Is Parliament dying?

by Aaron Wherry

Michael Ignatieff worries.

“I think something really bad has happened to parliamentary democracies all over the world — not just in my country, Canada. What’s happened is increasing power to the prime minister, increasing power to the bureaucracy, and the legislature — parliament — is a kind of empty, pointless debating chamber because it’s all stitched up in advance by party leaders,” Ignatieff said during a weekend panel discussion, aired by the BBC during its annual Free Thinking Festival.

“Honesty requires me to say I was a party leader once,” Ignatieff quickly acknowledged, “and my instincts were always to shut those people [dissenting Liberal MPs] down wherever I could. So I’m completely, flagrantly contradicting what my interests were not two years ago.” Ignatieff, appearing as part of a public panel alongside former Irish President Mary Robinson and Israeli author and journalist Amos Oz, said: “I do think we’ve got to have more free votes in parliament.” He conceded that such a change “will make it much more difficult for prime ministers and party leaders,” but better for citizens if they are “represented by MPs who can think and act on their conscience and on your interest.”

I can’t entirely disagree with Mr. Ignatieff because I basically wrote the same thing two years ago. But the “free vote” is like Westminster democracy’s unicorn: an idealized dream that would apparently make everything better if only we could somehow get it. (Fun fact: The Conservative party’s 2006 platform promised that a Conservative government would “make all votes in Parliament, except the budget and main estimates, ‘free votes’ for ordinary Members of Parliament.”)

If every vote was a free vote, our party system would probably collapse. Maybe that’s what some of us desire, but if we’d still like to maintain the basic parameters of the Westminster system, we need to find a balance between the unicorn that is dreamed about and the beached whale we have now. For the most part, I think, that means shifting some of the power that has congealed around the prime minister back to individual members and the legislature. On various fronts, consider the reforms suggested here by Peter Aucoin, Mark Jarvis and Lori Turnbull. As to the power of the individual MP, I’d start with rewriting the Elections Act to remove the veto that party leaders effectively hold over who runs under a party’s banner. That’s probably a private member’s bill waiting to happen. Or a leadership campaign proposal (if only there was a leadership candidate who was promising to do things differently).

So here are my questions. If Michael Ignatieff had it to do over again, would he propose rewriting the Elections Act to remove one of his greatest powers as party leader? And, if so, why didn’t he propose it at the time?

(The latter question is not meant to suggest he’s a hypocrite. I think there is probably a valuable conversation to be had about the very real pressures on a party leader that make it difficult to enact reform.)




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Is Parliament dying?

  1. Pretty much agree. Free votes are a shiny – and easily explained – change that people tend to rally behind, but more substantive changes are needed – particularly to political parties as you, and others, outline.

  2. If we’re lucky.

  3. If we go too far the other way and have nothing but free votes, we may have a system of votes going to the highest bidder.

    • Are you talking direct bribes to MPs? Because if so, I don’t agree. It’d take very little time before someone in that kind of system blew the whistle to win advantage with their constituency.

        • Uh. No. Unless you’re dumb enough to be arguing that councillors in Montreal have more power in relation to the Mayor than MPs do to the PM. Oh right..

          Just “no” then.

          • Right, they were all just innocent victims. Who would possibly expect our elected officials to look after the public’s money?!?! How much can we ask of these guys?!

          • Your mind is wandering.. I understand it’s hard to keep track of small things and all, but still, try to recall that the original topic was how giving more power to the MPs would make them more susceptible to outside influence.

            Whether there *is* corruption is entirely irrelevant to the discussion.

      • Although direct bribes may not be the issue, one of the biggest disadvantages of a more collectivist parliamentary system (with more power vested in the individual MP rather than the executive cabinet and PMO) is that individual MPs are more sensitive to external lobbying and the opinions of small interest groups.

        • I’m not sure I see how that’s a disadvantage.

          First, when we understand that the reality is that politicians are going to be pressured and lobbied, do we want the power of the politicians vested into a small group — sort of a one stop shop for special interests? Or do we want that power split up among the bunch of them, so that special interests have to convince not just one, but a whole bunch of folks to get anything done?

          Second, when it’s all vested in one, that means that only the most powerful interest groups really have a significant chance of influencing a politician. When it’s spread out, that means the lesser interest groups also have chances to influence politicians, which means, horrors of horrors, individual politicians get to decide between competing interests.

          But isn’t that exactly what we put them in office to do?

  4. Yes, in a nutshell, removing the Party Leaders signature requirement from nomination papers will fix, eventually, most of the trouble. How parties select their leaders would then be less important, because the party leaders wouldn’t have the same stick to beat the MP’s with.
    The corollary to that is the media would have to let national leaders off the hook, for kooky sh*t local candidates say. Just saying.

