How to fix democracy. Step one ...

‘MPs have surrendered authority to the point where everybody thinks of them as trained seals’

How to fix democracy. Step one . . .Last week, CPAC and Maclean’s presented ‘Our Democracy is Broken: How do we fix it?’, a panel debate featuring former NDP leader Ed Broadbent, author John Ralston Saul, former Reform party strategist Rick Anderson, Jean Chrétien’s senior policy adviser Eddie Goldenberg, and Andrew Coyne and Paul Wells from Maclean’s. CPAC’s Peter Van Dusen served as moderator. An edited excerpt of the discussion:

Coyne: The British question period is so much better than our question period it makes you weep. The questions in the British question period are actually questions, the answers are actually answers. There’s a lot of ribbing and heckling, but it looks like how parliament is supposed to look.

Wells: Question period’s a good place to start. I don’t think it’s the cause of all of our problems, but it sits there in the middle of the parliamentary day like some malignant crow and poisons everything else. Imagine having an argument with your spouse or partner in which each of you could only have 35 seconds at a time to make your point. The evening would go downhill really quick! Well, they do that every day in question period. They implemented that 35-second shot clock because there were five parties in Parliament 15 years ago. Now that there’s four, one of my modest proposals is to give everyone 45 seconds. I also think we should move question period to the morning so that everyone has the rest of the day to recover. And, like the Brits, we should only require the prime minister’s presence one day a week. On another day, have the economic ministers taking questions about their economic policy, and on another have social ministers taking questions about social policy. We could actually discuss the complex affairs of a complex country as though we were grown-ups.

Broadbent: I think the electoral system and the lack of civility are related. Look at Germany, where [voter] turnout is about 80 per cent compared to around 60 per cent in Canada. They’ve had what we would call a minority government in Germany for the past three or four years. Two of the larger parties sat down and said, “No one’s got a clear majority so let’s reflect how Germans voted,” and negotiated a long-term agreement. If we did that here in Canada—recognize no party’s likely to have a majority—then we’ll also get some more stability.

Goldenberg: There’s a big difference between talking about our democracy, in general, being broken, and a problem with how question period operates. Democracy is messy, and it’s partisan. It is partisan because different parties stand for different values and they ask the people to judge. The reason I say our democracy isn’t broken is the country is working pretty well. We’ve come out of a difficult economic situation better than almost everybody else. And why? Because our regulatory process, passed by Parliament, has been pretty good. We’re a country that is tolerant; we don’t have a lot of the racial, religious or sectarian problems of other countries, in part because of our democracy. Can the House of Commons work better? I’m certain it can. But are there other countries in the world where parliaments or congresses can work better? Absolutely.

Saul: Whether it’s broken or not, if [people] think it’s broken, maybe that’s why they stop voting. They feel that democracy and the people who get power aren’t talking ideas, and aren’t taking those ideas into dealing with essential needs and problems.

I don’t think the problem of our House of Commons is a lack of civility, it’s a lack of ideas. If you read the debate on the rebellion losses bill in 1849 that led to the burning of the Parliament buildings and attempts on the life of pretty well everybody who was running the country, it was a fabulous debate. It was really rough. But it was filled with ideas. There’s nothing wrong with raucous, providing there are ideas in the raucous.

Anderson: I don’t think there’s a shortage of ideas. I know a lot of parliamentarians on both sides of the aisle; many have good ideas. But modern politics is not an idea-friendly zone. It’s not that the participants don’t have good ideas, it’s that when you do, you get no reward, you don’t get covered, you get drowned out by other stuff. I’m not trying to just blame the media, because it’s not just them. The parties themselves do this. Mr. Dion can make a serious speech about foreign policy and his opponents don’t even bother to respond.

We’ve got an increasing concentration of power in the hands of the party leaders. We routinely watch party leaders tell their MPs how to vote; we watch them tell people who can and who can’t be candidates. We’ve reduced this rich discussion of 300 parliamentarians into what the three or four party leaders are saying. It’s robbing us of the diversity of views and the variety of expression that exists in Canadian politics. It’s also broken the relationship between all of you and your MP, who’s regularly perceived by Canadians to have no particular independent authority: they do what they’re told.

Coyne: Every party leader comes in promising to give more responsibility to MPs. It never seems to happen. What can we actually do to change that?

Anderson: First of all, freer voting in the House of Commons: let the MPs decide how they’re going to vote on most votes, let them represent the constituents who elected them, their city, their rural area. Don’t treat it as a rebuke to the leader. A second thing is we could tell leaders to stop fooling around with the nomination process of candidates. In a lot of ridings, like half, it’s clear at the beginning of an election which party is going to win. Couple that with allowing leaders to choose candidates by appointment rather than having the local members pick candidates, and you’re basically appointing MPs.

