Do we need a Peoples’ PMQs?

UK Labour Party leader Ed Miliband recently floated the idea of a weekly “public question time” where an audience representative of the country would question the prime minister on any issue of the day.

Miliband was a bit short on details regarding how this would work. Apart from stating that the audience should be representative of the country, the only other details he provided was that the public PMQs should be held in parliament at least every two weeks, but preferably weekly.

On the surface, it’s an interesting idea, but it also raises a number of questions. First of all, how would these people – representative of the country – be selected? Would it be a completely random process, you know, sort of like being chosen for jury duty? Or would interested persons be invited via a website or social media to put their name in? If the latter, self-selection, then you’re not going to end up with an audience “representative of the country.” You’re going to end up with an audience full of political partisans and people with specific causes and agendas.

As Dan Hodge rightly notes in this column:

The vast majority of British voters have zero interest in Prime Minister’s Questions. Nor, once the initial novelty had worn off, would they have any more interest in watching People’s Questions. It’s only politicians who think the weekly interrogation of politicians is of major national significance.

This is the reality of our times: most people – most ordinary people “representative of the country” just don’t care enough – or at all – about politics. They’d have no interest in participating in a Peoples’ PMQs. The only people who would be keen on participating, as I stated above, would be partisans and people with vested interests. The sad truth is that people who are really keen on politics aren’t the majority. And if you end up with an audience full of partisans, the questions won’t be any more enlightening than what you currently get in PMQs. Case in point: when this story came out in the UK, the Guardian put up an open thread column asking “What would you ask David Cameron?” If you’re not familiar with the Guardian, suffice it to say that the vast majority of its readers do not like the Tories. The paper is strongly associated with the Labour Party, and its readers are decidedly left-of-centre. A quick perusal of some of the suggestions quickly demonstrates what sort of questions partisans would ask.

I admit that I am very leery of “real people” questions. There has been an extremely annoying trend here in Canada regarding leaders’ debates during election campaigns, where the normal practice of having the party leaders face questions from a panel of seasoned journalists has been replaced with asking questions from “ordinary” Canadians. The problem with this is that, as I’ve said, most people aren’t really into politics, and the questions that are asked often tend to be rather non-specific, and often inappropriate. A lot of “ordinary” people will ask federal party leaders questions about education and healthcare, which aren’t federal responsibilities. Yes, the federal government provides funding to the provinces to be used for education and healthcare, but Ottawa’s ability to do much in those areas is quite limited. I do miss the days when Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe would simply sneer at those questions and dismiss them with “That’s not a federal responsibility, it’s provincial” and refuse to say more, while the other federal leaders would try to wax poetic about grandiose plans over something they really couldn’t do much about. I would think any sort of “Peoples PMQs” wouldn’t be much better.

Another issue is simply that this idea looks like an attempt to by-pass Parliament. MPs are elected to represent people – it is their job to hold the PM and the Cabinet to account. If citizens have certain concerns about a government policy, they can (and should) contact their MP and that MP should try to get answers on behalf of his or her constituents from the relevant government minister, including the PM. There are a number of UK MPs who, once they learn that they’ll be allotted a question during PMQs (because the names of MPs are drawn in a lottery), ask for suggestions for questions on Twitter and other social media. Whether or not they actually use any of the questions suggested to them by their followers, I don’t know, but I do regularly see them on Twitter inviting people to suggest questions.

UK party leaders are already quite accessible to the public (especially compared to Canadian party leaders). Before he became PM, David Cameron held a regular number of Q&A sessions in marginal ridings. He has continued this practice since becoming PM (here’s a recent one from this year). Yes, these aren’t always public events or televised, so not the same as a Peoples’ PMQs, but my point here is that at least the PM is regularly going out and talking to people, being questioned by them. Deputy PM Nick Clegg has a weekly radio call-in show.

Every single minister regularly appears before his or her department’s select committee for questioning (including the PM, who appears before the Liaison Committee a couple of times each session – you can watch his most recent appearance here. More and more of these committees have also turned to Twitter and other social media to invite “ordinary people” to submit questions to be put to the Minister. They will often reserve the last 20 or so minutes of the session for questions submitted by the public. Here’s an interesting assessment of the very first time this was attempted back in 2012, by the Education Committee.

I don’t disagree with Ed Miliband and others that there is too often a disconnect between elected officials and the general public, but I don’t think that a Peoples’ PMQs will really do much to change that. My gut feeling is that a lot of people, probably a majority of people, will never be that interested in politics in general, and gimmicks won’t change that.

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Balancing Canada’s constitution: a proposal for Senate reform (pt.2)

(The following is part 2 of a two-part post by guest blogger JD Mussel. You can read part 1 here. JD is a Dutch-Israeli undergraduate student at Leiden University College in the Hague, the Netherlands. He is majoring in policy science with a focus on constitutional design. He frequently contributes to the political science blog Fruits and Votes. JD’s opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of this blog’s administrator.)

Part 2: The specifics of Senate reform and their effects

In my previous post I discussed the problems of majoritarianism and the resulting executive dominance in Canada’s system of government. In this post I will explore in detail my specific recommendations for reform, as well as the way in which they would empower the Senate to fulfil its role of balancing out the power of the government and holding it to account, all the while better representing Provincial interests.

Creating bicameral incongruence

An interesting question is by what formula the Provinces should be represented in the Senate; it would be reasonable to think that a different basis of representation, such as equal representation for each province, could make the partisan composition of the Senate become incongruent to that of the Commons. However, such change to the current situation is not critical, much less sufficient for that end. Instead, the decisive factor would be the method of appointment or election, which must be one which makes a one-party majority very unlikely.

One way to appoint Senators that is likely to both create intercameral incongruence and a ‘Provinces’ chamber’ would be appointment by Provincial governments or legislatures. The main drawback of this solution would be an entanglement of provincial and federal politics, eliminating the separation between the two which is one of the advantages of federalism. People would no longer be able to vote in provincial elections without effecting the federal government. In the long term, this strongly incentivises federal parties to take over control of the provincial party systems, which would severely undermine any role the Senate may at first have as an agent of the Provinces’ interests.

