The House of Commons is a sham, circa 1938 - Macleans.ca

The House of Commons is a sham, circa 1938

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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.