By Art Martens
Watch for a major political brawl to erupt shortly between the NDP/Green coalition and the Opposition Liberals. It’s all about the proposed dumping of the so-called “first past the post” system for electing MLA’s. John Horgan and Andrew Weaver believe some form of “proportional representation” will give them more seats in the Legislature. Andrew Wilkinson’s Liberals despise both the government and their electoral preference. They hope to cut them off at the pass and retain the present system. They are still disgruntled about the Greens joining with the NDP to ensure defeat of the Christy Clark government after the narrow election results last year. The autumn referendum will determine which system voters favour.
Certainly there are glaring deficiencies in our political structures and processes, both at the provincial and federal levels. Canada isn’t an isolated case though. In Return of History, Jennifer Welsh suggests that “across many liberal democracies, the level of trust in political institutions is at a historic low.”
In my opinion, the suggested radical tinkering with the electoral system is likely to do little more than confuse voters, and possibly also those we elect to represent us. The problem isn’t just with the system. Whichever one we adopt, we must expect that clever, powerful individuals will corrupt it to attain and retain power. The Roman Caesars did it, and politicians across our country are doing it today. The result is that constituency representatives have virtually no ability to impact policy decisions.
In Tragedy in the Commons, Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan state that many former MP’s they interviewed feel they were little more than political eunuchs. One of their major complaints was that they were micromanaged by the party. They were required to submit press releases for scrutiny. They were given questions to ask and statements to read. The party assigned committee positions and removed members if they didn’t reflect party views. The party gave or withheld permission to speak in Parliament. The former MP’s described committees as busy work and a waste of time.
Russ Peters, a former Liberal MP said, “we were told to say we were there to develop policies for the betterment of the country. The truth was, we were there to adopt policies that benefited the party.”
It is Pierre Elliott Trudeau who is generally credited with taking Canada a long way down this path. He introduced major changes which consolidated the Prime Minister’s power and severely limited effectiveness of MP’s. According to Walter Stewart in Shrug: Trudeau in Power, “he set up a counter bureaucracy. To all intents and purposes, Canada is no longer run by Parliament, the Cabinet, or even the party in power. It is run by the PM and his own personal power block.” Regarding Opposition MP’s, Trudeau said, “they have been elected by constituents to blow off steam. When they are 50 yards from Parliament, they are nobodies.” More recently, Stephen Harper also significantly curtailed the ability of MP’s to participate in the governance of our nation.
The issue of leader dominance exists also at the provincial level. In BC, former premier Christy Clark relegated the experienced and talented Sam Sullivan to virtual obscurity in the Legislature. He had previously defeated her in the City of Vancouver mayoralty race, and it is believed by many that she held this against him.
Can we make changes that would bring back true democracy to Canada? The Samara Centre for Democracy recently published a 30 page analysis of Canada’s Parliamentary system and how it can be made more effective. It argues forcefully that committees should be made more independent. In part, they contend that “if committees are given more centrality and Parliament changes how committee appointments work, the result would be positions of real prestige that aren’t controlled or doled out by the party.”
MP’s tend to agree that committees are where the most important work can be done. If there was less interference from party leaders, committees could make a genuine contribution to creating beneficial policies at both the provincial and federal levels.
Between now and the vote in the fall referendum, we’ll be exposed to a great deal of political huffing and puffing. Whatever the result, it will benefit primarily those at the most lofty echelons of political parties. Meaningful change will come only when those we elect are able to effectively represent the views of their constituents and participate substantively in decision making.
Source:: Living Significantly