Saturday, July 22, 2006

Weekend Big Ideas: Peace, order, and good government.

In this post, I will argue for some substantial revisions to the Canadian federal Parliament, on the basis (largely) of reasons of fairness and responsibility to the electorate.

The Canadian federal government is currently made up of two houses: the Senate and the House of Commons (sort of an odd hodgepodge of American and British terms there). The Commons is made up of elected representatives from across the country, each representing a particular geographic region (a riding -- analogous to the American districts) and also each (usually) a member of a particular political party. The Senate, by contrast, is an appointed body, composed of Prime Ministerial appointees. The Prime Minister is the leader of the most numerous party in the House, and is elected as leader by delegates at a party convention. The Cabinet are selected by the PM (with much behind the scenes lobbying), and can be removed largely at his whim.

That the system is open to abuse is pretty clear. The Senate can become stacked with political patronage appointments, as can the Cabinet. The Prime Minister is often the most well-connected member of the party, not necessarily the most capable. And the House, frequently, is dominated by representatives from non-populous (usually rural) ridings -- hence, urban issues tend to be quashed.

Here's my (as humble as anything I say ever is) suggestions as to how to improve this. The first issue, obviously, is to elect the Senate. Not because I love elections, but because it provides a certain accountability to the second chamber; and, it would also provide a legitimacy to their opinions. As is, it would be far too easy for a Senate-blocked bill to be blamed on unelected stooges of a previous government, thus overlooking any legitimate concerns with the bill. However, there are many possible ways to structure an elected body, the principal division being between proportional and representative systems. (There are systems which have some seats proportional and some representative, but that seems to me to reflect an excessive concern with procedure over principle.)

I've always though, though, that the Americans were on to something with the different systems of elections governing the Senate as opposed to the House of Representatives. That is, Congressmen are elected representatively from districts, while Senators are elected two from each state. This seems to be an attempt to balance the need for direct responsibility to some fixed portion of the electorate with the need for fairly representing the makeup of the country in the government. I suggest, then, that the Canadian Senate be elected proportionally, and the House representatively. (Or, really, the other way around.) The problem with the US system is that the Senate treats all states equally -- a state as populous as New York has exactly the same number of Senators as a state as tiny as Rhode Island. The problem with making everything representative is it gives rural, relatively unpopulous ridings an undue amount of control over governmental proceedings. The problem, however, with making everything proportional is it gives urban, popular ridings the ability to undercut policies that would be of benefit to rural people. (A tyranny of the majority problem if I ever saw one.) The solution, then, is to balance the value of representation -- in that it gives a fixed chunk of the population someone whose job it is to defend their interests in Parliament -- against the value of proportionality -- in that it gives due weight to the mass affected by any given policy. Or, in other words, make one chamber elected proportionally, and the other elected representatively.

(As an aside, I take it as given that having the elections of each chamber be staggered is a good idea, particularly given the current absence of federal recall legislation.)

Also on the issue of elections, I suggest that the Prime Minister and the Cabinet be elected seperately from either chamber. This is another modification on an American idea. It makes sense, when there are two elected chambers, to have the (de facto or de jure) head of state sit apart from both, but be restrained (if not constrained) by both. An out-of-control executive has consequences that are clear from the current American situation. A second chamber that is effectively impotent has consequences that can be seen in the current Canadian situation (and can be seen throughout at least recent history -- when was the last time that the Senate made a difference to Canadian federal policies?). Electing the Cabinet as well, though, is not an American idea: the US President can appoint anyone he likes into his Cabinet. Which, of course, has the usual attendant problems with patronage and lobbying taking precedence over actual ability and responsibility to the electorate. So, I suggest that the Prime Minister not only have to face election to his position, but members of the Cabinet also have to face election to their positions. (This would require fixing the number of Cabinet positions at least before the election.) It would take control away from the Prime Minister over his Cabinet, which would force the PM to actually work with his Ministers, and thus significantly reduce the PM's somewhat authoritarian control over most significant aspects of government. Furthermore, it would force the PM to address views that he might not personally agree with, rather than internal party politics dictating Ministers defer to his judgement. The PM would become little more than (internationally) a diplomat and (domestically) a negotiator and manager: he would still have power, and some authority, but would not be able to force bad ideas through a recalcitrant Cabinet (let alone a recalcitrant Commons or Senate).

Finally, I would suggest that the time for political parties is done. Not for people of similar interests allying together to pursue those interests, but of big party machines that dominate elections and whip obedience from their members. Although this may, at one time, have been in the interests of the electorate, I don't see how, given a generally well-educated and capable populace, it makes sense to say that the only ones who have a chance at serving their country in public office are not those who can convince the public to vote for them, but those who can convince a cultural elite that they deserve to be labelled as "Liberal" or "Conservative" or "New Democrat". I think it's almost evidently ridiculous. Hence, while informal alliances should certainly be permitted, the formal organizations that are political parties should be made illegal. Not only would this open up the process to more interested individuals, and not only would it prevent the farcical process of whipped votes, it would also serve to force all Parliamentarians to negotiate with each other, rather than relying on party discipline to do the heavy lifting.

So, in summary, the suggestions are these:

  1. A proportionally elected Senate
  2. A representatively elected Commons
  3. A directly-elected PM and Cabinet Ministers
  4. No more formal political parties
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