On report stage debate

I have already discussed the casting vote of the Speaker, albeit not in detail. It is worth revisiting the matter in light of the debate surrounding a pending vote in the Canadian House of Commons expected later this month.


I will not debate the pros and cons of Bill C-391, nor get into any of the partisan debate surrounding what has become a very contentious issue in Canada. There are plenty of bloggers writing about the issue and a quick Google or visit to Progressive Bloggers will provide any interested parties with a taste of how the debate is being framed.

I will, however, provide some context to the debate. Bill C-391 is ostensibly a Private Member’s bill aimed at repealing Canada’s long-gun registry. It was introduced by a Government backbencher. The current governing party, the Conservatives, is the only party in the House of Commons which opposes the long-gun registry and promised to abolish it. The other three parties represented in the House, the Liberals, the New Democrats (NDP) and the Bloc Québécois (BQ) all officially support the registry. The bill has survived first and second reading and was sent to committee for study. Both the Liberals and NDP did not whip their vote against the Bill at second reading, which they would have done had it been a Government bill, because traditionally, votes on Private Members’ business are free votes. Eight Liberal MPs and 12 NDP MPs voted in favour of the bill at second reading. The BQ whipped its vote and voted against it. There are reports that the Conservatives also whipped their vote.

However, opponents of the Bill have argued that Bill C-391 is a Private Member’s bill in name only; the reality, they argue, is that this is a case of the Government trying to pass through the back door a policy they could never get passed as a Government bill. There is a strong case supporting this position, but I will not comment on that. Suffice it to say, during the summer recess, the Liberals have reversed their position and the next vote on the bill will be whipped. This leaves only the NDP still allowing a free vote on the matter.

The Issue

The opponents of Bill C-391 have been attacking the NDP for not whipping the vote and for sticking with the “it’s a private member’s bill” argument. The NDP, however, plan to table their own private member’s bill which would propose amendments to improve the long-gun registry, addressing the issues that have vexed some rural gun owners. Opponents of Bill C-391 argue that there is no point in doing so, because by the time the bill is tabled, the vote on C-391 will have taken place and there will be no long-gun registry to fix. Over the past couple of weeks, some NDP MPs who voted in favour of the bill on second reading have announced they will now vote against it. Current consensus is that the vote will be extremely close, perhaps forcing the Speaker to cast the deciding vote.

The Confusion

The debate has become increasingly confused primarily due to a combination of sloppy media reporting and a failure on the NDP’s part to clarify one important fact: the upcoming vote on Bill C-391 will not be the final vote.

The Bill was sent to committee in May, where it was studied. The Committee reported back on June 9, 2010. The next vote on Bill C-391 is the vote on the report stage. Once a bill has been examined in a committee, it is considered by the whole House. At this stage, Members may, after giving written notice, propose amendments to the text of the bill as it was reported by the committee. Those motions are then debated.

At the end of report stage of a bill that has already been read a second time, as is the case for C-391, the motion for concurrence at report stage is put forthwith, without amendment or debate. If no motion in amendment is moved at report stage, no debate takes place and consideration of report stage becomes the simple adoption (or rejection) of the motion for concurrence at report stage, before proceeding to third reading.

Third reading debate will not occur immediately, unless unanimous consent is obtained to do so, meaning after this upcoming vote, there will be another vote on Bill C-391, which will be the final vote on the Bill in the House (but it will continue on to the Senate).

In the Event of a Tie

Should the vote on report stage end in a deadlock, the Speaker will cast the deciding vote. In this instance, the Speaker would vote in favour of the bill, the rationale being to allow for further debate (third reading). However, if there are proposed amendments, and the vote on any (or all) of the amendments results in deadlock, the Speaker would vote against the amendment. The reason would be to maintain the bill in its existing form.

Motion for Third Reading

Should the vote following third reading of the bill result in a tie, then the Speaker would vote No because important decision should not be taken except by a majority in the House. It also allows for the matter to be brought back before the House at a future date.

