Is Parliament dying?

Michael Ignatieff worries.

“I think something really bad has happened to parliamentary democracies all over the world — not just in my country, Canada. What’s happened is increasing power to the prime minister, increasing power to the bureaucracy, and the legislature — parliament — is a kind of empty, pointless debating chamber because it’s all stitched up in advance by party leaders,” Ignatieff said during a weekend panel discussion, aired by the BBC during its annual Free Thinking Festival.

“Honesty requires me to say I was a party leader once,” Ignatieff quickly acknowledged, “and my instincts were always to shut those people [dissenting Liberal MPs] down wherever I could. So I’m completely, flagrantly contradicting what my interests were not two years ago.” Ignatieff, appearing as part of a public panel alongside former Irish President Mary Robinson and Israeli author and journalist Amos Oz, said: “I do think we’ve got to have more free votes in parliament.” He conceded that such a change “will make it much more difficult for prime ministers and party leaders,” but better for citizens if they are “represented by MPs who can think and act on their conscience and on your interest.”

I can’t entirely disagree with Mr. Ignatieff because I basically wrote the same thing two years ago. But the “free vote” is like Westminster democracy’s unicorn: an idealized dream that would apparently make everything better if only we could somehow get it. (Fun fact: The Conservative party’s 2006 platform promised that a Conservative government would “make all votes in Parliament, except the budget and main estimates, ‘free votes’ for ordinary Members of Parliament.”)

If every vote was a free vote, our party system would probably collapse. Maybe that’s what some of us desire, but if we’d still like to maintain the basic parameters of the Westminster system, we need to find a balance between the unicorn that is dreamed about and the beached whale we have now. For the most part, I think, that means shifting some of the power that has congealed around the prime minister back to individual members and the legislature. On various fronts, consider the reforms suggested here by Peter Aucoin, Mark Jarvis and Lori Turnbull. As to the power of the individual MP, I’d start with rewriting the Elections Act to remove the veto that party leaders effectively hold over who runs under a party’s banner. That’s probably a private member’s bill waiting to happen. Or a leadership campaign proposal (if only there was a leadership candidate who was promising to do things differently).

So here are my questions. If Michael Ignatieff had it to do over again, would he propose rewriting the Elections Act to remove one of his greatest powers as party leader? And, if so, why didn’t he propose it at the time?

(The latter question is not meant to suggest he’s a hypocrite. I think there is probably a valuable conversation to be had about the very real pressures on a party leader that make it difficult to enact reform.)