The way forward would appear to be direct elections. In order to prevent governments from winning upper-house majorities – the absolutely crucial part of the equation – the electoral system should be some form of proportional representation. In order to avoid excessive party domination, it would be a good idea to choose a candidate-based PR system, such as the single transferable vote (STV). This fully candidate-based proportional system would inject a dose of intraparty competition that is not only likely to weaken the parties, but strengthen the role of provincial interests. The way for candidates to compete against other candidates of the same party is to differentiate themselves by catering to particularistic interests of the electoral district, in this case – the Provinces. Meanwhile, the degree of choice voters have under STV in ranking candidates from various parties (very much unlike the first-part-the-post used for elections to the House of Commons) is also commendable, and is more likely to result in the election of independents than other PR systems. The result of this electoral system should be a diverse representation of the electorate, with a majority for any single party becoming a highly unlikely prospect.

Proposal 1: that the Senate be directly elected, using proportional representation by means of STV

The next question is the election cycle. The best possibility would be to simply to hold Senate elections concurrently with elections to the House of Commons. Such elections would, however, best be staggered, with half of the Senate being elected at each general election, for two main reasons: firstly, it would increase the Senate’s independence by reducing the prime minister’s power to threaten dissolution to one that concerns only the more senior half. Secondly, in combination with proportional representation, it would make it more difficult for a government to achieve a majority in the upper house. Under PR, a party needs close to or over 50% of the vote to win a majority of seats contested – therefore, if Senate elections were staggered, two successive landslide wins would be necessary for a single party to win a Senate majority. Furthermore, longer terms may lead to longer-term thinking in the Senate as a result of the delay in concern for re-election. For these reasons one-half of each Province’s Senators should be elected at each federal parliamentary election, which would currently mean a term of no longer than eight years, while the minimum would depend on the frequency of elections.

Proposal 2: that elections to the Senate be staggered, with one-half elected at each general election; Senators’ terms last from election to the one after next.

Breaking Deadlock

Currently, the Senate’s full power is used only sparingly, due to the way in which it is appointed; there can be no doubt that an elected Senate would be much more assertive. For enabling an effective role for the Senate in review of legislation and government actions the crucial factor is that the Senate retain a large degree of power over legislation. The only reason governments have to co-operate with a Senate’s accountability measures, such as inquiry or information disclosure order is the latter’s potential threat of declining to pass government legislation until the government complies. A house of review with no legislative power would be ineffective, as it could simply be ignored. Likewise, a house that chooses to not exercise its legislative power is also a poor check. Therefore an assertive body of senators is essential to allow the senate to fulfil is role a check on government power.

Nevertheless, for good and effective government, complete deadlock should be avoided. A good mechanism would therefore be needed, in order to resolve disagreements between the Houses and to encourage Senators to work towards a compromise instead of being obstructive. The current formal powers of the Senate are almost symmetrical to that of the House of Commons, with only very few limits, specifically regarding initiative and amendment of money bills. A deadlock-breaking mechanism exists, in a form inspired by the British Constitution: additional appointments can be made (on the prime minister’s advice), limited to either 4 or 8 extra senators. As a deadlock breaker it is simply a way for the government party to come closer to having a majority in the Senate. If the Senate were elected, it is possible that governments will get into the habit of making these appointments at the start of each session, effectively a government bonus in the Senate which has no place in the reformed institution proposed here.

Actually, a certain deadlock-breaking mechanism is already inherent in the election cycle proposed above. Should the two houses disagree on a bill, and the government is well-positioned in the opinion polls to win an election, there’s an incentive for the prime minister to advise a ‘one-and-a-half’ dissolution, whereby the House of Commons and half of the Senate face new elections. This threat would be a potent bargaining tool in the hands of the PM, while also poses its own risks for him. A government which is not faring well in the polls will almost certainly not make use of this avenue. In such a case, there is a greater threat of deadlock; seeing as the Senate can block supply, there is even a threat that the opposition in the Senate will try to bring down the government and force an election. There is a good case for removing the Senate’s power to block supply, which effectively makes the government depend on both houses for funding. It can be argued that the government should only be responsible to one house to avoid the deleterious effects of instability, not to mention government shutdowns. Secondly, one could argue for removal in the interest of the financial efficiency that one-party government promotes; if such a government must compromise with other parties to pass its budget, this potential will decrease. However, a check on the government’s finances is as important as any other for the Senate for checking the government’s power and keeping it accountable.  I would suggest some limitation to the Senate’s power to block supply, so that it cannot veto the bare essentials necessary to fund government, but so that it can still veto radical changes to fiscal policy, including such things as tax increases.

Proposal 3: that the Senate’s power to block supply be somewhat constrained to the effect of preventing government shutdowns as a result of deadlock.

The proposals

Proposal 1: that the Senate be directly elected, using proportional representation by means of STV

Proposal 2: that elections to the Senate be staggered, with one-half elected at each general election; Senators’ terms last from election to the one after next.

Proposal 3: that the Senate’s power to block supply be somewhat constrained, to the effect of preventing government shutdowns as a result of deadlock.

Conclusion: curbing the excesses of the Westminster system

Some readers of this blog will note similarities between the proposal outlined here and the system existing in Australia on the federal level as well as in several states, and indeed, the Australian experience was the inspiration. As in Canada, the Australian government utterly dominates the lower house; but unlike its Canadian counterpart, the Australian Senate, elected through PR, has a very effective review role. The Australian Senate not only improves and moderates legislation, but also holds the government accountable and transparent in various ways, creating checks and balances not present in most versions of the Westminster system.

The Australian system of government, the inspiration for these proposals. Note well the intercameral incongruence, which is created through the use of PR for Senate elections.

The Australian system of government, the inspiration for these proposals. Note well the intercameral incongruence, which is created through the use of PR for Senate elections.

In all probability, a Canadian Senate reconstituted along the lines described above would be similarly empowered to increase scrutiny and oversight, carrying out inquiries and ordering the disclosure of information from the government, thereby checking executive power and increasing transparency. In the new Senate, devoid of a government majority, governments will have to negotiate with other parties to pass much of their legislation. Most proposals should pass with no significant clashes, or with improvements arising from bipartisan collaboration, but more controversial bills will have to be toned down and negotiated to have a chance of success.

Due to the more frequent need to secure compromises, the government’s ex-post accountability before the electorate would be watered down somewhat. Nonetheless, majority governments will remain in a very powerful position; the Senate will be able to constrain a government, but not to force one out. Since the other parties will remain unable to either remove such a government, or pass anything without its concurrence, a majority government would be partly responsible for any proposal that does pass, keeping accountability strong. The situation would of course be different, as it is now, in the case of a minority or ‘hung’ parliament. Such scenarios may sometimes prove trickier for governments than today, but in most cases, if a majority can be secured for some bill in the House, the same parties’ support will also be sufficient in the Senate.