The only thing that is important to remember here is that the vote expected on Bill C-391 later this month will not be the final vote on the bill. Contrary to what many bloggers are arguing, the vote expected next week will not be the vote that kills the long-gun registry. It is not third reading debate, it is report stage debate. As well, amendments could be proposed by MPs that would significantly alter the bill, for example, opting to improve the registry rather than repeal it, as the NDP claims it wants to do. With a minority government in place, the Opposition parties would have sufficient numbers to do just this.

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Job sharing for MPs?

The sole Green Party MP in the UK House of Commons, Caroline Lucas, recently proposed job sharing for MPs, arguing that this would potentially increase the number of female MPs in the House.

Ms. Lucas, who is also party leader, recently proposed at the party’s conference, that pairs of candidates should be allowed to stand for election and share the job if elected:

“This is actually incredibly sensible. How many times have people talked about career politicians, about politicians being out of touch with reality?

“If you had job-sharing MPs, what that would allow you to do is to keep MPs with a foot in their community. They could keep their caring responsibilities, they could keep voluntary work, they could continue part-time in their profession. It would enable far more women to get into politics.”

While certainly an interesting proposal, I don’t know if job sharing lends itself very well to the post of MP. Much of an MP’s work consists of taking in information, attending meetings, listening to individuals concerns, relationship-building etc. It is questionable how this could be accomplished by job sharing MPs. Having to deal with two separate people might complicate getting constituency-related issues resolved. If a constituent went to their MP with a problem, and on one day dealt with one of the paired MPs, then the next time, it was the other of the pair, would they have to start over from scratch, re-explaining everything? If the paired MPs failed to communicate properly between them, a lot of duplication and confusion could arise.

There are a lot of other questions that would need to be considered. For example, what if a Prime Minister wanted to appoint one of the paired MPs to cabinet, but not the other? Would that even be possible, or would both have to be appointed? If only one of the pair was appointed, would the cabinet minister be limited to doing ministerial duties on a part-time basis?

Would the paired MPs share the one salary (and benefits, pension, expenses allowances, etc.) or would they each get a salary?

What if one of the pair has to resign for whatever reasons (health problems, scandal, etc.). Would the other have to resign as well? Would a by-election be held to replace only one-half of the pair, or would there even be a by-election, since there was still an MP in place?

What happens during votes, if the job sharing MPs disagree on the issue being voted on or other matters of policy?

Would voters be more or less inclined to vote for a single candidate, or for a double candidacy?

Ms. Lucas is proposing job sharing primarily for women in a bid to increase the number of women in the House of Commons. Does this mean men wouldn’t be allowed to participate in such a scheme?

I do agree that there should be more women in politics, both in the UK and in Canada, but I am not certain that job sharing is the best way to achieve this. Certainly the long hours that MPs must deal with (contrary to popular opinion that they hardly do any work) aren’t family-friendly, but that issue can be addressed by other means, for example, by changing the sitting hours to put an end to evening meetings (which might be a good idea for a variety of other reasons). A more concerted effort to change the confrontational tone that too often exists in the House of Commons might make the work more appealing to women. Other issues – such as having to be away from home for extended periods of time – aren’t as easy to address (granted, this is mostly an issue for women with young children, and certainly more of an issue in Canada due to the geography of the country compared to that of the UK), but this reality hasn’t stopped women who truly want to serve from running and serving as MPs.

I’m not saying job sharing isn’t worth consideration, I simply don’t think that in itself, it would significantly address the issue of female under-representation in the House of Commons. And as I’ve listed above, there are a great many questions that would have to be considered and addressed before implementing such a measure. However, if nothing else, perhaps the proposal might prompt a wider debate on how to get more women into politics, and how to make being an MP a more family-friendly occupation, and that would benefit all MPs, not only women.

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On electing the cabinet

In the Westminster parliamentary system of government, the Executive consists of the Prime Minister and the ministry or cabinet. Normally, members of the cabinet are chosen from among the governing party’s sitting MPs by the Prime Minister. The choice of ministers may be  influenced by political considerations respecting, for example, geography, gender and ethnicity; however, the Prime Minister alone decides on the size of the Ministry and what constitutes an appropriate balance of representation. (See this post for a detailed explanation of cabinet formation.)

