Are we better off without the Reform Act?

Maybe we are. Unless we aren’t.

by Aaron Wherry

Sean Kilpatrick/CP

So the Reform Act should not pass because it would empower “each party’s most irresponsible and refractory MPs” and drive our politics toward “factionalism,” while also possibly endangering our status as the best governed country in the world.

There is something to this. The control that party leaders currently attempt to exert has not grown by accident or without purpose. Discipline is prized because it seems important to achieving and holding power. A prime minister is better off being accused of having too much control than not enough. Possibly we have even come to expect it of our political leaders. Perhaps our MPs function effectively now as internal focus groups and partisan soldiers to be consulted and dispatched by their leaders.

We could even attempt to go further to ensure that party leaders have as much power and discretion as possible. The Reform Act could be replaced with a bill that eliminates MPs. Or at least the 307 of them who are not Prime Minister. For the sake of coherence and tamping down humanity’s worst impulses, we could scrap Parliament entirely and move to a system whereby a CEO is elected every four years for a term during which he or she is entitled to run the government as he or she would a business, responsible and accountable to shareholders and customers, but otherwise unencumbered by anything like a House of Commons.

There is, after all, something to be said for stream-lined governance. I hear, for instance, that China is doing some interesting things with solar energy.

But then again we did go to some expense to build Centre Block and then went to some expense to rebuild it after the fire in 1916, and now we’re spending a fair amount of money to make sure the building doesn’t collapse in the near future, so perhaps we might put the place to some use. At least the half of it that contains the House of Commons. (The Senate side we could still convert into condos or an upscale dance club called Red Velvet.)

And to that end, we might see about trying to make all 308 MPs, and the institution they collectively form, as useful as possible.

And doing that might require loosening the reigns of authority that party leaders currently possess.

This would, undoubtedly, increase the possibility for certain things to happen that presently might be otherwise controlled by the current balance of power. In the most wide-open of scenarios, riding associations could be stormed by fringe extremists seeking to hijack parties with their crazy ideas. Say, for instance, there were three or four Liberal riding associations in Alberta that were small and disorganized. And say a radical group of individuals who believed that all men should have to grow moustaches, regardless of ability or current fashion, decided to target those ridings and ensure that pro-moustache candidates were nominated under the Liberal banner. Let’s say they were even somehow successful and that in 2015, the Liberal party and Justin Trudeau were compelled to explain why four of their 338 candidates were moustachioed extremists.

Possibly this would not happen because, as Radical Centrist notes, the parties might set up processes that would, while removing the leader’s signature as a prerequisite, still allow some apparatus for screening candidates. But let’s say the moustachios managed to get four of theirs on the party slate. What would happen then? Well, if any of the moustachios won enough votes in their riding to be elected, they would be entitled to a seat in the House, though the Liberal caucus could then vote to expel them. Would Mr. Trudeau and the Liberals suffer regardless for the fact that four objectionable candidates were running under the party banner? Probably somewhat. But then it wouldn’t be Mr. Trudeau who endorsed their candidacies. And there would be some onus on party members and, if so interested, the general public to see different candidates chosen—not by counting on the party leader to intervene, but by organizing and getting involved to select nominees who cared about issues other than facial hair.

That might be said to be the answer to attempts at factionalism: greater and wider participation.

A new system might also require voters to better appreciate nuance. Frum suggests “voters can’t be counted on to grasp the distinction between the ‘government’ on the front benches and the government members behind them.” I’m not sure that would be so hard to understand, at least so long as our collectively feeble minds were given time to adjust to a new system. If we do boast the strictest party discipline among similar Westminster parliaments, we might imagine loosening the binds just a tad. Other countries seem to have survived the resulting chaos.

(There would seem to be some number of rebellions in Britain, particularly with the current coalition government, though this would seem to be something of a trend over the last decade. Of course, the Brits also have more MPs and so a full analysis would require sorting out what percentage of MPs, what percentage of votes and what percentage of backbenchers dissent from their parties and how often, both here and there. It’s at least fascinating to think that MPs might actually vote against their own party every so often.)

