The House of Commons is a sham, circa 1938

by Aaron Wherry

Here is the text of a speech delivered Norman MacLeod, a member of the parliamentary press gallery, to the Empire Club of Canada in 1938—just about midway between Confederation and the present.

What I will suggest during the next few moments and endeavour to support with some argument can be summed up broadly as follows: That the democratic National legislature of this Dominion, which is the House of Commons, is undergoing and has been undergoing for some time a process of progressive weakening..

Sound vaguely familiar? MacLeod spends a number of paragraphs reviewing this “weakening.”

The fact of the matter is this: that no argument in the House of Commons is competent to modify or thwart a program or a bill upon which the Ministry has made up its mind. The best of reasons may be urged against the government’s policy. But if the government decides that for the sake of expediency, its program must go through-it may be the building of a Hudson Bay railway-the party whip is simply cracked and the matter is ended. Party discipline does the rest …

As a body it is too subservient to the government. Yet I am convinced by my years of Press Gallery observation of this one fact more than any other, namely, that Canadian democracy faces no greater problem today than the vanishing independence of the private member of Parliament and the accompanying growth of party discipline within the Commons Chamber. If the trend is to continue further, it means at the very best that Canada will soon have but the empty forms of democracy, with all the disadvantages that any system of popular government necessarily entails, and that we will have in fact an actual dictatorship, without any of the advantages–inadequate though they be–that lie in totalitarian government.

For this is the stage which we have already reached we have a House of Commons, the member’s of which are elected directly by the people. The members delegate the authority with which the people invest them to a small committee known as the Cabinet. In many oases the Cabinet delegates the authority which originates with the people one step further and vests it in an independent commission. And so the work of government is carried on. And from the moment he enters the Commons your average private member ceases to be the powerful individual that he was when campaigning for’ the franchises of the people of his home constituency. He delegates his authority and his personality alike to the glorious end that he may become a faithful party hack-a rubber-stamp legislator.

MacLeod goes on to propose some novel solutions and discuss some wider topics of the day, but the above has much in common with what I wrote a year ago. (I’d not read MacLeod’s speech until I stumbled across it this week.) And there are maybe two ways to think about the fact that what beleaguers our current House was similarly cause for concern 74 years ago.

1. Twas ever thus. These problems have probably always existed and so it is not worth getting too upset about it now. The country has made it this far, so the system must be working somehow.

2. The problems we see now are not merely temporary or specific to the current actors or situation. They are real, foundational issues that might only be getting worse. Democracy requires constant vigilance and we need to think seriously now about improving upon and fixing what we have.

I tend to side with the latter, but I can understand why some would argue for the former.

MacLeod’s speech should remind us that nostalgia is almost always nonsense. Arguments for a golden age in the 1950s, 60s, 70s or 80s would seem to be undermined by the complaints of 1938. And that hindsight should probably make us question even MacLeod’s pining for the days of RB Bennett. People have always pined for the days of yore. And their memories or perceptions have almost always ignore what was wrong during those days.

But as I’ve tried to argue when talking about the House, the past is largely irrelevant. If we don’t find the current situation satisfactory, if there are things we want to change, that’s enough. A negative trend line doesn’t need to be established, it doesn’t need to be demonstrated that the House is now in a uniquely awful state. If it’s not good enough, it’s not good enough. If we want it to be better, we should work at making it so.

See previously: Our periodic series on the House and a compilation of ideas for reform.




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The House of Commons is a sham, circa 1938

  1. “Sound vaguely familiar?”

    That sounds vaguely like an understatement.

  2. Wherry  I thought of Scott’s poem yesterday when I read Clark/DeVries rant you posted. 

    Somethings are ’twas ever thus’ for certain but one substantial change that I have noticed is that MPs, Cabinet members in particular, are not responsible for their actions any more.  Cabinet members are meant to be responsible for their departments actions but that has disappeared.

    Now MPs do whatever the like and say elections are only judge of right/wrong. There is not a particular year or event, but some time around end of Mulroney admin and start of Chretien, MPs stopped thinking of themselves as being responsible to electorate, and for their departments, and now they seem to think they are pooh bahs who can do whatever they wish without scrutiny. 

    Journos desire to pretend they are above partisanship – when they are mostly blatant Liberal fans – is also responsible for much of are poor public admin – MPs are barely scrutinized by our msm, imagine how much public services would improve if our msm didn’t think it was their duty to protect MPs by keeping their secrets from entering public debates. 

    Is there a less scrutinized bunch of pols in a functioning democracy than Canada’s? I doubt it. 

    WLMK
    We had no shape
    Because he never took sides,
    And no sides
    Because he never allowed them to take shape.

    He skilfully avoided what was wrong
    Without saying what was right,
    And never let his on the one hand
    Know what his on the other hand was doing.

  3. The problem is that effective change is so hard to implement in our system.

    It’s great for plodding stability and certainly has its strengths, but its weakness are endemic and subject to political machinations, and have been for a great long time.

    We vote what, once every four years or so on average? On every issue under the sun rolled into one mark of a pencil?

    In a system that awards majority mandates to parties with minority support?

    No one can reasonably suggest Canadians did or didn’t support specific issues with a mandate like that. I have a hard time believing governments have anything but the most general of mandates at all in fact. This was fine when MPs had more impetus to vote based on their riding’s interests, so that a vote in parliament wasn’t always partisan, but that’s entirely disappeared now.

