Canadian democracy is broken

But how to fix it? Columnists Andrew Coyne and Paul Wells debate the question.
Andrew Coyne and Paul Wells

Canadian democracy is brokenOn Sept. 23, Maclean’s will present a round table discussion on the subject “Our Democracy Is Broken: How Do We Fix It?” at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts in Toronto, to be broadcast live nationwide on CPAC, the public affairs channel. Guests will include former NDP leader Ed Broadbent, former prime minister’s chief of staff Eddie Goldenberg, and author John Ralston Saul. Maclean’s columnists Andrew Coyne and Paul Wells will host the evening.

To get things started, this week they discuss what’s wrong with Canadian democracy.

Andrew Coyne: Paul, the title of our little show in Toronto on the 23rd is “Our Democracy is Broken.” This might strike some as provocative, even over the top. Surely “Is Our Democracy Broken?” would have been more, um, Canadian?

But the more I think about it, the more it strikes me as apt. Honestly, is there anything about Canadian democracy that isn’t broken? Elections about nothing, parties that have been reduced to leadership cults, a permanently deadlocked Parliament, record-low voter turnout, and overlaying everything an atmosphere of coarseness, cynicism and mindless partisanship. And that’s the good news! The impotence of ordinary MPs, the irrelevance of Parliament, the near dictatorial powers of the Prime Minister: if we were writing about a Third World country with a system like ours, we would be careful to refer to the “largely ceremonial” Parliament and “sham” elections. Only force of habit prevents us from applying the same terms here.

Oh, and did I mention our appointed upper house?

I assume you feel much the same as I do. So my question to you off the top is: which is the worst of Canadian democracy’s many flaws? Where should we start?

Paul Wells: Well, Andrew, I’m not sure the House of Commons is the worst of our problems, but I find it’s handy to start at the centre and work outward. And the Canadian centre clearly cannot hold. At least in developing countries you run into the occasional “largely ceremonial” parliament. Ceremony implies some element of decorum, at least. If ours were to become ceremonial, it would be a step up.

Take Monday’s hijinks. Jack Layton, the NDP leader who has voted against this government at every opportunity, was suddenly lecturing the other opposition leaders about “making Parliament work.” (Brian Topp, his best strategist, managed to claim with a straight face that Layton “doesn’t run with the opposition crowd.” This would be the same Jack Layton whose party has never governed.) Meanwhile, it’s Michael Ignatieff who’s taken Layton’s place as the guy who’s eager to oppose whatever the government does, before he knows what that is.

What’s most striking about all of this is that none of it is about public policy. It’s pure tactics. Layton decided to back the government because Ignatieff had decided to stop, and Ignatieff decided to stop because he had already done too much backing.

This is how it’s been for five years. You once wrote a column arguing that minority governments are good for compromise and deliberation. That sounded sensible at the time, but I don’t see a lot of compromise and deliberation going on, or at least none that’s about the goal of better governance. But here’s the hard question: is that because of the personalities involved, or is there actually anything to be done about it?

AC: Tactical manoeuvring doesn’t bother me, as such. It depends on the purpose to which it is put. I don’t care whether a party votes with the government one day, and against it the next, as long as there’s some consistency of principle that connects the two. You could probably say that about Layton. You can’t really say that about Ignatieff, and certainly not about Harper.

Is that a matter of personalities? Partly. Mostly it’s about incentives, and culture. Incentives, in the context of a minority Parliament, certainly, but a minority Parliament in a system that was built to deliver majorities. And yes, I’m talking about first past the post here. Whatever stability it may once have promised breaks down in the kind of regionalized Parliament we now have—to which first past the post is itself a major contributor. The Bloc would not have anything like the stranglehold it now has in a more proportional system.

The perpetual brinksmanship that has given this minority Parliament a bad name is likewise a peculiarity of the present electoral system, with its highly disproportionate relationship between votes and representation: every party thinks it can parlay a swing of a few percentage points in the polls into a bushel of seats. Change to a system without such winner-take-all payoffs, and people might stop gambling and get down to business.

But look: the cynicism and opportunism you decry hardly began in the last five years. Our political culture is steeped in it, and has been for decades. That takes us into some of the more deep-seated problems I mentioned off the top. For example, do our elections have to be quite such sterile, pointless exercises as they’ve become? What can we do to fix them?

PW: I knew you’d get us to electoral reform by the short route, Andrew. For the longest time I rejected the whole notion. First, because I’m always skeptical of system changes, which always seem to replace one set of problems with another set. Second, because reform advocates’ attempts to prove their preferred system isn’t incomprehensible are, reliably, grim comedy. (“You just vote six times, put your left elbow on a goat, and find a slide rule.”)

But last year’s coalition wackiness made me revisit all that. First, you’re right about the Bloc: it’s crazy to consistently give them more seats than votes, and then get mad that they’re there. Second, because what should have been a defensible deal among parties provoked a paralyzing outrage in much of the country. Voting reform would force deal-making into the open. It would at least be honest.

