Tuesday, June 14, 2011

On governance (2): Parliament

This one's going to be a little disconnected. The overarching thread, as said yesterday, is figuring out how to adjust our governing institutions to suit the importance of the principle of autonomy -- that is, the idea that legitimate government authority derives from our authority to govern ourselves. This is approximate -- there's something odd about the idea that we as individuals can even exist prior to social institutions -- but seems an appropriate way to approach the (clear, obvious, serious) need for government reform.

However, I don't have anything approaching a clear plan here. These are some obvious problems with our Parliament which (to my eye, at any rate) could be fixed, with a little will and a little luck, and would make our government better -- from the perspective of justice, at any rate.

I'm not sure why we have two Houses, rather than just the Commons. There seem to be two arguments, neither of which works all that well. It might be that some sort of regional representation is needed in Parliament. But that leaves me wondering why we need any such thing. The issues on which regional representation might be useful -- education, say -- are already in provincial hands. The issue the federal government speaks to -- immigration, say -- are the ones where regional representation seems pretty irrelevant.

The Senate might also be justified on the grounds that it slows down the process of legislation -- the "sober second thought", as the phrase goes, which stops the Commons from doing something silly. The problem here, ignoring that this is condescending bullshit, is that there are better ways to achieve that same goal.

So, we should abolish the Senate. It's a pointless institution.

When it comes to increasing individual autonomy -- and its recognition in government -- We could, and should, increase the size of the Commons. Our ancestor, the UK Parliament, has 1436 members -- 786 Lords, 650 MPs -- for a population of 62 million. The Canadian Parliament has 413 members -- 105 Senators, 308 MPs -- for a population of 35 million. Even with Senate abolition, and simply rolling the 105 Senators into the Commons somehow, something's clearly a bit off here. It seems to me that a citizen of the United Kingdom is getting better representation in Parliament. Each member is less likely to jump when the leader calls -- it's harder for Cameron to manage 306 MPs and 218 Lords than it is for Harper to manage 166 MPs and 55 Senators. Indeed, one might argue that it's impossible for Cameron to exert the same level of control Harper can. Cameron's cabinet is no bigger than Harper's (actually, smaller -- 23 to 39), thus giving a backbencher much less hope of reward for loyal service; and each MP is responsive to fewer citizens, thus making it easier to remove a too-eager loyalist come election time.

We should also undertake some serious reforms of the electoral process. Recall elections are an obvious reform. An MP in a majority government has greater job security than the supposed holy grail of job security, academic tenure. A tenured academic can be fired for a number of job-related offenses, as Ward Churchill could attest. But a sitting MP cannot be removed by the people he is supposed to be responsible to. This is not defensible, folks. There is literally no other job where you can be that secure; and the job of MP is, presumably, more important than most.

Some sort of proportional representation is also clearly necessary. I've heard the arguments against it, and they don't hold water. They're either finicky points about detail -- which does matter, but concedes the central point -- or appeal to features not exclusive to single-member plurality systems (stability, consistency). I don't credit the appeals to tradition as arguments, incidentally; that something is traditional provides it without an iota of justification, as the very traditional institution of slavery clearly demonstrates. The basic argument in favour of proportional representation is clear: my vote matters just as much as your vote, and the value of our votes shouldn't vary depending on who we choose to vote for or where we happen to live. To deny that is to deny democracy in favour of an admittedly benign despotism of the best-organized mob.

I'm also amazed that the Prime Minister retains the power to appoint the Cabinet, exclusively. In a majority government scenario, there's not a lot -- without a backbench rebellion -- to stop that, but why, exactly, is Parliament silent here? This is where we could learn something from the Americans; while the Cabinet is appointed directly by the President, those appointments must be approved by a majority vote of the Senate. The Speaker of the House is selected by popular vote amongst MPs; is that office of so much greater importance than, say, that of the Minister of Justice, or of Finance? Parliament is the only body in our system of government that can claim legitimacy derived from the citizenry, so it should be up to Parliament which, and how many, Ministers there should be in the government. (Keep in mind, after all, that the government's only function is to execute the will of Parliament. Parliament is the one that passes legislation.)

(Of course, the Prime Minister would be free to select as many advisers as he or she sees fit. I just see no reason to hand the powers of a Minister over to someone hand-picked by the Prime Minister, rather than giving Parliament a say in the process.)

For that matter, why exactly do we have a Prime Minister? What function does the office serve? Note that the office doesn't exist in the Constitution; it is created entirely by convention. So, of all reforms I'm toying with here, the one that would be easiest to enact is abolishing the position of Prime Minister. A form of Cabinet government -- one which would be responsive to Parliament, governing by consensus decision -- seems like it would be better able to respect the basic autonomy of the citizenry than our current form of (borrowing Savoie's phrase) court government, with the Prime Minister as king, surrounded by sycophantic courtiers.

Of course, the real function of the Prime Minister is to stand in for the head of state -- as the power of our titular head of state, the monarch, has waned, the power of the Prime Minister has correspondingly waxed, leaving us with an absolute ruler de facto.

The process of Parliament is also in need of serious reform; but here I go well out of my depth. Suffice it to say that the rules of Parliament, although some are clearly necessary, serve to make debate into a formalized and archaic spectacle. Like opera, it's nice for those that like it, but strikes the majority as irrelevant. That's okay for opera; it's not so okay for government. If one were to try to explain why Parliament is seen as irrelevant or unimportant by a significant chunk of the citizenry, this might be a place to start looking. If you can't understand what's going on, and what you can understand doesn't seem to matter, than why would you take this institution seriously?And how does such an institution genuinely serve the will of the people?

I suppose that the upshot of all this is that our Parliament has been allowed to evolve along a rather jagged trajectory, rather than being carefully nurtured into an institution that actually has legitimate political authority. A justified Parliament would be larger, operate on consensus, be directly responsible to the people it represents, and reflect more accurately the allegiances and convictions of the citizenry. It would thus be a genuine representation of our will, rather than the strange caricature it currently seems to be.

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