In the long term, elections to the two houses may become strongly defined by the system. Elections to the House of Commons would become more strictly about the choice of government, with more people likely to vote strategically, voting their true preference in the Senate election.  Due to its electoral system, the Senate will almost certainly become more representative of the electorate than the House of Commons. Among its ranks there will be small parties which have great difficulty in capturing seats in the lower house. Such small parties (and independents) will begin focussing on elections to the Senate, where they will have a real chance to influence policy. They may also come to emphasise their role in making the Senate the place where the government is held to account, as the Australian Democrats did with their slogan ‘keep the bastards honest!’ Meanwhile, for the big parties, the distinguishing element of Senate elections would become competition among candidates of the same party (under STV). In order to differentiate themselves, a party’s candidates are will likely compete with each other in terms of bringing various benefits to their province.

Of course, this is not the whole picture; an elected Senate, where the government is permanently in minority, would fundamentally transform Canada’s political equation. Executive dominance, largely the unfortunate side-effect of the Westminster system’s majoritarianism, would be remedied while preserving most of its benefits. While the government, in most cases, should be able to continue to control the House, opposition parties in the Senate will have not only the power, but also the mandate to hold governments to account and subject their policies to a ‘sober second thought’. This, I am convinced, would be the best way of curbing the excesses of the Westminster system – by accomplishing what few of the participants in the FPTP-vs.-PR debate seem to contemplate: an elegant compromise between the accountability of the former and the representativeness of the latter.

Suggested further reading

Platypus and Parliament: The Australian Senate in Theory and Practice

Accountability Versus Government Control: the Effect of Proportional Representation

From breaking governments to a brake on government: a new bicameralism in Victoria?

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Balancing Canada’s constitution: a proposal for Senate reform (pt. 1)

(The following is part 1 of a two-part post by guest blogger JD Mussel. JD is a Dutch-Israeli undergraduate student at Leiden University College in the Hague, the Netherlands. He is majoring in policy science with a focus on constitutional design. He frequently contributes to the political science blog Fruits and Votes. JD’s opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of this blog’s administrator.)

Part 1: Curbing the excesses of majoritarianism

Introduction

Canada has a parliamentary form of government, using first-past-the post to elect the members of its confidence chamber, the House of Commons. Despite the recent period of minority governments from 2004 to 2011, minorities are the exception in Canada as elections usually result in a Commons majority for one party. House majorities don’t usually result from majorities in vote terms, but are manufactured by the majoritarian first-past-the-post electoral system. The upper house, the Senate, is formally co-equal but is appointed on advice of the prime minister. While this doesn’t always mean that the Senate has a government majority, it has usually made the Senate passive even in times of a split parliament (different majorities in each house) as it usually defers to the greater legitimacy of the elected House of Commons. Meanwhile, the Constitution’s division of power between the federal level and the provinces may be said to favour the federal level, particularly in light of the fact that the Supreme Court is appointed by the federal government. Canada therefore has a constitution which can be characterized as being as close to Westminster’s as possible for a federal country with judicial review, having a lower house elected using a majoritarian electoral system, with few checks on the government’s power.

election chart

The electoral mechanics of first-past-the-post illustrated: in 2011 the Conservative Party won a House majority on just under forty percent of the vote. Not a representative result, but one offering ex-post accountability.

The main advantages of Canada’s system of government is that the way in which governments are formed flows directly from election results, providing a strong sense of accountability. Voters generally have the choice between two parties that could potentially form a government, and the party that receives the most votes usually receives a working majority to do so. Canada does not have a two-party system, but there has been a two-party alternation in government. When voters rally behind one opposition party, they can replace an unpopular government with relative ease. As a result of the system’s concentration of power, it is easier for Canadian governments to act decisively, an advantage in a crisis as well as a virtue for the democratic process, as it allows parties to more faithfully stick to their election promises. But much more important is the accountability this affords: majority governments, not having to compromise with other parties, have wide latitude to carry out their election promises, and can consequently be held accountable for its actions at the next election. It is far more straightforward to assign blame to the single party that forms government than it is in the context of a coalition or even a minority government.

The problem

The main drawback of Canada’s system of government is the lack of a check on the power of the government, a government rarely formed on true majority support. As a result of the development of party discipline, which is as strong in Canada as in any parliamentary regime, ‘responsibility’ to parliament is almost symbolic. The government so dominates parliament that one might almost say that the true relationship is the opposite: that the House of Commons is responsible to the government, which can dissolve it at any time, and which can order its parliamentary majority to pass laws with few constraints additional to that of public opinion. Some have gone so far as to call it an ‘elective dictatorship’, and there’s some truth to that. This excessive concentration of power in the federal executive has brought about polarising decisions, sharp swings in policy from one government to the next, as well as clashes between the federal government and the provinces. The case could be made that part of the problem is that Canadian government is too centralised, with no actor with an effective mandate to represent provincial interests at the federal level.  But the broader underlying issue is the shortage of actors of any type that would check the government and balance Canadian politics. As Madison wrote in Federalist no. 51, ‘A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions’. Though the danger of a lack of checks and balances may not have fully materialised yet, the power of the executive should not remain unconstrained, particularly in light of the fact that it rarely rests on majority support. On the whole therefore, what Canada’s constitutional situation calls for is more veto players: political actors with the power to act as a check on the party in government.

Reform alternatives and a proposed framework

There are a number of conceivable approaches to this question. One possible way of increasing the number of veto players would be to change the electoral system for the House of Commons to some form of proportional representation. Minority or ‘hung’ parliaments would become the norm, and parties would need to secure other parties’ support in order to remain in government. As currently happens as a result of hung parliament, the first governments under this system will be minority governments, but coalitions are likely to form eventually. By increasing the number of parties necessary, in most cases, to form a government and make policy, this would mostly solve the current ‘elected dictatorship’ and policy instability problems. However, this would come at the cost of the main benefits of the current system. The current efficient choice of government at the polls, the decisiveness of election results and resulting accountability and decisive policymaking would greatly diminish under proportional representation in the House of Commons. Besides, while proportional representation may ensure that no party achieves a majority in the House, it is no guarantee for effective review. A coalition government may be constrained by the divergent agendas of its constituent parties, but once coalition partners agree on a broad legislative programme, they can dominate the House to a degree not much lesser than a single-party majority government.

