Keyword post: Short answers to various queries

The following are answers to questions based on recent keyword search activity which has led people to this blog.

1. How many signatures does an e-petition require for it to be debated in the UK Parliament?

First of all, there is no guarantee that any petition will be debated in Parliament. Under the UK Government’s new e-petitions scheme, if an e-petition gets 100,000 signatures that will only guarantee that it will be referred to the Backbench Business Committee for consideration for debate in the House of Commons, however, the Committee is free to consider scheduling a debate on any petition, regardless of the number of signatures it receives. In other words, garnering 100,000 signatures will not guarantee a debate, and garnering fewer than 100,000 does not exclude the possibility of a debate. For a detailed explanation of this, please see this post. All petitions, however, will receive a response from the Government, once the period for signing them has closed.

2. If something happened to the Prime Minister, who would take over?

In countries such as Canada, the UK, etc., if the Prime Minister were incapacitated, decided to resign as his or her party leader or died suddenly, the party forming the government would simply name an interim leader from among its MPs. The interim leader would be acting Prime Minister while the party would hold a leadership race to choose a new leader, who would then automatically become the Prime Minister. These countries do not have presidential systems; prime ministers are not directly elected by voters to the post in general elections – the leader is chosen by the party. Parties can choose to change their leader at any time and for any reason, and if that party is the party that is forming the government, the new leader would become Prime Minister. Please see this post for information on how the Prime Minister becomes Prime Minister, and this post which addresses some related issues.

3. Who can force the Prime Minister out of office?

Since Prime Ministers in the UK and other countries are not directly elected by voters, they can’t really be forced out of office. The Prime Minister is simply an MP elected in a given constituency and who is also the leader of a political party which ends up forming the government. The surest way a PM can be removed from office by voters is for his or her party to be defeated in a general election. In between elections, however, a government can be removed from office if it loses the confidence of the House of Commons. Certain votes are considered confidence votes (the vote on the Speech from the Throne and the budget vote, for example). If a majority in the House vote against the government on these votes, the government is defeated. That could lead to a new election, or, depending on party standings in the House of Commons, another party might be asked to form the government. The party forming the government can also decide that it would prefer someone else to be its leader and force the current leader (and PM) to resign as party leader. The party would then choose a new leader, who would immediately become the Prime Minister. That party would still remain in power as the government, however.

4. How do I submit an e-petition to the Canadian House of Commons/provincial legislature?

Simply put, you can’t, unless you live in Quebec or in the Northwest Territories, which are the only legislatures in Canada which recognize or accept e-petitions. If you want to petition parliament or any other provincial legislature, you will have to do it the traditional way – print up your petition and collect real signatures on it. See this post for information on how to petitions legislatures in Canada.

5. Where I can find a picture of/more information about Eric Cameron Finance minister?

There is no such person as “Eric Cameron, Finance minister”. Eric Cameron is a fictional character in a novel, The Best Laid Plans, by Terry Fallis.

6. Who are the contesting parties for the post of Prime Minister in the UK?

No one contests for the post of prime minister since the prime minister is not elected directly by voters. The leader of whichever party ends up forming the government following a general election will become prime minister. In the case of a coalition government, as is currently the case  in the UK, traditionally the leader of the largest party in the coalition normally becomes prime minister. Currently in the UK, there are only two parties which have a realistic chance at forming the government on their own (i.e., winning a majority of the seats), and thus their leader would become the Prime Minister. These are Labour (currently led by Ed Miliband) and the Conservatives (led by David Cameron, who is currently Prime Minister leading a Coalition Government with the Liberal Democrats). Even if the next election resulted in another hung parliament, it would be either Miliband or Cameron who would end up as PM, depending on the actual seat results.

7. What happens if we elect a minority government in the Ontario election?

Voters don’t elect governments, they elect a parliament. If the election results in a hung (minority) parliament – in which no party wins a majority of the seats, there are many forms of government which could result. Please see this post for a full discussion of the various options that would be available for the parties to consider, depending on the actual results of the election.

8. In parliamentary systems, how much influence do the opposition parties have/how effective are the opposition parties?

There is no clear answer to this as it will depend on various factors such as the type of government in place and the circumstances the opposition parties find themselves in. For example, if an election results in a single-party majority government, the opposition parties will have very little influence. If an election results in a hung parliament, and a minority government emerges from that, the opposition parties are theoretically in a much stronger position since the minority government will require the support of some opposition members or parties in order to pass its legislation. This will force the government to include policies that it thinks will appeal to the opposition, or the opposition will be able to amend the legislation during committee stage. However, even in a minority government situation, sometimes the opposition parties find themselves in a very weakened position, and thus they are keen to avoid anything that might defeat the government and lead to an election since they themselves are not ready to fight an election. Perhaps they are in the midst of a leadership change, or their party is down in the polls, or they are having trouble raising money and can’t afford to fight an election. Because of this, they will be less likely to oppose the government.

