Reforms we can learn from

Britain’s political reform push is bound to draw Canadian attention


I’m not one of those Canadians given to looking to England for political inspiration. It comes from long years of observing transatlantic contrasts.

Way back when, my anglophile friends of the Conservative persuasion were greatly excited by Margaret Thatcher. But it turned out that Brian Mulroney offered a more nuanced Toryism and, with his Canada-U.S. free trade deal, was arguably more lastingly consequential here than she was there.

A little later, certain cosmopolitan Liberals of my acquaintance developed a thing for Tony Blair. So much so, in fact, that Jean Chrétien’s much more impressive fiscal record and far better understanding and intuition on the Iraq war never quite computed for them. How could a guy who talked so well prove less effective than a guy who talked like that?

Still, the coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats that emerged this week in London looks exceptionally interesting from a Canadian perspective. The main reason is the set of electoral and parliamentary reforms the new Tory prime minister, David Cameron, has agreed to as the price of winning over Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem leader.

All the key measures are familiar to any Canadian who has had paid any attention to various attempts at reform in this country. Here are the main items:

1. Fixed five-year parliaments. The next general election in the UK will be held on the first Thursday of May 2015. Parliament will only be dissolved before then if 55 per cent or more of the House votes to go to the polls. (In the fall of 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper called an election, ignoring his own fixed election date law, and thus exposing the toothlessness of that legislation.)

2. The British coalition will hold a referendum on what they call the “Alternative Vote.” The proposal would be a step toward proportional representation. Voters would rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate reached 50 per cent or more, the last-place candidate would be eliminated, and the second choices from those ballots redistributed to other candidates. This process would be repeated until one candidate had a majority. (It’s not unlike nothing like [see corrective comments below] the reform proposals rejected by voters in British Columbia last spring, and in Ontario in 2007, but the aim to replace the first-past-the-post-system is the same.)

3. The parties will introduce a recall mechanism, letting voters in a particular constituency force a by-election by means of a petition, if their MP is found guilty of serious wrongdoing. (The old Reform Party of Canada long favoured recall powers as a way of making politicians fear the popular will of their constituents.)

4. The coalition will create a committee to propose some form of election for the House of Lords. Long terms are expected to be part of the package, along with proportional representation. (Major Senate reform in Canada has long proven next to impossible to achieve, leaving the Harper government to proceed on it in an incremental, piecemeal fashion.)

On some other elements of the UK coalition’s reform plans, Canada is already ahead, notably on limiting political contributions and requiring lobbyists to register. But on those four other points, we’ll now be able to watch to see if the Brits make progress where we’ve been stalled.

Will their fixed-election law be meaningful? Will their referendum on a new way of voting capture the public imagination? Will the threat of recall become a serious new discipline on MPs? Will an overhauled House of Lords finally make us too ashamed of our Senate to delay any longer in either abolishing or fixing it?

It’s all well worth watching. It might even be enough to make it possible to stomach the usual abject gushing from self-loathing Canadians about how fascinatingly sophisticated British politics is.


Reforms we can learn from

  1. "It might even be enough to make it possible to stomach to usual abject gushing from self-loathing Canadians about how fascinatingly sophisticated British politics is."

    I entirely disagree. Two parties have just agreed to a bunch of policies that they did not present to the electorate in order to divide up the spoils of power. Coalition is shocking in it's disregard for democracy.

    "A hung parliament is not a 'people's parliament', it is the opposite: it is a politician's parliament. Policy is the result of post-election bargaining. The people do not get a look in. Compromises are reached which may bear no relationship to what electors want, which were never placed before them, and which they may have no opportunity to pass judgment on at the next election if parties stand as independent entities: there is no one body to call to account." Lord Norton, Daily Telegraph, May 12 2010

    • That's a valid point actually. However, I have a counter argument: The majority of legislation / policy in place is not in an election platform. Circumstances change. I don't think Stephen Harper campaigned on running a deficit or spending $55 Billion of tax dollars not yet earned. However, under a representative system of government, he was well within his rights to do so, and voters can judge members of his party accordingly during the next election.

      A government doing things they did not campaign on is not limited to coalition governments. Extending your logic, no government, coalition or otherwise, should be allowed to implement policy they didn't specifically campaign on. Is this your proposal?

  2. In breaking news, Prime Minister Harper has called on the Queen to prorogue Parliament to stop this coalition from taking power.

