Brent Rathgeber on our broken democracy

’A unified caucus is not dependent on a unity of opinion’
Conservative MP Brent Rathgeber stands during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, June 21, 2011. Rathgeber is sounding off against the expensive perks given to cabinet ministers.THE CANADIAN PRESS IMAGES/Sean Kilpatrick

Independent MP Brent Rathgeber has lately given a few speeches across the country on the topic of our “broken democracy.” Here are the speaking notes he’s been using.

Every four years or so, citizens elect a group of themselves to represent them at the respective levels of government.  The expectation is that the elected officials will provide representation; that they will pass appropriate laws and that they will hold government to account.  The bureaucracy (ie the permanent government) does not represent taxpayers or citizens; their job is to design and administer government programs and services.  It is the elected Parliament, legislatures and municipal councils who must represent citizens and taxpayers, if citizens and taxpayers are to be represented; it is the elected bodies that must hold government to account.  Failing which, government will by definition become unaccountable.

Responsible government is the essence of parliamentary accountability of the Executive. It means that Ministers of the Crown are accountable to Parliament for their decisions and for the performance of their departments.  It means that a government can govern as long, but only so long, as it has the confidence of the democratically elected assembly.

What is implicit in the concept of responsible government is that the executive is comprised of, but is distinguishable from, the members of the Legislature.

Canadians elect their legislators; we do not elect our governments. Our Constitutional Conventions which includes the concept of Responsible Government mandates that the Governor General will ask the leader of the party with the most support in Parliament to form a government.  But make no mistake, that government is chosen, not elected.

As an illustration, Christy Clark, when first elected as leader of the British Columbia Liberal party, was sworn in as Premier notwithstanding that she did not hold a seat in the British Columbia Legislature. She served as Premier of British Columbia for several months before seeking and obtaining a seat in a bi-election. Then in this spring’s election, her Party won a majority of seats, but she was defeated in her own Vancouver seat. She was subsequently again elected to the legislature in a by-election. Throughout it all, she remained head of the Government. Her premiership was uninterrupted.

Similarly, until recently, Senator Marjorie LeBretton served in the Federal Cabinet notwithstanding that she is unelected.  These illustrations should re-affirm the notion that although we elect our legislatures, we do not elect our governments.

That brings  us to the present day conflict between balancing the role of a Member of Parliament to represent ones constituents versus a different  role of the Member of Parliament  – that he or she serve as a mouthpiece for the Government and/or party under who’s banner he or she was elected. Parliamentary Reformers believe that a Member of Parliament should represent their constituents in Ottawa, not represent Ottawa to their constituents.

However, too much freelancing will inevitably put a Member of Parliament offside his party leadership, and adjectives like maverick, rebel or rogue will be applied to individuals who go offside. They will find themselves sitting on obscure committees or those with heavy workloads but no profile. They will find their names excluded from lists for sought after parliamentary junkets. 

I have no doubt that in the modern era of politics with the 24 hour news cycles, bloggers and other social media communication that messaging is increasingly becoming more important to political advisors than the soundness of policy. Accordingly any straying from approved party messaging is extremely frowned upon by political operatives and probably, correctly in their assessment, jeopardizes electability or re-electability of that party.

The question then becomes as a backbench Member of Parliament (and therefore not a part of the Government) to what extent do I subject myself to their attempts at control??.

 Speaking out on behalf of one’s constituents and holding the Government to account is the traditional and constitutional role of the Member of Parliament. Accordingly comments that suggest that backbench MP’s should be simply an extension of the communications branch of the PMO is really the more novel and even radical suggestion.

Moreover, fulsome debate is healthy and a free exchange of ideas should be encouraged, even among like-minded caucus members. A unified caucus is not dependent on a unity of opinion.

I have been very vocal for at least the last two years that a Member of Parliament’s role, and in fact Parliament’s role, is to hold the government to account. Even while a member of the CPC caucus, I had challenged the government on supply management, on ministerial limousines, on ministerial respect for taxpayers in their expense accounts and on the protracted time scheduling for reducing the deficit and paying down the six hundred and fifty billion dollar national debt.

Did these criticisms of my own government make me disloyal? Did they make me a maverick? Certainly not. I absolutely disagree with the notion that loyalty to the government or to the party leader requires that one blindly and without thinking, support every detail that the government says or does.

The constructive criticism of government cannot possibly be the equivalent of mutiny or even disloyalty. In fact I would suggest that lackeys, syncophants and yes men are less valuable to a government’s performance than constructive critics, who demonstrate their loyalty by constantly challenging the government to continually perform even better. As the “yes man” will blindly cheer at imminent policy derailment, the constructive critic, not shy of speaking truth to power, does the government that he serves a favor by advising his colleagues of the proposed policies shortcomings.

