Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Frogs in a pot

The current furore over our padlocked Parliament has raised issues that have likely seldom crossed the public mind. Could it be that federal governance--in recent years a matter of declining interest to Canadians--is now on the national agenda?

Before prorogation was even confirmed, a Harris Decima poll showed that half of the country cared enough about this arcane concept to have an opinion about it: and of that half, the tide was running against prorogation more than two to one.

Perhaps it is now time to take a comprehensive look at our governance as a whole. We tend to do this sort of thing in bits and pieces--or, rather, not do it. The recent attempts to replace our antiquated "first past the post" electoral system offer us some valuable lessons.

Referenda on proportional representation have gone down to defeat for a myriad of reasons. One of the difficulties is the sheer complexity of the issues involved. Referenda are not the way to go on any question other than a simple and generally comprehensible proposition. Talk of the Droop Quotient and the Single Transferable Vote and closed versus open lists leave most people gasping for air and voting for the devil we know.

Current strategies for achieving proportional representation have been seriously flawed. Despite the "constituent assembly" approach, intended to give the process a democratic gloss in Ontario and BC, the process was in fact guided by experts. Little attempt was made to organize at the community level, or to find out what people themselves thought, or to take new and different grassroots proposals for change seriously.

This was not a question of "educating the people," as Fair Vote Canada has claimed, but of listening to them. A better approach might have been to reframe the discussion: to hold widespread public hearings, not about specific electoral systems, but about what values Canadians would like to see reflected in the electoral process--in other words, what we want out of a system of democratic representation. If common threads emerged, as I suspect they would have, then a model could subsequently have been drafted that best embodied these values, and put before the appropriate legislature.

Canadians will support change if they are permitted an active part in it and can see themselves reflected in the outcome; less so if they are merely presented with vast and complex proposals and told to say yes or no.

But can we rely on legislators, most of whom are deeply wedded to the status quo, to make changes even when a clear public consensus emerges? Would the Liberals
, for example, support making prorogation a Parliamentary decision, when sometime down the road they might like to use that power themselves--as they did in the dying days of the Chrétien regime in 2003 to avoid facing up to the sponsorship scandal? Would they favour a system of proportional representation that would no longer allow them to form majority governments with minority popular support?

We can trust blindly in no one, and certainly not in the two "big tent" parties for whom power, not democratic principle, is what really matters.

The underpinning of the Canadian federal governance system is "responsible government," based upon the notion that Parliament is supreme, and that government--the Prime Minister and his or her cabinet--is accountable to Parliament as a whole. We don't elect governments: we elect MPs. But true to our Canadian penchant for compromise, the notion of responsible government was never implemented wholeheartedly.

Our head of state is still the Queen. We have an unelected upper house. The Prime Minister is elected by only one of Canada's 308 ridings, but has far more legal power than the President of the United States: the power to hand-pick Senators and Supreme Court justices, for example, or even to shut down Parliament whenever he likes, and for as long as he likes.

Recently the serious limitations on responsible government have become salient, and the public is beginning to stir. Parliamentary supremacy has turned into a hollow concept: the demand by a majority of our representatives for access to unredacted documents on the Afghan detainee affair, for example, was simply refused. And, when they pressed the point, Stephen Harper sent them home.

Let me blue-sky a little.

Perhaps we could learn something from the so-called "consensus government" model in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. Although considered a "modified Westminster" system, there are some fundamental differences. The Premier is elected by the legislature, and so are the members of Cabinet. The premier has the power to assign portfolios, but only the legislature can dismiss a Cabinet minister, which the young Nunavut legislature has already done on one occasion. The Executive, in other words, serves at the pleasure of the legislature as a whole.

I am not arguing for a non-party model for Ottawa: it is inevitable that parties--like-minded people who have organized themselves around a set of ideas and values--will arise in a large and diverse country like Canada. But the notion of an Executive chosen by and accountable to a Parliament of elected representatives appears to be far more in keeping with the notion of responsible government than what we have at present.

Let Parliament--the people we elect--decide who best should lead it, and who should share that power in a Cabinet. Let Parliament decide when it should sit, and for how long, rather than having its fate in the hands of one person elected in one riding. Let Parliament ratify proposals to fill important positions, such as justices of the Supreme Court. Let all members of Parliament be elected members, reflecting the diverse electorate, and let no votes by Canadians be wasted votes.

What of the Senate, then? An elected Upper House that represents regions may not be a bad thing, although my own preference is still for a unicameral legislature. The proposal for a Triple-E Senate was a Reform Party initiative, a measure to overcome Western alienation, and perhaps some of us progressives were too quick to dismiss it because of its origin. The interests of the North are not necessarily the interests of the West, or the interests of the West those of central Canada: should numbers alone prevail, as they do now? (But what do we mean by "region?" Is PEI a "region?")

I want to avoid getting too deeply into the weeds here, however. These questions and many others would sort themselves out over time if there were indeed an overwhelming popular push for change. How is that push manifested?

As we saw with the Orange and Velvet revolutions in Eastern Europe, substantial change is not a matter of piecemeal legislative reform, or popular debate about this or that part of the whole. In the latter cases we are smothered by details until the status quo begins to look like the best of all possible worlds. The immoral use of power is cynically denounced by an Opposition that behaves the same way itself when in office.

Don't look to legislators to curtail their own power merely out of principle. And besides, the inertia in any system of governance is immense. It is only when public confidence is replaced by a public sense of crisis that momentous changes will occur. At such times, the usually empty phrase "will of the people" achieves real meaning, and our representatives either get in step or get replaced.

Have we reached that tipping point? There are signs of it. Thoughtful media commentators are worried about it. It's not every day that the Globe and Mail runs a front-page editorial sounding the alarm. The right-wing pundistas tell us at length why the burgeoning Facebook group opposed to prorogation is irrelevant. They frantically spill gallons of ink telling us that Canadians don't really care about this stuff at all.

But a growing number of Canadians seem to care very much. We might not be constitutional experts, but we can smell something off about recent events: right across the political spectrum, we can sense the incremental loss of our democracy. One degree after another, Stephen Harper is raising the water temperature in the political pot.
The question is: will we jump in time? And another: where will we land?

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