Coyne: Isn’t part of the problem, though, that even if you did have all kinds of free votes, that MPs willingly enlist as foot soldiers? Because their ambition leads them to say, “The only way I’m going to get into cabinet is if I keep my nose clean.”

Anderson: That’s true. MPs have gradually surrendered authority to the point where everybody thinks of them as trained seals.

Goldenberg: There are two points about MPs that I’d like to make. One, parties get elected on platforms, and the MP should be helping to implement the platform on which he or she has gotten elected. But more important than that, let’s look at the United States’ system. Two parties and 435 members of the House of Representatives. They’re all fundamentally independent. There’s not much party discipline. And who has the most influence? The interest groups, because it’s a lot easier to influence three or four members of Congress than the government as a whole. Lobbyists have an enormous influence in the United States that they don’t have in Canada. That’s partly because we have a system of party discipline.

Saul: It used to be that when a cabinet minister stood up to speak or the critic for that cabinet minister on the other side, their opposites sat in their seat to listen. When the prime minister got up to speak, the leaders of the parties stayed to listen. When Mr. Broadbent got up to speak as the leader, the prime minister stayed to hear what Mr. Broadbent had to say, partly out of politeness, partly out of respect for . . .

Broadbent: No, he just wanted to hear wisdom!

Saul: Of course, I was coming to that! Very gradually, over the last 25 years, it’s a policy–as far as I can see it’s a policy–that you do not stay because you will be giving credibility to what the other people said on the other side. The other side of the House empties when someone stands up to speak. How can you possibly ask citizens to take this seriously if members on opposing sides won’t stay and actually listen to words? You can’t talk about ideas if nobody will stay to hear what the opponent says.

Wells: One of the things that struck me is that over the last decade or so, our political leaders have gotten out of the habit of turning to the Canadian people when there’s an important issue before the country. Pierre Trudeau ordered up some TV time and gave a long set speech in prime time about constitutional reform, or the elections in Quebec, or wage and price controls. Mulroney used to do that, I believe; Chrétien did, certainly just before the referendum and once or twice after. Paul Martin and Stephen Harper have not gone on TV to explain anything except the necessity of their continuing to govern. I find that disappointing. In Poland the foreign minister has to get up once a year and explain, in a long set speech, the foreign policy of Poland as regards the entire world. We could swipe that idea. Our leaders have worked themselves into a state where they think the only way to advance stuff is to kind of sneak it through while no one’s looking. We’ve got a Prime Minister who’s very good at his job, who seems to have a lot of public support, and who is really happy to play where the ref isn’t looking, and I’m not sure that’s healthy in the long term.

Coyne: We actually have, by a lot of standards, very intelligent, able people leading our political parties. The system drags them down to our level. You’ve got a Michael Ignatieff, who’s written several books, is as eloquent as they come, and he gives the most banal, dull, stupid speeches and it’s sad because he’s obviously capable of more.

There’s been a lot of mention of the media’s contribution to this problem, and I’m here to tell you it’s as bad as they’re saying, and worse. We do a miserable job covering elections, and we do an even worse job between elections. Mostly, people want to know: who are these people running for office and what are they going to do for us? If we answered those two questions, we’d be doing a lot better job, but it’s tough to do that for an entire campaign. A possible way of addressing this is the role of the televised debates in our campaigns. There was a very interesting report from the Queen’s University Centre for the Study of Democracy that came out recently. It said rather than having these big prizefights that we have, where we only have one in each official language, what if we had a series of debates, one a week at least, and not just necessarily involve the party leaders but maybe the finance critics and the foreign affairs critics. What if we constructed the campaign around these debates, and not these meaningless leader tours? Does anybody think that would achieve much?

Broadbent: I think it’d be an excellent idea. If at least once a week in the campaign the leaders could sit down calmly and discuss foreign policy, social policy—and structure it so it’s a discussion, not an aggressive exchange—and involve critics and other members of Parliament, it would be a lot better. People who like wrestling matches won’t watch, but people who want to watch a serious discussion and make their minds up based not on who’s the best fighter but who is the most thoughtful leader will.

Anderson: I think more debates would probably be a good idea, but I would be very pessimistic about the parties—particularly the party leaders—agreeing. As long as you’ve got this negotiation amongst the broadcasters and the parties, basically the parties essentially get to decide how many there’s going to be, and the fewer the better. The opposition parties only need one punch to land and the government wants the least number of these opportunities.

Coyne: Can I throw in the mix, as an admittedly blunt-instrument solution to the decline of democracy, mandatory voting. It works in Australia. It’s not the be-all and end-all but as part of a general re-engagement of saying, “Look, you have the right to decline your ballot, you have the right to say none of the above; what you don’t have a right to do is sit on your duff.”

