Something Could Be Done Now

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The final say on jurisdictions, structures and roles would rest with the Canadian people responding to a new constitution recommended by a Citizens’ Assembly. An Assembly would have to be authorized by parliamentary legislation. Obviously then, enough members who favour renovating Canada’s governance would have to be elected to parliament to pass the necessary enabling legislation.

But, even before a new constitution was in place, some restructuring of Canada’s governance could be achieved by procedural and/or legislative initiatives that don’t require constitutional change.

Herb Gray, a prominent Liberal Party representative, said in a TV interview that parliament couldn’t function without parties. In truth, parties have degraded Canada’s parliament to the point where it no longer functions. Canada is currently ruled by a dictator for term who quarterbacks the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).

The subversion of parliament by the party system occurred over an extended period of time and in two phases.

The modern party system began to crystallize about the middle of the nineteenth century. By the early 20th century, comments were flying that could have appeared in today’s newspapers. To quote, with some paraphrasing, a farsighted young Montreal lawyer writing nearly a century ago; “There is no longer any difference between the two so called parties.” (Only Tories and Grits then.) “They are alike in the scandals in which their members participate. They are alike in the principles and policies by which they are guided. They are alike in their utter contempt for positions based upon what is right, rather than what is expedient. They are alike in their barrenness, and are in need of a complete rebirth if they are not to become an absolute danger to the country.” In 1908, J. Castell Hopkins, editor of the Canadian Annual Review, wrote that; “The great principles of the past have died out and been replaced by political organizations whose distinctive features are those of ins and outs.”

Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier clearly expressed the cynicism of the governing establishment’s abuse of parliament when he said; “Reforms are for Oppositions. It is the business of Governments” (He meant parties.) “to stay in office.”

The carrots and sticks used to gain and stay in office, and thus control governments, are as old as government itself. They are applied with particular effect in a newborn country with much to be done in its early years and little tradition to guide her first steps.

The carrots are: the strategic back scratching of special interest groups and corporations eager to swap votes for advantages; the thousands of appointments to boards, commissions, courts, agencies, crown corporations, regulatory bodies, the Senate, etc., where positional authority is accompanied by perqs, power, influence, prestige and money for the beneficiary; the timely start or promise of projects in key ridings; the handling of the media; and, in the case of members of the Commons, the appointment to cabinet, committee or secretarial positions of authority superior to that of an “ordinary member”.
The sticks are simply the flip side of the above coins withholding or withdrawing favours instead of dispensing them. In extreme cases, offending persons or groups have been expelled from caucus, denied access to news, blackballed insofar as government business was concerned, or just simply ignored. Taken together, the whole bag of tricks can be labelled “patronage”.

In the first phase of parliament’s subversion by the party system, patronage was somewhat diffused throughout each party’s structure. Party leaders were elected by the party’s elected members in the Commons the party caucus the people he was supposed to lead in the Commons. This meant that a party leader who became Prime Minister had to please his cabinet, caucus, rank and file party members and his constituents. It was pretty difficult for a party leader to pursue any course that did not have the support of the majority in each of these groups. Patronage was more of a shared, consensus activity in this first phase.

Mackenzie King changed all that. Rumour has it that he stipulated he would only run for the leadership of the Liberal Party if the position was elected by the party membership as in the USA, not just the party caucus in the Commons. Whatever the truth of it, the Liberals held Canada’s first political party convention in 1919 at which King was elected party leader by a slim majority on the third ballot.

Many commentators applauded this complete break from historical (and still current) British parliamentary practice, and the other parties quickly followed suit. It was claimed that election to leadership by all a party’s members was more democratic. In fact, the result was to consolidate all the powers of patronage in the leader’s hands because he no longer owed his position to his party peers in the Commons. King was untouchable for 30 years.

Succeeding Prime Ministers refined, polished and perfected this second phase of parliament’s subversion, turned members of the Commons into Trudeau’s nobodies, and fixed total control of the nation’s governance in the PMO.

What the party leaders from King on have done is break down the natural pyramid of hierarchy wherein authority is supported by and responsible to the level from which it is elected. Party leaders are no longer accountable to their caucus mates. Party leaders who become Prime Ministers are no longer accountable to cabinet, caucus or parliament, and certainly not to the people of Canada. They are accountable only to a notoriously unrepresentative sampling of some party members who are moved by legendary manipulators at party conventions called and controlled by the PMO.

The PMO controls all party and government patronage. The governing/establishment elites who use it to control the country have also disconnected themselves from any accountability or responsibility to parliament or the people of Canada. Canada’s governance now functions much like the U.S. presidential dictatorship, without the U.S. system’s checks on the dictator.

To bring back parliamentary democracy in Canada, a series of initiatives could be taken. None require constitutional change, most are simple procedural changes, a few require laws. The first requirement is the election to the Commons of enough members who favour the following initiatives to form a governing majority.

