This is why we can’t have changed things


Amanda Clarke considers what stands in the way of democratic reform.

This perfect storm of shared disappointment should make parliamentary reform a rare easy win – not just for a campaigning party, but for anyone with a stake in Canadian democracy. Yet, the reforms we have accomplished in the recent past represent relatively paltry efforts to revive our politics … At the same time, initiatives that could have an appropriately transformative effect on the nature of our democracy – electoral reform, cleaning up Question Period, and loosening party discipline, to cite just three examples – are often discussed as impossible feats, and are rarely raised as election issues.

Something doesn’t add up. If citizens want reform, and so do their leaders, why have we cast these more groundbreaking opportunities for democratic renewal aside?


This is why we can’t have changed things

  1. I have to wonder: If the Liberals or the NDP had won the election, would ‘electoral reform’ have been such a big issue? Is this in place of the ‘Damn, the CPC won’?

    Are we going to hear this for the next 4 years?

    • Yes. Funny how it’s only urgent to make sweeping changes when the wrong parties win, eh?

      No matter how much the public may like the idea of “reform” in the abstract, though, they’re unlikely to accept changes made specifically to improve the fortunes of current losers. Wanting to change the rules because your preferred party can’t win is sour grapes, not noble-minded progress, and that attitude shows.

      • To be fair, democratic reform was a biggish issue during the Chretien years when our system was spitting out pretty peverse results where the 40-45% voting conservative were pretty severely under-represented. Not much happened, largely because winners never want to weaken the mechanism whereby they win. Hence the Conservatives killing one of the smaller political party subsidies that best cements their place in power.

        • The Conservatives managed to win outright and keep building support without benefit of electoral reform. Why can’t other parties do the same slow and steady work of gathering and consolidating support, in order to be successful? Why is it the nation’s problem if they refuse to?

          Ultimately, parties are just products in a marketplace of ideas, and if they choose to have a niche platform that attracts only a niche clientele, that’s their own fault.

          • AVR, it boils down to whether you think 40% of vote giving 65% of seats and 100% of power is a feature or a bug. It gets even worse when our elections are just presidential elections, with the HoC mostly performing the electoral college role and not the legislative check on executive power role. In a republic, members of a party can and will oppose a president of their own party. See USA, France, etc. In our system, members of the governing party cannot effectively oppose our de facto president.

            This is a problem whether it’s Chretien, Trudeau,
            Harper or… Layton as our president.

          • Feature. I think keeping down the fringiest candidates and parties is a giant advantage for FPTP over AV/PR/etc. It’s healthier for the country to be forced to choose from only a few parties that have broader platforms, than be able to elect handfuls of downright bizarre MPs that’ll end up in a coalition anyway.

            As for the presidential PMO, I agree that it’s concerning, but I don’t think there’s a good way to change that without extremely dramatic change. To a France-like system, say.

          • FPTP drives toward two party politics. As we can see in the USA, this results in two awful choices that are not all that representative of the will of the people. Canada has managed to maintain a multi-party polity because the diversity of viewpoints overwhelms the drive to consolidate down to two parties (from a game theoretical perspective).

            Personally, I’d like the results of our elections to be roughly proportional, so that big changes in outcomes require biggish changes in voter support. If Canadians want majorities, then a majority of them will need to agree on a governing party. Short of that, it’s undemocratic to shut out the representatives of the other 60% of the population from governance.

            There’s no electoral system that is perfect–it’s usually a matter of trade-offs. I think that for a country like Canada, STV would be best. It improves proportionality, retains local representatives, doesn’t enshrine party power over nominations (like list PR), and still discourages really radical splinter parties. It makes parties that can garner 10% popular support viable (if they can top 20% in some ridings), though they will be under-represented. It also punishes regional protest parties like the BQ, which previously had a lock on Quebec and exerted disproportionate influence. With STV, even at the height of their popularity, they would have had less than half the influence they did.

            No other electoral system is perfect, but many are better than FPTP. Not many new democracies pick straight-up FPTP, which is revealing.

