Government Politics

David Frum misses the point

“Parliamentary control of the executive—rightly conceived—is not the enemy of effective government, but its primary condition.” Bernard Crick, The Reform of Parliament, 1970, p 259

David Frum is not a fan of the Reform Act.

What underlies Frum’s objection to the Act is a blurring of the distinction between, on the one hand, the legislature and the Executive, and on the other, party and government. It’s not that Frum doesn’t understand that these distinctions exist – he does – to a degree, at least. But he doesn’t seem to understand them well.

Frum doesn’t want to relinquish one iota of a party leader’s control over candidate nominations. He writes:

No party can perfectly protect itself against ever nominating crooked or stupid or obnoxious candidates. But it can screen against them and then take decisive action against those who somehow slip through the screens.

(…)

Nominations are decided by relatively small numbers of people who typically cluster more toward the political poles than the political center and have their own narrow agendas. Their influence is counteracted in Canada by the party leader’s ultimate veto power over nominations. That power is rarely used, but it shapes the whole process.

To be fair, Frum isn’t the only critic of the Reform Act to voice this concern. However, what he and the others seem to ignore is that no one is advocating that there be no screening of potential candidates. The only thing that is being proposed is that party leaders not sign off on nomination papers. I wrote a lengthy post outlining how the UK Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties select candidates. Both have a very comprehensive screening process in place for persons interested in running for the party. The screening is done by a board (or boards throughout the country) that consists of sitting MPs and senior Party volunteers. They have specific criteria drawn up detailing what qualities a party candidate must have, and they test each interested applicant, running them through interviews and scenarios. If the person makes the grade, they are on a List of Approved Candidates and can then seek out the nomination in constituencies that will need a candidate in the next election. The final decision regarding who will be the candidate is left to the local constituency’s selection committee, but all of the candidates that apply to local constituencies have already been screened and approved by the party. Even if, as Frum claims, nominations are currently “decided by relatively small numbers of people who typically cluster more toward the political poles than the political center and have their own narrow agendas”, that would be circumvented by a process such as the one used by the UK parties. It is very thorough and does not involve the party leader at any stage in the process. Why couldn’t Canadian parties implement similar procedures?

Frum’s rejection of “looser” candidate selection is grounded in the fear that this will result in a caucus overrun by “irresponsible and refractory” MPs who will constantly undermine the leader. This is where Frum’s willful (or perhaps unconscious) blurring of the distinctions between the legislature and the Executive, and party and government, becomes most apparent. Frum writes:

If a prime minister has pledged that his government won’t take action on abortion during its next mandate — and a backbencher insists on trying anyway — that action makes liars out of the whole government. Voters can’t be counted on to grasp the distinction between the “government” on the front benches and the government members behind them.

The votes of those backbenchers sustain the government. Stray musings by those backbenchers can doom it.

Here Frum argues that the problem is that “voters can’t be counted on to grasp the distinction between ‘the government’ on the front benches and the government members behind them.” That may be so, but it doesn’t change the very important fact that this distinction exists – it is the very foundation of our system of government. We do not elect the Prime Minister. We do not even elect the Government. We elect individual MPs and they form a Parliament. The Executive (Government) is drawn from the Legislature and is accountable to it. MPs from the political party from which the Government is formed (or parties in the case of a coalition government) are not part of the Government. They have the same job as all of the opposition MPs in the House – and that is to hold the Government to account, and to withdraw confidence if the Government is undeserving of that confidence. If anything, I would argue that backbenchers from the governing party should hold the Government to account even more stringently than the Opposition does because they should want their party to provide the best government possible. They shouldn’t tolerate abuses of the legislative process. They should want imperfect bills to be amended and improved. They should not provide unconditional support if that confidence is not warranted.

Disaffected backbenchers would gain new leverage over party leaders, because a small minority of them – 15% — could at any moment set in motion a leadership review.

The Reform Act is a grant of power to each party’s most irresponsible and refractory MPs.

On the surface, there is some truth to this. Our main political parties are “big tent” parties, meaning they attract supporters under a very broad banner, such as “conservatism” or “social democracy”, but these supporters often have very disparate views on some issues – views which may be at odds with official party policy. Big tent parties seek to find a middle-ground, to appeal to voters beyond their more traditional base. They have to if they want to win enough seats and possibly form a government. The main consequence of this push to the middle ground is that within the party, some will become increasingly disgruntled by the party’s lack of concrete action on a particular issue. In the United Kingdom, for example, there are regular rumours of Conservative MPs challenging party leader and Prime Minister David Cameron’s leadership. This is in no small part due to the reality that the Conservatives are in a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, which has forced the party to put aside some of its key manifesto commitments in order to find a compromise position with its coalition partner. The UK’s membership in the European Union is one such issue. Many Conservatives believe the UK should withdraw from the EU and want a referendum on that very question. The Liberal Democrats are staunchly pro-EU. The Conservatives are also feeling pressure because of the growing support (in polls) for the UK Independence Party (UKIP), a strongly Eurosceptic party committed to withdrawing from the EU.

