Every Canadian should watch this reminder of what the Westminster Parliamentary system could be, and how Canada has slowly given over more and more power to the PMs office.
Coyne is a great writer in the Progressive Conservative tradition – or what most closely resembles Edmund Burke’s Whig conservatism. He’s a conservative reformer, who is trying to save our traditions by calling for reform based on current challenges. The challenge for Canada is that many of our traditions (for example the role of the PM) is not written in the constitution.
I sometimes tell my students (following Walter Bagehot – founder of the Economist magazine) that the Parliamentary democracy has the advantage of efficiency compared to presidential systems. Now this has become far too true in Canada, where omnibus bills are rushed through the house, and where the PM has his hand in just about every cookie jar in government. The Senate scandal has shed light on just how much control Harper has in the Upper House.
Cabinet has become a bloated patronage circus. At close to 40 members, there is a high likelihood an MP will be named to cabinet, and keep their mouths shut for this reason. Other governments have much smaller cabinets – the US, UK, and Australia are between 12 – 20.
One of the biggest obstacles to meaningful debate in the House of Commons is the fact that the PM signs all MPs candidacy nominations, giving him the power to ruin someone’s career if they dissent with the PMO. Parliament is supposed to be a responsible government and representative democracy. Here, according to Coyne, is the litany of problems currently facing our system of government:
1. low voter turnout (politicians lying outright, campaign promises broken, corrosive attack ads meant to shut down thought)
2. First Past the Post voting (an increase in just 2% of votes can cause a dramatic shift in number of seats in the House with a “winner take all” system. Swing voters are fed wedge issues that distract from actual policy platforms)
3. Broken Parliament (omnibus bills, closures on debates, very few private members’ bills, no members’ statements without permission from party whip, mindless support in the House in the form of standing ovations.
4. PMO far too powerful (UK conservative caucus replaced Thatcher, but currently caucus does not have this power, no MP can run without signature of leader.)
Here is a partial list of offices the PM appoints:
Governor General, Senators, Ambassadors, Supreme Court members, crown corporation CEOs, Chief of the RCMP.
Coyne’s suggestions will not be palatable to everyone. For example, he’s in favour of mandatory voting, which has given Australia a 95% voting rate.
There is hope that some reforms are coming. The big story on the Hill currently is Michael Chong’s Reform Bill which will keep the PM accountable to caucus in the same way that UK and Australia does. Both Liberal and NDP leaders are on board, as are a good quarter of Conservative MPs. We’ll have to see how this incredibly important bill does in June 2014.
David Frum has this to say about the bill:
The empowering of factionalism poses special dangers to Canada’s center-right, the grouping historically most vulnerable to internecine squabbles. The governments of John Diefenbaker and Brian Mulroney ended not in mere defeat, but in party civil wars that banished conservatives from office for a political generation. Stephen Harper has avoided that fate, and he’s avoided it not — as his critics say — by crushing opposition, but rather by inching his way down the path of the possible. It may be dull to watch. But more exciting politics is not the same thing as better government.