    • there can be crazy candidates anyway (usually in ridings with no chance for a party, prairie Liberal MPs can be less than stellar) if there was no central approval they’d just be more and entrenched.

      • That’s a bit of a circular argument, isn’t it? If you’re going to have a truly big tent political party you have to let everyone who claims to support your political philosophy get a chance at a nomination at least.Otherwise you wind up with a bunch of reform parties or maybe Blocers?[ pl?]

        If the riding associations are weak it is up to the party to try a fix – it is what the LPC is up to right now. Better candidates will come along eventually.

      • Have you met the successful CPC prairie candidates, Block, Vellacott, Trost, Ritz, Lukiwski, Sheer … in other words, maybe this has more to do with the prairies than the party.

        • Ow.

  5. The problem is technocratic governance that we have been inflicted with for past 40 years where supposedly a small coterie of smart white people make decisions for everyone like there is one best way and no dissent is tolerated.

    Parliament is fine, what we need is new people because we have weird Canadian culture where everyone has to agree about everything. All we need is people with the power of their convictions, instead of obsequious numpties we get now, and Parliament will improve immeasurably. I would be delighted if parties disappeared, tho, because they are malignant influence on politics.

    It has been long time since I studied Canadian political history but have Canadian MPs ever done what UK MPs are doing regularly to Cameron now? UK Cons have rebelled against their own party a few times already and Cameron controls who runs for his party. Where are Canadian economic conservatives, for instance, and why don’t they protest when their government increases spending and runs massive deficits or sacrifices trade deals to protect supply management?

    Reuters Oct 31 2012:

    British Prime Minister David Cameron suffered a humiliating defeat in parliament on Wednesday after Conservatives rebelled over Europe, an issue that has divided his party for decades and helped bring down previous leaders. The rebels won the vote by 307 to 294 votes, a majority of 13, after they received support from the Labour Party, a generally pro-European group accused by Cameron of “rank opportunism”.

    • severl reformers sat outside of their party for a while, huffing and hawing until they were brought back.

  6. Here’s the problem……Aaron, the whole free vote thing? Party leaders would do it more if they were rewarded for doing so. For example, Have a free vote and some of your MPs decide to vote against your interests? You have now just provided the media weeks and weeks of speculative articles about how weak you are, how weak your team is…..how disorganized you are, how the party is ready to fall apart…..and so on. Make your team vote with you all the time……you are a dictator, but strong, organized and have a powerful presense.
    The days of having a ‘nuanced’ conversation in the press are long over. With ‘spin’ and the soundbite becoming more important these days to the media rather than policy…..it’s of little wonder sometimes why the right thing to do is so very much the wrong thing to do.

    • Don’t disagree with the gist of your statement, but on the bright side at least we would know for sure who the real hacks in journalism are. Nuance most likely coming from the likes of Coyne, Wells, Hebert, Delacourt, Kay, MTD, Simpson, Saunders and a few others, the spin charge being led most likely from Wente and a few others…some unfortunately in the CBC.

      Hmmm, that’s not so different than now, is it? I think a few free votes will likely change nothing in the media beyond what now already exists. The columnists mostly aren’t the problem [ with the exception of the ever egregious Wente] It seems to me its more to do with the relentless 24/7 nature of the business…so maybe you’re right, it will get worse? Seems like the MSM sets the straw man pins up and the good columnists knock them down. So, is that just healthy competetive debate or are they just all busy feeding the goat and playing us for fools?

      • Only a partisan fool would single out Wente as the sole problem in the Canadian media.

        • Only a moron would think i said that.

          • Asked and answered.

          • Thx. I was too impatient to wait for a response :)

          • ” The columnists mostly aren`t the problem [ with the exception of the ever egregious Wente] “.

            It`s not what one thinks you said—Its WHAT you said. Would you like more labels than partisan fool ?

          • … the spin charge being led most likely from Wente and a few others…some unfortunately in the CBC.

            The columnists mostly aren’t the problem [ with the exception of the ever egregious Wente] It seems to me its more to do with the relentless 24/7 nature of the business

            Ignoring points in favour of the argument and conveniently leaving off the ends of sentences/points is not only moronic, its dishonest, troll
            edit: …sentences/points….

    • Good point….look at Motion 312….interesting that both the Cons and the Liberals allowed a free vote (credit to the Liberals) and only the NDP had a whipped vote and yet where were all of the Ottawa media bubble outcry’s against the NDP for not allowing a free vote ? The Ottawa media party is just as big a part of this farce and the parties are.

    • Agreed. A “freer” House would require a different mindset.