In the case of a coalition government, such as is currently the case in the UK, while it does have a majority of seats, because the government is made up of two parties, this has the potential to make it more unstable than a single-party majority government. Also, UK MPs are much more independent than are their counterparts in countries such as Canada and Australia, where party discipline is very very strong and MPs rarely defy the party whips. Therefore in the UK, even government backbench MPs often oppose their own government.

Related Posts:

PEI 2011 Political Party Platform Comparisons

(Note: If you are looking for party platform comparisons for the 6 October 2011 Ontario provincial election, please see this post. If you are looking for platform comparisons for the 4 October 2011 Manitoba provincial election, click here.)

As was the case during the recent federal election here in Canada, many people are now looking for a site comparing the platforms of the political parties contesting the upcoming Prince Edward Island election (3 October 2011).

This blog cannot engage in a discussion of the policies of political parties, either at the provincial or federal level. However, as was the case this spring, it can refer you to other sites that can do that. I will update this list as needed.

PEI Political Party Platform comparisons:

The only comparison tool I have found thus far is the “Promise Tracker” on the CBC website. The promises are organized by category and party. To find what each party has promised, click on the category below the leader’s head. A bulleted list of promises will come up.

Update: Better late than never, I guess: PEI Platform Comparison from Canadian Voter

Other Resources

Elections PEI should be your first stop for most election-related queries. That is where you will find information such as the list of nominated candidates in each constituency, a Guide to Provincial Elections and much, much more.

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The Coalition Government’s working majority

Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart have prepared a very interesting analysis on the subject of the Coalition Government’s Commons’ majority.

As stated in the blog post, the Coalition enjoys a 76 seat majority: 363 government MPs (306 Conservatives and 57 Liberal Democrats) out of 650, which leaves 287 non-government MPs. Of that 287, however, five seats are held by Sinn Fein, and their MPs never take their seat in the House of Commons because they refuse to swear an oath of allegiance to the Queen. The Speaker doesn’t vote (except in the rare instance of a tie), nor do the three deputy speakers (not even when they aren’t in the Chair). This reduces the number of non-government MPs to 278 and increases the Government’s majority to 85. Also, the eight members of the Democratic Unionist party usually (but not always) vote with the Government, which brings the Government’s majority close to 100.

What Cowley and Stuart have found, looking at the 306 whipped votes that have occurred since the May 2010 election (excluding the 25 occasions when Coalition MPs were given a free vote), is that on average, the Government enjoys a majority of 142. The authors note that this is the mean average and that the median average is 94, which is much more inline with the actual seat distribution (Government vs non-government). The researchers write:

This suggests that there are some very high outlier figures, dragging up the mean average – and indeed that’s what happening.

The key factor is the behaviour of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition. Most of the time (some 238 votes so far), Labour oppose the government, and when they do the average majority is 91 (with a median of 87).  But when Labour abstain (44 votes), the majority averages 270 (median: 276); and when Labour support the government, the average majority rises to 421 (median: 450).  (The eagle-eyed amongst you may have noticed that these numbers don’t sum to 306 – because there was one vote when the government was whipped, but Labour allowed a free vote).

The most striking example of this occurred on 21 March this year when the Government won a vote endorsing military action in Libya by 557 votes to 13, thanks to the support of the Labour frontbench, producing the largest Coalition majority so far this Parliament of 544.

There has been a lot of talk about how rebellious this current parliament has been. Since May 2010, there have been 110 rebellions by Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs. Coalition MPs have rebelled on 52% of votes (see this post). However, the above statistics have implications for the likelihood of any backbench rebellions by government MPs actually succeeding in defeating Government legislation:

On paper, it would take 39 Coalition MPs to rebel to defeat the Government – but only if the Labour frontbench was to vote with the rebels.  There are plenty of issues on which 39 Conservative MPs might rebel, but there aren’t as many on which the Labour party would be willing to join them. That is not to say that it won’t happen at some point in the future, merely that it is not likely to happen very often.

The hurdles in overturning a large in-built Coalition majority are even more acute for the Liberal Democrats. Their backbench MPs number only 35, so even if all of them vote against the Government with all the Opposition MPs, that would still not be enough to defeat the Government.

For the Government’s majority to fall much below 50, both Conservative and Liberal Democrats need to rebel in decent numbers, with the support of the Labour frontbench and the minor parties. This has been happening rarely since May 2010.  The Government’s majority has only fallen below 50 on only six occasions in its first fifteen months in power.

But it can happen.  On 9 December 2010, over university tuition fees, 21 Liberal Democrat rebels combined with six Conservative backbenchers, the Labour frontbench and the minor parties, reducing the Government’s majority to 21, which remains the lowest Coalition majority thus this Parliament.

As the paper concludes, all in all, what this demonstrates is that the Coalition has a strong majority not only on paper, but also in practice.