But here’s the thing – despite all of the rumours of dissatisfaction with David Cameron, no leadership review has been triggered. It would take only 46 of the Conservatives’ 303 MPs to trigger such a vote. This hasn’t happened. But even if a review was launched, it would take 152 of those 303 MPs to force David Cameron out as leader. Perhaps the main reason why no review vote has proceeded is because the disgruntled MPs know they’d never get enough support to actually unseat Cameron.

As I explained in a previous post, in a study of some countries which do allow caucuses to trigger leadership reviews and spills (the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland), between 1965 and 2008, only 17 party leaders have been ousted by their caucus. Of that number, only 3 were actually Prime Minister at the time. The reality is that parties in power rarely oust their leader; they will only do after a poor election showing, or a sharp decline in the polls leading up to an election.

Frum raises the spectre of abortion in his piece. Yes, for Canada’s federal Conservative Party (CPC), many of its supporters are strongly opposed to abortion, yet the party, while in Government, has pledged to not reopen that debate. This doesn’t mean that all of the party’s MPs are happy about that. If the measures proposed in the Reform Act were in place, it would take 24 of the CPC’s 161 MPs to trigger a leadership confidence vote. I don’t know that there are 24 CPC MPs sufficiently committed to the issue of abortion to want to initiate such a vote. But even if that were the case, it would then take 81 MPs to vote against the current leader. If the leadership review was triggered based solely on one fringe issue, I find it very difficult to believe that a majority of the caucus would vote for a leadership change. The more fringe the issue, the less likely a leadership challenge would succeed. This is the point that Frum doesn’t seem to grasp. He assumes the parties would become beholden to the fringe. This isn’t the case. Dissatisfaction with the party leaders would have to be widespread throughout the caucus in order to gain majority support for a leadership change. This reform would not “empower factionalism”, as Frum argues, rather it would isolate it. The dissenting MPs would have to find other reasons – larger reasons – to attract majority support from the rest of the caucus in order to successfully challenge a leader. A faction within a party might be able to trigger a confidence vote, but they would need massive support beyond their fringe grievance for that vote to be successful.

Of course this might present a greater problem for parties with much smaller caucuses – namely opposition parties. A party in power is going to be far more leery of doing anything that might jeopardize their hold on the Government – and coming across as divided is something they will seek to avoid. If the dissatisfaction can be shown to be limited to a handful of MPs committed to one particular issue, that could actually isolate the faction even more. If the party successfully defeats the faction, their popularity with middle-of-the-road voters could actually increase. Smaller caucuses could well be more vulnerable to such hijacking because the numbers required are so much lower. But even then, I am not certain that this would occur. The federal Canadian Liberal Party currently has a caucus of only 36 MPs. Under the Reform Act proposals, it would take only 5 Liberal MPs to trigger a confidence vote in the party leader, but it would take 19 MPs to vote against the leader to force him out. It might be easier for Liberal MPs to trigger a vote, but it would still require widespread dissatisfaction in the caucus to oust the leader. Appearances of internal division will be as detrimental to a small party as they are to larger parties; most caucuses would seek to mitigate that, and only force a leadership review if they knew there was widespread support in caucus for a change.

There are a number of other questionable points in Frum’s article. For example, he writes:

Seemingly small changes in political rules can yield very large changes in political result. Given Canada’s record as arguably the best governed country in the developed world, you’d want to be very cautious about tinkering with those rules.

Advocates of the Reform Act, however, deny that Canada is so well governed. They see a Parliament crushed and stifled; MPs deprived of their historic role; local constituencies trampled by an all-powerful Prime Minister’s Office.

(…)

The promise is that, freed from PMO control, MPs will speak out on behalf of the good people of his or her constituency with a verve and brio sadly lacking today. But where’s the evidence that such local interests go unarticulated today? I’ve seen none adduced.

Again, Frum misses the point. A stronger Parliament will mean better government. That said, the changes proposed in the Reform Act are not procedural reforms. At best, they would encourage backbenchers from the governing party to do their job of holding the Government to account more effectively by not allowing the Executive to take their support for granted. This would improve government, not hurt it, hence the quote at the start of this post: “Parliamentary control of the executive—rightly conceived—is not the enemy of effective government, but its primary condition.” As for his claim that there is no evidence that MPs don’t articulate the concerns of their constituency, has he not listened to Members’ Statements or Question Period in recent years?

And even if one accepts the view that Canada is “arguably the best governed in the world” – which appears to be based not on any OECD or other empirical study but on Mr. Frum’s personal opinion from an earlier op ed piece, does that mean it can’t be improved at all? Frum’s main argument seems to be that we should avoid reforms because there is nothing wrong with the status quo. Our politics may be dull, but “more exciting politics is not the same thing as better government.” I counter that no one is advocating for “more exciting” politics, but better politics. And better politics will inevitably mean better government.

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