        • “…winners never want to weaken the mechanism whereby they win…”

          Just as partisan supporters will always make as many excuses as possible for the party and the system of today.

          We very badly need democratic renewal in this country, and it’s much more than just a consideration of how we’re going to count votes.

          If you’ve read about or were around for the flag debate or the constitutional debates of Meech and Charlottetown, I think you can see what kind of existential hell that might be.

          So not only does the party in power not want to rock the boat once they achieve a controlling share and good re-election position, they also don’t want to be the ones who brought that particular hell down on the populace.

          So change will only come when the populace gets REALLY incensed, at which point the changes will be tectonic rather than considered and thoughtful.

          We can only hope that another way forward arises before that happens.

    • Yes, we are. It has been going on for a while.

      PM Martin ignores confidence votes – good power politics, what a juggernaut. PM Harper follow rules and prorogue Parliament – democracy in crisis!

      • Legally, what the two did was no different. Paul Martin chose not to fold is government over language added to a report. No confidence vote was held. Stephen Harper prorogued Parliament right before a confidence vote was to happen. No confidence vote was held.

        Morally, what the two did was no different. Paul Martin dodged the will of the house. Stephen Harper dodged the will of the house.

        The only difference is in the results. Liberal supporters had the class not to vote Martin back in after that. CPC supporters.. not so much.

        • I disagree. What they did was very different. Martin ignored confidence votes and bribed oppo MPs. Harper followed rules.

          And were Lib supporters showing ‘class’ when they re-elected Lib government after AG’s Adscam report was released? Nothing like re-electing money launderers to illustrate class, I guess.

          “During this Parliament, the Liberal minority government under Prime Minister Paul Martin was defeated many times on motions that mightwell have been considered confidence votes, and three times on motions that appeared to be unequivocal votes of non-confidence (albeit one more explicitly worded than the others). Significantly, these three non-confidence motions were moved by the opposition. Martin’s government more or less ignored the first two votes.” Don Desserud, U of New Brunswick, Confidence Convention under the Canadian Parliamentary System

          • You should read the full report. Here’s the link: http://www.studyparliament.ca/English/pdf/ongoing/Parliamentary_Perspectives_7_2006_Eng.pdf

            Martin didn’t ignore a single actual confidence motion. When Mr. Harper finally proposed one and it passed, he called for an election the next day.

            Mr. Martin did ignore a motion instructing a committee to recommend the government dissolve itself, and ignored a non-constitutional motion that tried to usurp the authority of the PM as defined in the constitution. And I would submit that on both occasions, he was in the wrong for doing so, and was subsequently punished in the election.

            Bribed oppo MPs? Stronach is on record various times as being at odds with the CPC. Her switch wasn’t that surprising for anybody who actually followed her politics. And again, I’ll point out that this behavior was subsequently punished in the election.

            On the other hand, Mr. Harper did not ignore any procedural or unconsistutional motions. Instead, he prevented the House from *making* a constitutionally valid motion of non-confidence. And was subsequently awarded for doing so.

            And if you’re speaking of bribing, Mr. Emerson received a cabinet seat despite having only a few days before been declaring how he could not stand CPC policies, and we also have the tape of Mr. Harper declaring how he was aware of an attempt to bribe Mr. Cadman and didn’t think it was a good idea — not because there was anything wrong with it, but because it wouldn’t work. Which it didn’t. For these, his behavior was subsequently awarded in the election.

            As for Adscam, note the change from majority to minority government. In comparison, when Mr. Harper has been caught by Sheila Fraser lying about what she said, and deliberately with-holding needed information from Parliament, CPC supporters rewarded him with a majority from a minority.

    • Maybe I speak to the wrong people, but I haven’t heard too many johnny-come-latelies talking about this – the people talking about it are the same people who have been doing so for years.

      The volume goes up, as it always does when a new election gives new reasons to claim our system is broken, but I don’t think there are many new voices.

  2. “If citizens want reform, and so do their leaders, why have we cast these more groundbreaking opportunities for democratic renewal aside?”