Free Votes: A simple procedural rule could be put in place whereby all votes on all legislation in the Commons were free votes. No votes on legislation would reflect confidence in the government, only in the legislation itself. The government could only be defeated if a specific motion to do so was successful in the Commons.

This would be one step on the road to freeing members from the tyranny of the PMO or party bosses. Free voting would break the need for rigid party discipline because there would be no power loss consequences if a vote didn’t go the party’s way. In a free vote Commons, members would quickly come to realize that their posture relative to parliament and their constituents was more important than their posture relative to the PMO or party bosses.

Recall: A simple law enabling the citizens of a riding to fire their elected representatives for cause would be another step on the road to redirecting members’ accountability to their constituents instead of the PMO or party bosses.

The recall process would be a serious and key instrument of control of the agenda and authorities of governance by the people of Canada. It need not be complicated. A small group of like minded citizens could start a recall process by petitioning the speaker of the Commons for approval to do so. If the Speaker was satisfied that the group’s motives had merit and were not malicious or frivolous, authorization to initiate a recall process would be granted. The process itself would have three stages; (i) the gathering of “enough” signatures from citizens in a riding on a time limited petition to support going on to (ii) a vote on whether to recall the riding’s incumbent member and (iii) a by election to elect a new representative IF a majority of the electors voted to recall the incumbent. Absolute numbers and/or percentages would be set at levels that reflected the true desires of a majority of a riding’s electors.

Governing elites hate recall. Their main stated criticism is that irresponsible dissidents would use recall to disrupt the careers of targetted members and wreck the business of government. In reality, critics fear true accountability to, and have contempt for the common sense of, the people who elect and pay them.

They should relax. Recall laws have been in place in several U.S. jurisdictions for decades and haven’t been misused, in fact, seldom used at all.

The first recall law in Canada was passed in British Columbia before the last provincial election there. Eighteen months after the election, recall processes were begun in three ridings one on Vancouver Island and two beside each other in northern B.C. In the Island riding, the incumbent member’s performance had been such that enough citizens quickly signed the petition to have a recall vote. The incumbent realized his goose was cooked and resigned. The process then went straight through to stage (iii), a by election.

In the two northern B.C. ridings, it was clear that the recall organizers were mostly miffed that the NDP had won more seats, with fewer votes, than the Liberals had. Whatever they thought about that result, not enough citizens could be persuaded that the performances of their two incumbents justified throwing them out, so, the petition failed to get enough signatures to go on to a stage (ii) recall vote.

In both cases, common sense, fair play and democracy prevailed. The mere existence of Recall dramatically redirects a representative’s attention to the constituents who elect, support and pay them.

Election Of Party Leaders By Caucus Peers: A simple change of procedure would return parties to the practice of electing their leaders by and from the elected party members in the Commons. This is standard practice in the British parliamentary system. In fact, the governance of virtually every human organization follows the natural hierarchical order of ascending authority where leaders are chosen by and from the members they will be leading. The members are free to choose who will lead them.

It would be sensible to even more clearly separate the management of a party’s operations in the country from the leadership of the party’s members in the Commons.

When leaders are elected by, thus are accountable to, their peers who know them best, Canada might again be blessed with government leaders in fact, rather than just in name. It would certainly end the humbuggery of “party elected” dictators.

Binding Referenda & Citizens’ Initiatives: Conservative and “progressive” elites both detest the idea of referenda, citizens’ initiatives and any other democratic device that takes the resolution of an issue out of their hands and puts it into the hands of the people. The kindest thing they say when opposing these devices is that; “The people don’t have all the facts.” Well, to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson; “The answer is not to ignore the people but to inform them.” Fully informed and properly consulted citizens are the most sensible decision makers in the land.

Certainly, key issues like constitution approval, denial or change; new taxes; major changes in the justice system; and such other issues as parliament considers fundamental to the nation, should be put to the whole people for their judgment. A simple law enabling referenda on specified issues would be enough to implement the practice.

Parliament may not be aware of, or may want to duck, an issue about which some Canadians feel strongly. Another simple law could be passed that enabled those citizens to initiate a binding referendum on that issue. It must be obvious that if all the principles and structures of a true parliamentary democracy are working properly there would be very little if any need for citizens’ initiatives. But, their possibility helps everything else work.

Taken together, free votes, recall, the election of party leaders by their peers in the Commons and referenda & initiatives would seriously redirect Canada’s governance toward the supremacy of the people. More re structuring could be done to move the country toward the goal of the executive supremacy of parliament.

Prime Minister: Leader of the Government


Committee Driven Commons: The following ideas borrow something from British and Swiss parliamentary practice. Again, no constitutional changes would be required to initiate these procedures.