  3. The British Alternative Vote proposal is quite different (and simpler) than the proposals that have been rejected in Canada.

    • Alternative Vote is nowhere NEAR proportional representation. Australia's House of Representative is the quintessential example of AV, and it's a rigid two-party system because while the system allows for less waste from voting for a small party, it does so by letting voters choose a major party as a backup, not by actually letting the smaller party get elected.

      PR is based on the fundamental idea that it's best for everyone to get their first choices into the legislature first, then let the parties work things out. AV is more based on the idea that we may not have everyone get their first choices, but what does get into the legislature is a good compromise choice for everyone, and the results are generally less diverse and more coherent.

      I'm surprised that the LibDems went along with AV, but if you look at a lot of the UK seats, they're mostly two-party fights, but which two of the three parties is the question. The LibDems don't stand to lose a lot in that scenario, and might eke out some more victories in the 3-way seats. But for really small parties like the Greens, all their votes are likely to just get passed onto one of the bigger parties. Indeed, they probably wouldn't even get the one seat they got this time, because the other voters would probably pass their votes to the Labour runner-up to pass the Greens.

      Of course, Canada had experience with AV: it was used in BC in the middle of the last century. The point was to block the NDP from government by passing around the non-NDP vote, so people are very aware that it's not necessarily meant to improve parliamentary representation.

      • And AV, or some form thereof, is used by every major national party in this country to choose local nominees, and to choose their leaders.

        There's nothing new here.

  4. John Geddes:

    You should take to your colleague Andrew Coyne: Alternative Vote (the other name for it is Instant Runoff voting) is NOTHING like what Voters in BC and Ontario rejected . Those models (STV and MMP respectively for BC and Ontario) were forms of Proportional Representation. IRV is not considered a proportional model – you can ask some of the folks at Fair Vote Canada about that; they probably hate IRV/AV worse as a voting model then they do the current first-past-the-post system.

    Its incremental reform.. but in my view, its still better then FPTP.

    • I'm a bit late to beat this drum, but “Alternative Vote” is not "a step toward proportional representation" as pointed out above.

      You might consider it a step in the entirely opposite direction from proportional representation. (Which is why some of us consider it a good thing…)

      That being said, I like the change. It will restore some sense of local consensus building in our election campaigns, and will force competing candidates to treat their opponents and their opponents' voters with respect during and between elections.

      I'm all for it.

      • In my defence, I did not say AV = PR. I said "step toward." Indeed, analysis by the British Electoral Reform Society of showed that, under the AV system, the outcome of last Thursday's election would have been about midway between the FPTP status quo and full-blown STV. In other words, AV would have returned fewer Conservative MP, more Labour, and more Lib Dems, but wouldn't have swung those seat counts as far in the PR direction as STV would have. Doesn't that fit my description of a step toward PR then?

        • Applied to the current UK context, it just might be. But the British Electoral Reform Society is applying it to the polling and electoral data they have for that country at this moment.

          But that doesn't make it universally so.

          If we had an AV system in either of the 2006 or 2008 Canadian General elections, the results would have been far less proportional. I don't have any polling data for the period, but look at all the ridings where the NDP or Conservatives finished third and ask yourself what portion of those votes (and potentially Green votes) would have put a Liberal candidate over the top on the final count. Look at all of the ridings in which MPs won their seats with far less than 50% and ask yourself if they could have garnered the support of the third and fourth place finishers,

          My theory is that over time, an AV system will favour a smaller number of centrist, consensus seeking parties who wish to govern, whereas a truly proportional system encourages ideologically-driven splintering of votes and an ever growing number of marginal parties, many of whom wish only to oppose / participate marginally in any Parliament.

          • Great post – I completely agree. It's nice to see someone else touting the IRV system :D

            A lot of people make what I believe is the mistake of thinking that more democracy is always good. It's absolutely false. We need to balance democracy with all sorts of things, like good governance, minority rights, etc. Just look at the mess California has gotten themselves into by having more democracy! (They don't have PR, but they let people vote on all sorts of issues that, frankly, the average person is not responsible enough to be given a choice on. This might have more to do with the lack of accountability that an anonymous voter has, as opposed to a politician who has to defend their choices)

            I've maintained for a long time that, so long as politicians are competing for just one vote (i.e. FPTP or PR), there is no institutional incentive for them to change their highly partisan and counter-productive behaviour. IRV is the best system that I know of for changing their behaviour.