Last week, the UK Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) voted on new rules for choosing the Shadow cabinet,  rejecting a move to allow the new party leader to choose who serves in the shadow cabinet. Instead the party will revert to its usual practice in opposition, whereby a ballot of MPs decides which MPs will serve on the front bench. The party leader will still be allowed to determine who gets which portfolio, however.

I wasn’t aware that this was a traditional policy of Labour’s, but according to this editorial from The Guardian, it is one that the party tends to abandon once in power. However, Tony Blair’s first cabinet was at chosen for him by the party (at least in part – I can’t find specifics about this online anywhere), prompting a reshuffle  a year later.

It is an interesting practice, but I have to think it could be potentially quite problematic. The Guardian editorial is in favour of the policy, arguing that MPs:

are as well placed as anyone to assess who shines the brightest among them, and elected secretaries of state – with their own power base – might just cut more substantial figures than the suits-full-of-bugger-all who so often sit around table.

Similarly, a Labour blogger who favours electing cabinet writes:

The party leadership has gone through the process of realising that too much of New Labour was “top-down”, and has grasped the desire for internal democracy. Surely there is no sense in increasing democracy within the party, as all leadership candidates have promised, whilst removing it from a section of the party who should be the most actively involved.

Those who would favour a system based on patronage from the leader betray the desire within the party to embrace pluralism, to reach out to all sections of the movement and build on the best of all of our talents. Having a cabinet selected by the party leader is effectively playing “double or quits” with the leadership race. Want the issues that you care about to be represented in the shadow cabinet? Then you had better hope your candidate wins the leadership contest, or those who support your candidate might not be chosen by the new leader.

I can see both pros and cons to this approach. And I will admit that some of the things I might consider cons would probably be considered pluses by others.

The one potential plus would be that a caucus-chosen cabinet might ensure that the party leader is more responsive to the party and its members. However, that could also end up being a major con, as I will discuss below.

The most obvious problem I can see with this policy is that the party leader might find him- or herself surrounded by cabinet colleagues who have a different ideological stance. For example, if we take the case of the current Labour leadership race, if acknowledged front-runner David Milliband were to win, he could find himself with a cabinet consisting of much more left-leaning MPs. This would probably be considered a plus by more left-leaning Labour supporters, and is the plus I listed above, but it could also severely restrict the new leader in his attempts to put forward the various policies on which he campaigned for the leadership.

Another issue is that of trust. The cabinet needs to be able to work together effectively, and trust is key, particularly when more difficult policy decision have to be taken. If the leader has no say in who he or she will have to work with, trust may be a difficult thing to come by. The leader might well be constantly wondering to whom the cabinet members are ultimately accountable.

I also question the claim made in the Guardian editorial, that MPs know better (or as well) as anyone who amongst them should be in cabinet. If the election returns a large number of new, first time MPs, they won’t have had the chance to make this determination, nor do they necessarily know what is required of a cabinet minister. Nominations for the 19 shadow cabinet posts will open at the Labour Party conference on 26 September. The 257 Labour MPs will vote over a number of days and the result will be announced on 7 October. MPs interested in being in the shadow cabinet will openly campaign for votes. In fact, they have already started campaigning.  Those who win may not be best suited for cabinet, but the best campaigners.

I have to say that I am more in agreement with one of the commenters on that Labour blog, who wrote:

The shadow cabinet should be a group of MPs the Leader of the Party has absolute confidence in – in precisely the same way a cabinet is appointed, not elected.

Not a representative cross section of society. Not to make sure all strands of party thought are reflected at the top of the party. Not to meet quotas. The very best of the party comptible with the leader. I trust the leader to pick those he thinks best. Mark clearly does not, which is a shame.

