Decency alone can’t save Parliament

Andrew Coyne on an institution that’s largely irrelevant and increasingly impotent

Decency alone can’t save parliament

Sean Kilpatrick/CP

This year’s Parliamentarians of the Year awards were, as ever, a grand occasion, and while I’d quibble with one or two choices, the recipients were all deserving enough. The premise of the event is a good one: there are decent, conscientious people in politics who take Parliament seriously and treat each other with respect, and it is worth recognizing them, if only to encourage others to follow their example.

Yet it was hard to escape a certain rage-against-the-darkness feeling about the whole thing. We can point to this or that exemplary individual, but it does not change the reality that Parliament is dying. Largely irrelevant, increasingly impotent, it is treated with contempt by those in power, matched only by the indifference of the general public.

The institution is caught in a death spiral, wherein each new assault on its prerogatives makes the argument for the next. The more degraded it becomes, the harder it is to rally people to its defence: it’s only Parliament, after all. So even after an unprecedented seven invocations of “time allocation”—a politer form of closure—to cut off debate in as many weeks, it wasn’t until Pat Martin’s foul-mouthed outburst on Twitter last Wednesday that the press gallery, who are paid to pay attention, could rouse themselves to make an issue of it. But their enthusiasm soon passed. All it took was last Thursday’s question period: by common consent the worst in years. Who, in all seriousness, could mount a defence of Parliament’s right to debate who had actually watched Parliament in debate?

To see how insidious this cycle of decline is, consider the Prime Minister’s warning to the public during the last election campaign: that, were they to deny him a majority at the polls, a majority of the House might then vote to remove him shortly afterward and put another prime minister in his place. Never mind the constitutional fact that such a move would be entirely within Parliament’s prerogative. Leave aside, too, the arithmetical fact that his party, in this scenario, would not even have a majority of the seats, let alone the popular vote. Just consider the message, and why it might be persuasive.

The Prime Minister was not merely advertising a probability. He was suggesting something unfair, even underhanded. Though his party had been elected by the people, their victory might be taken away from them afterwards. The unfairness of this depends upon an unspoken assumption: that the only vote that matters is the vote of the people on election day. Or rather, that the only aspect of that vote that matters is the party affiliation of the members of Parliament they elect. The votes of MPs are essentially irrelevant, as indeed are MPs themselves.

Parliament, in this version, is not a body of legislators charged with scrutinizing bills and holding government to account. It is simply an electoral college. Its sole function is to convert a minority of the popular vote, through the alchemy of the first past the post electoral system, into a majority of the seats. Should it fail in that responsibility, delivering what the British call a “hung Parliament,” the government is entitled to carry on without it, as governments have in recent years: ignoring confidence votes, or proroguing Parliament to avoid them.

Well, who could argue with that? Isn’t it true that MPs are elected almost entirely on the basis of party? Don’t they owe their seats to the party leader, more or less literally—after all, without his signature on their nomination papers they could not even have stood for office. Certainly MPs themselves seem disinclined to complain, publicly at least. Ask how they enjoy being a member of Parliament and they will burble on about the work they do in their constituencies, forwarding letters to the Immigration Department and the like. Everything but actually sitting in Parliament.

And so we get the kind of people in politics who are willing to accept a job with no meaningful responsibilities. And so we get the standard of behaviour, in Parliament and out, we should expect from people in that situation. And so, yes, MPs do become mere stand-ins for the party, and yes, Parliament becomes but an extension of the executive, more accountable to it than the reverse. And so the cycle of decline becomes an iron ring of futility.

The Parliamentarians of the Year awards are a brave attempt to reverse that dynamic, on the theory that if we treat MPs as somebodies, they will no longer be content to be nobodies. But I’m afraid it will take more than that. Over the years, I’ve proposed any number of reforms, ranging from giving caucus the power to hire and fire the leader, to cutting the number of cabinet minsters in half, to narrowing the aisle separating government from opposition. But all of these depend on someone in Parliament being willing to buck the status quo. But who among its present inmates is disposed to do that? Not the leaders, obviously. And not their obedient followers. After all, if they were the sort likely to rock the boat they’d never have been nominated.

Nothing will change in politics, I am convinced, until we give power back to the MPs. And nothing of that sort will happen until party members and riding associations demand it—until they insist their MPs be accountable to them, rather than the leadership. I hold no hope of that occurring in any of the established parties. But perhaps the Liberals will be willing to give it a try.


Decency alone can’t save Parliament

  1. While I’ve thought about this before, I hadn’t thought about the role the riding association itself could play. Do we have any examples of outstanding riding associations?

    • Not really, since uppity riding associations are merely threatened with being overruled by national council.

  2. “perhaps the Liberals will be willing to give it a try.”  That’s my hope based on the moves to internal democracy they’re proposing.  Their recent uptick in the polls, however, makes me fearful they’ll back off and hope to regain power by default as the other parties become less attractive.

