So How Do You Like Democracy Now?


Commenter below is right, I ran against Carolyn Bennett, not Parrish. I think I got them confused at an all-candidates meeting as well, back in the day. Memories are hazy…
Wikipedia is wrong though; I definitely got 514 votes,.

Remember those heady days of “Gritlock,” when everyone, including the Liberals, were convinced the Natural Governing Party would be in power forever? When a reporter couldn’t swing a notebook without some politician, pundit, wonk, activist, or academic bending their ear about the Democratic Deficit that afflicted our system of government? That Canadian democracy was in a crisis, and the only solution to voter alienation and parliamentary irrelevance was to implement a package of democracy-enhancing reforms that would, finally, allow the people to rule?

And so in the early years of this decade, Canada went through a weird little “democracy” craze. All anyone wanted to talk about was the desperate need for free votes in parliament (or at least a three-line whip), proportional representation, strengthened officers of parliament, an ethics commissioner with real teeth, an accountability act, parliamentary oversight of Supreme Court appointments, strengthened commitees, voter recall, and fixed election dates.

This view of things had a remarkable amount of support across partisan lines. The NDP supports these reforms partly because of the kookie fetish for “local” democracy amongst its urban supporters in Toronto and Vancouver, but also because anything that makes minority government more likely is good for the Dippers, who become more irrelevant than usual in majority parliaments. Team Martin was keen on fixing the democratic deficit not out of any intellectual dedication to a particular theory of democracy, but out of a misguided sense that the perceived problems with parliament were somehow Jean Chretien’s fault.

The only party with a coherent theory of democracy within which these reforms make any sense is the Reform/Alliance wing of the Conservatives. It is a theory of democracy that is utterly hostile to parliamentary government — a syncretic alliance of prairie populism and knee-jerk lust for American-style politics. Since the main effect of all of the various proposals to fix the democratic deficit is to weaken the government and make it harder to sustain the strong executive authority that is needed to push through substantial new social programs, it is easy to see why the Harper Conservatives support democratic reform.

And so, with the exception of proportional representation (thank god) almost all of these have been implemented in some fashion either in Ottawa or one of more of the provinces. And almost without exception, these reforms have manifestly made democracy in Canada worse. Since Paul Martin came into power promising to fix the democratic deficit, parliament has become more internally dysfunctional and less able to hold the government to account.

I had a brief fling with the Democratic Deficit around 2000, when I became so frustrated with The System and Chretien’s Liberals — but so turned off by the other parties — that I ran for the Marijuana Party of Canada, taking on Carolyn Bennett in St. Paul’s. 514 votes later, my illiusionment with single-issue parties (and with grassroots democracy in general) had been pretty well dissed. It was a nice practical lesson in the wisest words of Ned Franks’ book about Parliament, viz., that what parliament needs is not so much to be reformed as understood.

It took Stephen Harper a while longer to learn that lesson, if in fact he finally has. It is pretty obvious that he’s happy enough running a dysfunctional parliament, since an Ottawa that is busy fighting over the In-and-Out “scandal” or the Linda Keen affair is an Ottawa that can’t focus its attention on actually doing something positive for the country. And if, like Harper, your entire intellectual orientation begins with the proposition that Ottawa is Evil, well, what’s not to like?

But for whatever reason, Harper has decided that his fixed-election law is not worth the paper it is printed on, and is clearly ready to drop the writ this fall. Of course, the fixed-election gambit was always a complete bluff, having no legal or constitutional weight. It was just another spanner he could throw into our constitutional workings, another constraint he could apply just to watch parliament squirm.

Well, centuries of institutional memory are finally reasserting themselves, and responsible government is finally squirming free of the various idiotic, misguided, or cynical fetters that have been installed over the past decade or so. We need an election, yes. But more than that what we need is a majority parliament. Then, and only then, will responsible government return to this Dominion.


So How Do You Like Democracy Now?

  1. I don’t see how a majority government is going to help much in your quest for responsible government, since it was the very strong majorities held by Chretien that seemed to be leading to a mismatch between the executive and legislative branches of government.

    The good thing about this particular parliament is that it has resulted in fairly balanced legislation, and Harper has had to be necessarily restrained in his actions, if not his words.

    And in what sense has this government been any more irresponsible than previous majority governments? I know that watching their antics on Parliament Hill can be tiresome, but nothing too awful has transpired in practice.

  2. I believe you are confusing Carolyn Bennett with Carolyn Parrish, Andrew.

  3. Only if you think a majority government elected by a minority of voters pushing through legislation that supports that minority is a good thing. And apparently you do.