    Clarke answers her own question at very end, could have said her and us, hundreds of words of twaddle. Pols are liars. Whoever wins election is in charge of democratic reform and who wants to reform a system that leads them to power?

    Nice having Trudeau scholar write article decrying democracy – lots of changes that we don’t like today go back to Trudeau era. Pre-Trudeau, Canadians engaged in politics, real communities develop. Post-Trudeau, Canadian participation steady decline, no one cares, we vote for candidates who haven’t even visited their riding … etc.

    And how do you vote against democracy, exactly? Is that like not voting to show displeasure with authoritarian governments.

    Also I, too, love boobies.

  3. I think Clarke overstates the extent to which the opposition parties made democratic/parliamentary reform a central issue of the campaign. The most recent finding of contempt was easily swatted away by Harper as a majority gang-up (as opposed to a legitimate and objective decision), and neither Ignatieff nor Layton included concrete reforms amongst their key platform offerings.

    But I agree with her that proposed solutions or improvements to our democratic institutions make sense in the abstract, but all too often resist the transformation to pragmatic and concrete policies that can be explained and sold to the public.

    • “…. transformation to pragmatic and concrete policies that can be explained and sold to the public.”

      Or maybe public understands proposed changes but no longer believe pols. Can’t be ‘sold’ because pols have been lying to public for years.

      I am 40 yrs old and have been listening to pols flap their gums about democratic reforms since as long as I can remember and things are getting worse, not better. I know I am not only one fed up with games, just improve behaviour already.

      • I take it you voted NDP then?

        • Libertarian. Why? NDP major party – lie, cheat and play games just as much as Libs and Cons do.

      • I take your point, but I’d still argue we often have a problem drawing the line from abstract ideal to workable proposal. Take the case of party discipline, as used by Clarke. Coyne has long argued that we need to empower backbench MPs for a more robust and productive parliament. No argument there, but how would it actually play out in real life? Is there a way to draft rules of parliament that could enable such a scenario? Do we dismantle some structures built around the party system, or do we somehow curtail the powers of party leaders? Do we completely reinvent parliament into something closer to the Nunavut model? There’s five years of royal commissions and endless debate just from one simple notion.

        As for improving behaviour, I’m afraid we tend to excuse jackhole behaviour when its “our” guy or gal (can’t say I’ve heard any Conservatives publicly lambaste Baird when he gets excessive, for example*), and only get upset when it’s the other side.

        *EDIT: …and Liberals didn’t take on Chretien for his offensive “pepper” comment, etc. – I wasn’t pointing the finger solely at Conservatives in this particular sense….

        • If we were to empower backbench MPs, the first thing that would have to disappear is “official party status”, where we shower money and perks on people just because they’re members of a party with a minimum number of seats. It’s an abomination of the concept that all MPs are equal.

          • I rather like the Nunavut model, myself. It gets harder and harder to see what possible benefit parties offer in the process of a well and justly governed nation.

          • Not so sure that I like the Nunavut model (at least partially because I don’t know it well enough) but I certainly agree that parties have morphed into something that consume a lot of public money (~$100 million in 2009, I believe) and aren’t really providing that amount of benefit.

            I’d be happy with a system where tow or three people are employed by “the party”, and their job is to keep the party website up to date. That website is a one page list of 3 to seven main principles, and then pages of links to various third party studies and policy papers and so on.

            During elections, candidates would indicate that, in general terms, they tend to follow the principles outlined by Party X, and that’s it

            Then let them do what MPs are supposed to do when they get to Ottawas.

          • I’m no expert on Nunavut, but I think the greatest challenge facing their government is funding: it almost all comes from the feds. This is something of a wrench in the works of accountability and responsibility to their own citizens. That said, consensus governance is a refreshing alternative to the combative model used in most democracies, and the election of the leader by house members places greater primacy on the house itself – something lacking in Ottawa.

            Would cutting the public purse strings to parties assure their “proper” role in democracy?

