Reprint: Op-ed on The Reform Act

Yesterday MP Michael Chong mentioned an op-ed of mine in his address to Parliament regarding the amended version of the Reform Act. The original article, written back in January 2014, is no longer available on the Citizen website; I’ve reprinted it here in full.

Healthy political systems require checks on power

BY STEWART PREST, OTTAWA CITIZEN
January 23, 2014

In a recent essay in the Ottawa Citizen, Andrew Potter dismisses the Reform Act tabled by Conservative member of Parliament Michael Chong as idealistic and unlikely to have an impact. With respect, I disagree with both his premises and his conclusion.

Potter advances two main lines of thought. Intriguingly, neither one actually speaks to the merits of the proposal itself. The first is that parliamentary reform proposals and their proponents are generally guided by an impractically naive view of politics. Since it will inevitably fail to bring about the “True Democracy” these supporters desire, producing instead a set of varied outcomes that simply benefit some and encumber others, such reforms should not be pursued.

The second argument relates to the lack of need for reform in Canadian politics. Specifically, Potter argues that the best one can hope for in a democracy is the regular cycling of elites via electoral mechanisms in a way that harnesses personal interests to produce a degree of public good. As long as elites regularly cycle through leadership of the country, Canada’s democracy is healthy. As long as it is healthy, no reform is necessary.

There is something at once Panglossian and fatalistic about these arguments and their conclusion. It is true that elite contestation is an important part of any definition of representative democracy, but to suggest it is the only relevant marker sets the bar unacceptably low. Surely we can expect more of our institutions than that.

Politics is not simply about the pursuit and exercise of power; it is about its regulation. Democracy is as concerned with the presence of effective checks on the use of political power as with the occasional elections that determine who wields it. It is his oversight of this fundamental point that in my view dooms Potter’s case.

In our contemporary Canadian democracy, the collection of formal rules and informal norms that together produce our political system conspire to place party leaders in positions of immense power relative to other actors in the system. They have a suite of tools that enables them to dominate their respective factions, most importantly by determining who will represent the party in each riding. In effect, they hold the power of political life and death over everyone in their caucuses.

These effects are further magnified for the leader of the party in power. In situations of majority government, the prime minister heavily influences, or controls outright, every major organ of power in both the federal government and their own party. Thanks to their influence over the fate of their own parties’ MPs, the prime minister can exercise this power virtually unchecked either within their own faction or in the broader system.

Potter is thus wrong in his assessment of Canadian politics: we do not have a system of cycling elites. We have a system of cycling leaders.

There are effectively only two checks on those leaders: general elections and party conventions. Between such comparatively rare events, leaders are free to wield power as they will. To say prime ministers’ powers are presidential are to give presidents too much credit; political scientists Mark Jarvis and Lori Turnbull suggest their powers are “more akin to historical monarchs.”

One needn’t be a idealist naïf to conclude that this is not a healthy state of affairs. If the RCMP and the auditor general constitute the most visible and effective checks on the prime minister’s agenda, something clearly has gone awry with the very notion of responsible government.

The Reform Act would go some way toward reversing this situation. It clarifies that prime ministers — and by extension their cabinets — serve at the pleasure of their parties’ caucuses. Their goals, their decisions, their governing style would be subject to regular oversight, not just a quadrennial job review.

Beyond this, the proposed reforms would restore to MPs the power to speak their minds, whether publicly or in caucus, and to represent their voters with a modicum of autonomy.

In all likelihood, the actual effects would be relatively subtle. Party leaders would remain powerful figures. It is unlikely one would see a rash of parliamentary revolts. After all, a party in turmoil is unlikely to succeed at the polls. The Reform Act would modestly adjust the balance of power in Parliament, giving MPs greater recourse to speak truth to power, and if necessary speak out publicly, without signing their own political death warrants

The result might be a little messier, but as Potter argues, politics is a messy business, and ours is a wonderfully messy, diverse country. All the better to have political institutions capable of incorporating, representing and governing that messiness more effectively and openly.

Stewart Prest is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of British Columbia. Follow him at Twitter.com/StewartPrest.

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