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Leaders in search of parties

Liberal Democrat party leader Nick Clegg held a Q&A session during his party’s fall conference. At times, Clegg seemed almost impatient with some of the questions party members were asking, even lecturing one of them for not listening to the answer being provided. As noted in the Guardian:

The Nick Clegg 2011 model is not the same as the 2010 one. People have been talking about it at the conference, but his Q&A session really brought it out. He’s more thick-skinned, confident and abrupt. One theory is that it’s just experience. (Last year he did at times look like someone playing at being deputy prime minister.) Another theory is that he’s received so much abuse that he’s become inured to it. Whatever, it meant that he treated delegates during the Q&A session to a rhetorical duffing up. But what I don’t know is whether or not they appreciated the smack of firm leadership. Colleagues who were in the hall say that it was hard to tell.

Other columnists have noted a deepening split between the Liberal and Social Democrat wings of the party, with Clegg and the other “orange bookers” firmly wanting the party to move more towards a liberal/centrist position. This, of course, is not news. Prior to last fall’s conference, he candidly stated that the party had no future as a left-wing alternative to Labour:

“I totally understand that some of these people are not happy with what the Lib Dems are doing in coalition with the Conservatives. The Lib Dems never were and aren’t a receptacle for left-wing dissatisfaction with the Labour Party. There is no future for that; there never was.”

Fraser Nelson recently wrote that: “Like David Cameron, Clegg has no great love for his party members.” A comment left by a reader on a different Spectator blog post about Clegg’s Q&A session observed:

His problem is that his party is composed of sanctimonious bores who would much rather be complaining from the sidelines than in power.

Odd that the three major parties should all be led by men who are so obviously not enamored of their own members.

This is an interesting phenomena in the UK. It does seem that all three of the main party leaders are at odds with a significant number of their party membership.

There has been much grumbling in Conservative Party circles of David Cameron not being a “real” Tory, or that he listens far too much to the Liberal Democrats and not to his own membership or caucus. Take, for example, the recent exchange during Prime Minister’s Questions when Tory backbencher Nadine Dorries asked this of the PM:

Nadine Dorries (Mid Bedfordshire) (Con): The Liberal Democrats make up 8.7% of this Parliament and yet they seem to be influencing our free school policy, health and many issues including immigration and abortion. Does the Prime Minister—[Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. The question from the hon. Lady will be heard.

Nadine Dorries: Does the Prime Minister think it is about time he told the Deputy Prime Minister who is the boss?(source)

The issue isn’t that David Cameron listens more to Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, but that the reality of a coalition with the Liberal Democrats allows David Cameron to ignore some of the more extreme elements of his own party because numerically, he simply doesn’t need their support.

Both Andrew Rawnsley (the Guardian) and the BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson make this point very clearly. Robinson observed that (emphasis added):

There is a growing sense of betrayal on the Tory backbenches – not just on abortion and Europe but issues like tax cuts too.

They may blame the coalition but most must know that on all these issues David Cameron is acting according to his own instinct.

What they resent is the fact that the Lib Dems have given him a majority big enough to ignore lobbying from Tory backbenchers, unlike John Major who found himself constantly having to appease them.

The Commons became hysterical when David Cameron tried to reply to Nadine Dorries by saying he knew she was “extremely frustrated” – which MPs took as a comment on her personal proclivities rather than political demands.

Tellingly, he then sat down and gave Nick Clegg a reassuring clap on the shoulder.

Rawnsley puts forward a similar argument (emphasis added):

One simplistic school of Tory thought has it that their leader is too lacking in conviction, energy and steel to secure a full-on rightwing agenda. He allows the Lib Dems to have their way more often than he should because he can’t be bothered enough to fight.

A more sophisticated school of unhappy Tories think that David Cameron uses the Lib Dems as an excuse for not doing things he didn’t want to do anyway. Too often, for their tastes, he calls himself a “liberal Conservative” with almost as much emphasis on the first word as the last. This has more plausibility as an analysis. Most of the things about this government that upset rightwing Tories are not actually down to the Lib Dems.

Labour leader Ed Miliband has also taken stances somewhat at odds with those of his party. He wants to sever, or at least limit, the party’s ties to unions. He also wants to explore opening up the leadership process, potentially even letting non-members vote.

The problems all three leaders face is that their parties span a diverse spectrum of opinion, not surprising since they are “big tent” parties. The Conservative Party membership ranges from extremely right-wing and small “c” conservatives to individuals like David Cameron himself – who is indeed far more liberal. Labour remains torn between Old Labour – strongly socialist and pro-union, and Blair’s New Labour. The Lib Dems, born of a merger of the SDP and Liberal parties, have never really merged into one cohesive party – they retain their SDP and Liberal sides, and the current leadership would like to the party to become a classically liberal party – centrist and progressive. Indeed, during his Q&A session, Nick Clegg urged party members to stop obsessing about the people who won’t vote for them now and to start going after the people who might now vote for them. A slight but important distinction, since most who won’t vote for them now are probably more on the left, and Clegg is hoping his party may now appeal more to more centrist/liberal voters.

In an ideal world, these parties would split up into two or three parties each. That would probably happen if some form of proportional representation (not AV) were adopted to replace First Past the Post, but since there is little or no chance of that happening in the near or even distant future, the phenomena of party leaders at odds with their parties is likely to continue.


