reform aside, I have a sneaking suspicion that even were Harper to get a majority he would conveniently forget any such notion as Parliamentary reform.

Anonymous said...

John Baird doesn't have a problem going "over the heads" of the House of Commons.

Anonymous said...

Dave, your comments are really thoughtful, but, isn't the present power-play by Dion and Layton even more undemocratic? Voters made it very clear less than two months ago that they did not accept Dion or Layton as leaders of the nation. And I say this as someone who did not vote for Harper this time around (because I agree with Anonymous that Harper has a history of forgetting his pre-election promises). I don't see what Dion and Layton did as being helpful to the country at all - I see it as being a shameless attempt to force themselves upon voters who clearly don't want them. If they really cared about the country, they would have used the threat of a no-confidence motion to wring major concessions from the Tories - and then they would have got back to the business of governing, except for Dion, who should have got down to the business of getting the hell out of the Liberals' way back to power.
Marnie Tunay Fakirs Canada

Anonymous said...

Separation of powers now! Jefferson, Adams, et. al. got this one right over two hundred years ago.

Anonymous said...

"Dave, your comments are really thoughtful, but, isn't the present power-play by Dion and Layton even more undemocratic? Voters made it very clear less than two months ago that they did not accept Dion or Layton as leaders of the nation."

Despite the assertions of the Conservatives, their 38% of the vote was not an especially 'clear mandate.' Any claim to such is eroded by their status as a twice-confirmed minority government.

That said, I disagree with the Coalition for Change's attempt to oust the Conservatives from government at this juncture or the immediate future... but not the formation of the Coalition, itself. I will agree with you that Canadians didn't choose Layton or Dion to lead the nation.

But the results of the past election, combined with the record low turnout, seem to suggest something else; they point to indecision regarding any of the political leaders, including Mr. Harper.

Robert G. Harvie, Q.C. said... so often is the case, even though your not on the "right" side of politics, you make some good points Dave.

A couple of thoughts, though..

a) how do you avoid the significant and ongoing differences between the west and east? A representative democracy, of any kind, is still going to give the majority of the power to Quebec and Ontario (as it should) to the direct detriment of a very different social perspective in Western Canada;

b) If the cabinet effectively takes the position of the "Crown", a la 19th century England.. how does that, in and of itself, avoid the partisan bullshit which is at the core of what's happening now.

A Liberal legislature is still going to trumpet how the Liberal cabinet is perfect, and a Conservative legislature is going to do the same...

My suggestion - significant reduction of federal authority over our daily lives.. such that the majority of our taxes and government would be handled on a Provincial basis - hence, much less concern with whatever social agenda Quebec or Ontario want to introduce, with the associated costs.. and visa versa..

If we simplify the federal sphere of influence, and if our tax dollars were 10% federal, 90% provincial.. would be a happier, less stupid world..

Greg said...

Oh ok. Dave, when I saw the title, I thought you were talking about the Refoooooooooooooooorm Party coming back! Thankfully, no. :)

Anonymous said...


Although I am no expert on federalism, such a suggestion as to decrease the role of the federal government while increasing the role of the provinces worries me. While it is true that there are distinct regional differences within Canada, in my opinion there are still overarching beliefs that characterize us as Canadians. If the federal government were reduced to something of 'the nightwatchman state', then different provinces would go in vastly different directions. Perhaps Alberta and Quebec would continue with the privatization of healthcare. The environment would most likely suffer if we were unable to confront it as a unified nation. Fractious relationships and partisanship between provinces would only increase.

While these are perhaps issues that you, being on the "right" side of politics, do not agree with, I think that such provincial autonomy would only undermine the federal state of Canada. Ideological differences would become more deep-seated; 'fences' would rise on provincial borders; differences would only become more pronounced, and Canadian identity as a whole would suffer.

Weakening federalism is not the answer; a dramatic shift in political attitudes across Canada, to a mentality of consensus and cooperation, is what it will take.

United we stand, divided we fall.

Gauntlet said...

Separation of powers runs both ways. The Executive can't control the Legislature, and the legislature can't control the executive.

Right now, what Stephen Harper can do is shut down Parliament for a few weeks. What Parliament can do is shut down Stephen Harper permanently.

There's something to be said for the balance of power we've got, don't you think?

Robert G. Harvie, Q.C. said...

Anonymous.. my concern with some (but not all) of your points is that so many divisive federal initiatives have been based upon a stretching of s.91 of the Constitution - the Federal government having an "idea" that would be good for everyone, and then bootstrapping itself to then suggest that it MUST be in their jurisdiction.

At one point the federal government actually argued that regulation of margarine fell under their authority over "criminal law"..

Gun control.. "criminal law" even though really, it's a purely civil rights issue, which is exclusively provincial in nature.. Just because a substance is dangerous or may be used criminally, doesn't make the registration a matter of "criminal jurisdiction".. in point of fact, so many more people are killed by the criminal use of motor vehicles, that it would make more sense to make auto registration a federal concern..

Daycare? - please explain to me just how "daycare" falls under Section 91?

On the other hand..the reality of medical care is such that, really, while it is a provincial issue - I don't know anyone personally who feels that an American private health care system is anything that should be advocated.. even in Alberta.

There is a theory espoused by the Soviet Union during the cold war called "peaceful coexistence", where the theory was that diametrically opposed ideologies could peacefully coexist, if they respected the autonomy of the other and their entitlement to exist in a state different from their own..

I would find it much easier to respect the desires of the electorate of the Province of Quebec if we were more autonomous. I suspect that the BQ would have little cause for support as well, if there were a higher degree of autonomy for Quebec..