Last year’s proposed legislation on electronic surveillance provides a concrete illustration. The Government introduced its internet spy bill with much fanfare. But civil libertarians, academics and the media were less enthusiastic about the prospect of having private e-mails intercepted. However, it was not until Conservative Backbenchers such as John Williamson started speaking publically and I started blogging on the matter that the Government decided to first put the brakes on the problematic legislation, eventually wisely choosing to abandon it all together.

While syncophants and yes men continued to make hyperbolic statements and unfair characterizations regarding the opponents of the legislation, it was the constructive critics inside the caucus who were ultimately responsible for the legislation’s shelving.

The current scandal of the executive in the former Chief of Staff of the Prime Minister “gifting” $90,000 to a sitting legislator in an alleged effort to make the expense scandal go away and salvage the reputation of the Conservative appointment, represents an obvious and disturbing lack of separation between the executive and legislative branches of the Canadian Government. But what Canadians do not appreciate is that in the Ottawa bubble, this lack of separation happens every day—the Executive meddling in the affairs of the elected legislature, the affairs of Members of Parliament and even in Parliamentary Committees.

The Executive, over a generation, has grown much too dominant and the Parliament much too weak, even subservient.  Sadly, this has evolved to the point that the Executive (the Government) regards the Legislative Branch (Parliament) as an inconvenience and frequently without respect.  Prorogations to avoid a confidence vote and to shut down a Parliamentary Committee investigating Afghan detainee transfers in addition to 50 Time Allocation Motions in a single Parliamentary session is convincing evidence of a Government that would prefer to govern by Fiat, Order in Council and Executive Order rather than be accountable and answerable to the elected Parliament.

Canada for a variety of historical reasons has developed a party discipline that is beyond that experienced by most other functional democracies. The US Congress frequently passes legislation on bi-partisan support. We saw bi-partisan support New Year’s Eve on a Budget Bill to avoid a fiscal cliff and recently bi-partisan opposition defeated President Obama’s legislative attempts to extend background checks on gun owners. I take no position on the objectives of either piece of legislation; I simply point them out as illustrations of how a legislative branch is supposed to operate.

Western European democracies similarly have matured to the point that a policy disagreement within a party is not the making of a constitutional crisis, or the unmaking of a government or a party. Last month in Britain, Conservative Backbenchers joined with Opposition MP`s to defeat a Government motion to intervene in the Syrian Civil War. Yet the government survived and continued to govern.

Those who support iron clad party discipline and controlling messaging seem to want to make Parliament the equivalent of bad theatre. People with limited acting ability are handed talking points written by staffers; they read them with no actual debate ever taking place. One group of individuals serve as the playwrights and MP`s are reduced to mere actors, reading from prepared text.

Moreover, this perceived lack of efficacy of the individual Member of Parliament and lack of real debate is, in my view, the largest contributing factor to the complete lack of decorum in the current House of Commons. With votes being determined by Whips, there is no purpose in Members paying attention during the debate; they will be “instructed” by party leadership as to how they are expected to vote.

But worse, we reduce the House of Commons to the equivalent of the US Electoral College.  Under this analogy, Parliament would meet after an election to determine which leader has the most support in Parliament and thereafter all votes would break strictly on party lines, once it is known how the respective leaders are voting. It seems wastefully expensive, especially for conservatives, for the equivalent of the Electoral College to meet 27 weeks per year, having its members travel great distances, if its only function is to provide unequivocal support to the respective leaders.

It is indeed sad when Members of Parliament are reduced to mere automatons, dependent and loyal to their party above loyalty to themselves or their constituents.

The result of an executive becoming increasingly unanswerable and therefore unaccountable is that the Canadian taxpayers and Canadian citizens are increasingly shut out of the decision making process, with Government listening only to its political advisors and its bureaucrats.

Our system would greatly benefit if the experience and qualifications of Members of Parliament were more strongly emphasized in the policy making process and if Members of Parliament paid as much deference to their constituents as they do to their Whips.

Alternatively, we run the risk of revisiting a system where once again an all too powerful Executive is accountable to no one other than itself. Responsible Government was the solution to said problem 175 years ago when the Governor and his Executive Council were not accountable to the People`s Legislature.  Some would argue that we are perilously close to returning to Pre-Durham Report Democracy.

Libertarians believe that the greatest threat to freedom is the unchecked concentration of power. Even well intentioned leaders must be subject to checks and balances. Holding to account vets bad legislation and improves good legislation. Holding to account constantly challenges the Government of the Day to perform even better. Holding to account makes mediocre executives better, good Cabinets great and defeats bad governments.

However, if you consider yourself to be part of the government, as many backbenchers do, you cannot credibly provide checks and balances to that government. You cannot be a meaningful check upon yourself. You cannot simultaneously be cheerleader and constructive critic.

Having a democratically Elected Chamber hold to account the appointed Executive is the essence of Responsible Government and is fundamental to both democratic accountability and to good governance.  Had the CPC Caucus and Parliament genuinely done a better job in holding the current Government to account, the Government presumably would be performing better. The current Government would benefit from a Parliament that actually holds it to account.