Term limits for MPs: Hello, I must be going

Belinda Stronach has a new idea! Let’s take it seriously for a few minutes.

“Despite the apparent stability of a majority government, Canadian politics is in ferment,” she begins, to which some readers may wish to reply, “Sorry, what?” She adds that her last known party, the Liberals, have been “liberated by circumstance to think about the state of politics and the future of the country in a way the government just can’t do.” As in, a wildly undisciplined and unrealistic way? Yup!

Canada, you see, has political institutions created in the 19th century that are “unsuited” to the 21st. What does that even mean? Don’t ask. “The body politic needs an MRI and a treatment plan for what ails it” — sorry, what? — “but that’s a long-term and multifaceted project that requires national will to modernize our ways of governing ourselves.”

And what’s the right thing to do to a patient before you undertake a long-term and multifaceted diagnosis?


“I think the time has come in Canada for limits on the number of consecutive terms that a parliamentarian can serve,” Stronach writes.

Sorry, what?

Politicians should be engaged in a “constant and postpartisan search for solutions,” she says — OK, let’s stop there. Should they? There is, to take one example out of thousands, a party in this country which honestly believes it makes more sense to give parents a little money to care for their children as they like. That’s the Conservatives. And there’s a party which honestly believes the government should have a monopoly on organized child care. That’s the NDP. (A third party, the Liberals, has been trying for 40 years to decide what it believes on this question, and lately sides with the NDP.)

They honestly disagree on the solution. How are they supposed to be postpartisan? Multiply by just about every question a government faces.

But never mind. “In the way our current electoral system is structured, the focus is almost entirely on the mechanics of getting re-elected once elected,” Stronach writes. Well, no it isn’t. MPs do spend a fair amount of time worrying about re-election, but it’s silly to say their life is “almost entirely” about re-election. Here’s where one is tempted to say, not that term limits are “an American solution” — there is nothing wrong with stealing good ideas from other jurisdictions, as long as they’re, you know, good ideas — but that they attempt a solution to a peculiarly American problem: the awesome cost of campaigns in the U.S., which forces constant fundraising with its attendant corrupting influences.

Because, you see, that’s why the modern term-limit movement arose in the U.S.: proponents hope legislators won’t be corrupted in, at least, their last-ever campaigns.

“Some might argue that party discipline will suffer with term limits in place,” Stronach writes, “but is that such a bad thing?” What an excellent straw man. The parties with the largest number of rookie MPs in the current Parliament are the Conservatives and New Democrats. How have those cowed rookies dealt with party discipline? By swallowing it whole, of course.

Next comes the part where Stronach ignores the fact her reform cannot be implemented. Ah, here it is, right on schedule. “To make such a change would require specific legislation and, in the current political construct, the support at minimum of the government. But there’s no need to wait for that elusive moment.” What, implement it unilaterally? “I would urge the Liberal Party to adopt term limits unilaterally and internally in the way it treats its own approach to presenting candidates for election, becoming the Party of Public Service.”

If implemented by the Liberals today, a two-term limit for MPs would make all but 9 sitting Liberal MPs ineligible to serve the mandate for which they were just elected. The Liberals are the oldest caucus, in terms of parliamentary experience, in Parliament. And if implemented unilaterally, term limits would serve up the tiny crop of remaining, inexperienced MPs, whose constituents know them little, to be picked off at the next election by unknowns from other parties.

But there I go again, obsessing over re-election. All right then. In my life, one parliament has stood out for its fresh influx of rookie MPs whose only interest, I think it’s fair to say, was their honest belief about the national interest. That’s the parliament that was elected in 1993, when 100 Reform and Bloc Québécois MPs came to town for the first time. Stronach, who is my age, may be too young to recall what the two years before the Quebec secession referendum were like in Ottawa, but I think it’s safe to say “postpartisan” would not be the best adjective.

UPDATE: Susan Delacourt joins the fray.