The eternal, futile quest for perfect democracy

Parliament returns amid some desire for change

In the fall of 1984—long before Brent Rathgeber or Elizabeth May or Michael Chong’s Reform Act—when the House of Commons convened to mark the arrival of a new government with a Speech from the Throne, the first item on the agenda was not the economy or taxation or health care or federalism. It was political reform.

“First, you must critically examine the relationship of Parliament with the people of Canada,” Jeanne Sauve explained. A task force would be assembled. The “central focus” of which would be “the enhancement of the role of the private member.”

The Special Committee on Reform of the House of Commons was thus created on December 5, 1984—chaired by Progressive Conservative MP James McGrath, a future lieutenant governor of Newfoundland—and by the time the committee delivered its third and final report in June 1985, it had heard from 50 witnesses, accepted 185 written submissions and travelled to Washington, Bonn, Paris and London, incurring total expenses of $820,891. The dozens of observations and recommendations of the McGrath committee, which built upon the work of a previous parliament’s special committee, covered the procedures for Royal Assent, the confidence convention, the election of the Speaker, the work and independence of committees, the television coverage of the House, the scrutiny of government appointments and various points in between and beyond.

“With the adoption of our recommendations, private members will have the opportunity to play a positive role in the policy-making process, Parliament will benefit from their contributions, and Canadians will witness the emergence of a revitalized and vibrant institution,” the committee concluded. Though it noted the positive aspects of political parties and caucus unity, “the judgment of this committee, and of almost all our witnesses, is that Canadian politics has become too dominated by the ethic of party solidarity.”

(Courtesy of the Library of Parliament, the third report of the Special Committee on Reform of the House of Commons can be downloaded here (pdf) or viewed here (Scribd).)

History can be a humbling read, at least insomuch as you might assume that there are any original complaints left to register. And the cynical conclusion would be that if the McGrath committee, with its effort and precedence, could not forever fix the system, Mr. Chong and the Reform Act have little hope of doing much better. Which is not to say that it would be wasted effort.

On that note, a little light reading to start (somewhat belatedly) a new year and begin a new sitting of Parliament.

Frank Graves worries that a lack of trust is compromising the legitimacy of our democracy. Ken Dryden considers the meaning of Rob Ford and Chrystia Freeland considers snark and the poor regard we have for our politicians. Susan Delacourt wonders if the Canadian electorate is troubled. Kevin Page says our political institutions are failing us and Rick Anderson basically agrees. Radical Centrist explains five ways in which Parliament should be reformed. Don Lenihan reports on the Trudeau team’s interest in open government. Andrew Coyne considers the collective failure of us and our political leadership. And Andrew Potter considers naifs and cynics and suggests the Reform Act is not worth pursuing.

All of those ruminations you can view as pieces of a whole—entries in an anthology of writings entitled, “Just How Crappy Are Things Going?” Subtitle: “Leading writers consider how awful and desperate or possibly hopeful we should feel about our current situation and the proposed remedies.” And so we begin a new year and so Parliament returns amid some general concern about the state of things—about our institutions, our politicians, our politics and ourselves—and some general desire for reform.

We can go back further than 1984 to find expressions of concern for the state of things. Here, in 1977, is the essay of a Liberal MP on the situation of the backbencher. Here, in 1965, is the lament of an academic (who would be elected to the House of Commons 19 years later as a Progressive Conservative) about Parliament’s decline. Here, in 1957, is a Progressive Conservative MP, positing that “Parliament has not been able to hold the Government fully responsible or accountable in every way and on all occasions.” Here, here and here are laments from members of the press gallery circa 1938, 1933 and 1916 respectively. And here, in 1905, is the leader of the opposition (and future prime minister), observing the centralization of power and diminishment of the legislature. “As it has been truly observed,” he says, “the debate in Parliament has little or no influence in determining the course which the House of Commons shall eventually take with regard to the measure.”

The examples here, of course, are anecdotal. An analysis might find that the frequency of complaint has increased in recent years. But we could conclude that we are mere hamsters on an eternal wheel. Or hamsters descending along an infinite downward spiral. Conversely, it could be that disenchantment is constant, but that, as in most other areas of human development, we are better off politically now than we were in 1867.

We should pause for a moment to appreciate what we have. We continue to exist and function as a nation with regular elections that are basically free and fair. (Huzzah.) In its present state—or even in its present state—the House of Commons is a wonderful place. Not merely as a grandly designed and decorated space, but as a place where those who represent and are beholden to us are set amongst and against each other in hopes that they might manage our collective affairs and lead us forward. Question Period, even at its least edifying, is an incredibly interesting and valuable invention. The legislative process, even at its most somnolent or least rigorous, is still a credit to our society. It is all a splendid and wondrous work of tradition, formality and humanity.

And it remains a place that is ultimately, or at least theoretically, beyond any one person’s control.

John Pepall’s argument against reform is at least a useful dissent and it is prudent, even if while clamouring outside Centre Block with pitchforks, to concede the fundamental qualities of the system we have. But an argument for the status quo still has to answer the complaints and concerns about things as they presently are. The complaints of our forefathers do not disqualify our own concerns. Are none of those laments legitimate? Is Parliament sufficiently serving us now as a forum for debate, representation, governance and accountability? Might we imagine it being somehow better in some ways?