There is however a different option for reform, providing a new veto player by reforming a different institution: the Senate. In order for it to form an effective check on government power, its partisan makeup needs to become incongruent with that of the House: the parties in opposition should have a majority in the Senate. The Senate could then become an effective ‘house of review’, empowered not only to improve legislation and moderate policy but also hold governments to account. A secondary aim would be to give Senators institutional incentives to stand up for provincial interests and making the Senate into an institution geared to protect the provinces against federal encroachments, just as the ‘triple-E Senate’ campaign prevalent in Western Canada has in mind. Besides, it would put an end to the current patronage and lack of accountability in the current Senate.

For these reasons, the path forward should be in reforming the Senate. The primary goal should be to prevent the party in government from attaining a majority in that chamber, with a secondary goal of having Senators chosen in such a way that offers some incentive for protecting provincial interests. The aim is to strengthen the position of the Senate vis-à-vis the government of the day in order to limit the existing executive dominance over the system, thus transforming bicameralism into a source of checks and balances in Canada’s constitution. My next post will explore and identify more specifically how this goal would best be fulfilled and what Canadian politics would look like after the change.

(Part 2)

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A few thoughts on the Liberal Party’s Senate announcement

Much ado this week regarding the Liberal Party of Canada’s announcement that its 32 Liberals in the Senate would henceforth sit as independents, that if and when they form the government, they would set up an independent commission to oversee all future Senate appointments, and that all future Senators appointed that way would be independents.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have long advocated setting up an independent body to oversee Senate appointments, something modelled on the House of Lords Appointments Commission (HOLAC) which was set up in the United Kingdom in 2000. Consequently, I heartily approve of this initiative. Some comments on Twitter and elsewhere questioned the constitutionality of having an independent commission make the appointments, or more specifically, advising the Governor General on who should be appointed. I don’t see that the process would work that way at all.

If we use HOLAC as our model, the Commission would assess nominations against specific criteria. The nomination process itself would be open to anyone – you could even nominate yourself, as long as you met the criteria. The selection criteria HOLAC uses is quite specific. They seek nominees:

  • with the ability to make an effective and significant contribution to the work of the House of Lords, not only in their areas of particular interest and special expertise, but the wide range of other issues coming before the House;
  • with a record of significant achievement within their chosen way of life that demonstrates a range of experience, skills and competencies;
  • who are willing to commit the time necessary to make an effective contribution to the work of the House of Lords. The Commission recognises that many active members continue with their professional and other working interests and this can help maintain expertise and experience;
  • with some understanding of the constitutional framework, including the place of the House of Lords, and the skills and qualities needed to be an effective member of the House – for example, nominees should be able to speak with independence and authority;
  • who are able to demonstrate outstanding personal qualities, in particular, integrity and independence;
  • with a strong and personal commitment to the principles and highest standards of public life;
  • who are and intend to remain independent of any political party. Nominees and the Commission will need to feel confident of their ability to be independent of party-political considerations whatever their past party-political involvement. For this reason, all nominees are asked to respond to the questions on political involvement and activities which are similar to those used for most public appointments;
  • who are resident in the UK for tax purposes and accept the requirement to remain so.

Of course, we could develop our own criteria for the Senate, but I would hope it would be something along the same lines. The actual appointing of Senators would still be left to the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister. The way I would see the process working is quite simple. There is a vacancy for a Senator from the province of Ontario. The Senate Appointments Commission (SAC) reviews nominees from that province, vets them, and comes up with a shortlist of 4 or 5 candidates. That list is provided to the Prime Minister, who would make the final selection from the short-list and advise the Governor General accordingly. To the best of my knowledge, there is nothing in the Constitution governing how the Prime Minister selects an individual for a Senate appointment; consequently, being provided by a shortlist of candidates by an independent commission would not be unconstitutional, and it would certainly be a far more transparent and accountable process than what currently transpires.

The bigger issue is perhaps making the Senate completely non-partisan. I don’t dislike the idea at all, but I also don’t object to appointed Senators having a party affiliation. That said, I do believe that their party affiliation should not be the main reason why they were appointed. In other words, their appointment should not be a partisan decision made for partisan purposes. I also think the Senate would benefit greatly from having crossbenchers, as is the case in the UK House of Lords and the Australian Senate. Crossbenchers aren’t necessarily independents in the way we understand it; in both the UK and Australia, while they do include persons with no party affiliation, they also include persons representing smaller parties (i.e parties which will most likely never form a government).

Some have asked how a future Liberal Government would get legislation passed in a non-partisan Senate. The same way it should expect to get legislation passed now: by presenting good pieces of legislation and being willing to accept amendments proposed by the Senate to improve the legislation.

There is an attitude that seems to be prevail in Canada that a government, in particular one with a majority, must ultimately be able to get its legislative business. That is nonsense. A government is entitled to put its legislative business to the House. It is not entitled to get its legislative business. It has to put its legislative proposals in front of the House of Commons and then the Senate. The job of the House of Commons and the Senate is to scrutinize and process them. Those bills that the government can win a majority for will succeed; those which it cannot will either be amended or defeated. In the House of Commons, if a party forms a majority government, that process is too often a moot point because government backbenchers never dissent. That means it is up to the Senate to fulfill that role. The House of Lords regularly defeats sections of bills (sometimes entire bills) put forward by the government of the day. This is not only accepted, it is expected. The Constitution Unit keeps a running tally of Government defeats in the House of Lords going back to the 2005-2006 session. So that is how legislation would be passed in a non-partisan (or much less partisan) Senate.

Those are my initial reactions. I am fully in favour of an independent appointments commission, and not opposed to, but not entirely sold on, the idea of an entirely non-partisan Senate. Right now, party affiliation is essentially the only reason someone is appointed to the Senate. I personally think that screening candidates by an independent body against specific criteria would mitigate partisanship significantly, and that is why I don’t think it would be necessary to then force individuals to sit as independents. But given that this is all hypothetical at the moment, I reserve the right to change my mind down the road.

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Coalition government: not liked, but expected

A few years ago, I wrote a post exploring why the very idea of  coalition government became such a negative thing in Canada. I’ve also written a number of posts explaining that, in the United Kingdom, coalition government has become the expected outcome in the event of a general election which results in a hung parliament (this being the most recent one).

UK polling firm Ipsos Mori today released its Political Monitor January 2014. Along with the usual data regarding voting intentions and satisfaction with the various party leaders and the economy, there are some very interesting numbers regarding the outcome of future elections.

A majority (51%) of those polled believe that the 2015 general election will result in another coalition government. That belief is strongest amongst Conservative (58%) and Liberal Democrat (66%) supporters. Labour Party supporters are less likely to think that will be the outcome (42%) – most likely because their party continues to lead in the polls.

