Decency alone can’t save Parliament

Andrew Coyne on an institution that’s largely irrelevant and increasingly impotent
Prime Minister Stephen Harper answers a question during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2010. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Decency alone can’t save parliament
Sean Kilpatrick/CP

This year’s Parliamentarians of the Year awards were, as ever, a grand occasion, and while I’d quibble with one or two choices, the recipients were all deserving enough. The premise of the event is a good one: there are decent, conscientious people in politics who take Parliament seriously and treat each other with respect, and it is worth recognizing them, if only to encourage others to follow their example.

Yet it was hard to escape a certain rage-against-the-darkness feeling about the whole thing. We can point to this or that exemplary individual, but it does not change the reality that Parliament is dying. Largely irrelevant, increasingly impotent, it is treated with contempt by those in power, matched only by the indifference of the general public.

The institution is caught in a death spiral, wherein each new assault on its prerogatives makes the argument for the next. The more degraded it becomes, the harder it is to rally people to its defence: it’s only Parliament, after all. So even after an unprecedented seven invocations of “time allocation”—a politer form of closure—to cut off debate in as many weeks, it wasn’t until Pat Martin’s foul-mouthed outburst on Twitter last Wednesday that the press gallery, who are paid to pay attention, could rouse themselves to make an issue of it. But their enthusiasm soon passed. All it took was last Thursday’s question period: by common consent the worst in years. Who, in all seriousness, could mount a defence of Parliament’s right to debate who had actually watched Parliament in debate?

To see how insidious this cycle of decline is, consider the Prime Minister’s warning to the public during the last election campaign: that, were they to deny him a majority at the polls, a majority of the House might then vote to remove him shortly afterward and put another prime minister in his place. Never mind the constitutional fact that such a move would be entirely within Parliament’s prerogative. Leave aside, too, the arithmetical fact that his party, in this scenario, would not even have a majority of the seats, let alone the popular vote. Just consider the message, and why it might be persuasive.

The Prime Minister was not merely advertising a probability. He was suggesting something unfair, even underhanded. Though his party had been elected by the people, their victory might be taken away from them afterwards. The unfairness of this depends upon an unspoken assumption: that the only vote that matters is the vote of the people on election day. Or rather, that the only aspect of that vote that matters is the party affiliation of the members of Parliament they elect. The votes of MPs are essentially irrelevant, as indeed are MPs themselves.

Parliament, in this version, is not a body of legislators charged with scrutinizing bills and holding government to account. It is simply an electoral college. Its sole function is to convert a minority of the popular vote, through the alchemy of the first past the post electoral system, into a majority of the seats. Should it fail in that responsibility, delivering what the British call a “hung Parliament,” the government is entitled to carry on without it, as governments have in recent years: ignoring confidence votes, or proroguing Parliament to avoid them.

Well, who could argue with that? Isn’t it true that MPs are elected almost entirely on the basis of party? Don’t they owe their seats to the party leader, more or less literally—after all, without his signature on their nomination papers they could not even have stood for office. Certainly MPs themselves seem disinclined to complain, publicly at least. Ask how they enjoy being a member of Parliament and they will burble on about the work they do in their constituencies, forwarding letters to the Immigration Department and the like. Everything but actually sitting in Parliament.

And so we get the kind of people in politics who are willing to accept a job with no meaningful responsibilities. And so we get the standard of behaviour, in Parliament and out, we should expect from people in that situation. And so, yes, MPs do become mere stand-ins for the party, and yes, Parliament becomes but an extension of the executive, more accountable to it than the reverse. And so the cycle of decline becomes an iron ring of futility.

The Parliamentarians of the Year awards are a brave attempt to reverse that dynamic, on the theory that if we treat MPs as somebodies, they will no longer be content to be nobodies. But I’m afraid it will take more than that. Over the years, I’ve proposed any number of reforms, ranging from giving caucus the power to hire and fire the leader, to cutting the number of cabinet minsters in half, to narrowing the aisle separating government from opposition. But all of these depend on someone in Parliament being willing to buck the status quo. But who among its present inmates is disposed to do that? Not the leaders, obviously. And not their obedient followers. After all, if they were the sort likely to rock the boat they’d never have been nominated.

Nothing will change in politics, I am convinced, until we give power back to the MPs. And nothing of that sort will happen until party members and riding associations demand it—until they insist their MPs be accountable to them, rather than the leadership. I hold no hope of that occurring in any of the established parties. But perhaps the Liberals will be willing to give it a try.