Related Posts:

Manitoba 2011 Political Party Platform Comparisons

(Note: If you are looking for party platform comparisons for the 6 October 2011 Ontario provincial election, please see this post. If you are looking for platform comparisons for the 3 October 2011 PEI provincial election, click here.)

As was the case during the recent federal election here in Canada, many people are now looking for a site comparing the platforms of the political parties contesting the upcoming Manitoba election (4 October 2011).

This blog cannot engage in a discussion of the policies of political parties, either at the provincial or federal level. However, as was the case this spring, it can refer you to other sites that can do that. I will update this list as needed.

Manitoba Political Party Platform comparisons:

Pledge comparison chart from the Winnipeg Free Press

Platform comparison from Canadian Voter

Not sure how to vote? Try this 13-question quiz to see which party best reflects your views on key issues.

Related Posts:

Ontario 2011 Political Party Platform comparisons

(Note: If you are looking for platform comparisons for the 4 October 2011 Manitoba provincial election, click here. If you are looking for platform comparisons for the 3 October 2011 PEI provincial election, click here.)

As was the case during the recent federal election here in Canada, many people are now looking for a site comparing the platforms of the political parties contesting the upcoming Ontario election (6 October 2011).

This blog cannot engage in a discussion of the policies of political parties, either at the provincial or federal level. However, as was the case this spring, it can refer you to other sites that can do that. I will update this list as needed.

Ontario Political Party Platform comparisons:

The Globe and Mail

Canadian Voter – Ontario

Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance and College Student Alliance (note: this site focuses mostly on issues which affect post-secondary students/education and compares where the parties stand with what the OUSA and CSA would like to see)

Platform word clouds (not sure how useful this is, but it’s interesting if nothing else)

Comparison prepared by the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario (includes only those commitments that address demands in RNAO’s own platform)

CBC’s Power and Politics – financial analysis of the party platforms (video)  (note: the video wouldn’t work for me in Firefox but did play fine using Internet Explorer)

Other Useful Election-related links

Want to try out different voting systems? Visit Three Ontario Votes

What happens if it’s a hung (minority) parliament? Who gets to form the government?

Questions about party financing? Click here.

For a list of all of the registered political parties in Ontario, click here.

For all things election-related, Elections Ontario should be your first stop.

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Electoral Boundary Reform – Canada

The proposed UK electoral boundary changes officially made public today are a major topic of debate. The Coalition Government proposed reducing the number of MPs in the House of Commons from the current 650 to 600, in part to save money, and in part to make the system fairer as the electorate in each constituency will be more uniform.

Normally, revision of electoral boundaries is done in order to better reflect demographic changes. This often leads to some parts of a country or province/state losing seats because the population has fallen, while other regions (normally major metropolitan areas) gain seats due to population increases. This might not affect the overall number of seats in the legislative body, but in some instances, it will be necessary to increase the number of seats overall in order to maintain a semblance of representation by population. It isn’t very often that a legislative body will set out to deliberately reduce its number of elected officials for the main purpose of reducing costs, as the UK House of Commons is doing.

In Canada, responsibility for drawing federal and provincial electoral boundaries belongs to independent agencies. At the federal level, this is overseen by Elections Canada, an independent agency which reports directly to the Parliament of Canada.

Representation in the House of Commons is readjusted every ten years, after each census to reflect changes in the population, as per the Constitution Act, 1867 and the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act.

These revisions of federal electoral boundaries are carried out by independent federal electoral boundaries commissions, one for each province. These commissions consider and report on any changes that might be required to the boundaries of federal electoral districts in each province. Canada’s three territories (the Northwest Territories, Yukon and Nunavut) have one seat each, and thus no commissions are required. Each commission is chaired either by a judge appointed by the Chief Justice of that province, or by a person resident in that province appointed by the Chief Justice of Canada. As well, the Speaker of the House of Commons appoints two other members who are resident in that province.

The proposals prepared by these independent commissions are published in the Canada Gazette, and hearings are held to ensure public input into the process. After these hearings, the commissions decide if changes need to be made and if they can be made. Once they have completed their reports, these are forwarded to the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada, who forwards them to the Speaker of the House of Commons.

Members of the House of Commons have 30 days to examine the reports and file objections with a specified Committee of the House of Commons. The Committee then has 30 sitting days to review the objections for each Commission. The objections, as well as the minutes of the Committee’s discussions and the evidence heard, are sent to the Chief Electoral Officer and forwarded back to the appropriate Commission. The commissions then have 30 days to consider these objections from MPs and make their own final decisions, independent of the Chief Electoral Officer and Parliament. The final decisions rest with the boundaries commissions.

The Chief Electoral Officer refers the commissions’ final reports to the Speaker of the House of Commons and prepares a draft representation order. The representation order:

  • specifies the number of members of the House of Commons to be elected for each province
  • divides each province into electoral districts
  • describes the boundaries of each district
  • specifies the population of, and the name to be given to, each district

It should be noted that it would be almost impossible for the Canadian House of Commons to reduce the number of seats as the UK House of Commons is doing. The reasons for this are various constitutional clauses that have been adopted over the years which guarantee certain provinces a minimum number of seats.