That—amid larger philosophical questions about the meaning and nature of “democracy” and “Parliament” and the MP—might be the eternal question.

Of course, change is not necessarily wise. The Reform Act might be wonderful idea, a bad idea, or a series of bad ideas. Newton’s third law is probably applicable: whatever the Reform Act might do to change the forces that currently govern our Parliament, it will inevitably be subject to counteractions. Reconfiguring the highly complicated manner by which our politics gets made—the cultural and practical forces that influence us and the people we elect—is not so easy as simply amending one clause of the Elections Act. And even if the procedure can be changed, the culture might not be so easily moved. “You can only do so much procedurally,” Mr. Blaikie says. “I always say you can lead members of parliament to freedom, but you can’t make them drink. They have to have the collective and individual courage to use it.”

Seven years after the McGrath committee, a meeting was convened to consider what progress had been made. The committee’s recommendations had led to changes to committee business and private members’ business and the election of the Speaker. And yet. “As someone who was part of the committee,” Mr. Blaikie said then, “I think it’s fair to say that I am discouraged about what has happened since that time.” Mr. Blaikie lamented for an “enormous slide” in public perception of parliamentarians. The power of Parliament had been eroded by the rise of lobbyists, pollsters, executive federalism, trade agreements and the PMO. Progressive Conservative MP Patrick Boyer later pronounced that the House of Commons’ time had passed and that direct democracy—referendums and such—was the future.

A year after that meeting, the Reform Party arrived on the Hill with heady ideals and thoughts of change (oh for Young Stephen Harper’s laments for omnibus legislation). And a decade later, Paul Martin promised to reduce the “democratic deficit” and a committee of parliamentarians issued a report on the need for change. And a few years after that came Stephen Harper with the Accountability Act and a parliamentary budget officer (and the promise of more free votes).

We would seem, of course, to have been tinkering for some time. (Jack Stillborn has written that until the 1970s, the focus of reformers was making the House of Commons more efficient. Then the feeling became that Parliament was too efficient and that the individual MP needed to be empowered.) In his remarks at that 1992 conference to consider the McGrath committee, Mr. Blaikie allowed that perhaps tinkering had created a Parliament in which nothing was sacred and where those who would run roughshod over Parliament felt less bashful about doing so. But having allowed ourselves to start fiddling with the system, we might not stop now.

Are we somehow at present in a uniquely or particularly bad spot? Are our institutions, whatever their better qualities, failing us? Has our dissatisfaction, justified or not, reached a dangerous level? Have our politics become so rotten that something must be done? I’m tempted to quibble with those who fret most dramatically on this particular point—I have some faith in our ability to muddle through—but I do wonder whether there might be something to this concern, whether there is danger in cynicism and whether we might be on a path towards a bad place. If I was a better student of history, I might be able to see our current situation in a comforting context. Or I might be told that everything is tenuous. One should be careful about imagining that they live in extraordinary times, but one might be allowed to imagine that all times are somehow extraordinary.

I think I would say that accountability and relevance should be the primary principles of any change—or simply our expectations at all times. The latter may follow in some ways from the former, but in addition to making the House of Commons a better forum for holding government to account, I would prefer to see the chamber as the primary forum for our politics, with all the deference that requires—even now that wonderful place remains just beyond the total control of the professional communicators whose advice now dominates our politics and as such it should be understood to be our most valuable real estate.

Whoever is responsible for dubbing it so, the Reform Act’s colloquial name echoes one of the great reform bills in parliamentary history. And when Michael Chong tabled his bill on the floor of the House of Commons, he invoked the names of Robert Baldwin and Louis Hippolyte Lafontaine, two of the men who we credit for getting us to responsible government. That Mr. Chong would invoke them might seem presumptuous, but if there is (or need be) a defence for the inherent idea of reform, it might be in that it is by virtue of reform and reformers that we have what we have. Our system has developed over centuries, and should be respected as such, but it was not transcribed from God. It is the work of slow progress and change—slow being an advantage insofar as a system that was too easily changed would be too prone to flights of fancy. And if are blessed of the parliamentary tradition, we might be equally blessed by a similarly long tradition of some desire to see our Parliament improved. “Parliament is a work in progress,” says Mr. Blaikie. “And you can’t give up on it.”

In considering cynics and naifs—I would consider myself a centre-naif on the continuum—Potter writes that “Chong’s bill is just another in a long line of proposed reforms to our political system, the achievement of which will give us True Democracy at last.” His next sentence imagines the Reform Act and proportional representation living in a “Magic Pony corral.” One should obviously be suspicious of anyone trying to sell a magic pony. Personally, I’m not convinced that proportional representation is much more than a hobby horse (and I’d add referendums and recall to that list of silly toys). And True Democracy itself might be a figment of the imagination. It has almost surely never existed. It is likely unattainable.

But if True Democracy can be defended it might be on the grounds that there is something to be said for forever striving to achieve it—naive, but fully conscious of what is both splendid and frustrating about what we have and why.