But while a majority think there will be another coalition government in 2015, that doesn’t mean they like the idea. A strong majority, 60%, believe it’s a bad thing that no party achieved an overall majority in the 2010 election. That percentage has increased gradually since May 2010, when 52% thought it was a bad thing that no party had won an overall majority. And when asked about the 2015 election, 65% of those polled believe it will be a bad thing if that election again results in a hung parliament. Unsurprisingly, Liberal Democrat supporters are the only ones who overwhelmingly think hung parliaments are a good thing (55%). Supporters of the two largest parties, the Conservatives and Labour are equally unenthusiastic about hung parliaments, with only 21% thinking that it’s a good thing if no party wins an overall majority.

Ipsos Mori then asked supporters of each party who their preferred coalition partner would be from amongst the other parties, should the 2015 election result in a hung parliament. Conservative supporters strongly favoured a resumption of the current coalition with the Liberal Democrats (70%). Only 40% strongly supported a coalition with UKIP – assuming of course that UKIP even wins any seats in 2015. Labour supporters were almost equally supportive of a coalition with either the Liberal Democrats (62%) or the Greens (63%). Given that the Greens have only one seat in the current Parliament, and that is unlikely to change much in 2015, a coalition with the Green Party is not very likely. Liberal Democrat supporters actually favoured the Conservatives (65%) over Labour (53%) as coalition partners. That might surprise some. There is wide-spread assumption in the UK that the Liberal Democrats are a left-wing party, one that would more naturally align itself with Labour. I’ve never quite understood why people feel that way – the LibDems have always struck me as a very centrist party, even slightly right-of-centre in terms of economic policy. That their supporters more strongly favour the Conservatives as coalition partners possibly confirms my views. Or it could simply be a reaction to having had to endure a lot of abuse from Labour politicians and supporters since entering into a coalition with the Tories in 2010.

My interest in this is again to point out how the idea of coalition government has become, if not liked, at least accepted in the UK. The political parties and their supporters at least grudgingly acknowledge that it’s not only a viable alternative to single-party minority government in the event of a hung parliament, but perhaps a preferable option. Labour and Conservative supporters would certainly prefer that their party form a majority government on its own, there is no doubt about that. But the current coalition has demonstrated a couple of things: 1) despite constant predictions that it would fall apart, it hasn’t, and 75% of those surveyed believe it will last until May 2015 (only 40% thought that in July 2012); and 2) it has provided stable government during a difficult economic period. In other words, while it hasn’t always been pretty, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government has worked. And ultimately, isn’t that what matters most?

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Collective ministerial responsibility: a brief history

I am currently engaged in a fairly major research project, which requires that I delve into many older texts looking at the evolution of parliament and its many conventions and procedures. One such book is A.H. Birch’s Representative and Responsible Government: an Essay on the British Constitution, which was published in 1964.

Birch provides a very interesting history of how the convention of collective ministerial responsibility evolved.

The convention of collective ministerial responsibility holds that the Cabinet is collectively responsible to the people, through the Parliament, for determining and implementing policies for national government. Broadly, it is required by convention that all Ministers must be prepared to accept collective responsibility for, and defend publicly, the policies and actions of the Government. Part of this, of course, requires that the loss of a want of confidence motion or on a major issue – such as the Budget -  is expected to lead to the resignation of the whole Government.

According to Birch, the idea or concept of collective responsibility was advocated as early as 1739, when then Prime Minister Robert Walpole told the House of Commons that the ministry should be accountable to Parliament, and when he was defeated in a Parliamentary vote in 1742, he resigned. However, Birch argues that it was only with the passage of the Reform Act of 1832 that the convention was firmly established.Three developments were necessary for this to occur:

  1. the effective unity of the cabinet;
  2. the effective control of the cabinet by the Prime Minister; and
  3. the understanding that if the cabinet were defeated in Parliament on a major issue or a vote of confidence, the Prime Minister would have no choice but to resign or ask for a dissolution.

We take the first two points – that the cabinet is united and that the PM controls the cabinet – for granted today, but as Birch explains, this was not always the case. Birch suggests that cabinet unity was established between 1780 and 1815. The first collective resignation of a ministry occurred in 1782. William Pitt, Prime Minister from 1783 to 1800, did “a great deal to develop the convention that cabinet ministers, whatever their private disagreements, should present a united front.” For example, he secured the resignation of the Lord Chancellor in 1792 after the latter had criticized the PM’s policies in the House. In 1812, “an attempt to form a government drawn from opposed groups was rejected as ‘inconsistent with the prosecution of any uniform and beneficial course of policy’.” Birch argues that since 1815, public disagreements between ministers have been rare, even though political memoirs and other sources make it clear that private disagreements were (and are) quite frequent. Birch also writes that since 1832, “there has been no occasion on which cabinet ministers have disagreed in public.” Of course, Birch wrote this in 1964. There have been a number of fairly public disagreements within the current UK Government, but given that it is a coalition government, this is perhaps not surprising (although in fairness, many of the disagreements have been between ministers from the same party and not conflicts between Liberal Democrat and Conservative ministers). It is an issue of concern for some, however; it is one of the key points being studied by the House of Lords Constitution Committee during its inquiry into the constitutional implications of coalition government.

The powers of the Prime Minister within the British and Canadian political structure have developed in recent decades to such an extent that some political analysts now refer to these countries as having a Prime Ministerial government rather than a Cabinet government. As Birch points out, the situation used to be very different. According to Birch, it was only when William Pitt became Prime Minister that the position of Prime Minister became ascendant over that of the monarch, facilitated in no small part by the declining mental health of George III. Prior to 1783, the position of Prime Minister was overshadowed by the power of the monarch. Cabinet ministers were “the King’s ministers”: they had separate access to the King and more importantly, perhaps, the King could actually dismiss a prime minister and appoint one of his former colleagues in his place. William IV, who succeded George III, did not make any attempt to yield the same sort of power over cabinet that George III had. When the young Victoria ascended to the throne in 1837, at age 18, she and Prime Minister Lord Melbourne developed a close relationship, with the prime minister tutoring the new queen in government and politics. From that point forward, the Prime Minister was in control of the cabinet.

The final necessary development was the understanding that the Prime Minister should resign or ask for a dissolution if his or her ministry is defeated in Parliament. This understanding did not exist when Pitt became Prime Minister in 1783, and indeed, he refused to resign during the first few years of his ministry despite many defeats in Parliament. Attitudes gradually changed, however; in 1830, Wellington resigned when his ministry lost a vote and faced another one on a much more important motion. After the passage of the Reform Act of 1832, “it quickly became regarded as axiomatic that the government must respond to a Parliamentary defeat on a major issue.”

