Even if it’s broken, don’t fix it

PAUL WELLS on a new book that argues against government reform

by Paul Wells

Even if it's broken, don't fix it

Jim Young/Reuters

I had not heard of John Pepall before his book Against Reform landed, with no great thud, on my desk last month. The bio in the book calls him “a writer and political commentator based in Toronto.” Since Against Reform is a political commentary and Pepall wrote it, the bio adds little to our knowledge.

His website features 20 years of political writing, including a review of an Elizabeth May book that was rejected by the Literary Review of Canada for being “mean-spirited.” I like him already. Pepall on May’s critique of Canadian journalism: “What seems to disturb her is not that her interests and ideas are not reflected in the media but that others are. Happily she proposes no remedy.”

Pepall’s book reveals interests and ideas not often reflected in the media. Against Reform is a corker, a funny little rebuttal to just about everything you usually read about our ailing democracy.

You sometimes hear that our democracy is broken and we need to fix the rules and structure of Parliament and our elections to set things right again. Colleague Coyne and I peddled that line in a televised town hall a year ago. The personable Conservative MP Michael Chong fills his days with such arguments. Pepall isn’t buying. Against Reform takes issue with every possible reform: free votes in the Commons, an elected Senate, proportional representation, fixed election dates, parliamentary review of judicial appointments.

He doesn’t claim our current system is perfect, only that rule changes wouldn’t help. “It is a usual claim of reformers that people have lost faith in politicians, and reforms are needed to restore faith. They do not say how once our unreformed institutions produced politicians who were trusted. The claim of lost faith is groundless. As long as there have been politicians, they have been mistrusted. Only ignorance of history and a factitious nostalgia could make anyone think otherwise.”

Most reforms seek to bring our governments’ decisions more closely into line with the will of the people. Pepall is sure this is a bad idea. First, because the people have no will: they are distracted and unsure, and even when one has a will, the next one disagrees. Governments should act now and be judged later. “We choose a government, hold it responsible, turf it out. With electoral reform and possibly an elected Senate that would end. The conflicts amongst us would be carried up and politicians would make deals beyond our control.”

An argument against change is conservative on its face, but Pepall will upset readers of any partisan stripe. He did not like Stephen Harper’s doomed fixed-election law because it perpetuated the idea that Harper won a set term when he won the election. “Winning an election is not like winning a prize that you get to keep until the next tournament. The Conservatives were the most effective government available after the election. They had no claim to remain the government any longer than they remained the most effective government available. The parties represented in the House of Commons must make that judgment.”

That’s a limited endorsement of the idea that a coalition of parties might take power once a government falls. But Pepall does not like systems designed to produce coalition governments routinely. “With coalition governments and multi-party elections, no one owns the record. The government the voters have known is not running. If it gave satisfaction, there is no guarantee its components will coalesce after the election. However bad it was, much of it will likely be back after the election.”

But the system we have now doesn’t mirror the will of the people! The winning party gets more seats than its share of votes, the losing parties less. To Pepall this is all an excellent system. “If proportionality and making every citizen’s vote count is the goal, why should we apply it to parties and not to policies? If 50 per cent of the people oppose capital punishment and 40 per cent support it and 10 per cent are undecided, why should we not give five out of 10 murderers a life sentence, hang four, and keep one on death row until the undecided make up their minds?”

Pepall’s chapters on the most ambitious recent reform efforts, the electoral-system referendums in British Columbia and Ontario, are darkly comic cautionary tales. No B.C. resident with any background in partisan politics was permitted to participate in the province’s “Citizens’ Assembly.” So, writes Pepall, people who had never thought much about politics “were persuaded to toss aside election procedures developed and used over centuries and over much of the democratic world and to replace them with the most complex and technical system ever devised.”

No wonder such reforms receive chillier receptions from the average voter than from the self-selecting crusaders who take part in these reform exercises. Electoral reform has failed in two B.C. referendums and one in Ontario. Explaining the proposals doesn’t seem to help. “Elections Ontario spent almost $7 million on an ‘education’ program, sending out leaflets, running ads in all media, and sending out ‘resource officers’ to talk down to community groups.”

The “down” in that sentence is a nice touch. It suggests that Pepall is out to have fun as much as to provoke. Pepall assigns himself an unglamorous role, standing against progress. Without him it would be easier to forget that there is a reason for things, and that sometimes a fix looks like a fix only until you try it.