  4. 514 votes? Wikipedia says you only won 221. The next time I read one of your books I’m going to have be extra careful I’m not reading made up numbers…

  5. I disagree with your conclusion, Andrew. Like the Harris PCs, and to a lesser extent the Charest Liberals, the Harper Conservatives have proven that they don’t care too much for parliamentary democracy. I expect that if the Conservatives get a majority, the cabinet will rarely attend Question Period or debates and every trick in the book (closure, time allocation, etc.) will be used to railroad legislation and suppress debate and public participation in the process. In my opinion, nothing could be worse for responsible government in Canada.

    Do you honestly expect any different from a Conservative majority?

  6. I think you’re in for a long wait, I don’t see a majority parliament any time soon. We have three main electoral regions and they all vote for different parties. Without the Bloc collapsing in Quebec and the votes going to Cons/Libs, we’re just going to have a series of rotating minorities.

  7. The change that bothers me the most, and it started with Chretien, is ministers not really being responsible anymore. There were many instances where I felt a minister should have resigned but didn’t because Chretien thought it was better optics to have few ministers resign instead of minister taking responsibility for some mistake their department made.

    I think Harper and others, me included, think parliament/government does very little that is ‘good’ so I agree with ‘the proposition that Ottawa is Evil, well, what’s not to like?’. I think we parliament should be set up like they have it in Texas – legislature meets for a couple months of the year and the rest of the time politicians are expected to have proper jobs.

    The Franks comment about understanding parliament is a good one. I often wondered what some of these reforms were expected to achieve.

  8. I don’t think majority government is going to come back anytime soon. If it does, it will likely be a Conservative majority. In which case, they’ll all be more than happy to drown the government baby in the bathtub.

    The Mulroney coalition of Western cowboys, bleu Quebecois, and “overtaxed” suburban Ontarians will deliver, and then fall apart as they squabble over their narrow, parochial interests. But that could be a while. Especially considering the left’s narrow, parochial interests are much more interested in protecting their insignificant political affiliations than with implementing progessive policies in this country.

  9. Andrew there’s so much fuzzy language in your post that I’m not sure what the topic is. I also disagree with your conclusion that a majority government is “what we need” but since you don’t really support that conclusion with any arguments, all you’re really doing is encouraging people to rant. So be it.

    I missed the past seven years of democratic Angst in Canada, instead experiencing first-hand the power of direct representation in Switzerland for five years and the jaw-dropping incompetence of the Labour government in the UK for the past two years.

    If you are afraid of prairie populists, just be thankful you don’t have the angry turnip farmers of Kanton Schwyz overturning the progressive liberal agenda of the smug city dwellers, who can somehow simultaneously be outraged at the high price of fuel and the horrible damage to the environment caused by evil corporations. Yet somehow the Swiss have the cheapest gasoline in Europe as well as the the best record on environmental stewardship. However I suspect that has more to do with a massive per-capita GDP and a small population in a beautiful country (hey sounds familiar?).

    Now if you want to see how well a majority government can do with a strong mandate, look no further than the current British Parliament. I would be very surprised to see even their most ardent supporters refer to this truly dysfunctional team as “responsible government”. In fact, whatever it is you mean by strong government, I am quite certain it is not the solution to whatever problem it is you think we are facing.

  10. I like the rants. However, until we can get the Bloc to fold its tent, it is hard to see a return to majority.

    Let us give the BQ 45 of the 308 seats. That leaves one of the other two needing 156 of the remaining 263 spots (59%). And that would be a pretty tight majority. this would require another 32 seats for the Tories (or another 50 for the Libs). Unless the Liberals can monopolise Ontario again, or the Tories find some foothold on Van/Tor/MTL, it is not happening.

    However, under a Proportional Representation system, the BQ would only get half the seats it does now. So it has that going for it. Which is nice.

  11. I am of a different view as to the cause of the current dysfunction.

    I don’t think the situation in Parliament will improve until the media, as the “referees” of Parliament, start calling a fair game.

    As long as the Liberals know that they can say or do anything they want and get away with it in terms of easy or non media coverage, what incentive do they have to change? They can continue to make their contribution to the dysfunction of Parliament, safe in the knowledge that the Star, G&M, evening newscasts, etc, will always blame the Conservatives.

    I’m not saying the Conservatives are perfect; far from it. Their ethics committee performance has been embarrassing. But to take the ethics committee as an example, Kady goes on and on ad infinitum, to the cheers from the peanut gallery here, about the evils of Gary Goodyear, David Tilson, Dean Del Mastro, etc.

    But does anybody remember that Szabo, the committee chair, allowed the Mulroney Schrieber hearings to descend into chaos by going way off mandate and allowing the Krista-Erickson/Pablo Rodriguez led fishing expedition into the wireless spectrum auction? Or that there was a second Liberal MP working with the CBC on that file who was never named?

    Why do these examples of dysfunctional partisan committee behaviour and too-cosy relations between the media and the Liberals get buried or forgotten when people complain about the current situation?