  3. i am amazed at how easily these cpc mps manage to convince their constituents that they are actually living breathing people, and not sock puppets that let harper decide every word for them.

    • Vinegar has its uses, but coalition building is frankly a better route to change laws, which is what you want.  Right?

  4. Here are a few more suggestions for improving the quality of parliment.
    1.  the speaker of the house be giventhe power and the duty to determine if a member of parliment has answered the question posed – not the quality of the answer, but simply if the “answer” is relevent to the question.  If not, then the member must give a better answer of be sanctioned.

    2. No cameras or other recording devices be allowed in parliment or in committees.  Of course, journalists can still report on them.

    3. no parliment can be proroughed except after a supermajority of the house (so that the prime minister cannot shut down parliment simply by asking the gouveror general to to it).

    • “No cameras or other recording devices be allowed in parliment or in committees.  Of course, journalists can still report on them.”

      Someone[D. Herle i think?] raised the fascinating point on one of those cbc panels, that Parliamentarians really logically ought to be on their best behaviour while in front of the camera if you think about it[ the original justification for them] but clearly they aren’t. Why not? Simply because it is an opportunity to play up to the base? I doubt it? Herle suggested it is essentially peer pressure – showing off around your team buds, trying to score off the ”  other” team and basically suck up to your colleagues. The pressure to conform is stronger then the pressure to behave well. More evidence the parties hold is stronger then it should be!

    • How the hell do no cameras help? You think they’re mugging like they do for the camera?  Please.

      If you’re going to do anything with cameras, put in more of them.  Put in a webcam facing each and every seat, and whenever the politician stands up to speak, it automatically records what he’s saying for the parliamentary website,  but can also be activated and recorded by any member of the public who cares to see what, exactly, their MP is doing.

      Hell, ideally we have one pointed at the member, and one pointed down at their workspace so that we can see what they’re reading.

      • Since only a miniscule fraction of Canadians actually watch Question Period (as opposed to watching a 20 second clip on the evening news) more cameras would do nothing.  I’m sure that this would be even more true of a web site.  However, with the advent of cameras, parlimentarians know that the only way to make it to the evening news – and influence public opinion – is to get out a “zinger” of a question or answer even though it probably has nothing of substance.  That is why I think that cameras should be removed.

  5. I think Maclean’s awards are exactly what is wrong with Parliament. I happen to believe that msm’s role is to comfort afflicted, afflict comfortable and Maclean’s awards are opposite of what msm should be doing.

    Big part of problem with governance is that our Liberal msm is not allowed to have an opinion – except for when it comes to providing psychological comments about Con supporters – and our pols do whatever they want. For some reason, I am continually surprised by how obsequious msm is but I shouldn’t be by now. Vast majority of political reporting is stenography where reporter talks to pr hack to get government spin and treat it as tho its part of Sermon on the Mount. 

    We need a complete cultural change before we start tinkering with rules. One way or another, leader of party is always going to control who candidates are. We need a new culture where PM does not punish people for thinking independently.

    Also, MPs could be more aggressive in asserting their independence. UK Cons – about 80 of them I think – voted against government over Europe a few weeks ago. When do Canadian MPs ever try to influence debate like their UK colleagues did? 

    PJ O’Rourke ~ Authority has always attracted the lowest elements in the human race. All through history mankind has been bullied by scum. Those who lord it over their fellows and toss commands in every direction and would boss the grass in the meadows about which way to bend in the wind are the most depraved kind of prostitutes. They will submit to any indignity, perform any vile act, do anything to achieve power. The worst off-sloughings of the planet are the ingredients of sovereignty. Every government is a parliament of whores. The trouble is, in a democracy, the whores are us.

    • Does the leader of the parties in the US determine all the candidates for Congress? I think not. Nothing is inevitable.

  6. Bold well-spoken words, Andrew…..hear, hear!! (accompanied by desk-thumping from the back benches)

  7. Unfortunately, by “democratizing” the process of choosing party leaders by taking the control from MPs and giving it to the broader party, we took away the one counter that MPs had to the power of the executive:  the leader, in a majority, still served at the pleasure of the majority.  Now he or she is no longer accountable to either parliament or the people.  In the last 20 years we have seen both Conservatives and Labour in Britain force sitting Prime Ministers from their own parties out.  That can’t happen here any more.

  8. My riding has approved a constitutional amendment to do exactly that.  Unfortunately, getting it to the Convention floor isn’t as easy as I think it should be, and I’m down to just one route.  But on the bright side, there are two other resolutions that could do the trick in a more comprehensive way.  Could I direct all Liberals reading this to the http://www.liberal.ca Convention website, and to Democratic Renewal in particular?  The authors are very willing to entertain friendly amendments to speed up the timelines.