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Even if it’s broken, don’t fix it

  1. Sounds like an excellent book. Thanks for heads up, Wells. Going to put it on my Christmas request list along with Crowley's Fearful Symmetry that I somehow missed when it was released last year.

    Against Reform sounds like an excellent book because I have similar thoughts, of course. There is nothing wrong with Westminster style Parliaments – in fact, Westminster has created more wealth and stability than any other form of government created yet by man – it is the pols and bureaucrats who are the problem.

    However, I have no idea how we get new pols and bureaucrats when they have made it clear they don't care all that much what the electorate might want and put Party/State interests first. Until people start voting for fringe parties, and our major parties start to feel some pain, nothing will change.

    • "It is the pols and bureacrats that are the problem" … true perhaps, but, are they not a product of and a reflection of the system? The system we have now and the way people get elected sets up a competition for basically absolute power which is determined on the basis of personality politics … We elect kings now, instead of having them inherited upon us … And the people who are attracted to and succeed in that system are well, exactly the pols and bureaucrats we don't like.

      As for Westminster created more wealth and stability than any other system, there may be a correlation but I doubt you can prove that Westminter parliaments are the cause of any such success … some would argue that the countries that use this system have had wealth and stability in spite of the parliament … in Canada, this is because we simply ignore the nonsense spouted daily in Ottawa and go about our business …

    • It's a good thing Westminster style Parliaments were created to replace the institutions that had previously created more wealth and stability than any form of government created by man.

  2. Would our system be any better and would more be accomplished if the MPs talked civily to each other? I would suggest nothing would change. Politics no matter how we try to make it civil is a blood sport where the winners get to control billions of dollars and the rest get to whine. The stakes for the politician is high.
    Our system is fine. We need to do more to get the public engaged in the process and watching how the media reports politics and watching the distortion of the process with minority governments is causing more and more of the electorate to turn off politics.
    We need to allow a government to manage the country. We need the opposition parties to critique and criticize and more importantly offer alternatives. The public should be the sole judge of whether the government is doing the right thing or whether another vision is the answer.

  3. Until we, as individuals and as voters, take some personal responsibility for what we allow our elected officials to do, nothing will change. When we do, and act on it, the system has the capacity to register that desire and effect that change.

    right now, the actors are getting away with what we are letting them do, not "the system".

  4. "What is qualitatively different about people who work in government either as elected officials or as civil servants that makes them more focused or more certain."

    Assuming that's meant to be a question: it is that they are chosen to represent us, and thus paid full time to do this for us and provided a staff to aid in research (and given committee assignments to hyper-focus on specific issues). I consider myself rather knowledgeable about a lot of these things, but in the end I still have a day job and other stuff; I haven't enough hours in the day. Having full-time professionals focus on such things means they can be more focused and more certain. One can argue the merits of that, but that's at least the idea.

    • Not only that, but I think perhaps Dan took the phrase as a bit of a personal insult, as if the author was calling him distracted and unsure. I don't take the phrase that way. I take it more as referring to Canadians as a collective. That is, the people, as a whole, though not necessarily individually, are distracted and unsure. Of course, this simply is the reality on basically every issue in Canada.

      Also, be careful about claiming that the politicians are focused on trivial things like changing the words to our national anthem. That was a very small part of a very large throne speech, and it got blown out of proportion by both the opposition and the media. Of course, if we the people were not so distracted and unsure, we would know that.

  5. ' The claim of lost faith is groundless. As long as there have been politicians, they have been mistrusted. Only ignorance of history and a factitious nostalgia could make anyone think otherwise.”

    Really? He might be right in the strictest sense, that our mistrust of polticians is no more or no less than it has ever been, but he's the one who's ignorant if he believes that the public's faith inour institutions hasn't been steadily eroding – the voter turnouts; the general apathy; the disinterest in civic and political issues generally contradict him. Argument fails!

    • This comment was deleted.

      • 'm curious why folks seem to prefer your answer to mine. Your argument appears counterintuitive to me. However, does anyone know of any research/books/journalism that would back up rqc's belief that the low turn out is a sign that politicians are trusted? When for instance did the low voter turn outs really set in? Does it coincide with a general rise in affluence and insulation from existential threats, or does it start in the 60s, Watergate and the rise of investigative journalism, questioning of authority figures and heightened awreness of political corruption. Your answer seems way too pat for me, although i can see the appeal.