(Frum’s entire paragraph here reads as follows: “To pluck an example out of thin air: If a prime minister has pledged that his government won’t take action on abortion during its next mandate — and a backbencher insists on trying anyway — that action makes liars out of the whole government. Voters can’t be counted on to grasp the distinction between the “government” on the front benches and the government members behind them.” To pluck the example of this actually happening, the Prime Minister himself might be asked why, if he didn’t want any Conservative MP ever moving forward with anything related to abortion, he didn’t then explicitly threaten to have any MP who did so booted from the caucus and barred from running? Or why Mr. Warawa’s motion might’ve crossed some line that two previous initiatives didn’t? If you really want to argue that the leader should have total control, then you might have to argue Mr. Harper didn’t exert enough control in the case of Mr. Warawa. As it is, you have to argue that the parliamentary committee that blocked Mr. Warawa’s motion did so on justifiable grounds. And that might be a difficult argument to make. And probably we could all be agreed that parliamentary committees should not be unjustifiably ruling the motions and bills of individual MPs out of order.)

There is, for sure, a practical wisdom to control. You could even argue, if you wanted to get ambitious, that parties tightly controlled by party leaders, with some internal input from MPs and party members, somehow results in a more coherent and easily understood political system. But it isn’t much of a democracy—or perhaps not quite as robust a democracy as we might imagine for a modern nation. And so long as we have 308 MPs, we might wonder what we could do with them. Could we hope to have a full accounting of how the federal government spends public funds? Could House committees be independent of the executive and able to properly scrutinize bills, issues and ministers? Could the House of Commons be more thorough in its vetting of legislation? Could greater demands be made of the government to explain and justify itself? Could House debates be more meaningful? Could House votes be something other than perfunctory? Could MPs on all sides be able to stand on their own volition during Question Period and raise questions of the government? Could MPs on all sides be free during the time reserved for statements by members to stand and speak without first getting the clearance of their party whip? Could MPs generally be more relevant? Could there generally be less concern about putting a word wrong?

I tend to believe that all of these questions could be answered with something like yes.

Radical Centrist argues that a better Parliament might actually result in an even better government. That’s at least an idea worth considering. That our democracy might not only be made more interesting, but also more effective.

Would the Reform Act result in all these good things? If we agree that we would like our House of Commons to be somewhat more in line with the ideas I’ve put forward here, the next discussion becomes what Michael Chong’s proposals might do to get us closer to that. Removing the veto over an individual’s candidacy might slightly weaken the leader’s power and setting out the ability of the caucus to challenge the leader might offer MPs a cudgel to be brandished, even if mostly only ever in theory, by MPs (whereas presently the leader seems to be in possession of all the cudgels). The Reform Act could be a nudge in the right direction of the sort that might lead to other changes that would get us closer to an ideal sort of Parliament.

Would the Reform Act result in madness and anarchy? I suppose we should at least consider the possibility that it might, even if I’m not sure how real that threat is. Would it at least allow for a greater possibility of a wider range of things happening? I suspect that is almost definitely true, even if you regard the resulting possibility as altogether small.

The precise value and wording of the Reform Act are live questions that need be debated—I think I could still be persuaded by either side of the discussion. For now I might say this: surrendering control can be rather scary, but we might have to take some kind of chance that it might be for the better.




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Are we better off without the Reform Act?

  1. If Frum’s gawdawful piece is the best you’ve found for the nay side, I can predict where you’ll ultimately land in this debate.

  2. I believe there is a rush to do something even though MP Chong has said that the timing of the proposed changes have nothing to do with the current PMO / Senate scandal. We should pull back, wait for the SCC to provide their thoughts on Senate reform and bundle solid changes after careful analysis. Not sure we wouldn’t be jumping from pan into fire.

    Journalist Dale Smith wrote a column today stating that forget the caucus, more power needs to be given to the grassroots.

    http://looniepolitics.com/rent-tories-liberal-supporters-death-accountability/

    • The grassroots of our parties are the biggest enemies to democracy. They are grumpy ax-grinders that want to implement their singleminded agendas at the cost of the nation. Ironically, corrupt party hacks are precisely the greatest defenders of democracy. Amoral men and women, seeking only to win re-election (so as to keep the gravy train flowing) are likely to do what the median voter wants.