In order that each province’s representation in the House of Commons continued to reflect its population, section 51 of the Constitution Act, 1867 stated that the number of seats allocated to each province would be recalculated after each 10-year census, starting with the 1871 census. The total number of seats was to be calculated by dividing the population of each province by a fixed number, referred to as the “electoral quota” or “quotient.” This quota was to be obtained by dividing the population of the province of Quebec by 65, the number of seats in the House of Commons guaranteed for Quebec by the Constitution.

This simple formula was to be applied with only one exception, “the one-twentieth rule,” under which no province could lose seats in a redistribution unless its share of the national population had decreased by at least five percent (one twentieth) between the last two censuses.

In 1915, the first change was made to the original representation formula, by the adoption of the “senatorial clause.” Still in effect today, this clause states that a province cannot have fewer seats in the House of Commons than it does in the Senate. In 1915, it had the immediate effect of guaranteeing four seats to the province of Prince Edward Island, instead of the three it would otherwise have had. It has had four seats ever since.

In 1946, new rules were adopted which divided 255 seats among the provinces and territories based on their share of Canada’s total population, rather than on the average population per electoral district in Quebec. Since the population of all provinces had not increased at the same rate, certain provinces lost seats. Because Nova Scotia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan were all to lose seats after the 1951 census, the “15 percent clause” was adopted to prevent a too rapid loss of seats in some provinces. Under these rules, no province could lose more than 15% of the number of Commons seats to which it had been entitled at the last readjustment. The same three provinces, plus Quebec, however, all lost seats after the 1961 census. These same four provinces, plus Newfoundland, would also have lost seats after the 1971 census, so legislation was finally introduced to resolve this particular situation in 1974. This was the Representation Act, 1974, which, among other things, guaranteed that no province could lose seats.

This lead to the creation of a new formula, the amalgam formula, which was used only once, in 1976. The problem was that this new, complex formula, which again used Quebec as the basis for calculations and divided provinces into three separate categories based on population, would have resulted in a substantial increase in the number of seats in the House of Commons both immediately and after subsequent censuses. For example, it projected 369 seats after 2001 – there are currently 308 seats in the House of Commons. Effectively putting a hold on the process already underway to reassign seats, Parliament passed the Representation Act, 1985 which came into effect in March 1986. This is the formula still in use today.

This formula for representation is applied by carrying out the following four steps:

1 – Allocation to the territories: Starting with the 282 seats that the House of Commons of Canada had in 1985, one seat is allocated to the Northwest Territories, one to the Yukon Territory and one to Nunavut, leaving 279 seats. This number is used to calculate the electoral quotient.

2 – Calculation of the electoral district average: The total population of the ten provinces is divided by 279 to obtain the “electoral quota” or “quotient”, which is used to determine the number of seats for each province.

3 – Distribution of seats to each province: The theoretical number of seats to be allocated to each province in the House of Commons is calculated by dividing the total population of each province by the quotient obtained in step 2. If the result leaves a remainder higher than 0.50, the number of seats is rounded up to the next whole number.

4 – Adjustments: After the theoretical number of seats per province is obtained, adjustments are made in a process referred to as applying the “senatorial clause” and “grandfather clause.”

As stated above, since 1915, the senatorial clause has guaranteed that no province has fewer members in the House of Commons than it has in the Senate. The Representation Act, 1985 brought into effect a new grandfather clause that guaranteed each province no fewer seats than it had in 1976 or during the 33rd Parliament. (Source: Elections Canada)

The above notwithstanding, the Canadian government will be introducing legislation to add seats to the House of Commons to address the under-representation of three provinces, Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia.

Each Canadian province has its own process for reviewing the electoral boundaries used at the provincial level, and they all rely on some form of independent body or commission to carry out these reviews. However, this does not mean that there haven’t been accusations of politicians unduly interfering in the review process for purely political reasons. For example, in 2006, a controversy arose in the province of Prince Edward Island over the provincial government’s decision to throw out an electoral map drawn by an independent commission. Instead they created two new maps. The government adopted the second of these, designed by the caucus of the governing party. Opposition parties and the media attacked then Premier Pat Binns for what they saw as gerrymandering of districts. Among other things, the government adopted a map that ensured that every current Member of the Legislative Assembly from the premier’s party had a district to run in for re-election, whereas in the original map, several had been redistricted.Despite this, in the 2007 provincial election only seven of 20 incumbent Members of the Legislative Assembly were re-elected (seven did not run for re-election), and the government was defeated.

More recently, something similar has occurred in the province of Quebec. A review of Quebec’s electoral boundaries began in 2007 by the Commission de la représentation électorale (CRE) under the auspices of the Direction général des élections du Québec (DGEQ), as per the requirements of the province’s Election Act. A preliminary proposal was presented to the public and hearings held across Québec.