        • What we do know is that generally higher turnouts correlate with changes in government, which seems to support rqc's theory. To put it crudely, there is a set of die hard voters, a set of non-voters, and a set of voters who show up when they're dissatisfied.

        • wafergate and investigative journalism….. Ooppps wrong era. Justified cynicism.

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    • it is correct that the electoral reform referendum received almost 58% of the vote in 2005, which wasn't sufficient under the (sensible) referendum laws. When it was brought forward again in 2009, however, the proposal was soundly defeated by a vote of 60% against. The difference was that people had a chance to think about the proposal and realize what a poor idea it was to tinker with the fundamentals of our electoral system for no apparent gain.

      Mr. Pepall appears to grasp the fundamental flaw of the "Citizen's Assembly" procedure quite well.

      • 'The difference was that people had a chance to think about the proposal and realize what a poor idea …'

        Do you have evidence of that? Or could it also and been buried under an avalanche of bad press? Tinkering it may have been, but your assertion there would have been no gain is bogus, it's just the gain may have come at too high a cost.

        • This comment was deleted.

          • I agree with Mike R. He has captured accurately the general mood in BC to the Citizens Assembly process. It was province wide, very high profile in each community and had very little organized opposition. People seemed to intuitively know that this was just a bugaboo cooked up to supposedly solve declining voting trends.
            Turns out we are basically happy with what system we know. We intuited that a raft of fringe parties, while entertaining, are seldom productive. BCers did attempt to familiarize themselves with Italy, NZ and Australia.

            Belgium´s current deadlock without an actual operating government, was only one of the potential problems or outcomes identified back in 2005 when we were assessing voting systems. I´m satisfied with FPTP as is for now. Emotions indicate that we want rapid solutions for electoral wrongdoings but having a four year window to vote out a scoundrel is usually just sufficient.

  7. ' He did not like Stephen Harper's doomed fixed-election law because it perpetuated the idea that Harper won a set term when he won the election. “Winning an election is not like winning a prize that you get to keep until the next tournament. The Conservatives were the most effective government available after the election. They had no claim to remain the government any longer than they remained the most effective government available. The parties represented in the House of Commons must make that judgment.”

    That's a good argument against meddling with a tested system – it's trying to graft an alien American ideal on our Parliamentary convention, that one must at all times maintain the confidence of the house.

    'Pepall assigns himself an unglamorous role, standing against progress. Without him it would be easier to forget that there is a reason for things, and that sometimes a fix looks like a fix only until you try it'

    I have faith enough in traditional ways to accept that as a fair and wise comment.

    • Except the fixed election law always allowed for the government to fall if it lost confidence, and (as everybody now knows) recognized the supremacy of the Crown/GG to do whatever the Crown/GG pleases. So this self-described political commentator has a somewhat superficial grasp of that file.

      • MYL I cannot recall your stance on the coalition – but I'll assume you were against it even though it would have been technically legal. However, there was a large backlash because many felt it was undemocratic and violated the spirit of parliamentary democracy. Also true for progration – it was clearly legal – but many felt it violated the spirit of why progration is part of our system.

        You are technically right about the fixed election law – but the spirit of the law was clearly to convey a fixed term and an expectation to the people. Otherwise, why bother writing the law?

        • My stance was: bad for the country but tough luck, that's the law we have, and if we don't like it, then we should change it.

          And look again at Pepall's point: he is suggesting that Harper was attempting to shield his minority government against a non-confidence vote by establishing some sort of non-violable fixed term. Which is nonsense.

          • No, I don't think that is his point (although we are only dealing with excerpts of his book, after all, and he has probably elaborated on his ideas a bit more than can be encapsulated in a few quotes). What I took from his comment is that the fixed-date election law (not exclusive to Ottawa of course) creates the illusion that a givernment, once elected, has no need to be reconfirmed by the will of the Commons – the election having done all that is needed until the next election. It does convey something of a presidential aspect to the office of premier or prime minister – even if it is only an illusion I think his point is that it is misleading.

          • Direct quote: They had no claim to remain the government any longer than they remained the most effective government available. The parties represented in the House of Commons must make that judgment.

            The fixed election legislation made no such claim. He can elaborate all he likes in the rest of the chapter; this blurb is just plain incorrect.