    And for God’s sake, when will someone realize that perhaps Peter Milliken is NOT the best choice for Speaker of the House, seeing as how he’s the one presiding who has been presiding over this chaos for as long as anyone can remember.

  12. Kirok: “I expect that if the Conservatives get a majority, the cabinet will rarely attend Question Period or debates and every trick in the book (closure, time allocation, etc.) will be used to railroad legislation and suppress debate and public participation in the process.”

    Kirok must live in Alberta.

  13. Why are Chris and Chris B willing to concede most Quebec seats to the Bloc. Yes, a majority is unlikely unless the Bloc collapses to fewer than 20 seats. But why do you consider this unlikely? Your premise needs explaining.

  14. Peter,

    Thanks for another example of why Wikipedia is entirely unreliable.

    Check this Elections Canada link and you will see that Potter recieved the aforementioned 514 votes.

    Check the same link and you will see that Potter was correct about Bennett and you were incorrect about Parrish.


  15. Peter,
    I just tried to double check your supposed Wikipedia quote, but the “encyclopedia” doesn’t seem to have results for St. Paul’s from the 37th GE.

    Perhaps you were looking at the wrong information.

  16. But Andrew, aren’t you setting up a false comparison between Parliament Now (dysfunctional due to its decentralization) and Parliament-As-It-Has-Always-Been (utopia of functionalism)? While some things like fixed election dates have proven themselves to be, at the very least, silly since dissolution of Parliament is royal prerogative, the notion of more free votes and stronger committees is more in line with classic Westminster-style parliament. Party discipline and centralization have always particularly strong in Canada and for all the complaints about President Blair, Britain has failed to even approach putting that level of dictatorial power in the hands of the prime minister.

    Admittedly, the supremacy of Parliament has remained strong in Britain by convention, largely because constitutional scholars are still smarting from the English Civil War. What we are likely seeing in Canada is a unique parliamentary tradition that stems from being subjects of all-powerful governors rather than a people whose political class stood against such powers.

    My point is that while there’s plenty to quibble with about some of the specific reforms that have been taken, there’s nothing wrong with the goal since other parliaments reflect these values of decentralization from the PM. And it’s not entirely correct to say being comfortable with the status quo would be the result of understanding parliament. Personally I think that truly understanding parliament would at the very least require people to demand a resident monarch to be a visible and continuous counterpoint to the PM.

  17. You ran for the MArijuana Party? Guessing your relatives under 21 love you.

  18. Good comments all around…. keep it up. Apologies for confusing the Carolyns. I ran against Bennett, but did win 514 votes, not the 221 that Wikipedia gives me.

  19. So How Do You Like Democracy Now?

    I wish we had some. Andrew if you mean you want a majority government based on a majority of the vote, I am with you, but if you are talking about a majority of seats in the House, manufactured by our terrible voting system, you have lost me.

  20. Sorry Andrew I feel like a real piece of sh*t.

  21. Well, with a name like “Potter”, who else could he run for?

  22. 514 votes for the Marijuana Party rather than the 221 reported elsewhere.

    – a token difference.

  23. I can think of no better words than those of classicist Ronald Syme, who wrote in 1939 that whatever the system of government – Parliamentary, monarchical, absolutist – it’s always an oligarchy.

  24. Dun Roberts: Right… whoever gets in, you still have a government! Might as well eat your ballot.

  25. Unfortunately, as usual, Andrew Potter has put together a tiny bit of evidence combined with extreme exaggeration and false claims to support Canada’s federal government system as it was before the democratic reforms that have been enacted in the past five years.

    Conveniently, Maclean’s blog system doesn’t allow for responses as long as Andrew’s entries, so all of his false claims cannot be addressed.

    It is obviously untrue that in the early years of this decade “All ayone (sic) wanted to talk about was the desperate need” for democratic reforms (just do an Internet news search and you will see that many people were talking about other things), and also obviously untrue that when the federal government initiates a process to ensure people who have done wrong or not followed procedures procedures it then “can’t focus its attention on actually doing something positive for the country” (just check the list of bills passed and new programs initiated by the federal government in the past decade).

    Other false claims that require a response too long for Maclean’s blog system include that “the main effect of all of the various proposals to fix the democratic deficit is to weaken the government and make it harder to sustain the strong executive authority that is needed to push through substantial new social programs” and that democratic reforms “have manifestly made democracy in Canada worse”.

    Suffice to say only that, as anyone at all familiar with the history of Canada knows, minority governments (whose executive powers are very limited by opposition parties) have pushed through substantial new social programs.

    And, in terms of democratic reforms making democracy in Canada worse, does Andrew really think that government is better when:
    – the Prime Minister (or Premier) decides whether s/he or his or her Cabinet ministers, staff, and appointed senior government officials, and the lobbyists who are trying to influence them have violated ethics rules?;
    – secret, unlimited donations and gifts of money, property and services to election candidates and MPs are legal?;
    – public servants aware of wrongdoing by others in government are not protected from retaliation if they report the wrongdoing?