    Based on our current situation, all one can really say is that on the whole 39% of Canadians feel most comfortable with the CPC as government. That’s it that’s all. Good luck convincing government supporters of that however.

    Clearly the common casualty today of this systemic manipulation is the accountability of government and a futher eroding of the independence of MPs. When parties only need to manipulate a subsect of society to rule, they begin to organize specifically for this purpose and as a result they can and do willfully ignore large swaths of the public.

    Look what the Liberals did over the years to alienate the west. They didn’t “need” them so the west became the whipping boy. Now we have the same situation in reverse.

    This cannot continue indefinitely. Somehow we need to change. We need to give a fair and equal voice to everyone. Unfortunately it appears that our baser urges prevent this. No one on top ever wants to cede power, no matter that it can turn on them later.

    How short sighted we all are.

    • The time for solutions is during a minority government, as that’s pretty much the only time that those without the power to direct the government have the power to change it.  Even then it’s unlikely we’ll ditch FPTP because the biggest beneficiaries of doing so will still likely have the fewest seats.

      However, perhaps other ideas can be floated then. We need ideas that improve accountability of the individual members, without seeming to threaten those members in a minority position.  Then trust on them being short-sighted enough to go for it.  Unfortunately, I’m having a hell of a time coming up with any. I mean, citizen recall or a citizen call for general election would seem to me to be the most direct routes, but I think even opposition MPs would see those as too threatening.

      One thing that strikes my mind is to make it a crime for any person to ask the GG to dissolve or prorogue the House without the approval of the House (and a successful non-confidence vote is considered the House’s approval), and make the penalties for doing so include house arrest for the duration of the period the House is no longer in session, as well as a fine not to exceed $0.01 per canadian citizen. This doesn’t limit majority power, of course, but it does limit the PMO.

      Edit: Odd thought. What about tying MP pay scales to the approval/disapproval of those in the riding. Set up a secure site where people sign up with their SIN and tie it to a riding. They can then rate like/don’t like for the MP of that riding each pay period. Then the wage for that period is adjusted by the percentage of like vs. don’t like. So an MP that was liked by 40% of the participants and not liked by 35% of the participants would see a 5% wage bump for that period. A potential for doubling or eliminating the MP’s wage exists, thought that’s probably not very likely — especially as participants stop participating unless something big goes down. So unless something big was happening, it’d more likely be 3 or 4 % liking the MP, and 3 or 4% disliking them on a regular basis.

      • I appreciate your thoughtful balancing of factors as always Thwim, but the more I read of your post, the more I felt/realized that there is no alternative to simplicity. Making the system more rule heavy and convoluted just makes it easier to “game”, just like the tax system, which I’d argue is designed to benefit politicians more than anyone else.

        One way or another I don’t believe that real lasting improvement can happen until our democracy actually reflects the values of a democracy, ie that 10% support for a party means roughly 10% influence in the house.

        From my perspective, what has always worked in the Canada is our tendency to agree on broader principles that are then allowed to take shape based of the conventional thinking of the people of that day and time.

        This tendency/philosophy works best when all votes are considered equally, and the fact is they simply aren’t under the First Past The Post model. Not even close.

        A conservative vote is worth little in Quebec. A liberal vote is worth snot in Alberta. A federal NDP vote in Saskatchewan might as well be used as toilet paper.

        I’m afraid there’s no easy route here. Without bold public action and pressure, nothing will improve our democracy. Somehow we need to find the path that leads to increased representation of people’s actual votes, and only a system that rewards power on the basis of actual support percentages can do that.

        Like you however, I have no answer on how to get there. I just know that nothing else will do.

        • Fully agreed on all of that. My problem is that I think the time that we can hope for an altruistic party which will willingly risk it’s own power for the good of the country has passed. We’ve simply gotten too good at manipulating public sentiment. Fostering the us vs. them attitude, drowning bad news/decisions in reams of half-truths and fluff 24/7, using our advances in social and psychological sciences to shore up public relations for the pursuit of power.. I think that any party which refuses to use these methods doesn’t stand a chance these days against those that do, and any party that does use them has already corrupted itself to pursue it’s agenda — meaning that if it does get power, it won’t want to change anything.

          Thus, I think the options for meaningful change within the system are gone. This leaves either piecemeal changes sort of like I outline above (though even those are pretty lame, I’ll admit) in hopes of bringing the MPs back somewhat to being responsible to the people  – whereupon serious change might have a chance — or forcing change on it from the outside. Unfortunately, that method tends to require violence and the demolishing of the entire system. Personally, I’m not entirely willing to advocate for that yet.. though if the current trends continue under whatever government follows the conservatives, I might start.

  4. Bear his perspective in mind. In his living memory, parties were often nothing more than vague coalitions with a label attached, while MPs really were elected as individuals and made judgements as individuals, even if it meant regularly crossing the party leader. Thus, his complaint may sound modern but the situation he was bemoaning was still very, very different.

    In other words, #2 is right.

    • Very true. Comments must be understood within the context which they are made. 

      I think another important point made in #2 is that democracy requires constant vigilance. Perhaps it is the information overload of the times in which we live, or perhaps it is just a general cynicism or malaise, but I increasingly find that even otherwise intelligent and educated people with whom I speak are not engaged politically in our country. Apart from the few who do pay attention, such as the regular participants in fora such as this, most people are simply not aware of what governments are doing, or not doing. What we seem to have lost sight of is that it is the responsibility of every citizen in a democracy to be informed.

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