  9. “Nothing will change in politics, I am convinced, until we give power back to the MPs. And nothing of that sort will happen until party members and riding associations demand it—until they insist their MPs be accountable to them, rather than the leadership. I hold no hope of that occurring in any of the established parties. But perhaps the Liberals will be willing to give it a try.”

    I’m not sure at all that the changes the  libs propose will make a difference[ partly because idon’t fully understand all the ins and outs of primaries].
    Will allowing the public to participate in helping to choose a party leader or individual mps do anything to shore up the independence of  mps? It should help in that it will be much harder for the party leader or party HQ to nix the nominee – although an explicit rule that prevents this could accomplish much the same thing[ ithink the libs are toying with this too] Depending on how open the primaries are – there are complaints the proposed primary will not be open, but rather a closed one where supporters have to sign a possibly meaningless loyalty/honesty pledge, basically to data mine them for donor possibilitites[ thx AC. We really needed to lose the per vote sub :) ] – It could do something to pry away the candidates from the party if there is a sense they were chosen by a broad enough swath of the voting public; or it could degenerate into special interest liberals of convenience power brokering. If the party is really brave enough[ and can afford it] to really hold open primaries or even limited ones –  as in a two tier primary[expensive i’m told] –  it really might restore somewhat the power base of the ordinary joe mp. Personally i agree with AC that this can be accomplished through the caucus – there is no sign yet the LPC likes this idea.
    I’ve no idea why the Liberal cacus is not revolting against party control right now. They are small and compact ,the party is weak and there’s no present political imperative to show party discipline since there’s no earthly way they’re getting back power for some time. Why not seize the moment and assert themselves? I suppose that’s not a priority for them right now, which is a great pity, it is a service they could perform for the country for which we could all be profoundly grateful right AC?

  10. I think one of the major issues is that Canadians are criminally ignorant of our parliamentary system: how can you expect Parliment to get the respect it needs when a large majoirty of our citizens have no clue what it’s there for and how it’s supposed to work.

  11. Isn’t there a quote floating around from the recent election where Harper explictly lied about, or mischaracterized if you prefer,  the mechanics of Parliament? He claimed that losers shouldn’t get to pick the govt, only the people can do this by choosing the party with the most seats?
    Harper went much further then suggesting the system was unfair – which would have been reasonable[ didn’t AC make that point during the election?] – he actually claimed his interpretation of the rules were de facto correct. The man’s a dangerous demagogue who only thinks the rules should be followed if they benefit him and his party.
    This is partly what is wrong with the media in this country, at least to some degree; they’re too deferential, too risk adverse; too unwilling to call a spade a spade or condemn forthrightly unethical behaviour.

    • Lets they be shunned by the Harperistas at a press conference. Oh wait, they already do that.

  12. Okay. So lets assume a riding association demands it has an MP accountable to them. 

    Let’s assume they wanted to ask the whole riding association whether they wanted to hold a nomination contest, but got told by the national party that their candidate had already been chosen and if they attempted to hold a nomination contest, they would lose control of the association, as outlined in the documents that allow them to form an association under the CPC mantle. Let’s assume that 19 members of the 32 member board walked out in protest.  Why surely that’d start to change things yes?

    If only we didn’t have to assume so much, we could see the results..
    ..oh wait..
    ..here’s Calgary West..
    ..where that all happened.

    And changed nothing.

    Next idea?

  13. We need a top-ten list!

    Andrew, what 10 things would you propose to change if you could in Canada’s Parliament? 

    You and other journalists have thoroughly described the problems which you see more often & more closely than 99% of Canadians – therefore you are much more likely to have answers that the general electorate doesn’t.

    If you begin by asking yourself the wrong questions, you are very likely to get the wrong answers. So, pose the right questions – with all your intellect and experience – and you will get the right answers. Whether you realize it or not, you already have the answers percolating around in that grey-matter of yours.

    I suggest you write an article named something along these lines; “Top ten changes to make Parliament work for Canadian’s” in Q: and A: style.

    If anyone can wrap his head around this stuff, it’s you. Well… get writing!!

    Best Regards, johnbrianshannon.com 

  14. MPs won’t have any power until PTP is abandon. Embrace proportional representation and MPs can then have more say.

    • You do realize that Proportional Representation has the possibility of MP’s coming from party lists and not directly contested riding’s.
      Slash the number of MP’s to give them more clout. Let the Senate be the voice for regional representation.
      Doesn’t say much for our “leaders” if they need a strangle hold to keep “supporters” in line.

      • Bad forms of PR do have the party list drawback.

        However, with party HQs having the ability to exert much influence over various aspects of the existing nomination process, including a final veto, it is hard to argue that the current system is a wholly different than a party list system – yes, theoretically voters can reject a candidate that was ‘foisted’ onto a constituency by ‘the party’, but as a practical matter it seems that most folks will ‘hold their nose’ and vote the party line.