    Because the key democratic reforms of the past decade in the federal government have established an independent Ethics Commissioner, made such secret donations illegal, and brought in at least some whistleblower protection.

    Andrew’s false claims lead to his false conclusion that Canada needs a majority government in order to have a “responsible” government (whatever Andrew means by “responsible” is not made clear).

    Take a look at the loopholes on the following webpage though, and I think you will agree that what Canada actually needs in terms of change in government is an Accountability Act II that closes the 27 loopholes the Conservatives promised but failed to close with their Accountability Act, and also closes the dozens of other loopholes that effectively still allow everyone in the federal government to act dishonestly, unethically, secretively, non-representatively and wastefully.

    Here is the webpage:

    Duff Conacher, Coordinator of Democracy Watch

  26. Duff writes: “Conveniently, Maclean’s blog system doesn’t allow for responses as long as Andrew’s entries, so all of his false claims cannot be addressed.”

    Yeah, but I bet if you wrote your replies separately on a word processing program, you could do a series of cut and paste jobs in rapid succession. Seems like a reasonable way to get around the problem.

    I found your counterpoints interesting, and could have read more of them. Interesting because he is, in a way, poking you in the eye by indirectly suggesting NGOs like Democracy Watch have been ineffective in the past decade.

    I have no informed opinion either way, just expressing a interest in seeing the fireworks continue.

  27. Somewhat related presser:
    Green Party accuses Harper of “breathtaking hypocrisy”

    Is blowhard the opposite of breathtaking?

  28. How can anyone consider a parliamentary majority elected by a popular vote minority as democratic..? We’ve had too much of it in Canada for long stretches of our history. When there are more than two parties, the first past the post system needs runoffs, which in the digital/electronic age ought to be able to be managed efficiently and economically. We may still have the odd minority government, but my guess is – a lot less often.

  29. A “parliamentary majority elected by a popular vote minority” is certainly not democratic, especially when the party with the most votes loses the election, as happens from time to time under our current system.

    But runoffs generate phony consensus. Pretty much the same people get elected, only diversity is even more stifled.

    The only fair voting system is a proportional voting system. Either parties get seats in proportion to the votes they receive, or somebody’s getting screwed.

  30. Wayne, Italy finally has a majority government. Maybe proportional representation isn’t so dysfunctional after all!

  31. Duff Conacher writes: “Conveniently, Maclean’s blog system doesn’t allow for responses as long as Andrew’s entries, so all of his false claims cannot be addressed.”

    That’s right. We switched to wordpress and engineered it expressly to prevent Democracy Watch from posting 2000-word replies to 500-word blog posts.

  32. “john g
    And for God’s sake, when will someone realize that perhaps Peter Milliken is NOT the best choice for Speaker of the House, seeing as how he’s the one presiding who has been presiding over this chaos for as long as anyone can remember.”

    He may be presiding over the chaos but he isn’t responsible for it.It’s the MPs who choose to open their mouths and cat call across the floor,it’s their colleagues who egg them on,and it’s the Whips who try (and quite a bit of the time) fail to keep the racket down and they should carry more of the blame then what they’ve been getting.

    The Speaker can’t hear everybody and is limited in what tools he can use(he has stated a preference for not naming a honourable member in a interview with some teachers a while back) while keeping everybody relatively satisfied with his abilities which when you consider he has to keep all the parties happy must not be a walk in the park.

  33. It can’t be all bad. Isn’t the Speaker entitled to tax-free booze and travel like his peers?

  34. Find a youtube clip of Major v. Blair or perhaps just look up Betty Boothroyd. There was a wonderful Speaker who was unwilling to let things get out of hand and didn’t feel compelled to follow a model of soft-spokeness.

  35. It might not be all bad but I don’t think the tax free booze(and where do they get that anyway?) and travel would make up for the fact for four to five days a week he has to sit there listening 200+ MPs make general rear ends of themselves.

    Thanks for the tip Spencer.

  36. Minority governments don’t work terribly well in this country because they’re not natural. Everybody knows the system is skewed to generate majorities out of a popular vote of around 35% or so, so nobody really bothers trying to work with the other groups because the amount of real support they need to become a majority party is so low.

    Switch to a proportional representation systems and the governments will learn fairly quickly to compromise with each other, if only because a proportional system will bring an influx into the number of parties present. Not being willing to coalesce means frequent return to the polls and an increasingly annoyed public punishing the ruling party for being that way.

    More parties in parliament would also mean that we are less likely to wind up with a situation like today where one party sitting on its hands can prop up the government that the majority dislikes until that party feels its strong enough to try for its own shot.

  37. Duff Conacher, why don’t you care about the well-documented abuses of democracy under the provincial government of Danny Williams? Or are some democracies more watchable than others?

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