In the fall of 2010, the boundary review proposal of the CRE was submitted for the consideration to a Committee of the the province’s National Assembly (provincial legislature). At a briefing, two Liberal ministers accused the DGEQ of betraying the province’s regions (parts of the province not including the metropolitan areas) and to have performed his work in a manner beneath the dignity of the institution he represented. This prompted Marcel Blanchet, the Director General of Elections, to tender his resignation. On October 28, 2010, Premier Jean Charest announced that he was scrapping the electoral map drawn up by the independent CRE and effectively suspending the electoral laws in Quebec.

On November 23 2010, the Quebec assembly passed Bill no. 132, entitled An Act to suspend the electoral division delimitation process. Its object is to suspend, until June 30, 2011, the electoral map revision process. Due to the passage of Bill No.132, the process to revise Quebec’s electoral map has been effectively put on hold.

Presently, 27 of the province’s 125 ridings do not conform to the Quebec Electoral Law’s stipulation that the number of electors per riding can be no more or no less than a 25% deviation from the average number of electors per riding province-wide. The proposed map would have rectified this anomaly. However, in doing so, the number of seats in rural Quebec would have been reduced in favour of increasing the number of seats primarily in and around the City of Montreal. This was politically problematic for Quebec’s political parties. The rural parts of the province are overwhelmingly francophone and white, while Montreal is much more ethnically and linguistically diverse.

There is only one recent example of a legislative body in Canada deliberately reducing the number of seats, primarily to save money. That occurred in the province of Ontario in the 1990s. The move was instigated by the Progressive Conservative party, as part of its “Common Sense Revolution” manifesto. The party had make this platform public well before the 1995 general election. It contained a pledge to reduce the number of Members of Provincial Parliament (MPPs) from 130 to 99. Under these proposals, the Legislative Assembly of Ontario would adopt the boundaries of the (then) 99 Ontario seats represented in the federal House of Commons, and would be adjusted every decade with the redrawing of the federal electoral map.

This process was obviously different from the one being undertaken in the UK at the moment. MPPs in Ontario knew immediately which ridings would disappear since the province would simply be adopting the same electoral boundaries (and constituency names) used for federal elections. The legislation was adopted in 1996 and the first election fought using the new electoral districts was in 1999, with the PC party winning another majority government.

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Some interesting numbers

During Questions to the Leader of the House on 8 September, a few interesting statistics were made available.

First, in response to a question regarding the use of ministerial statements to make major government announcements, the Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons informed Members that 139 oral ministerial statements and more than 1,500 written ministerial statements were made to the House thus far this session (since May 2010).

This is a relatively impressive number, and indeed, the parliamentary secretary added that the Government had a “much better record than the previous Government”.

Ministerial statements in the UK House of Commons are much more informative than are their Canadian namesakes, as I have explained previously. They involve a minister making a statement on key policy or events to the House, and then taking questions on said matter. There isn’t really any official time limit on a ministerial statement. Indeed, back in July, Prime Minister David Cameron delivered a ministerial statement to the House on the phone hacking scandal, and took 136 questions from MPs over the course of two and one half hours. Not all ministerial statements involve as many questions or last as long, but it isn’t uncommon for there to be more than one ministerial statement delivered on the same day.

What is equally impressive is that Members remain remarkably on topic. They are allowed to question the minister only on the matter that is the focus of the statement. Today for example, Chancellor George Osborne delivered a statement on the Report of the Independent Commission on Banking (aka the Vickers Report). Earlier in the day, news had come out that alleging certain improprieties on Mr. Osborne’s part involving drugs and prostitutes. There must have been great temptation among some MPs to raise the matter during Osborne’s statement – or to at least make some oblique (or not so oblique) references to this. However, that didn’t happen. The MPs present, including the Shadow Chancellor, remained focused on the content of the Vickers report and nothing else. I’m certain Mr. Osborne was quite relieved about that.

The other interesting statistics revealed during this same Oral Questions session concerned e-petitions. The parliamentary secretary informed the House that since its launch in early August, the Government’s new e-petitions website now hosts over 6,500 e-petitions which have received more than 1.5 million signatures in total. He also addressed the misconception that e-petitions with over 100,000 signatures would automatically be debated in the House:

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): But does the Minister agree with the Daily Mail, which says that this amounts to an e-petition con? The Government said to the public, ‘If 100,000 of you sign one of these petitions, there’ll be a debate.” What discussion did the Government have with the Backbench Business Committee about how the time for those debates would be allocated?

Mr Heath: May I caution the hon. Lady, first against reading the Daily Mail , and secondly against agreeing with what it says? The Government have never said that when a petition reaches the threshold it will have an automatic right of debate. It will be considered with a view to seeing whether the matter raised has already been debated or is already going to be debated in a different context or whether the request has already been met by the Government. If there is then a need to debate something that the public have registered as an interest, the Backbench Business Committee will respond to that request. That seems to me an entirely proper way of doing things and it is a huge improvement on the old No. 10 petition site on which the petitions went precisely nowhere.

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Politics, privacy and public disclosure

Recently, the Leader of the Official Opposition in Canada, Jack Layton, passed away from cancer. At the outset of the election campaign in March, questions were raised about his health since he had previously battled prostate cancer (successfully, he said), but had undergone surgery for a hip fracture. He refused to say what caused the fracture. In July, he held a press conference to announce that he had been diagnosed with a second cancer, and was temporarily stepping down as leader. He died a few weeks later.