          • I’m not against the concept of parties, per se. They do perform a useful service, they allow a person to identify themselves as like-minded to another group of individuals. They provide voters with an easier choice in a country where not everybody knows their neighbours, but everybody knows what the parties stand for. However, I don’t think there should be any “official” recognition of such groups. The MP who wishes to remain a lone wolf should not be penalized for doing so. MPs that choose to become a subordinate to a party are actually rewarded for it in Canada – which is not exactly a recipe for empowering MPs.

            As for Nunavut, I don’t know much about it, not enough to comment.

        • Since party organizations are private, it gets a little sticky when you try to legislate the inner workings of them, and that’s assuming that unwritten convention doesn’t wind up superseding their written policies on these matters anyway.

          The easiest way I can think of is adjust the funding balance. Eliminate tax-credits for donations to the party. Retain or enhance them for donations to the local ridings such as making them fully refundable, and not declining based on how much is donated.

          Then some additional legislation indicating that if any of the local candidate money is passed up to the national party, or is used for advertising outside of the local riding area, the party has to repay the tax-credit to the government. And be absolutely strict with this requirement.. so advertisements on radio or TV, unless it can be shown it was contained within one riding, are judged to have been party advertising and require a repayment of the 75% tax-credit.

          The result is that the local ridings suddenly hold a lot more of the funding power, which in turn forces the party to focus more on the ridings.

          And the best part is, it doesn’t eliminate any powers of the party at all, so those who are all worried about free-speech needn’t be. It just restricts what *public* money is going to.

    • You apparently have not looked at the NDP platform. http://www.ndp.ca/platform/fix-ottawa
      One of there 7 main platform planks was “Fix-Ottawa”; which included concrete reforms to the electoral system. I.e. Abolishing the Senate

      • I read it. But my definition of a key platform plank includes actually including it in television ads, selling it during the debates, etc…

        And beyond abolishing the Senate, I dare anyone to explain what the heck proposals like this mean:

        “We will propose electoral reform to ensure Parliament reflects the
        political preferences of Canadians. To this end we will propose a new,
        more democratic voting system that preserves the connection between

        • I think it’s fine for the NDP to not have specified which system they would propose. It should be subject to fullsome debate and not nailed down in the party platform.

          • It might be fine with you, but I don’t think it washes with most voters. If a party promises to eliminate the deficit, for example, voters probably want to know how it will be done. Same for any number of promises: safer streets, expanded health care funding, tax cuts, environmental protection… such bland and broad positions are rarely taken seriously without some attempt to specify how they will be achieved.

          • “If a party promises to eliminate the deficit, for example, voters probably want to know how it will be done.” — the last election refutes you.

          • They did, in fact, specify that cutting waste and economic growth would do the trick. That the particular plan is probably either disingenuous or delusional doesn’t take away from its existence.

          • Sure, but it’s pretty much the same level of detail as the NDP have supplied.. that being, “We’ll make it happen.”

          • I hate to meddle, but are you saying the degree of detail provided by the CPC on the deficit reduction plan was sufficient? Or are you saying “well if the CPC can make sweeping promises without any plan to achieve them, surely the NDP can too”? Or something in between? I know you have a coherent point, I’m just grasping to find it…

          • Go back to the original comment I made here.  The point was that the voters actually don’t give a crap about the details and the policy. The fact that both the CPC and NDP were rewarded for containing plans that have basically no realistic means of accomplishing them demonstrate that.

            To put it bluntly, my idealism in the idea that Canadians are smart enough to look beyond appearances and into the actual policies proposed has been eradicated.

          • No. The Cons provided idiotic detail. The NDP provided no detail. My argument is that voters like detail. Regrettably, they often don’t think it through much further than that.

          • If voters like detail, then why did the NDP see such gains?

            I submit to you that voters don’t give a crap about details. The clueless masses elect who they elect, and rather than think about policy, parties would do best to start thinking about media strategies and appearances. 

          • I’m supposing that the NDP are suggesting a referendum, not a unilateral change without further input from Canadians.

        • “To this end we will propose a new, more democratic voting system that preserves the connection between MPs and their constituents, while ensuring parties are represented in Parliament in better proportion to how Canadians voted. Your vote will always count.”
          They are clearly proposing a proportional electoral system, which has the benefits of local representation.