  5. British pols just spent five days haggling to produce the same result Canadians would have known on election night: the largest parliamentary party forms the government supported by one (or more) of the smaller parties; so I'm not sure there's a lot for them to teach us.

    As for the four points, not one of them is a novel idea in Canadian politics. Fixed election dates and Senate reform have been bandied about for years and we are still talking about them. As for a new electoral system, it seems like another idea that fascinates the chattering classes but has no resonance with most voters, as demonstrated by referendums in BC, ON and PEI.

    • hm. 59% of British Columbians voted for STV.

      • Once…the second time STV could only muster 39% support. If it was such a good idea one would expect support to grow over time, not evaporate.

    • I guess you read the headlines but didn't read the articles. They ultimately formed a coalition government.

      • In no small part because another week of dilly-dallying would have been politically lethal to the whole lot of 'em.

      • Britain has had a number of coalition governments if you check your history. But it's never had one that didn't nclude the party with the largest number of seats.

  6. I think the key similarity between Canada and the UK here is the striking lack of strategic acuity possessed by Liberal leaders who can trace their bloodline back to the Russian nobility.

    A few points:

    1. Canada has had a five year limit on Parliament since the passage of the Charter of Rights (see 4(1)).

    2. AV, as pointed out by another commenter, is nothing like the PR systems rejected in BC and Ontario. What is of interest to me is if the Tories set up the referendum as in BC and Ontario, i.e. requiring not just an outright majority, but also a majority in a majority of constituencies. That standard makes passage next to impossible.

    3. Recall exists in BC. Vander Zalm promises to use it to recall Campbell, should the stop the HST campaign fail. One might, uh, recall that such legislation existed in 1930s Alberta. It was repealed quickly after passage when Premier William Aberhart became a target.

    • Just to be devil's advocate, on point #2, why shouldn't a constituency or all consitutencies be consulted on whether or not their mode of electing an MP is about to be radically changed. To me the biggest downfall of PR is that it stands in complete contradiction with the concept of local representation (representative democracy). To suggest such a sweeping change could be brought forward without democratically consulting local ridings, and affording them some input into the decision seems wrong.

      • There's no reason they shouldn't be consulted; indeed, if the Tories set it up that way they'd likely have the moral high ground.

        That's that arguably a more democratic way of conducting the referendum, though, doesn't alter the fact that it makes the passage of ballot question less likely. And that scenario needs to be the Lib-Dems worry. If they go into another FPTP election labeled as "Tories with a different name" my gut feeling is that they're in a heap of trouble.

      • That's odd- representative democracy is such an important principle to you that you believe we should use direct democracy to decide whether to keep it. Why is representative democracy, where a plurality of electors in every riding decide the winners, suitable for all decisions except the decision to reform first-past-the-post?

        • Why should a plurality of Londoners alter the voting rights of rural Scotish voters?

          I am just saying that a straight up referendum question, in which the majority wins, will face all sorts of hurdles in any Canadian context because of the constiutionally enshrined principles of federalism, and because of the Charter recognition of minority and collective rights.

          Fundamental alterations to the country's Parliamentary and Electoral system are arguably quasi-Constitutional changes. As such, they have every reason to be subject to a higher threshold than a simple majority.

          If we were a unitary state where ideology meant more than geography does to most voters, then you might get somewhere. But we aren't. The truth is, we're a parochial bunch, and our parochialism is enshrined in our Constitution in many ways, and pretty difficult to simply overlook.

          • A straight up majority, and not a substantial one, was enough to create a new Welsh Parliament. I can't see any way that federalism or the Charter require a referendum, let alone a referendum where you need a majority in a majority of ridings. It might require consultation with the provinces.

          • I fail to comprehend how the Welsh, or their Parliament, are in anyway constrained by the Constitution of Canada, the nuances of federalism, or the past 28 years of Charter jurisprudence.

            "Consultation" with the provinces means more than sending them an email or a post-it note. A move to proportional representation – especially fully proportional representation – requires the consent of at least 7 of them, if not all of them. To the extent that the Parliamentary representation or participation of provinces or linguistic minorities are affected by any such changes, then a whole stream of Charter jurisprudence comes into play.

            The Welsh and the Californians can do as they please. It doesn't change the Canadian reality.