        There are good forms of PR that still elect MPs from directly contested ridings AND allow supporters of parties to ignore particularly bad candidates while still supporting the party of their choice.

        Its a win, win, win voting system.

      • “Slash the number of MP’s to give them more clout.”

        Don’t know if you have noticed, but Harper’s cabinet is quite large, especially if you add up all of the “parliamentary secretary” appointments to the ministries.  All of this means more pay for those so lucky. It’s indentured servitude, the trained seal brigade.

        It has been suggested that increasing the number of MP’s might be better for promoting independent thought.  Face it, Harper has a carrot-on-a-stick cabinet. Decreasing the number of MP’s while keeping the first past the post system  won’t help.

  15. I hold no hope of that occurring in any of the established parties. But perhaps the Liberals will be willing to give it a try.


    • I liked that, too.

  16. A good essay Mr. Coyne. I feel your pain.

    For a long time, I considered Jean Chretien to be the worst Prime Minister that Canada has ever had. He set a record invoking closure and the media was properly outraged at the time.  My own event on the road to Damascus was when Chretien kicked John Nunziata out of caucus for voting with an opposition bill to abolish the GST.  The opposition motion  was almost word-for-word out of the Liberal “Red Book”, the campaign manifesto that helped Chretien secure the first of 3 majority governments.

    Chretien said he kicked Nunziata out out caucus because he “lacked integrity”.

    That was it for me.  F**k you Chretien, and the train you rode in on. And here is a dictionary so you can look up the word “integrity”

    Of course, things only got worse after that.

    Harper has surpassed Chretien on almost all measures for complete and utter hypocrisy, contempt, and abuse of power. Whenever the conservatives do something that further diminishes our democracy, be it proroguing parliament or invoking closure, the chorus of deeply indentured trained seals harp in harmony “but the liberals did it too!” – like it’s a slam dunk justification for it all.

    The largest conservative majority in history (Mulroney) turned into the worst routing in history largely because of Mulroney’s arrogance and duplicity, even though his government accomplished quite a lot. Mulroney even won recognition for his role in improving the environment (the Montreal accord on Ozone). There is no danger of Harper repeating that.

    The Harper government has marked Canada internationally by ignoring gobal warming, the dangers of asbestos, opposing recognition of a Palestinian state, unbridled support of Israeli apartheid and settlement expansion, and losing a vote to the UN Security Council for the first time ever. (Tip – a Canadian flag on your backpack when you are travelling abroad is no longer an asset)

    Harper has all of Mulroney’s arrogance and none of his charm.   I do hope history repeats itself by way of a conservative implosion like 1993 when the conservatives were reduced to two seats. But the way things are going, odds are even that it might be a repeat of the Chretien legacy.

    • Agree with your last point unfortunately, one thing Harper has going for him Brian never had is discipline. He is going to be very hard to dislodge. My feeling is it will take an internal CPC revolt;  Harper know this  too – that explains the carrot and stick approach. Sad days for Canadian democracy.

  17. I cannot share this with my friends, get this face book out of my face. 
    Great article
    Walter Matle

  18. Instead of working from within political parties, why not try the Athenian experiment which was in the National Post a few years ago?

    One third of the seats to be chosen by lottery, and then we will have more cause to view Parliament with less skepticism.

  19. I would believe this if Mr coyne had written this when Trudeau or Chretien were in power. I am beginning to think Mr Coyne should concentrate in writing his memoirs and let younger generations invent the future!

  20. Coyne has jumped the shark–he cannot stand the FACT there is a Conservative Majority and he is beside himself and wants the Lieberals in power again.

  21. While the Arab world is looking for democracy, we have a dictator.

  22. Why not start by strengthening committees?  One step would be, let caucuses decide who sits on them.  Another step would be, let the committee decide who is the chair.

    When you have too much power in the PMO, no matter how noble its intensions, we wind up with the scenario of what Gandalf feared in the “Lord of the Rings: The fellowship of the Ring”: A desire to do good, but through him a power that is much too terrible.

  23. Why do we elect representatives? I would rather be represented by the first 308 names in the Ottawa phone book than a collection of ambitious douchebag lawyers and their greasy pals. 

    Winning elections is a skill, and this skill is transparently more valuable than governing ability. Lots of unelectable people would probably do a better job of representing us than our MPs. 

    Real democracy means direct votes by citizens or sortition.

  24. After the last election there was a brief note in the economist noting that the real reason the election was called (misbehaviour by the Conservatives) was never addressed at all. In general, it is disheartening to see how the main stream media is distracted by shiny things, not focusing on what matters. I feel so helpless watching the parliamentary process in which I’ve always believed die in my lifetime.

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