      Most of us need only look 100 miles to the south (and indeed, compare the US before and after the widespread adoption of primaries in the 1970s) to see what happens when we open the Pandora’s box of “grassroots” politics – you get corporate astroturf special interests, and polarization rather than consensus-oriented democracy.

      • Interesting contrarian view there. I agree with you to the extent that a lot of people just uncritically assume that “grassroots” = “good”. Similarly with a lot of direct democracy stuff, which completely overlooks the fact that there are a lot of good reasons for representative democracy, e.g., the fact that it’s a logical form of task specialization. To think that every Tom, Dick, Harry, Jill and Jane out there is somehow qualified to perform the function of legislator is absolute madness, yet that’s what a lot of direct democracy initiatives amount to. California’s utterly buggered up tax system is a classic example of the idiotic results you get from this sort of stuff.

      • Amoral men and women, seeking only to win re-election (so as to keep the gravy train flowing) are likely to do what the median voter wants.

        That’s not a recipe for good governance, it’s a recipe for governing via opinion polling and focus groups. We see way too much of that already.

      • “Ironically, corrupt party hacks are precisely the greatest defenders of democracy.”

        Sorry but I could not see Doug Finley or Irving Gerstein described in that way.

  3. Wow, even American pundits are taking an interest in the Reform Act.

    • Frum is Canadian by birth and upbringing. His mother was Barbara Frum; his sister is a Canadian Senator. So while he lives in the US and is active in its political arena, he’s hardly a stranger to Canadian politics. Not much to “Wow” about…

      • Wow, irony is hard.
        Frum is whatever nationality suits him.

        • True. But it might be more noteworthy if the bill were attracting the attention of a true, US-born, navel-gazing commentator, rather than one who constantly has an eye on Canadian politics (and writes a column for a Canadian paper).

          • The only thing that would attract a true, US-born, navel-gazing commentator is if we got the Bomb.

          • Rob Ford is da bomb!!

  4. REINS of authority, Mr. Wherry. (reign/king, rein/horse control)

  5. Continuing with Wherry’s love of extreme exaggerations…

    Suppose the PM were to start instituting beheadings in the public square. I think it’s safe to say all MPs would rise up and oppose the PM.

    So it’s a matter of degree: unity in a party and a government is desirable, but there is a limit. MPs really do have a reason to be there, they have power that they can exercise should the need arise. Most of them don’t exercise it much, because it makes no sense to do so.

    There is also the argument that Chong’s bill would not make much of a difference and would not have the impact that some people assume.

    • “Suppose the PM were to start instituting beheadings in the public square. I think it’s safe to say all MPs would rise up and oppose the PM.”
      Are you kidding? That bunch of trained seals? They’d just applaud (or at least the ones on the Government side would; those in Opposition would quietly sit on their hands) and hope Harper doesn’t point to them and say “You’re next!”

  6. So then David Frum sez with a straight face…

    Given Canada’s record as arguably the best governed country in the developed world, you’d want to be very cautious about tinkering with those rules.

    Barbara Frum, mother of pundit David and Senator Linda Frum, was one of the best TV journalists ever, and the CBC’s “The Journal” (in those days) was a high water mark for Canadian television. Barbara’s interviews, the background knowledge she brought with her on every story, and her lawyer-like line of questioning had a way of revealing both sides of a story.

    Those being interviewed would be flattered to get the attention of a world class journalist who could really raise public awareness on a point of view. The risk was that if there was something to hide or something the subject did not want to discuss, she would ask about that too.

    I miss Barbara Frum. If there is a heaven, one of the rooms will have a guest chair at the Frum family Thanksgiving dinner where we can listen in as Mom asks the kids “So, what is new in your world?”

    • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LIwqlft4DdY

      She was great. In this one she runs into someone as tough as her[ there is a longer better clip somewhere] It is one of my favs. Two great characters gone and badly missed.

  7. Great article, loved the sarcasm. Generally speaking, if Frum is agin, I’m for. Nice man, doesn’t get Canadian politics for some reason. I suspect he’s still rebelling against his mum and her liberal ways.

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