Repairing the House
How to make Members of Parliament relevant again
In the fall of 2009, Samara, a Toronto think tank that monitors the state of Canadian democracy, began a series of exit interviews with several dozen former Members of Parliament on their experiences of public life. Summarized in four reports, they make for depressing reading. The interviewees said they were “embarrassed” by the public displays of jackassery that fill so much of the parliamentary day. They were “frustrated” with the control their party exerted over them, the arbitrary demands of their leaders, and the constant pressure to engage in partisan combat. Yet the report found that, for all the experiences they had in common, the former MPs “held often-conflicting ideas regarding the role and purpose of a Member of Parliament.”
They had served, on average, more than ten years in the House of Commons, yet they could not agree on the basic question of “what they were elected to accomplish or what the essential purpose of their role was intended to be.” Some said it was to represent the views of the people in their ridings. For others, it was to advance the interests of their party. A third group insisted it was to provide services to their constituents. Very few, the report noted, thought it was to hold the government to account, one of the traditional first responsibilities of the legislature in a parliamentary system. Perhaps that is unsurprising. These days, the notion that Members of Parliament do any such thing is an acknowledged fiction. A more realistic definition of what an MP’s role has become, at least on the government benches, was offered by Joan Crockatt, MP for Calgary Centre, shortly before the by-election that sent her to Ottawa. “To me,” she said, “the job is to support the prime minister in whatever way that he thinks.”
And that’s about the size of it. If MPs are bewildered, bored, despairing, it may be because there is so very little of value left for them to do. What, in fact, do they do? Examine legislation? Not when laws of vastly differing purpose can be bundled together into omnibus bills hundreds of pages long, leaving scant hours to study any individual piece. The “business of supply,” the fundamental prerogative of parliaments going back to Simon de Montfort, has broken down almost entirely, with MPs handed the estimates weeks before the budget, each document on a different accounting system, the figures broken out in a way that makes no sense to anybody.
Debate? The arguments are rote, attendance is sparse, and no one’s mind is changed (when debate is even permitted, and not, as has happened more than forty times this session, curtailed by a government motion of “time allocation”). Vote? Canada has, experts agree, among the strictest systems of party discipline in the democratic world, affording individual MPs the least leeway to vote as their consciences or their constituents dictate. Not for nothing are MPs sometimes referred to as “$160,000 voting machines.” Propose legislation? In a typical year, only a handful of private members’ bills pass into law—a few more than usual under the Tories, but only because the bills have been used as surrogates for government legislation, impinging on yet another prerogative of individual MPs. Indeed, as we were reminded this spring, MPs cannot ask questions in the House, or even make routine members’ statements, without the permission of the party whips. When they do, they are as often as not confined to reading out lines written for them by party communications staff.
That is the MPs’ lot: to do as they are told, speak as they are told, vote as they are told; to stand in their place when they are called upon, and to sit down afterward; to attack their opponents on cue and shout their support for the leader, often to the tune of a standing ovation. (Hold government to account? Have you watched question period?) Aware of how bad this looks, they will sometimes point to the work they do in their constituencies, out of sight of the media, writing letters to Immigration and so forth. However, this is just further evidence of their humiliation, the sort of work that could be performed by your average college student.
Parliament, as a legislative body, may have withered; it may no longer be the place where important matters are debated, decided, or even announced; but underpinning that institutional decline is the individual devaluation of each of its members. The uselessness of Parliament is the idiocy of backbench life.
It is not hard to draw a connection between the powerlessness of MPs and the regular bouts of bad behaviour for which the House is notorious. People who lack meaning and purpose in their lives, who feel they have no control over their fates, are inclined to act out. Because MPs are so inconsequential, good people have little incentive to run for Parliament, and the institution, packed with mediocrities, slides inexorably into disrepute. Because it lacks legitimacy, no one pays it much attention. Because no one pays it much attention, MPs sink further into despair. And around we go again.
In this context, a prime minister can suggest, as Stephen Harper did before the last election, that it would be an outrage against democratic principle if the Opposition parties were to form a coalition government after the election, though each had separately won fewer seats than the Conservatives. It would be an outrage, that is, for the prime minister to be the person who commanded the support of a majority of Members of Parliament, rather than, as in Harper’s case, a plurality. But that is not outrageous. It is the system by which we are governed. You will only find it outrageous if you have accepted that we essentially live under a presidential system, where the candidate with the most votes wins: as if Stephen Harper had been running for president and not for Calgary Southwest, and everything else, the candidates and the parties and Parliament itself, was just for show, as if the House were a glorified electoral college, whose usefulness ceased the day after the election—which, to be fair, is true.
Does it matter? Do we need Parliament, really? Maybe the whole thing is obsolete. A prime minister may reign over caucus and ignore the Commons. Even that most basic obligation of prime ministers, to secure and maintain the confidence of the House, has been stretched to the breaking point of late, recent holders of the office having clung to power for days after losing a confidence vote, or prorogued Parliament rather than face a vote that was certain to end badly. Nowadays, though, there are all sorts of other power centres to keep the PM in check: the media and the courts and the civil service and the provinces and the markets and the activists and the interest groups. A prime minister’s powers are embedded in a system of laws, but more than that a culture and a set of expectations that limit his discretion. It is not because of Parliament that the midnight knock on the door does not come. It is the whole liberal democratic inheritance. As long as we can still elect and replace our leaders periodically, what does it matter whether the prime minister must answer to the Commons? He doesn’t now, and hasn’t for years, yet life goes on. Sure, MPs are unhappy. So what? Why are the frustrated ambitions of these time-servers any of our concern?