          • If the path is/was so obvious, then why didn’t they specify it? Also, I don’t think we can fairly treat a “proportional electoral system” as something concrete; there’s a multitude of variations possible.

            Finally (in a more picayune vein) , there will *always* be votes cast for individuals and/or parties that never realize representation as a result. Is the NDP seriously arguing that these votes don’t count? Or that all votes must somehow result in some direct representation? I’ve never voted for a winning candidate in my life (for all three levels of government!), but I’m mature enough to accept that fact, and I sure as heck don’t think my vote has never counted.

    • Regarding “resisting transformation”..

      I suggest that much of this disconnect between apparent desire for change and lack of concrete action stems from the fact that there are partisans (actually a small number of individuals), and then there are all the rest of the citizens (a relatively large number of individuals).

      Almost all partisans participate in surveys, but so do many of the rest, so polls reflect the rest.
      Almost all partisans participate in elections, but so do many of the rest, so elections reflect the rest.
      But from there the participation of “the rest” starts to fall off, sometimes dramatically, so partisans start to become severly over-represented…eg as MPs, as party back room types, and as blog commenters. And that’s where it all turns to crap.

      • Agreed about the tendency of partisans to over-salt the soup in most contexts outside an election.

        Maybe instead of elections we should simply choose our MPs in the same manner as juries. It’d be fun to see parliament populated by people who desperately don’t want to be there.

        • I’d be supportive of more “citizen” involvement…such as more referendums or quasi-equivalent forums for more formal input on legislation….some of the things that Preston Manning used (still does??) stand for.

          I miss Manning, he was a good man with several good ideas.

          • 1. I won’t waste time here, but there’s an argument to be made that routine referendums are simply a form of faux populism, are subject to elites’ control via wording/framing/debate, and can too easily become a tool of inaction for those we’ve entrusted to govern.

            2. I don’t always/often agree with Manning, but I always admired his capacity to be repelled by some of the uglier manifestations of the Reform movement.

          • I’m happy to see that while you are highighting an arguement that could be made, you are not actually making that arguement – I would have been flabbergasted to find you making the case that the status quo is as good as it is going to get!!

  4. Geez Aaron, you could have included the title at least: “Everybody wants reform of our democratic institutions – or do they?”

    If you read the Compas survey. the general result is “While Canadians have reservations about politicians and parties, they are neither perplexed nor disenchanted with our system – they see flaws and are open to change but are not calling for it.”

    This poster from Clarke’s opion piece says it best:

    “To the author: I’m sorry the Liberals were decimated. But don’t blame voter rejection of democratic reform. Blame the party that did nothing while in power for 12 years except have scandal after scandal. The reform you should be arguing for is within the Liberals.”

    • Dunno, there’s lots of Liberals who aren’t impressed with Marlene Jennings.

  5. I think Le_o’s onto something, in the comments above.

    Perhaps no one has yet made a compelling case for why the system needs to be reformed?

    It’s great to read Wherry’s accounts of the House of Commons, but that’s only part of what goes on in parliament.

    Recently I found a site called openparliament.ca. For every Wherry retelling of a particularly disappointing moment in the House, there are several more instances of dialogue between opposition and government that is very civil, polite, productive and courteous.
    I know Wherry and others would like us to believe that parliament is dysfunctional (or at the very least, he writes about the most dysfunctional exchanges, perhaps because that sells more magazines / gets more blog hits), but if one were to read Hansard or other such document, one might come to a different conclusion.

    • Could you perhaps link to some samples of these dialogue that are civil, polite, courteous, and above all, productive? I mean, I tried looking briefly, but your suggestion that there are “several more instances” of good behavior for every bad one doesn’t seem to hold up under cursory examination.

      • I realised the House wasn’t simply squabbling and partisanship when Wherry posted something on March 21 (I know the date because I dug up the reference from a comment I made on Wherry’s post on this day). He provided a quote from a CPC MP, asking the finance minister what time he would be making a statement.