          • Good point. Although it still does nothing to lessen the mockery of the FEL, when you can dissolve Parliament at wiil and ask for an election.

  8. One of the ways that government could be "fixed" at the grass roots level would be to limit the terms for sitting MPs. It has been my repeated life experience that once many politicians at any level serve their third term, they reach a point where their attitude changes from one of service to their electorate to one of ownership and entitlement to their position. This entitlement starts at the grass roots level where incumbent MPs are, out of "politeness" by their local Party executive committee, rubber-stamped as the candidate offering for the next election instead of being forced to run against competitors. By "rubber-stamping" the incumbent, better quality candidates do not get an opportunity to run for office until the incumbent is defeated.

    Here's a discussion of the issue:

    http://viableopposition.blogspot.com/2010/03/best

    • This comment was deleted.

      • Chretien was elected as an MP 10 times. His first term as PM wasn't until time number 8. Say what you want about the man, but he made stuff happen. Under Open Democracy's proosal (whose thoughtfulness I always I appreciate) he never would've been Prime Minister. I do not think term limits are helpful at the federal level.

        • Yes i misundestood. I was thinking about his third term as PM. I agree he made stuff happen… i was a fan, but unfortunately not everything he made happen was good.

  9. “If proportionality and making every citizen's vote count is the goal, why should we apply it to parties and not to policies? If 50 per cent of the people oppose capital punishment and 40 per cent support it and 10 per cent are undecided, why should we not give five out of 10 murderers a life sentence, hang four, and keep one on death row until the undecided make up their minds?”

    …has to be one of the dumbest statements on our political system in a long while.

    • On the contrary, it summarizes the banality of arguments in favour of proportionate representation quite nicely.

      • This comment was deleted.

        • Well, I also think it is a humorous aside, meant to illustrate a larger point, so I wouldn't try to get too outraged about it.

          • Don't worry, I am not outraged. If dumb comments on Canadian politics had enraged me so much, I would no longer be here at Blog Central. But Paul's quotes here are enough for me to decide not to pick up the book.

  10. The one bad fault in our system worthy of change is that the "leader" gets to decide who stands for election in a particular riding. He therefore creates his own caucus and, particularly in a majority govt he is essentially a dictator. The candidate should respond to his riding and therefore the caucus is made up of MPs who are not beholden to the leader (PM) for their seat. . The caucus should choose the PM as it is done in Britain. Thjerefore it is easy to bounce the PM as they did Blair.

  11. Pepall wasn't watching Elections Ontario during the Ontario referendum campaign. Far from explaining the proposals, they refused to explain them ("we have to stay neutral"), and spent millions on ads saying "make sure you understand the question" while refusing to help understand it, and refusing to send out the leaflets produced by the Citizens Assembly. That wasn't the only reason it failed: the process started a year later than planned, ran out of time before the Citizens Assembly could fine-tune their proposal, and left far too little time for public debate. But Elections Ontario were no help at all.

    • During the next PQ referendum maybe you can assist the Bloc, because they also believe that once a referendum is completed and fails, it is time to have another one, until they get their desired result.

  12. Intresting!
    I just ordered my copy –
    Im sure there is more light in there from Pepall

  13. Interesting review. Mr. Pepall has got a point. I was a UK Labour MP from 2001 to 2010. Too often, politicians fall prey to the “something must be done syndrome”. In September 2006 I wrote to the then Leader of the House, Jack Straw MP, with my proposals for the November “Queen's Speech” (i.e. Speech from the Throne). I suggested that the government include no Bills whatsoever, and that instead Parliament spent a year scrutinising its previous legislation, to see what had worked and what had not. Alas, the UK government was too timid to accede to my request.

  14. Shouldn't the "attempt" to fix what's wrong be made. So the people slugging it out day in and day out can see that their elected officials are at least trying to help them. With a system where, "the winning party gets more seats than its share of the votes" and the population base is fixed in a few specific regions change and forward thinking are exactly what's needed. Especially if that forward thinking looks to the past in a modern way to create jobs.

  15. I am going to run out and get this book. When I was in high school I remember my history teacher telling us about the checks and balances built into the Canadian Parliamentary system. He said that McDonald et al looked at the British system and the American system and took the best elements of both. The American Civil War and the conflict over States' rights helped them decide to make the federal government more powerful.
    I think that Pepall is of this same way of thinking, Canadian politics isn't broken it's the politicians who are.

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