          • So, you're against annexing Wales, at least by blog comment. Interesting. The only point there was that the UK has changed its constitutional make-up without the sort of double-majority referendum we were looking at. UK precedent is sometimes instructive in Canadian law.

            Closer to home, Canada could end up with an independent Quebec on a simple majority of Quebec votes. That seems like a relatively important change. It's true that the provinces need to consent to constitutional change. Again, that doesn't require any referendum. More importantly, why makes PR a constitutional change? Is FPP mentioned in the constitution?

            On the Charter issues, I don't think you're right – maybe there's some jurisprudence related to riding boundaries that could be relevant, but I don't really know what you have in mind.

          • UK can change its constituional make-up as it sees fit. It has no bearing on what is required to amend our Constitution. UK precedent does not override our Constitution or the Charter.

            Closer to home, the Supreme Court has already stated that a simple majority of Quebec votes is, in and of itself, not enough to assure Quebec's (or any other province's) unilateral declaration of independence.

            PR represents a constitutional change insofar as it has a direct impact on the nature and level of representation of Provinces within our Federal Parliament. That is unquestionably a constitutional issue.

            In a truly proportional system, where Canada's Parliament is apportioned solely on each of the party's national vote percentages, Toronto's voters determine who PEI's Members of Parliament will be. If you think that survives a Constitutional challenge, you're deluding yourself.

    • A fixed term is different from a limit – the UK also has a term limit of five years. The reforms are intended to fix terms at a certain length, and constrain the PM power to seek an election in less than five years.

      • I'll admit to being a little flip with that point, but I will still respectfully disagree with you Style and say that the constraint you speak of depends upon how the legislation is written.

        Check out the following Election Act sections:

        Ontario: 9(1) Nothing in this section affects the powers of the Lieutenant Governor, including the power to dissolve the Legislature, by proclamation in Her Majesty's name, when the Lieutenant Governor sees fit.

        Canada: 56.1(1) Nothing in this section affects the powers of the Governor General, including the power to dissolve Parliament at the Governor General's discretion.

        This means the Queen's representative has the power to dissolve the Leg/Parliament at his or her discretion. His or her discretion is, of course, another way of saying the Premier or Prime Minister's discretion.

        Thus, I see these fixed dates as little different than maximum duration clauses. Don't get me wrong though – to the extent they're adhered to, they're a positive development for democracy. I just don't see a great deal of constraint, beyond a clear constraint that the stated duration won't be exceeded.

        • The constraint may be ineffective, meaning that we end up without effective fixed election dates, but that doesn't make it equivalent to a term limit. Fixed terms are intended to avoid snap elections. Term limits are intended to avoid long parliaments. I think what you're saying is really that term limits are all we have, even with fixed term legislation. As an aside, the proposed UK legislation is being reported as raising the threshold for non-confidence votes to 55%.

  7. Its a minority government, thats what it really is.Ask anyone from the UK, and they are calling it a minority government.I will be interested in their next poll, most of the UK do not like this set up.Sound familiar.

  8. "thus exposing the toothlessness of that legislation"
    "Toothless"; that would about sum up Stephen Harper then, wouldn't it?

    • You should show more respect to our Right Honourable Prime Minister!

  9. Most of these reforms are not bad in and of themselves, but will have negative effects on policy-making. Unfortunately the dominant approach to political reforms seems to be deontological (are these reforms "just") not utilitarian (do these reforms produce better outcomes).

    -Fixed election dates greatly lengthen the extent of the campaigning period, because all parties know there will be an election soon. In the US everything starts about 2 years before the actual election. This occupies a vast amount of money and attention which could be better used attending to policy-making.
    -Recall legislation will either be ineffective, or will seriously aggravate the above problems by forcing politicians to do what is popular in the short-term instead of making tough long-term choices.
    -An elected upper house will produce inertia by adding a whole other collection of politicians able to vote things down. This can happen even if the lower and upper houses are occupied by the same parties (the US congress being a good example).
    -While not discussed above, campaign finance reform also has nasty effects. It greatly expands the power of ideological zealots who can round up many people able to make small donations. Limits on campaign spending have the additionally negative effect (for a Westminster democracy) of strengthening small parties and reducing the likelihood of a stable majority government.

    The political reforms proposed by the Lib-Con coalition may bring about slight reductions in corruption (which is a small proportion of GDP) by seriously reducing the effectiveness of policymakers. It is time we stopped talking about Democratic deficits and turned our attention towards Democratic surpluses.

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