        The inference from Wherry is that House discussions aren’t very substantive.

        On that same day, for the first time ever, I went to openparliament.ca and looked up the exchange Wherry had quoted. I scrolled very slightly up, and right before the Wherry quote, was an intelligent exchange between Irene Mathyssen (NDP) and Tony Clement. Imagine my surprise. I commented on this, in the comments on Wherry’s original post.

        Since you ask, I decided to go back to the March 21st records on openparliament.ca. I scroll down just very slightly from Wherry’s quote, and the Speaker asked that, upon the request of all parties (that’s *all* parties, not one versus the other in bitter squabbling), a moment of silence be observed for the Japan quake.

        There are more exchanges here in Question Period, but overall it’s generally civil (yes, there’s partisanship and some jabs, but generally it’s civil).

        After the moment of silence, MPs are tabling bills and petitions (it’s no longer QP here), and finally John Baird tables a motion on Libya, which gets the unanimous support of the House. That means all parties agreed to it. Again, no bickering, just 4 parties agreeing on something.

        A little further (page 14 if you’re following openparliament.ca), there’s a section called “Questions on the Order Paper” where opposition MPs present questions to the Conservatives, and the Tories answer. There’s no name-calling, no jabs at other parties or people, just questions and answers.

        Skip to page 23, and you’ll find an intelligent exchange between Denis Coderre and Peter MacKay. Once again, no jabs, no bickering, no partisan cheap shots. Just questions and answers. MacKay even went so far as to thank the opposition for their support on the Libya motion. Imagine that! MacKay thanked the opposition!

        Gee, judging from Wherry’s original post, I thought the whole day was dominated by stupid questions, and nothing substantive or productive was done. But when you probe deeper, many things seem to be getting accomplished despite what certain bloggers and journos choose to print.

        Yes, you’ll have bickering and partisan games, but overall, scrolling through records for March 21, there’s plenty of intelligent debate, dialogue and discussions, despite Wherry cherry-picking one question that makes parliament seem like a place of useless rhetorical exchanges. I stand by my original comment above.

        Now, if one were to base their opinions on QP strictly on what Wherry chooses to post, then yes, we might as well overhaul parliament from top to bottom. But scrolling through the discussions of the House, without Wherry’s filter, it’s not as alarming as it seems. At least not in my opinion. Perhaps you think otherwise, which is fine. But my point above was that not everyone (and it seems, not the majority of people) think that parliament needs a top-down makeover.

        • What do you suppose makes QP so uniquely appalling then? Is it the attention in receives in the media? QP is not the only problem–I’ve observed a few committee proceedings and things are not always great in that setting either.

          I’ll try to read through the Hansard later.

          • Tried to find the article again, but no luck. It was a discussion on the bad behaviour in QP. A former Reformer MP said that they tried their best to change things by not participating in the usual yelling and stamping of feet. After a while they began getting compaints from their base “Why aren’t you fighting back, what’s wrong with you?”

            Guess they call politics a blood sport for a reason, lol!!

  6. It isn’t in the Conservatives interest (or the Liberals, pre-2011) to alter our system to ensure greater equality. It’s a non-starter.

    Our system rewarded most of what we decry about our politics (and by ‘we’ I mean pre-2006 Conservatives, post-2006 Liberals and most of everyone else). That is not a strong starting point for reform.

  7. I’m a little frustrated by the author’s first point, that electoral reform is too complex to catch the attention of most Canadians. I’d argue that perhaps one of the biggest barriers to reform is this very argument, as few are going to be willing to engage citizens in discussion about reform if it is considered too complex.

    • What do make of the BC referendums on electoral reform, then?

      • I’d read them as evidence that citizens are more than capable of dealing with a topic like electoral reform.

      • That the first one received 57% support is heartening. Political manipulations scuppered the second.

        • Nothing worse than a vote being muddied by politics. :)

          If not complicated, can you at least allow that the second proposal lacked any intuitive appeal? Any scheme that makes voting feel like calculus homework is not likely to win the masses.

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