Thus, between Pitt’s appointment in 1783 and the passage of the Reform Act of 1832, the three conditions necessary for the establishment of of the convention of collective responsibility fell into place. And it was strengthened in no small way by the nature of party politics at that time. Party discipline in Parliament was very weak – bordering on non-existent. As Birch explains, between the first and second Reform Acts (1832-1867):

the question was not one of discipline, for the means to enforce this did not yet exist: the question was one of the influence that leaders could bring to bear on their Parliamentary supporters. And, as Bagehot noted in 1867, ‘the power of leaders of their followers is strictly and wisely limited: they can take their followers but a little way, and that only in certain directions.

Indeed, during that time period, several party leaders would change sides between one ministry and the next.

It was against that background, during the middle decades of the 19th century, that the collective responsibility of the cabinet to Parliament because a central feature of British politics. Between 1832 and 1867, ten governments were brought down by defeats in the Commons. In eight of these instances, the Prime Minister resigned and in the other two cases, he sought and was granted a dissolution. More interestingly, perhaps, is that not one government lasted the entire life of a Parliament, from one general election to the next. The House of Commons truly was, as Bagehot noted, “a real choosing body; it elects the people it likes. And it dismisses whom it likes too.”

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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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“The Reform Act”: some thoughts

Canadian Conservative MP Michael Chong today introduced Bill C-559 “An Act to amend the Canada Elections and the Parliament of Canada Act (reforms)“, otherwise known as the Reform Act. When news of what the bill would propose broke several days ago, it immediately sparked great excitement among columnists and politics fans alike. Some hailed it as the bill that would save Parliament; others were more subdued, calling it “a solution in search of a problem“.

The bill proposes three reforms. First, it would remove the existing requirement that a party leader sign the nomination papers of prospective candidates for that party. Second, it would allow a caucus to implement a leadership review upon a petition of 15% of the elected members and a secret ballot vote garnering over 50% support. Lastly, it will allow caucuses to elect their chairs and admit and eject caucus members based on the 15/50% rules employed to trigger a leadership review.

These are all interesting proposals, and in order to avoid an epically-long post, I will deal with them separately. This first post will focus on the second point, allowing a party caucus to implement a leadership review upon a petition of 15% of elected members and a secret ballot vote garnering over 50% support.

Specifically, Chong’s bill would amend subsection 366(2) of the Elections Canada Act by adding a new sub-clause. This section of the act governs the criteria that must be met in order for a political party to become a registered political party. Chong’s proposal would amend the application for registration to include the following:

(k) the extract of the party by-laws that provides that
(i) a leadership review may be initiated by the submission of a written notice to the caucus chair signed by at least 15% of the members of the party’s caucus,
(ii) a leadership review is to be conducted by secret ballot, with the result to be determined by a majority vote of the caucus members present at a meeting of the caucus, and
(iii) if a majority of caucus members present at the meeting referred to in subparagraph (ii) vote to replace the leader of the party, a second vote of the caucus shall be conducted immediately by secret ballot to appoint a person to serve as the interim leader of the party until a new leader has been duly elected by the party.

This is actually standard procedure in other countries such as the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, where such measures are incorporated not into legislation, but in political party constitutions. For example, in the UK, under Conservative Party rules, a leadership review is triggered if 15% of Conservative MPs call for a no confidence vote in the leader. The Labour Party has a slightly higher threshold. It requires that 20% of Labour MPs express that they no longer have confidence in the leader. The Liberal Democrats have set the highest bar for a leadership review. According to the Lib Dem constitution, a vote of no confidence must be passed by a majority of all Members of the Parliamentary Party in the House of Commons or the receipt by the President of the Party of a requisition submitted by at least 75 local party associations.

While many commentators, even before they saw the bill, endorsed this proposed reform, others were less convinced that it was needed. Dale Smith wrote:

The provision around leadership review is also something that cannot be taken as anything other than a half-measure, and one that misses the target.  MPs already have the power to challenge a leader, and most especially a Prime Minister.  We’ve seen several provincial examples of opposition caucuses pressuring their leaders to resign, and the removal of a Prime Minister is one of the most important built-in functions of our system of Responsible Government, and that is that if they are unhappy with the status quo, they can simply withdraw confidence. After all, Responsible Government depends entirely on the Prime Minister having the confidence of the Chamber. If enough government MPs decide that it’s time for the leader to go, they can join in a vote of non-confidence — no need for a call for a leadership review that gives the PM time to organize one and to consolidate support for the vote.

I have a few problems with that statement. First, I strong object to this line from Smith’s piece:

… the removal of a Prime Minister is one of the most important built-in functions of our system of Responsible Government, and that is that if they are unhappy with the status quo, they can simply withdraw confidence. After all, Responsible Government depends entirely on the Prime Minister having the confidence of the Chamber.

Responsible government – or more specifically, the confidence convention, rests on the Government having the confidence of the House. While many might argue that for all intents and purposes, the Prime Minister IS the Government, that is too simplistic. There isn’t a single procedural manual which discusses the confidence convention in terms of the Prime Minister maintaining the confidence of the House – only the Government. In terms of the confidence convention, who is Prime Minister doesn’t really matter. A governing party can change its leader at any point during its mandate and this will not necessarily impact the Government’s ability to maintain the confidence of the House. In Canada, Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien was replaced by Paul Martin, and the Government continued to enjoy the confidence of the House. In the UK, Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair was replaced by Gordon Brown, and Labour continued to enjoy the confidence of the House. Granted, in both of these instances, the governing party held a majority of the seats, making it very difficult, if not impossible, for the House to withdraw confidence without a significant number of members of the governing party also withdrawing support, but it still serves to illustrate the point that it is the Government that must maintain confidence and it can do so even if the Prime Minister changes.

My second issue is with Smith’s suggestion that a party wanting to change its leader could use an Opposition want of confidence motion to affect that change. I simply don’t see how that would work. First of all, it is not inconceivable that  a caucus might be increasingly unhappy with their current party leader, while still being quite satisfied with their party forming, or being a part of, the Government. If members of the governing party who were unhappy with their current leader did what Smith suggests – simply remove confidence from the Government (with the support of the Opposition parties), I don’t see how this would necessarily lead to a leadership change for that party because of how the confidence convention works in Canada.

