Reforms we can learn from

Britain's political reform push is bound to draw Canadian attention

I’m not one of those Canadians given to looking to England for political inspiration. It comes from long years of observing transatlantic contrasts.

Way back when, my anglophile friends of the Conservative persuasion were greatly excited by Margaret Thatcher. But it turned out that Brian Mulroney offered a more nuanced Toryism and, with his Canada-U.S. free trade deal, was arguably more lastingly consequential here than she was there.

A little later, certain cosmopolitan Liberals of my acquaintance developed a thing for Tony Blair. So much so, in fact, that Jean Chrétien’s much more impressive fiscal record and far better understanding and intuition on the Iraq war never quite computed for them. How could a guy who talked so well prove less effective than a guy who talked like that?

Still, the coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats that emerged this week in London looks exceptionally interesting from a Canadian perspective. The main reason is the set of electoral and parliamentary reforms the new Tory prime minister, David Cameron, has agreed to as the price of winning over Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem leader.

All the key measures are familiar to any Canadian who has had paid any attention to various attempts at reform in this country. Here are the main items:

1. Fixed five-year parliaments. The next general election in the UK will be held on the first Thursday of May 2015. Parliament will only be dissolved before then if 55 per cent or more of the House votes to go to the polls. (In the fall of 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper called an election, ignoring his own fixed election date law, and thus exposing the toothlessness of that legislation.)

2. The British coalition will hold a referendum on what they call the “Alternative Vote.” The proposal would be a step toward proportional representation. Voters would rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate reached 50 per cent or more, the last-place candidate would be eliminated, and the second choices from those ballots redistributed to other candidates. This process would be repeated until one candidate had a majority. (It’s not unlike nothing like [see corrective comments below] the reform proposals rejected by voters in British Columbia last spring, and in Ontario in 2007, but the aim to replace the first-past-the-post-system is the same.)

3. The parties will introduce a recall mechanism, letting voters in a particular constituency force a by-election by means of a petition, if their MP is found guilty of serious wrongdoing. (The old Reform Party of Canada long favoured recall powers as a way of making politicians fear the popular will of their constituents.)

4. The coalition will create a committee to propose some form of election for the House of Lords. Long terms are expected to be part of the package, along with proportional representation. (Major Senate reform in Canada has long proven next to impossible to achieve, leaving the Harper government to proceed on it in an incremental, piecemeal fashion.)

On some other elements of the UK coalition’s reform plans, Canada is already ahead, notably on limiting political contributions and requiring lobbyists to register. But on those four other points, we’ll now be able to watch to see if the Brits make progress where we’ve been stalled.

Will their fixed-election law be meaningful? Will their referendum on a new way of voting capture the public imagination? Will the threat of recall become a serious new discipline on MPs? Will an overhauled House of Lords finally make us too ashamed of our Senate to delay any longer in either abolishing or fixing it?

It’s all well worth watching. It might even be enough to make it possible to stomach the usual abject gushing from self-loathing Canadians about how fascinatingly sophisticated British politics is.

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