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Fixing Our Democracy Disconnect

In which I dare to disagree with Will McMartin.

Rafe Mair 18 Sep

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Something's dangerously broken.

It is with considerable trepidation that I disagree with the well researched and, as usual, well-written Tyee article by Will McMartin about our system of governance in B.C. In "A Chance to Cut MLA Pay in Half," Will argues that if, as rumoured, the B.C. Liberals refuse to hold a fall sitting, we should cut their salaries for not fully performing their duties.

In making his case Will states, in part:

It should never be forgotten -- although often it is, and especially by backbench legislators who seek elevation to the cabinet -- that the legislature is more powerful than the executive. To repeat Locke's phrase, the executive is "visibly subordinate and accountable" to the legislative branch.

The legislature has the power to defeat the executive on legislation, and may even force its removal on a vote of confidence, or on a bill concerning the expenditure of public monies.

This is technically true but actually eyewash. Will gives examples of minority governments being toppled by the House and this does occasionally happen. But for majority governments -- never. In my research I can only find one example of a majority government being toppled in Canada and that was in 1873 when Sir John A. Macdonald was brought down by the "Pacific Scandal." That was before the days of ironclad party discipline.

Carrots and sticks

The premier has at his disposal powerful instruments of persuasion, some in the shape of a carrot, others like a stick. The backbencher is like Napoleon's corporal with the marshal's baton in his knapsack -- every MLA believes that he or she would do a better job than those arrogant louts in cabinet and recognizes that to get there, he or she must do as told.

There are parliamentary secretary positions that not only pay extra money over and above the MLA's position but are widely seen as stepping stones to cabinet. There is the Speaker's job along with the deputy Speaker's position. An MLA might be offered the first whip's position or his deputy's job -- both pay more and require no effort with a majority government. There are committees to chair and belong to, some of which actually do things and often in nice places. The premier also can direct government funds into an MLA's constituency, which is especially important if the MLA comes from a "marginal seat."

By the same token, of course, the premier can withhold spending money as promised. That, of course, is a stick.

The biggest and sharpest stick is the premier's power as leader of the party to refuse to approve of a candidate running under the party banner; we all know how "independent" candidates do in elections.

Perhaps the most important reason of all that majority governments don't fall is that no one, even those in safe seats, wants an election to jeopardize the lolly he gets.

The too-loyal opposition

The system is only a little less restrictive on the opposition who, after all, to a person, hates the guts of the government, making collegiality among their own ranks pretty painless. That being said, there are many examples of opposition members being "sent to Coventry" for not doing what they're told. John Cummins refused to allow a matter to go forward, it needing unanimous consent, which then-opposition leader Stephen Harper had promised. Cummins is shunned by his party. Cummins, a man who knows more than the entire Tory caucus knows about the fisheries (though that's damning with very faint praise) warms the farthest reaches of the government backbench where he will undoubtedly stay.

What Will doesn't say and what must be said is that the government MLA has no real function in the House except to support the government. There is no such thing as debate -- there is a ritual ring-around-the-rosie as bills are tabled, speeches are made and legislation is assented to. There may be a faint argument that question period is important but since that function belongs to the opposition you can hardly reduce their salary when it's the government that's keeping them out of the chamber. But his position is illogical then because you can't reduce the MLA's money for not sitting in the House when he does nothing of value when he's there anyway.

In my respectful opinion, Will would do more for all of us if he made it clear that Canadian parliaments are houses of make believe, and that if we're going to have anything remotely resembling democracy in Canada, urgent and radical changes must be made.

Too much PM power

What Will does raise is the entire question of representation and the value to be attached to it. This is a critical question.

On the surface, the American system would seem to have conferred less power in the legislatures and more in the executive, but that's not how it turned out. In both chambers, members of Congress are severely restrained by seniority rules, but when it comes to restraining presidents they have enormous clout and have exercised it. Three times in history, houses of representatives have issued a bill of impeachment against a president -- in two cases the presidents (Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton) were found not guilty after trial in the Senate. The third, Richard Nixon, was impeached but avoided a trial by resigning. Nixon knew that he would be convicted and got out while the getting was good -- the good being the presidential pardon from his successor, Gerald Ford.

Back to Canada. We have two huge flaws in our system, which must be repaired if the nation is to stay together and prosper as a democracy -- which today it clearly is not.

First, we must give the powers to our MPs and MLAs that they are, on paper, entitled to. If we don't, we'll continue down this road to absolute authority resting in the PM's and premier's office, that authority being exercised by the leader on advice of faceless but loyal party hacks.

Second, we must address, and soon, how we can avoid consistently giving a party with 40 per cent or less of the popular vote 100 per cent of the power. The present state of affairs means that the majority might just as well be voteless and means further that in normal times, the Liberal caucus in Ontario (and perhaps Quebec) is all a leader must satisfy.

The time may be coming when across the land there will be changes proposed to our system of governance. An informed citizenry will be needed so we can sort out the horse buns from the bonbons. To prepare for that, we in the media must surely start by understanding how the country is really run, not how it's run on paper.

It's time that make-believe democracy is replaced with the real thing.

Rafe Mair writes a Monday column for The Tyee. His website is

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