When a House withdraws confidence from a Government, traditionally, the various procedural manuals will tell you that the Government has two options: it can resign, and another Government can take its place, or the Prime Minister can seek dissolution. In Canada, that first option is very rarely, if ever, considered. When a Government is defeated on a confidence vote, the Prime Minister will almost always seek to have Parliament dissolved and a new election called. A new election will take place almost immediately. For example, on 25 March 2011, the minority Conservative government was defeated on a want of confidence motion. The defeated Prime Minister met with the Governor General the next day to ask that Parliament be dissolved, and the writs were issued on the 26th. The vote took place on 2 May 2011, which resulted in the Conservatives winning a majority of the seats in the House of Commons. While no Conservative MPs voted against their party to indicate that they too had lost confidence in the Government, even if they had used it as an excuse for a leadership vote, the reality of the situation is that the party would not not have  had time to have a leadership convention following the Government’s defeat.

Using a want of confidence motion is simply not a viable option to ensure leadership change. The disgruntled caucus members who might attempt to use a confidence motion to rid themselves of a leader will find themselves in an election campaign with the same leader. Perhaps a leadership review might be held following the election (and most certainly would be if the party were defeated at the polls), but if the party is returned to power with an even stronger mandate, wouldn’t that simply reinforce the leader’s position, making it that much more difficult for caucus members unhappy with the leader to challenge him or her?

In her piece on Chong’s bill, Alice Funke wrote:

the Bill would formalize in legislation a party caucus’ ability to call for and effect a leadership review. I say formalize, because there is nothing in the law currently preventing party caucuses from doing this very thing now, and indeed they have done so frequently in our current system: Joe Clark was pushed into a leadership review, Michel Gauthier was pushed out as leader by the Bloc Québécois caucus, a good part of Stockwell Day’s caucus left him and the Canadian Alliance and joined the remainder of the Tories instead. And a significant group of Paul Martin backers were hatching plots to oust Jean Chrétien as Liberal leader and Prime Minister.

(…)

So, it’s not that a caucus CAN’T call for a leadership review or push a leader out, it’s that they apparently won’t, and/or they don’t. I fail to see how enacting legislation formalizing this authority gives them any more actual power to do so, or makes them any more accountable back home for not showing some backbone.

This is true – caucuses can exert enough pressure on a leader to force them to step down. However, as far as I can tell, none of our parties have specific processes in place outlining exactly how this is to be done. As stated above, the main political parties in the United Kingdom all to have very specific rules in their Constitutions allowing for the party caucus to express lack of confidence in their leader and potentially trigger a leadership change. The existence of these rules does make politics in the UK more interesting – hardly a week goes by without some report in the media that Tory MPs are edging ever closer to the magic number of 46 MPs required to challenge David Cameron’s leadership. But while perhaps generating more media attention, this doesn’t mean that caucuses in the UK regularly challenge their leaders. There were a number of attempts to oust Gordon Brown as leader of the Labour Party, which all failed. Despite regular rumours in the media, David Cameron’s leadership of the Conservative Party has not yet faced an actual challenge. The most recent Liberal Democrat leadership challenge occurred in 2006, when Charles Kennedy resigned once he realised he no longer had the support of most of his caucus.

Australian political parties also allow the caucus to oust a party leader. Labor most famously ousted its leader and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2010, replacing him with Julia Gillard. Gillard herself was unsuccessfully challenged by Rudd in early 2012, again in March 2013, and again, successfully, in June 2013. As they say, third time’s the charm.

What is interesting here is that after Rudd regained the leadership, he got Labor to change its rules. Virtually insurmountable barriers now exist to such overnight challenges. Under the new rules, a leadership ballot aimed at removing a Labor prime minister can only take place if 75% of caucus members sign a petition—and only on the basis that the leader has “brought the party into disrepute.” Under the new rules, even when the Labor Party is in opposition, its leader can now only be challenged after a petition signed by 60% of caucus members. Another new election procedure will, for the first time in the party’s 122-year history, let party members vote for their leader. The Labor leader will now be selected by a ballot of all caucus members combined with a ballot of the party’s members, with each ballot having a 50 percent weighting in determining the final outcome.

This is another important difference to note between how party leaders are chosen in Canada, and how they are chosen in other countries. In Canada, party members as well as MPs, vote in leadership conventions. In other jurisdictions, party members either have no say at all – only the caucus – or they have very limited input. Dale Smith explains why this is problematic for Michael Chong’s proposed caucus leadership review reform:

The larger problem there is that we need to re-examine the way that we elect leaders in this country, because the status quo allows them to be shielded under a rubric of “democratic legitimacy” — that the membership chose them, and because of that, the caucus cannot remove them.  We need to return to the system whereby it is the caucus that chooses the leader, and it is the caucus that removes the leader.  Best of all, it eliminates the months-long leadership races, no-hope candidates outside of caucus who are simply trying to make a name for themselves, and the rudderless limbo that parties find themselves in.

Alice Funke points out another problem:

The one bad thing formalizing this authority in law might accomplish is to exacerbate regional tensions further, given that until recently most Canadian political parties have had regional bases of support and regional wastelands. Taking control away from delegates to party conventions, or even from party members (and now party supporters), means taking authority away from nationally representative deliberative bodies, and putting it into the hands of a potentially regionally unbalanced caucus.

This is a legitimate concern, but I don’t think it is insurmountable. Inevitably, all party leaders will appeal more to some parts of the country than others. The UK Conservatives, for example, are virtually shut out of certain parts of England (largely the north) and Scotland, where they have only one MP. However, this “problem” wouldn’t be a problem if some form of PR were to be adopted to replace FPTP. I think ensuring a solid chain of political accountability matters more: “citizens elect MPs, and their MPs not only influence policies but also hire and fire leaders to implement them.”

There is an alternative to what Smith proposes when he writes: “We need to return to the system whereby it is the caucus that chooses the leader, and it is the caucus that removes the leader.” Parties could implement a hybrid system such as the one used by the UK Conservative Party, which limits the initial rounds of a leadership vote to the caucus, but brings in the party membership to decide between the final two candidates. Simply put, following a successful leadership challenge, members of caucus will put themselves forward for the position of party leader. If there are more than two candidates, the caucus votes. If no candidate receives a majority of the vote, the candidate with the lowest vote tally drops out. This is repeated until the choice is down to two candidates. At that point, postal ballots are sent to all registered party members to let them vote on the two remaining candidates.

Chong’s proposal certainly deserves much debate, but as has been pointed out, it will create conflict with our existing means of selecting party leaders. Whether the answer is to remove party members from the process completely and leave leadership selection and deselection to caucus only, to to try to find some compromise between the two, I don’t know. That too is something which will require consideration.