There have been questions raised over whether Mr. Layton should have been more forthcoming about his health issues. Even after his death, his widow and the party refuse to say what sort of cancer he had this second time around, and when he was diagnosed with it. They claim he did not know about the second cancer during the campaign. Some journalists (for example, see here, here (article is in French, but you can run it through an online translator) and here) argue that Mr. Layton should have been more forthcoming about his health, and that he wasn’t for purely political reasons because doing so would have affected how thousands of people voted. Here are some sample quotes from two of the above articles:

From André Picard:

One of the things you sacrifice is your privacy. That ranges from having a pesky security detail to being available almost around the clock, and it extends to fighting your health-care battles a little more publicly than you might want to.

Mr. Layton should tell his political family – the electorate – what he tells his immediate family: what kind of cancer he has, the treatment he will undergo and the prognosis.

That is part of being a modern-day political leader. (…)

Ask yourselves this question: If it was the Prime Minister who was undergoing cancer treatment, would we be satisfied with the vagueness of the information? So why should we accept this lack of transparency from the Leader of the Official Opposition (and potential PM-in-waiting)?

From Lysianne Gagnon:

Last week, Olivia Chow, Mr. Layton’s widow, told the CBC that she didn’t want to reveal what type of cancer killed her husband because it might “discourage” other cancer sufferers. This is preposterous. Cancer patients are not stupid. They know that there are as many cases as there are individuals, and that some of them will survive and some of them will die. Why treat them like children incapable of making a distinction between Mr. Layton’s fate and their own?

I can understand why Mr. Layton did not acknowledge his condition at the outset of the election campaign. He would have had to resign, thereby throwing his party in disarray. And for him, campaigning was certainly the best therapy he could have. Indeed, for a while, the flow of adrenalin trumped the disease. Still, his story should come as a lesson. (…)

In the 21st century, shouldn’t transparency be required from those running for the highest offices in the land?

While I can certainly understand where both writers are coming from, they both seem to be ignoring a larger issue – we don’t have a presidential system.

In the US, presidents and presidential candidates are expected to make their health records public. Of course, in the US, voters directly elect the president. If the president or a presidential candidate suffers from a serious disease, this should be public knowledge because it would directly affect how people vote. If a president becomes incapacitated, it is the vice-president who would take office. It is the president who chooses his or her VP – the voters vote for the ticket, they have no choice over who becomes the running mate. Therefore they have a vested interest in knowing that the president or presidential candidate is in good health, since the choice of VP is often more of a purely political calculation rather than an endorsement of that candidate’s skills and qualifications.

In Westminster parliamentary systems, however, voters do not elect the Prime Minister directly, nor do they directly elect their government (see this post on how the PM is chosen). Canadians (and Brits, and Australians and New Zealanders, etc.) elect an MP to represent their constituency. The MPs elected constitute a Parliament. It is that Parliament which determines what party (or parties) will command the confidence of the House and thus form the government. An MP who is leader of a political party becomes PM only if that party ends up forming the government. A party can choose to replace its leader at any time, and often does so. Voters have no say in this, and it doesn’t change anything in the House of Commons.

Indeed, it isn’t uncommon for governing parties to change leaders mid-term, for example, when Paul Martin replaced Jean Chrétien as PM and Liberal leader in Canada, or when Gordon Brown replaced Tony Blair as PM and Labour leader in the UK -  as long as the government still maintains the confidence of the House, who the leader of that party is really doesn’t matter. Similarly, even if something did happen to the Prime Minister, which might force him or her to step down for health reasons, or if they died suddenly in office, it wouldn’t be the Leader of the Opposition who would suddenly become PM – the party forming the government, assuming it still maintained the confidence of the House, would simply name an interim leader from among its sitting MPs, and then hold a leadership race to find a new permanent leader, who would automatically become the Prime Minister. Again, voters would have no say in any of this. Thus the Leader of the Opposition is not really a “Prime Minister in waiting”. They would not become PM if the PM resigned for health (or other) reasons, or died in office.

Because this is how our system of government works, it doesn’t matter quite as much if a party leader has to step down for any reason. They owe their position as party leader to the party, not voters in general, and second, voters do not directly elect governments. A party (or group of parties) ends up forming the government because they command the confidence of the House, not because voters directly elected them to that position.

However, it is increasingly true that more and more voters cast their vote not based on the qualities of their various local candidates for MP, but based on who their favourite party leader happens to be. Polls have shown that this is certainly true in the case of Mr. Layton in the May 2011 election – much of the party’s new found support in the province of Quebec was really a vote for Layton personally, since in many instances, the local NDP candidates didn’t even bother campaigning and in some cases, had never even visited the ridings in which they were nominated. This phenomenon isn’t limited to the NDP of course, many people in Canada will vote or not vote for a given party because of that party’s leader, regardless of how able that party’s local candidate might be, and all parties run placeholder candidates in constituencies they don’t normally expect to do well in.

