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Prorogue Revolt Based on False Beliefs

Why demand MPs go back to work if they can't do real work once there?

By Rafe Mair 15 Feb 2010 |

Rafe Mair's column runs every second Monday on The Tyee. Find his previous columns here.

Now that the prorogue issue is behind us, it may be a good time to examine how Parliament works -- and, more importantly, how it doesn't work. What I have to say may sound cynical, but I say it's simply an unpleasant truth.

During the rallies on the prorogue issue, it became apparent that while the protesters had every reason to be angry at a very arrogant prime minister, it was for the wrong reason.

The demand was that MPs go back to work. But that supposes that when MPs are in the House they are working -- and that when they're not, they're lollygagging on a warm beach somewhere.

Well, when they're in the House they are busy but they sure as hell aren't working -- at least not for the people.

Your civics teacher was wrong

The ultimate power is the House of Commons. This is what we are wrongly taught in school.

Remember how we were told that "responsible government" meant that the government -- the prime minister and cabinet -- were "responsible" to the House of Commons who could toss them out any time they wished?

If that were true, then surely there would be an example of this happening.

In fact, you have to go back to the "Pacific scandal" of 1873 to see a majority government pulled down by MPs. This was caused by an enormous scandal where Macdonald and his colleagues were alleged to have "sold" railway rights for contributions from the railway men to the Conservative party. This is, in my research, the only time such a thing has occurred -- and it was at a time when party discipline was not nearly as complete as it is now.

Behind the façade of democracy

We must conclude, then, that in the real world the House of Commons has the right to being down a government on paper, but not in fact.

Why is this so?

It's because the MP owes his position and his political future to the party. If MPs are backbenchers, they want to be in cabinet -- or at least parliamentary secretaries -- and that only comes to good little boys and girls. Needless to say, those who serve in cabinet or as parliamentary secretaries want to stay there or be promoted.

MPs that want goodies for their constituency know that the Sam Rayburn, former leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, was right when he said "to get along, you must go along."

The House of Commons has, within its rules, the power to set up parliamentary committees to examine what the prime minister and cabinet are doing. These committees are actually set up, but here's the rub -- the majority of them are on the government side, and therefore are appointed by the prime minister as the chair, with the exception of the Finance Committee. In a committee, the "whip" is all about "doing what you're told, or else." It will come as no surprise to you to learn that committees tend to be "make this work" projects.

The plain and simple fact is that MPs do as they're told.

Mighty minorities

What about "minority" governments?

It's true that they can be brought down by a majority of MPs. However, they are often "saved" -- not because their good works entitle them to it, but because it's not in the interests of the other parties to have an election. This is because, loosely translated, they just don't have the money.

A word about minority governments. Supporters of our antiquated and unfair electoral system never tire of telling us that "nothing is done" and that majority governments are a vital necessity. Thinking that mantra through, it's obviously saying that instead of the government having to persuade MPs to support a policy, it's just better if the prime minster has the power to cram it through.

How to get serious and fix democracy

There are two obvious solutions to this dilemma -- one of which is hard, and the other easy.

The hard solution is proportional representation, which gives minority parties the ability to elect MPs -- virtually assuring a minority government where parties must convince a majority of MPs of the wisdom of their policies.

The easy one is to give MPs the great protection that electors have -- a secret ballot. Now, that would put the cat amongst the pigeons. The rule would remain that the government would only be obliged to resign on a budget matter or one accepted as a "confidence" motion. And what's the argument against this again?

It has been pointed out that under this option, we won't know how our MPs voted. But we only know that under our present system because the MP must always vote as he is told.

If we, as a society, consider that regular people ought to be able to cast their votes free from outside pressure, promises of rewards, and penalties, why would we deny that same protection to those we elect to speak for us?

Free the MPs!

It's been said that no government could do business if it could easily be outvoted.

Stuff and nonsense. The rule would be that only a lost vote on a budget matter or vote of confidence would compel a government to resign. But think on the plus side.

Governments would actually have to make their case -- not simply go through the motions until the rubber stamp vote is taken. Imagine, you and I would have the full picture -- not the picture filtered through government spin doctors. MPs would have power and personal dignity, and why shouldn't they? Why should an intelligent person be forced to do precisely as they are told, speak only in government bafflegab, and pretend to their constituents that they actually did something other than playing a rubber stamping role in Parliament?

Our choice is between a five year dictatorship of a prime minister and his unelected men in gray, or a five year dictatorship of a parliament free to govern as it deems best and submitting every five years to a careful examination of its actions by the voting public.

My suggestion would work like a powerful cleanser -- but it will never happen in a country whose voters still believe, contrary to all the evidence, that their MPs have meaningful power.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics

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