Broadbent: Let’s pretend we’re in Calgary and there’s an election coming, and you’re a Liberal or a New Democrat. You’re going to go home and forget it, because every MP elected is a Conservative! Or if you’re a Conservative in downtown Toronto, you can almost forget it, since there’s not a Conservative elected, although Mr. Harper’s party got thousands of votes in Toronto. You’re not likely to be as motivated to vote, to put it bluntly, if you know there’s not a hope in hell you’re going to elect anyone. This is true for a lot of regions in Canada. We have to change the system so every Canadian in every region will know his or her vote will count.

Goldenberg: I won’t comment on the proportional representation. I don’t like it. I don’t think that it works. I think you end with perpetual minority governments.

Coyne: Sort of like now.

Goldenberg: I’ve always believed in the collective wisdom of people. People in 2004 weren’t prepared to throw Mr. Martin out but they weren’t prepared to give him a majority. In 2006, collectively, Canadians were prepared take a chance on Mr. Harper but they weren’t prepared to give him a majority. It was the same thing in 2008. I’m not sure if we’re going to have minority governments forever. We may have another minority government, but there have been minority governments in the past. Things change.

We have a real problem in this country because there isn’t a political leader who has the guts to say that his programs are going to require a tax increase.

How do you have a debate where a political leader doesn’t commit political suicide by saying that we want to get rid of child poverty, or we want to increase spending on the military, or whatever, but people are collectively going to have to pay for it? Mr. Ignatieff, actually, a few months ago, said maybe he’d have to increase the GST back to seven per cent. I thought that made a lot of sense. The story was “Ignatieff’s gaffe,” and unfortunately he’s back-pedalled, I think wrongly.

Coyne: If people did say they were going to raise taxes, I’m not sure anybody would believe them. We’ve got to the point where people reflexively disbelieve whatever comes out of a politician’s mouth, and they’ve got good reason to because people run on a campaign of saying, “I’m not going to raise taxes,” and then they do. They run on a campaign of saying, “I’m not going to freeze wages and prices,” and then they do. They run a campaign saying, “I’m going to get rid of the GST,” and then they don’t. We’ve been burned so many times, it’s scalded people to the point where they just don’t believe anything that comes out.

Goldenberg: That’s a bit simplistic, Andrew.

Coyne: I think it’s validated by events. Look at the present government: “We’re not going to tax income trusts,” and then you do, “We’re not going to x,” and we do y.

Goldenberg: There’s a problem with that. And they expect politicians to say exactly what they’re going to do for the next four or five years regardless of how the world changes. Nobody can do that in their personal life. Nobody can do that in their business lives. It just doesn’t make sense and we’re creating expectations and then we’re cynical if we don’t meet them.

Anderson: We’ve come to the point where that which is good public policy is deemed to be bad politics, and that which is good politics is bad public policy. We can’t even begin to have an honest discussion in this country about health care, because immediately everybody runs off into two camps and they start clubbing each other over the head with blunt instruments.

Van Dusen: What is the obligation of leaders to make a Parliament work?

Coyne: It’s a matter of incentives. Our system’s not built for multi-party minority governments, it was a system that was constructed in an age of two-party politics, and it works pretty well with two parties. When you get to three or four or five it breaks down. The system’s so highly leveraged that a two per cent swing in your popular vote leads to a 60-seat swing in your seat count, and so everybody thinks, “If I can just get another two percentage points we’re going for a majority”—and so they all have their hands on the trigger. To ask them not to behave in accordance with that incentive is asking too much—it’s asking the leopard to change its spots.

Anderson: Well, I agree with that, and the answer once again is proportional representation. But there’s another aspect, I think, to Peter’s question, which is the attitudes, the baggage that everybody brings to how Parliament should work. Is it really too much to just say, ‘We elected you to serve four of five years, stay there and work it out. If the government’s budget is defeated, go back and rewrite the budget until you’ve got enough votes in Parliament to get it passed.’ Why does the government have to fall and we have to have an election every time? We should take away some of these weapons. We should not accommodate them when they come out of caucus meetings in the summer and start saying, “We’re not going to do any business but we’re going to call an election. We don’t even know what the issue’s going to be, we don’t know what the vote’s going to be, we don’t know what it is we don’t agree with, but we’re going to do it.”

Van Dusen: So fixed election dates, no ifs or buts, nothing, short of a confidence . . .

Anderson: I like fixed election dates.

Broadbent: Mr. Harper seems to ignore it.

Wells: We’re about three weeks away from the next election, yeah.

Anderson: Isn’t that . . . what is it, it’s next month, isn’t it?

Wells: Yeah. I wonder how it’s going to work out!

Goldenberg: There are a lot of people in a lot of countries who wish that their problem was that there were too many elections. It’s not all that bad to have a chance to choose your government.