As for "Canadian Identity" - Michael Ignatieff actually has some interesting things to say about this elusive "Canadian Identity".. and his comments, on my reading, are similar to the "peaceful coexistence" theory -that to hold together, we cannot force everyone to adopt a common cultural belief.. to hold together, we need to adopt a willingness to understand and accept our right to be distinct..

Anyhow.. random meanderings.. of a currently disaffected Western Canadian or Albertan who doesn't want Canada to fail - but is beginning to see the end if something doesn't change in my lifetime..

Anonymous said...

I think that you are absolutely correct that the current crisis should give Canadians cause to re-think how our democracy works and how it can be improved, though I disagree with your specific proposal. That said, nothing but good can come from an open, forthright, and public debate about the nuts and bolts of how to make our democracy better.

As a couple of people have already indicated, a separation of the executive from the legislature creates a risk that the legislature can't keep the executive in check. While some view the in inherent instability and schizophrenia of Parliament as a negative, I think that it is one of the great advantages of a Parliamentary system.

With a separately elected executive, there can be only one "winner", which means that most Canadians will be represented by someone who doesn't really represent their views. In a legislature, a multiplicity of policy perspectives are reflected in the mix, making it much more representative of the "will" of the people.

I think that there are ways that we can improve on the current Parliamentary system (including electoral reform that introduces an element of proportionality), but I would be against a separation of the executive a legislature.

Anonymous said...

"With a separately elected executive, there can be only one "winner", which means that most Canadians will be represented by someone who doesn't really represent their views. In a legislature, a multiplicity of policy perspectives are reflected in the mix, making it much more representative of the "will" of the people."

That's the thing -- the Canadian PM has more power to ignore dissenting perspectives than virtually any head of state in the industrialized world. Stephen Harper, makes decisions independent even of his cabinet (by most accounts), ignores the opposition, and then whips his caucus to vote for him. The only thing keeping him from having completely uncontested power is the fact he only managed to win a minority (which could quite easily change). And although Harper is worse than most in the degrees to which he seeks consultation, this isn't vastly different with other PMs.

I think Dave is saying -- and I very much agree -- that this concentration of power in the PMO is unhealthy, and we should look at ways of rectifying it.

daveberta said...

"I think Dave is saying -- and I very much agree -- that this concentration of power in the PMO is unhealthy, and we should look at ways of rectifying it."

Bingo on that point.

Anonymous said...

Anon @ 2:34 PM;

"Weakening federalism is not the answer; a dramatic shift in political attitudes across Canada, to a mentality of consensus and cooperation, is what it will take.

United we stand, divided we fall."

You're right. Rolling back federalism will only increase the regional divides and reduce the relevance of actually keeping the country in one piece. And that's not the answer.

To me, regionalism is a pox on our politics; it's cancerous to our national political discourse and it's sadly pervasive in this country. And the last few weeks of rhetoric - from both sides of the aisle - has only inflamed the condition.

I can't claim to know how to fix this and break the back of the regionalism disease that afflicts us. It would appear, though, that the most potential to do so may actually be in determining how the people are represented - to break the old concept of certain regions being the sole domain of certain parties - like the "Conservatives be here" paradigm in many corners of Alberta, especially rural ones like mine - and actually make every vote count. Doing that could, arguably, make every part of the country matter to all the political parties. Well, except for the Bloc....

And, by electing more representative, politically-diverse provincial caucuses to Parliament, people in different regions may actually be able to see more of themselves in each other and work towards common cause.

Maybe; That might happen. No guarantees. And it would probably mean changing - or even ridding ourselves of - the single-member district plurality (or first-past-the-post) electoral system.

To be frank, though, I doubt many will go for something 'radical' like instant runoff voting or a form of proportional representation (like by-province PR) - it'd be outside the comfort zone. Much less, the political parties who'd actually be in control of writing such legislation and would have the most to lose by doing so.

In light of that, we have little choice but to work with what we've got right now. We've got a Coalition, however tenuous, on the centre-left among the NDP and Liberals; but rather than a fragile, temporary cease-fire in order to take down Harper in the near-term (something I don't agree with), that agreement could perhaps become the foundation on which to build a working, national, progressive majority in Canada (something that I do).

One can hope, anyway. Politicians usually have other ideas.

Anonymous said...

The concentration of power in the PMO is a problem because of the lack of restraint.

The parliamentary system is based on tradition -- such as decorum, restraint, and honour -- but that's been tossed aside. As we have seen in republican forms of government, if restraint is abandoned then so is good government. The parliamentary form of government is even more dependant upon self-restraint.

In both systems the judiciary has become a superlegislative power independant of the People. The legislative and the executive branches -- in both systems -- have become burdens on the People rather than servants of the People.

We get the government we deserved. We need to breath new life into responsible government through our votes.

One way to cut through the crap is to add another means of legislating when the elected and appointed representatives are failing us. Direct democracy.

Despite the gut wrenching exprience of referendums in Canada, it certainly has engaged citizens and the referendum results, typically non-binding on the authorities, speak far more loudly than election results.

We need that sort of outlet, initiated by citizens rather than representatives, as a check on the whole shebang. Starting with any reforms of federalism and representation.

For instance, the People should claim for themselves the direct authority to convene a convention, including the selectioin of delegates, at a regular interval. This would stand over even the most senior levels of entranched government -- including the judiciary and especially the PMO.

Sovereignty does not lie with the Queen's representative but with the People whose representatives govern with the will of the governed. I think even the mere existence of a convention mechanism, in tandem with a direct vote mechanism (on a national basis and on a regional basis) would provide the sort of check and balance that would serve as an external restraint in a system that needs a leash to reassert self-restraint.

It also has the merit of subordinating the party system which also has become an example of unrestrained partisanship.