I don’t actually believe any of this, you understand, but you can see why someone might ask, or why the public might not be in a mood to mount the barricades in Parliament’s defence. We have lived without it for so long, it does not occur to us what we have lost, or are losing. Before we can restore MPs to their rightful place, then, we must understand what that place is, and why it matters. We have to look past the Parliament we have to the Parliament that could be. We have to see what a remarkable thing it is, this little playhouse where the life of the nation is acted out each day. Imagine yourself sitting in the Commons gallery, high above the Chamber, peering down at those 308 people. They look quite small from that height. You can sweep the House in a glance, take it in at one go in all its eclectic array of regions and ethnicities. It is hard not to feel a little moved, and protective. This is our house, and they are…us. If we understood this more fully—that they are us, that this is where we debate the issues of the day, where we hold our government to account, where we decide what bills will pass—we would be less tolerant of seeing the people who represent us treated with such contempt, because it is we who are thereby insulted.
No other body represents all of us, rather than just some of us, and as such no other body can perform quite the same function as Parliament. Without it, the government would have a monopoly on the people’s business. There would be no mechanism for forcing other issues and ideas onto the national agenda, nor any means of representing the particular interests and concerns of the people in each riding. It is, meanwhile, the only forum in this godforsaken country where our many regions and interests and identities are forced to reckon with one another, to balance their own needs against the rest. It is the only body to whom the government is constitutionally obliged to answer, not occasionally or at its pleasure, but every day. It is what enables us to hold the government to account, not just at election time, but all the time. How, then, could we have let it slip into such disrepair?
The answer lies less in the formal rules of the game than in the relative powers of the players. MPs are weak, in the main, because their leaders are too strong. Without redressing that imbalance, nothing much will change. Simply allowing more free votes, for example—the kind of reform party leadership candidates like to toss out to prove their democratic credentials—would do little on its own. Free votes, as things stand, are never truly free.
The date when party leaders began to get the upper hand can be marked with some precision. It traces back to the 1919 Liberal national convention that elected Mackenzie King as its leader. Previously, party leaders in Canada had been chosen as they are in the classic Westminster model, still in force in Australia, for instance: by a vote of the caucus. As they were made, so they could be unmade. In such a system, even prime ministers can be removed by caucus at any time, as Margaret Thatcher was, as Australia’s Kevin Rudd was, and as his successor, Julia Gillard, was in her turn. One can see how this makes party leaders more attentive to the concerns of ordinary MPs. By contrast, a leader in possession of a mandate from the membership at large is free to thumb his nose at the caucus for long periods at a stretch. In extraordinary cases, after much acrimony, a leader can still be forced out by his or her MPs, but the knowledge that this would precipitate not a quick sounding of caucus, but a months-long leadership race makes this the atom bomb of political manoeuvres so awful as to be of little use (whereas Thatcher was replaced in a matter of days).
Restore the right of caucus to hire and fire the leader, then, and you would go a long way toward making MPs relevant again. If that sounds less democratic than the current practice, it is only a mark of Parliament’s decline. If you think Parliament is more or less irrelevant, that the job of a party leader is to take his or her case to Canadians directly, on television and on the campaign stump, then naturally you will be more inclined to entrust the choice to party members at large. If, on the other hand, you think Parliament matters, then you will be more persuaded that the first job of a leader is to lead the caucus in Parliament, and to be answerable to it.
Still, that is only one side of the equation. If the leader dominates caucus, it is not only because they do not choose him; it is because he, almost literally, chooses them. In Canada, as a matter of law, no candidate may run for Parliament under a party banner without the signature of the leader on his or her nomination papers. The requirement dates back to 1970, with a change in the elections laws requiring that the candidate’s party affiliation be printed on the ballot (previously, only the candidate’s name appeared). Someone, it was reasoned, had to vouch for the candidate as the party’s legitimate standard-bearer, and who better than the leader?
Except, of course, that this gave the leader an absolute veto over the nomination of every member of caucus, real or prospective. The message was soon absorbed: get out of line, and you will never run again. (Dismissal need not even wait until the election. An MP can be shunted from caucus, as we have seen, for the sole crime of having displeased the leader.) Yet even this is often defended by MPs themselves. How, they ask, could a leader be expected to put up with a candidate who was damaging the party’s brand? This is how fully they have absorbed the notion that MPs are, in effect, the leader’s employees. A riding association could always nominate a candidate so abhorrent to the party that it would have no choice but to withdraw its imprimatur, but why should that be the prerogative of the leader? Why not a vote of the other riding associations?