      I think the gun registry vote in the last Parliament is an interesting case study. Layton managed to pull off a free vote and didn’t seem to suffer any long-term damage.

  7. Finally Ignatieff is making some sense ( he even refers to “my country Canada” ). I only wish he had floated this idea during the 2011 campaign, or even better he could have pitched it to the Liberal elite who convinced him to return and save the country. Now that would have got their attention !

    Seriously I think an all-Party proposal should be done to encourage free votes on everything, remove the veto that Party leaders have over who runs under each Party sign—take the power away from the PMO.

    This will not pass overnight. It may take years for an agreement to be reached—-maybe around 2030 when the NDP- Liberal coalition are hanging on to a 4 seat majority. Iggy should get lots of support from the media then.

  8. Aaron asks: “If Michael Ignatieff had it to do over again, would he propose rewriting
    the Elections Act to remove one of his greatest powers as party leader?”

    Answer: NO.

    How do we know this?

    As soon as he enters politics again (!) he will say that the practical stands in stark contrast to the theoretical. The man has no spine to speak of. He twists in which ever wind pays his bills!

    • Alternately he is one of the very few to actually speak his mind when he has the chance. You’re kind of mindless cynicism only breeds more of the same. Harper in or out of politics would never concede there was a problem – whether he thought there was or not; so, what would that make him? [ oops... that is a good mindless cynicism]

      • I don’t know about that “Harper in or out of politics” comment. I agree that in politics he’s resolutely a political animal, and quite a nasty one. But when he was out of politics I thought he demonstrated an independent, critical mind. Thing is, he clearly doesn’t see the demonstration or exercise of an independent, critical mind as a political asset.

        • I guess that’s why i’m a liberal and he isn’t then. I really do see it as a clash or struggle of political philosophies, but not a war.
          Edit: I can’t think of any particular time he demonstrated an independent critical mind – other than in a couple of policy papers he wrote.[ which i guess makes your point] But that was pre ’06 Harper, that man seems to have vanished into the mists of legend. Can you cite a couple of public cases where he has taken thoughful non partisan stands – stands he hasn’t since thrown under the fleet of busses that have gone by since then?

          • Maybe I didn’t make myself clear enough in my first post — I was talking about pre ’06 Harper. So my answer to the question in your last sentence is no. It’s one of the things that has really disappointed me about Harper, although I was never a fan of his in the first place. But at the time, I at least had pre 06 Harper pegged as a sort of principled conservative. Obviously he hasn’t been that way at all since then.

          • To honest he looked pretty principled to me too in 06, even though i was predisposed to dislike him. It simply floors me that more conservatives don’t share your view. I guess they rationalize, look at the available opposition and hold their noses. Lots of libs have had to do that in the past too of course. Depends where you draw the line. I drew my line a long time ago, you too i think. Eventually something better will come along, maybe even a Conservative?

    • practical stands in stark contrast to the theoretical

      ****

      Kind of like reality and your fantastical speculation?

  9. “Congealed”…now there’s a good word for excess accumulation of power.

    “So here are my questions. If Michael Ignatieff had it to do over again,
    would he propose rewriting the Elections Act to remove one of his
    greatest powers as party leader? And, if so, why didn’t he propose it at
    the time?”

    That’s a good question. Surely Ignatieff is hinting that the lure and temptation toward control is too much of an incentive in a sitting leader or PM? Or more properly to the power brokers in the party. They simply wouldn’t back a leader who attempted to emasculate their power base; so, as Roosevelt memorably said – WE have to make them!

    As for his point about Parliament becoming a kind of empty, even irrelevant debating chamber…i think that’s self evident to a point; how else do you explain the infantile behaviour of principally this govt? They know it doesn’t mean squat. OTOH it makes a simply spiffing sounding board for an unhinged PMO, and i suppose those in the opposition who think politics is all about getting air time and being in the govt’s face. Although in our currently dysfunctional legislature and committee system you have to wonder just what other options they have at times?

    • There’s nothing at all dysfunctional about our legislature or committee system. They are perfectly functional presuming we elect politicians that seek to accomplish what the system was intended for: Peace, Order, and Good Government.

      The dysfunction occurs in our electoral system.

      • Fair enough…but i’m assuming that’s a pretty big “presumption” on your part.

        • With the current electoral system, I agree. However, I suggest that there is *no* democratic governance system that could withstand a dysfunctional electoral system. So again.. it’s not the legislature or committees that are the dysfunctional part, they’re just symptoms of the problem.

  10. So in other words Iggy says do what I say now and now what I did when I had chance to actually do anything about it. Hindsight is always so 20-20…..

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