But good luck selling a change like that before doomsday. What to do in the meantime?

AC: I’ll accept that system changes are harder to implement, if more necessary. But about those sterile elections: here are a few eminently practical, achievable changes we could make. One, fix the debates. I might not go as far as a recent paper by the Queen’s University Centre for the Study of Democracy, which would make it illegal for the Bloc leader to take part and mandatory for the rest. But it seems obvious to me that we should have more debates—to take the temperature down, to allow more time for substantive discussion, to make room for a variety of formats, and most important, to give the media something to talk about.

There’s no getting away from it: we in the media do enormous amounts of harm every election, as part of a malignant feedback loop with the parties. And, frankly, we can’t change—we won’t stop talking about polls and gaffes and gotchas until we’re given something more compelling to talk about. That something, I suggest, is a series of debates, perhaps one a week: the spine of future election campaigns.

That in turn suggests a much more formalized role for the debates, with the rules entrenched in the election laws, not negotiated at the last minute. And rule one would be: all debates are to be in English and French, perhaps in alternating half-hours, with simultaneous translation. No more French-only Quebec panderfests.

Other reforms? End the public subsidy of political parties: whether to contribute to a political party is a personal choice, and should remain so. But make voting mandatory: it’s one of your very few obligations as a citizen, along with jury duty and paying your taxes. Last, impose some sort of U.S.-style disclaimer on attack ads: you know, “I’m Joe Blow and I approved this message.” Parties say the most appalling things in ads that they could never get away with coming out of the candidate’s mouth. Now there’s an idea: why not require that candidates themselves actually voice the ads that appear in their name?

PW: I’m not sure why party funding is a personal choice, while funding the state and deciding its nature through voting for one party or other should be mandatory. I actually find mandatory voting an interesting idea (as long as penalties are trivial and symbolic), but it won’t actually change much.

More debates, on the other hand, couldn’t hurt. I thought last year’s version was quite good, with everyone sitting down. I’m not surprised to hear that format’s endangered. No good idea goes unchallenged these days. Hey, you know who could organize at least one good debate round to challenge the broadcast networks? The major print media. If the Globe, La Presse, Canwest, Maclean’s and l’Actualité offered a forum in our pages and websites, could we do better than the networks? It might be worth a try.

Finally, it’d be interesting to turn to the provinces, which have been timid on electoral reform, for examples of more modest best practices. Decorum in Quebec’s national assembly is far better than in Parliament—why? After several years of fixed election dates in some provinces, how’s that working out? Note that I’m all but abandoning Ottawa as a source of helpful ideas. Ottawa makes that easy these days.

AC: You’re right about that. But connect the dots: Ottawa is brain-dead, because debate, the lifeblood of ideas, has been outlawed—as a glance at question period will confirm. Debate is dead because MPs have become mere appendages of their parties, which is to say of party leaders. So we start running into some of those systemic questions you’d prefer to avoid.

The irrelevance of Parliament and the impotence of the individual MP are both, I think, rooted in the decline of the political parties as democratic institutions. I’ve long been a convert to the idea that the rot set in when parties began choosing their leaders by national conventions, rather than by the parliamentary caucus. Emboldened by this mandate, leaders could lord it over MPs without fear of reprisals.

Maybe we aren’t ready to have MPs choose party leaders. But must we have leaders choosing MPs? I mentioned the appointed Senate—but the Commons is effectively appointed as well, inasmuch as candidates are required to have their nomination papers signed by the party leader.

So one part of reviving national politics is restoring local democracy. But we can’t just yet, because local democracy is a joke. In no other advanced democracy that I am aware of are nominations decided by who can raffle off the most party memberships, or stack meetings with the most instant members.

Isn’t this just an internal party matter? Aren’t parties private entities? So are corporations. I don’t see anyone saying there should be no laws governing how shareholder voters are run. Should we impose any less obligations on the organizations that seek the power to rule us?

PW: Ah. So the Prime Minister can act like a martinet, even in a minority, because the parliamentary alternative—a coalition—has dubious legitimacy, thanks to the overrepresented Bloc. And because alternatives in his own party—potential new leaders—can’t get oxygen because of leadership-selection rules. Are those the dots you mentioned?

Like you, I buy historian Christopher Moore’s argument that MPs should select their leaders. There’ll be people who call that “undemocratic,” so how about this: MPs should at least be able to start a leadership race, by declaring in some kind of qualified majority vote that they’ve had enough of any current leader.

The problem with all of this, of course, is that the one person in Canada with the least interest in changing the system is, perpetually, whoever rode it most recently to 24 Sussex. But it helps to admit you have a problem, and that’s where we’ll begin when we meet in Toronto on Sept. 23. I think it’ll be fun.