All elected members in the Commons would be titled “Minister” and each would assume membership in at least one Department committee (except the leader of the party with the largest number of seats who becomes Prime Minister).

The title “Minister” would no longer be used by anyone but an elected member of the House of Commons. Senior positions in the Civil Service would be re titled “Director”, “Manager”, etc.

The last two Clerks of the Privy Council, Canada’s most senior bureaucratic position, stated publicly that Canada’s cabinet and ministry structure was far too big, expensive, complicated, inefficient, ineffective and slow. Mr. Osbaldeston even specified that the nation’s affairs could be run much better with just twelve Cabinet Ministers. Given that the U.S., with nine times more people, manages with a cabinet of fourteen and Switzerland manages with seven, it shouldn’t be too long a stretch to visualize restructuring Canada’s government from well over thirty down to twelve Cabinet Ministers. There would be a varying number of much less bulky and costly Department ministries within each Cabinet ministry. The lineup on INSERT 3:2 is one possible configuration. Compare it to the list on INSERT 3:1 on page 16. Each one on that list is currently a Cabinet Ministry at either or both the national or provincial level.

Ministers would elect the Chairs of their Department committees – Department Ministers, and the Chairs of their Department’s Cabinet committee Cabinet Ministers. The Prime Minister and the twelve Cabinet Ministers would lead the nation’s governance.

The governing process would automatically reverse from PMO down to committee up. Government legislation, regulation and supervision would be committee driven. While the Prime Minister and Cabinet Ministers could and would stimulate, steer, urge and lead, everything would be brought to, and sponsored in parliament by, Department Ministers. Judicial and senior Civil Service appointments would be made by the committees of the Commons and vetted by the House of Regions. Responsibility would match authority.

In theory at least, members of a restructured Commons would work much longer and harder on meaningful matters than current members do because all would be involved in at least one committee and everything would come from them. Ministry loyalty would assume more importance relative to party loyalty because for a member to achieve success for any initiative would require the support of their department committee, then parliament as a whole. The PMO would shrink to a competent secretariat in support of a busy leader.

Electoral Reform: After every Canadian and provincial election there are more or less strident howls for electoral reform because candidates and parties are elected without the support of the majority of electors in their ridings, province or country. The howlers are right one of the fundamentals of parliamentary democracy is supposed to be that a majority of electors in a riding support the neighbour they elect to represent them. The largest group of elected members who share specific principles and policies then form a government that has the automatic support of a majority of electors.

Some people favour some form of proportional distribution of seats to parties according to the percentage of all votes received by each party. Proportional representation is the antithesis of the representative parliamentary system. Those who propose it either ignore or favour the fact that proportional representation elects party representatives, not citizens’ representatives. It would mean the triumph of group rights’ socialism over individual rights’ personalism in parliament the hearth and home of democracy.

It is clearly desirable for each member to have the majority of their riding’s electors supporting their positional authority in the Commons. A simple way to do this would be to adopt the practice of runoff elections used in France and other jurisdictions. It would be a simple matter of changing election procedure law.

If a runoff system had been in place in 1997, 101 candidates would have been declared elected members of the House of Commons as soon as the final vote counts had been tallied and confirmed. Preparations for runoff elections in 200 ridings two weeks later would have begun immediately.

In the 200 runoff ridings, candidates who didn’t receive 15% of the votes, AND, the third or fourth place finishers in ridings where three or four candidates received over 15% of the votes, would have been dropped from the runoff slate. Thus, there would have been (36+156) 192 runoffs between two candidates and 8 runoffs among three. In the event a three candidate runoff hadn’t produced a 50% winner, a second runoff between the top two candidates would have been held.

Another electoral measure worth considering is the Australian practice of imposing a seriously stiff fine on all citizens who don’t vote unless they’ve got a really good excuse. (“I was having a heart transplant that day!” “Oh yeah, morning or afternoon?”)

“Notwithstanding” Legislation: Perhaps the most onerous task facing a government of renovators would be cleaning out 40 years’ accumulation of hockey pucks from the nation’s stables.

Much “notwithstanding” legislation would be needed to reverse the despicably bigoted court rulings re first Canadians/language usage/sexual behaviour/gender/ancestry/ criminals/refugees/etc. until the Charter, and its attendant abominations, can be eliminated by a Citizens’ Assembly.

Additional legislation would be needed to repair or repeal laws and programs that the Canadian people have clearly indicated are ineffective, misguided or contrary to their interests.

Have enough Canadians tired of 40 years’ wandering in the Progressive Liberal wilderness? The land is strong and her people are great. But, Canada’s misgovernance is appalling. Are there 152 Canadians who believe that restoring the principles, redesigning the structures and rebuilding the systems of parliamentary democracy in Canada are a good and useful work? Can they be elected to the House of Commons? That’s all it would take!

Extract from Essay 3, completed November 1999, in “Personalism v. Socialism”

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