Adventures in democracy

Questions about the Reform Act via Paul Wells
The Peace Tower is seen on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, November 5, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
(Sean Kilpatrick, The Canadian Press)

For utter certainty about the virtue of Mike Chong’s Saving Democracy Act or whatever it’s called, see Coyne. I was going to write, “For a followup column in which he grandly sweeps aside everyone else’s argument in a festival of it-was-said reflexive verbs, wait a day or two,” but I see he’s way ahead of me. Snotty brat/ enemy of democracy that I am, I still have some questions.

First, when’s the last time a parliamentary caucus in Ottawa failed to dispatch a leader it didn’t like? I’m going to tentatively pencil in “never.” Andrew worries that it took a long time and was messy in two notorious cases, Paul Martin vs. Jean Chrétien and Stockwell Day vs. The Obvious. I’m not sure it wouldn’t have been otherwise under other rules.

The Canadian Alliance had a small number of MPs who were sure Day should go. He wouldn’t, so they left. There followed a year’s awkwardness. Make the process crisper: Could those dissident MPs have stayed and forced what the Australians call a “spill”? Probably. Would they have won the ensuing vote? Probably not. A lot of Alliance MPs liked Day fine and thought the party’s travails were the fault of the media or Ontario or something. Others had decided he was trouble but weren’t sure they had an alternative. Stephen Harper wasn’t in politics at the moment; a quick caucus-led putsch against Day would have been stuck with available MPs as replacements.

As for Chrétien-Martin, formal rules would have helped solidify Chrétien’s command of the Liberals for some time, then probably cost him his job sooner after the 2000 election. But in the end, at roughly the time Martin was ready to make his move, he made it. I’m not sure that whole scenario was worse for democracy than the absurd spectacle of Australia’s then-governing Labor party tossing its leadership from one embittered combatant to another for just as long as it took to lose the election. I’m simply not sure it’s possible in modern times for a political party to remove its leader without a fuss.

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Chong’s bill has other provisions designed to free the back bench. One would have party candidates named by riding associations without any need for the leader to sign their papers. This assumes, as Tim Harper has pointed out,  that parties will have 338 healthy riding associations, which would seriously be a novelty. The effect of requiring 338 healthy riding associations will be to impose a very steep cost of entry for new parties. And if the riding associations aren’t healthy then special-interest groups will have fun stacking them, as pro-life groups did with the Liberal party 20-odd years ago. That adventure led to an earlier reform: giving the Liberal leader, fellow named Chrétien, the power to appoint candidates. Reforms tend to replace problems with different problems.

By now I clearly come across as one of these pesky naysayers. But I won’t throw myself across the tracks if MPs want to pass Chong’s bill. Indeed my early hunch that it would wind up passing unanimously now seems to be only slightly exaggerated. If the vote were this week, it would get a substantial amount of support from MPs in every party. If voting could change things, the old graffito goes, it would be illegal. Widespread affection for Chong’s bill isn’t quite the lonely struggle some of its champions predicted.

Much has been made of the sheeplike behaviour of back-bench Conservative MPs. As the Conservatives pointed out in the talking points they distribute to every party notable so they can be sure to answer the same thing to every question — this whole debate is, in Murray Kempton’s phrase, a Klondike of ironies — New Democrats and Liberals have actually voted the party line even more consistently than Conservatives in recent years. This is familiar from the Chrétien years. Group behaviour by the governing party is Proof of Our Dying Democracy, while group behaviour by the opposition parties is Forced On Us By the Dictators Opposite.

I see little thought given to why MPs would want to fly in formation. The glaringly obvious reason in the Conservatives’ case is that as soon as they gave it a try they stopped losing. It’s possible to imagine, based on assorted newspaper accounts of spineless or domineered Conservative MPs, that they are a morose lot in general. Oh, if only we could sing our songs of free markets, unrestricted Chinese state-owned enterprise access to the oil patch, and tightly restricted access to abortion! But no, the PMO holds us down. That hasn’t been my experience of them.

In my experience, life as an MP in a large party caucus is a global bargain willingly and continually consummated: MPs keep disagreement inside the tent, in return for a general feeling that they get to win more often than they feel like they have lost. Since Harper was elected, the Conservatives have tilted foreign policy hard over to align with Israel’s Likud party, abandoned any pretense on the Kyoto Accord, scrapped the long gun registry and the Wheat Board monopoly, cut the GST by two points and blocked any hope the Liberals ever had of building a new, national, one-size-fits-all daycare regime. Conservatives love these policies. Large-C Conservatives, I mean; ostentatiously non-partisan columnists with self-appointed gigs as the arbiters of proper conservatism have reservations. That’s fair. But if you’re a Conservative MP, in most cases you look at what a government led by Harper has done, compare it to what a government led by Stéphane Dion would have done, and sign on for more more more of whatever it takes to keep Harper where he is.

And if that involves talking points, it’s a small price to pay. In many, many walks of life, people forego free-wheeling conversation in return for some other advantage. The company that employs me circulates the usual assortment of corporate communications to all its thousands of employees. Most are not written by journalists because most of my company’s management class isn’t made up of journalists, and most of the emails are painstakingly composed, checked, amended and sanitized approximations of English prose. I can nearly guarantee your own company’s managers write in the same sort of language. The reason is the same: improvisation can have unpleasant consequences.

Meanwhile, Conservative MPs get to travel, interrogate bigwigs at committee, chip in sometimes during caucus debates, meet visitors from afar, feel like they’re a modest part of something big, and, every day, put another day between non-Conservative governments and power. That’s usually enough to make them willing, for a long time, to tolerate associated indignities.

Parties that operationalize the sort of grand bargain I’ve described have tended to do well electorally. (Jack Layton’s NDP was a message discipline machine, with Pat Martin as a kind of hood ornament.) Parties that haven’t have done worse. Pass Mike Chong’s bill if you like; I am sorry to be unsure how much it will really change.