Given this reality, it might be tempting to argue that the issue of whether a politician, and in particular, party leaders, should be more forthcoming with information concerning their health which might impact their ability to do their job is perhaps not as black and white as some might like it to be, and therefore the public had a right to know exactly what was wrong with the Leader of the Opposition.

There are some important points to consider here. First is the very argument that this is a  “right to know” matter – that the public has a “right to know” details of a politician’s health. This, of course, is nonsense – there is no legal requirement that any person in Canada publicly reveal details about their health. This is instead more of a moral issue, the moral obligation of a politician to tell voters if they are able to carry out their duties, which is what Layton did. He announced that he was temporarily stepping down because he couldn’t carry out his duties as Leader of the Opposition, he needed to focus on fighting this new bout of cancer. Should he have stepped down before the election? Obviously Mr. Layton believed he could campaign effectively, and indeed, he did. Therefore, even if he did know at that time that he had another cancer, this did not affect his ability to carry out his duties on the campaign trail.

Another important point is that Layton’s health issues had absolutely no impact on the country. He wasn’t part of the government, and so was not in the position of making any critical policy decisions affecting the country. But even if his party had won the election in May and he had ended up Prime Minister, the same arguments would apply. His first obligation would have been to assess if he could carry out his duties, and if not, to inform the public of this and step down. He would not be obliged to make public the details of his health issues.

Those who are argue that Canada should adopt a full disclosure policy similar to that in the US ignore one very important thing. The Westminster parliamentary system is based on cabinet government – decisions are not made by the Prime Minister alone (in theory at least), but collectively, by the ministry. This is why in most, if not all of the countries using the Westminster system, the constitutions of those country make no mention of the position, power and status of prime ministers. This is certainly the case in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Interestingly enough, in the British tradition there was no official leader of the British Cabinet until the 19th century. Prior to that time, Cabinet Ministers enjoyed control over their respective departments and worked in concert to address broad government matters. By the 1800s, however, it became customary to recognize a “senior” or “first” minister in the Cabinet, who was later given the title of Prime Minister.

Obviously this is no longer the case, since the post of Prime Minister has become very central. Still, the reality is that the government, the ministry, would continue to function just fine without a Prime Minister. The PM is, to be blunt, effectively replaceable. This is not a presidential system.

In the event that an election was on the horizon, then I think the party leader would owe it first and foremost to their party to be upfront about their ability to continue as leader. They still would not be under any obligation to make public the details of their health problems.

However, not doing so is problematic. André Picard raises one notable point in his article:

Do public officials owe the public full disclosure?

In an era marked by a volatile cocktail of cynicism about politics, and when gossip flows as freely as news (via Twitter, Facebook, 24-hour news portals, etc.), the answer is: Absolutely.

The reality is that if a politician decides to keep details of their health private, this inevitably leads to endless speculation, rumour and debate in the media and online. Repeated denials that something is wrong or of the exact nature of the health problem will look like an attempt to hide something, even if that is not the case. This is unfortunate, since it may mean that some will feel pressured to reveal information they’d rather keep private simply to put an end to rumours and half-truths.

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Will MPs rebel over boundary reforms?

Since day one back in May 2010, the UK media has made predicting the break-up of the coalition a favourite hobby. Indeed, almost every controversial policy has been dubbed the issue that will spell the end of the Coalition – the budget, tuition fees, the AV referendum, reform of the NHS, the London riots to name but a few – each of these was supposed to bring about an irreversible split between the two parties. However, that has not happened. While tensions have undoubtedly increased between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats over some (or all) of these issues, the Coalition continues forward.

This may change, however. One of the bills passed by the Government, the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill 2010-11, would see the number of MPs in the House of Commons reduced from the current 650 to 600. After the bill received Royal Assent in February of this year, the Boundaries Commission set about redrawing existing constituency boundaries to accommodate the requirements of the bill. Tomorrow, 12 September 2011, MPs will be given advance notice of how their constituency will be affected. Fifty MPs will see their constituency vanish. Others will see theirs change, in some case, dramatically.

According to The Independent, Government Whips are worried that some Coalition MPs who face the prospect of losing their seat completely will decide they have no reason to continue supporting the Government in the House for the remainder of this Parliament, i.e the next three years. There is also the issue of MPs whose constituencies will remain being shuffled out in favour of other, higher-profile MPs who will be losing their seats:

Senior ministers including George Osborne, the Chancellor, Grant Shapps, the Housing Minister, and Danny Alexander, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, are among those whose seats are under threat.

It raises the prospect of more junior MPs being shunted out of safe seats to make way for key government figures. “It will be every man and woman for themselves,” a Tory backbencher said. “It will be piranha pool-time,” said another. There is even speculation that some disgruntled MPs could quit within weeks, sparking a wave of by-elections.

The details of the boundary changes won’t be made public until the following day (13 September), and these changes are for constituencies in England only. Changes to constituencies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will be announced later this year.

ETA: You can read the leaked reports here.

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