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Coalition government and constraints on the PM’s prerogative powers

The UK House of Lords Select Committee on Constitution has been conducting an inquiry on The Constitutional Implications of Coalition Government. For anyone interested in parliamentary conventions, government formation and other related issues, this is absolutely fascinating stuff.

On 9 October 2013, Professor Lord Norton of Louth and Lord Donoughue appeared as witnesses before the committee. It was quite interesting, enlivened somewhat by Lord Donoughue’s staunch dislike of the very idea of coalition government. In fact, he repeatedly urged the Committee to stress in their final report the many advantages of alternatives to coalition since, as he put it, “I fear that a younger generation will begin to assume that if they do not get a majority, they must have a coalition.” (page 2 of the uncorrected transcript)

Some interesting points were raised during the course of the hearing. Lord Norton discussed some of the major departures from “normal” constitutional practice brought about by coalition government, particularly those that affect the Prime Minister’s prerogative powers. He identified four such departures, which he grouped under two headings. The first is the existence, under coalition, of a dual executive. This affects the Prime Minister’s traditional prerogative powers in two ways. The first concerns ministerial appointments, which are no longer purely the prerogative of the PM as the sovereign’s adviser. Normally, in the case of single-party government, the Prime Minister has the power to the power to appoint, reshuffle or dismiss cabinet ministers. With the current coalition, it was agreed that the Liberal Democrats would have five cabinet positions, and number of ministerial spots. It is the leader of the Liberal Democrats and Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, who decides which of his party’s MPs will be appointed to those spots. The Prime Minister, Conservative David Cameron, can still shuffle his cabinet, but he cannot dismiss or appoint any Liberal Democrats on his own. The second change brought about by the dual executive concerns the convention of collective responsibility. Traditionally, decisions are arrived at collectively in Cabinet, and Cabinet is bound to support those decisions plublicly and in the House (by voting for them, for example). There have been departures from this with the Coalition government.

The other changes which impede the PM’s prerogative powers have come about because of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, 2011. The first concerns maintaining the confidence of the House. As we know, the PM and Cabinet are responsible to, and must answer to, the House of Commons and must maintain the confidence and support of a majority of the House. If the government is defeated in the House on a matter of confidence, then the government is expected to resign or seek the dissolution of Parliament so that an election can be held. What are matters of confidence? That can vary, but it is generally acknowledged that confidence motions can be:

  • explicitly worded motions, usually moved by the Opposition, which state that the House has, or has not, confidence in the government;
  • any motion that the government expressly declares to be questions of confidence; and
  • implicit motions of confidence, that is, motions traditionally deemed to be questions of confidence, such as motions for the granting of supply, motions concerning the budgetary policy of the government and motions respecting the Address in Reply to the Speech from the Throne.

Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, 2011, the Prime Minister can no longer declare a certain vote to be a matter of confidence. Or rather, as Lord Norton explains, a Prime Minister could say that a particular motion was one of confidence, if defeated, the only thing the government could do is resign. The option of requesting a dissolution is no longer available. This ties in with the second change – previously, the Prime Minister could seek to dissolve the House and call a new election when he or she so desired. The Act now establishes a fixed date, and unlike similar Canadian and provincial Acts, there is a very specific process in place that must be followed in order to dissolve a parliament before the date fixed by law for the next election. As explained in the Cabinet Manual:

2.19 Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, if a government is defeated on a motion that ‘this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government’, there is then a 14-day period during which an alternative government can be formed from the House of Commons as presently constituted, or the incumbent government can seek to regain the confidence of the House.

If no government can secure the confidence of the House of Commons during that period, through the approval of a motion that ‘this House has confidence in Her Majesty’s Government’, a general election will take place. Other decisions of the House of Commons which have previously been regarded as expressing ‘no confidence’ in the government no longer enable or require the Prime Minister to hold a general election. The Prime Minister is expected to resign where it is clear that he or she does not have the confidence of the House of Commons and that an alternative government does have the confidence.

As Lord Norton concludes, those are the main changes to the Prime Minister’s prerogative powers, and the last two won’t end with a return to single-party government. They will have “ongoing consequences because they are statutory changes.”

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Worth following on Twitter

Twitter has “Follow Fridays” (#FF) where users can recommend to their followers other Twitter accounts worth following. I’ve decided to start promoting certain Twitter accounts here, since not everyone follows this blog on Twitter, and I can better explain why I think some people are worth following.

Many people dismiss Twitter because of the 140 character limit; this makes it impossible to actually discuss or debate anything of substance. It is a challenge, but I have been surprised by how many fairly detailed discussions of complex subjects such as the royal prerogative and Canada’s succession laws actually occur – if you follow the right people. This brings me to my first round of Twitter follow recommendations.

Canadian Constitutional/procedural expertise

Philipe Lagassé (@pmlagasse) is associate professor of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa and a senior fellow with the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute. His research focuses on Canadian defence policy and politics, civil-military relations in Westminster democracies, machinery of government related to foreign policy and national security affairs, and the nature and scope of executive power in the Westminster tradition. Apart from Twitter, Lagassé maintains a blog, Thoughts on the Crown in Canada, which is also worth bookmarking.

Mark D. Jarvis (@markdjarvis) is a doctoral candidate at the School of Public Administration at the University of Victoria in Canada. His research investigates how individual public servants are held to account for their day-to-day work within national-level bureaucracies, comparing Canada, Australia and the Netherlands. He is one of the co-authors/editors of Democratizing the Constitution: Modernizing Government Accountability.

Thomas Hall (@ThomasHall17) is a retired Canadian House of Commons procedural clerk and self-described Constitution nerd. He can be trusted to chime in on discussions of parliamentary procedure and other related topics.

Canadian political/parliamentary journalists/commentators

Aaron Wherry (@aaronwherry) is the Parliamentary reporter with Maclean’s magazine. I frequently link to his Macleans articles in my blog posts. I don’t always agree with him (for example, he is wrong about abolishing the Senate), but his insights on key issues facing Canada’s parliament are always worth reading.

Kady O’Malley (@kady) is a Canadian journalist covering Parliament Hill. Formerly with the Hill Times and then Maclean’s magazine, she currently works for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. O’Malley regularly liveblogs House of Commons proceedings – especially committee meetings and blogs on the CBC website.

(Disclaimer: these and future recommendations are not intended to signal that I completely agree with or endorse everything written by the above individuals – on Twitter or elsewhere.  They are very knowledgeable individuals and contribute to political debate – whether you agree with them or not.)

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