Mind you, MPs would be in a better position to defy the leader, and to elect one, if their own democratic legitimacy were less open to question. It is beyond strange that in Canada, in the twenty-first century, nominations can still be decided by stacking meetings with instant members, hastily recruited for the occasion. A cleaned-up process for selecting candidates—if not formal voter registration, as in the United States, then at least a requirement that voters must have been party members for some decent interval—would seem therefore to be a third part of the solution.
Even if MPs did not need the leader’s signature on their nomination papers, they would still have ample reason to follow his dictates. The fear of disfavour might be lessened, but the hope of advancement would remain. Ambition is the real party whip, commanding obedience where mere threats might not. This is especially true on the government side, given the range of offices and favours within the prime minister’s power to bestow. Some measure of patronage is unavoidable, even desirable, but in Canada it has been taken to quite absurd lengths. At thirty-nine ministers, we have the largest cabinet in the developed world—much larger than in any comparable country. The president of the United States manages to get by with a cabinet of just sixteen (plus seven “cabinet-level officers”); the prime minister of Japan and the chancellor of Germany, roughly the same. Britain, Australia, and New Zealand all have cabinets with fewer than two dozen ministers. Why should Canada need nearly twice as many? It was not always thus. Sir John A. Macdonald governed with only eleven, and as late as Louis St. Laurent (1948–57) there were still fewer than twenty-two.
What does this mean? Given a typical majority governing caucus of between 160 and 180 MPs and bearing in mind the probability of some ministers’ stepping down or being replaced in the life of a government, it means MPs on the government side, if they keep their noses clean, have about a one in four chance of making it to cabinet (compare that to Britain, where the odds are more like one in twenty). And that is not counting the many parliamentary secretaries and committee chairs in Ottawa, all likewise within the prime minister’s exclusive purview.
Appointing a cabinet is probably a task best left to the prime minister (signing a guest book in Charlottetown, Sir John listed his occupation as “Cabinet Maker”), but there is no good reason for cabinet to have grown so bloated. You could cut a third of the current retinue, even half, and no one would notice. Committee chairs, on the other hand, should never have been prime ministerial appointees, which defeats the whole purpose of legislative scrutiny. A private member’s motion placed before the House earlier this year would make them elected by the Commons, and by preferential ballot, both of which seem like worthwhile ideas. A similar reform has been proposed in the past to elect officers of Parliament, such as the Auditor General. (By whom? The Conservatives, as it happens. It was part of their 2006 platform.)
That still leaves the prime minister with many ways to work his will—probably too many. He alone decides when to dissolve Parliament and call fresh elections (technically, he advises the Governor General, but this is mostly a theoretical constraint, as is the law that sets “fixed” election dates, passed under this government). Coupled with the power to declare any vote a matter of confidence, it effectively places a gun to the heads of any members, on either side of the Commons, who might be tempted to defeat a government bill. Some limitation on this, for example limiting confidence motions to those explicitly designated as such by the mover, or subjecting the power to dissolve or prorogue to a vote of the House—perhaps requiring, as in the current UK experiment, some sort of super-majority—would restore a measure of balance. Likewise, rather than leave it to party leaders to decide who speaks when in Parliament, we might entrust that responsibility to the Speaker, as is the practice in the United Kingdom. (That may well be the effect of Speaker Andrew Scheer’s nuanced ruling this spring inviting members to rise at will if they wished him to recognize them, regardless of whether they were on any party lists. We shall see.) The same might apply to motions to limit debate, surely a matter for the Speaker’s judgment rather than the obvious self-interest of the prime minister.
Any number of other reforms would help to repair the balance of powers between the legislature and the executive: subjecting senior appointments to parliamentary review; or making the parliamentary budget officer what the name implies, an officer of Parliament, reporting to Parliament rather than, as now, to the parliamentary librarian. And so on.
There is an obvious problem with all of these suggestions, however. They require the prime minister’s assent to proceed. If prime ministers had any interest in limiting their own power, we would not be in this situation. Likewise the other party leaders: one of the rare points of agreement among them is that caucus should be seen and not heard. Were ordinary members to decide, collectively, that they were no longer willing to be treated in this demeaning way, no doubt they could force the issue, but that is not how they have been conditioned to behave. Each incursion on their prerogatives has habituated them to accept the next. Those of an independent bent are unlikely to be selected as nominees in the first place. If they do manage to make it through to Parliament, they face enormous pressure to be team players, not only from the leader, but from fellow caucus members.
So it is ultimately up to them. None of these reforms are possible if MPs themselves are not prepared to stand up for their rights, and yet if ever a start were made it would surely create the platform from which to argue for more, and the current downward spiral would be reversed. Suppose MPs of all parties were to band together and demand, as a first step, an end to the leader’s veto over nominations. Could the party heads really withstand this challenge? Thus liberated, would MPs not feel emboldened to call for further reforms? Perhaps some future series of exit interviews would have happier news to report.
Oh, but I have forgotten someone, haven’t I? Yes: the media, me and my kind. If MPs are ever to be released from the irons of party discipline, we journalists must stop assisting their wardens. We must stop running around as if the world were coming to an end every time an MP departs from the party line. The story there is not “Party Divided.” The story is “MP Does Job.” Who knows? Maybe one day, that will no longer be considered news.