The biggest farce of our first weeks in office back in 1997 was the obligation on Tony Blair to include in his first cabinet those who were clearly not good enough to be Secretaries of State (or Chief Whip). This only precipitated a reshuffle soon after: hardly conducive to good, stable government. We could be back in power in five years or less, depending on the choice of leader we make.

This isn’t about party democracy: it’s about effective and coherent opposition in tune with the direction the leader wishes to lead us in – and a team fit for government from day 1. Electing the shadow cabinet (and especially the chief whip – someone who absolutely has to be in lock-step with the leader for the PLP to function) is the one sure way not to achieve that.

I am not in favour of placing artificial constraints on the choice of who should or should not be in cabinet. In Canada, there is the established practice that cuts across parties wherein all regions of the country will be represented in Cabinet. This can be problematic for a party that either fails to elect any MPs from a particular province, or elects only one or two, thus forcing the PM to appoint someone to cabinet not because they were the best choice, but because they were the only person elected from a certain province. Or alternatively, if the party elects a large number of MPs from one province, many of them who would be very capable cabinet ministers, only one or two might end up in cabinet lest it appear the PM is favouring that province over others.

A cabinet, or shadow cabinet, first and foremost, has to be a team that can work together effectively and decisively. To deny the party leader any say in the composition of his or her team seems counter-productive to that end. I am not saying there isn’t any role for wider caucus input, but ultimately, the party leader needs to be able to trust and work with his or her team in order to put forward the party’s policies and programs in a coherent, unified way. If the party trusts that individual enough to elect them leader, surely they can be trusted to choose a cabinet that will achieve just that.

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On political certainty

With the UK House of Commons back in session after a brief summer break, debate on the proposed referendum on the Alternative Vote has heated up again, with some rather eyebrow-raising objections to AV being put forward, mostly by Conservatives.

(Note: Labour has also said it will oppose the Bill now before the House, but its objections are centred primarily on the Government’s decision to combine the referendum on AV and the measures to reduce the number MPs into one bill.  Labour’s manifesto included a referendum on AV, therefore the party is not against the measure. They do oppose the way the Government is proposing to change constituency boundaries, and to a lesser degree, to the fact that the referendum will be held on the same day as local elections.)

Yesterday, on ConservativeHome, Robert Halfon wrote that instead of changing the electoral system completely, Conservatives should instead reform First-Past-the-Post. Halfon sets out that FPTP is “better than a proportional system or even AV”, but acknowledges that it has one major flaw: too many MPs get elected with less than 50% of the vote. To address that, Halfon, the Conservative MP for Harlow, proposes adopting “The Second Ballot” (TSB), which is used by France for both parliamentary and presidential elections, as well as in a few other places for presidential elections. Essentially, a week after the general election, in ridings where no candidate won a majority of the vote (50%+1), a second ballot would be held with only the top two candidates featured, thus ensuring that one of them would emerge with a clear majority.

AV does achieve the same thing by having voters rank candidates in order of preference and then distributing the preferences until someone ends up with a majority, but Halfon objects to AV because these rankings are, according to Halfon, “artificial”. I am not certain how Halfon arrives at this; I have to assume he means that people don’t really have second (nevermind third, fourth, or fifth) preferences, so they have to make them up. In other words, everyone voting wants one, and only one candidate to win, and so ranking the other candidates in an order of preference is a false exercise, because they don’t really want to see any of those other candidates win.

To this I can only reply that it must be nice to live with such a degree of political certainly. I do know of such people, people who know that one party, their party, is the only one worth voting for, and who will vote for that party no matter how ridiculous their local candidate might be, and regardless of what that party puts into its manifesto. They certainly aren’t found only in the UK or Canada – I once encountered an American who proudly proclaimed that he was a Republican, like his father, grandfather, great-grandfather and even his great-great grandfather. I started to wonder if voting Republican was therefore a genetic thing, like having blue eyes, or if it simply meant no one in his family was capable of independent thought. I favoured the latter explanation.

But to quote Halfon:

the Alternative Vote places an artificial construct on voter’s intentions, forcing them to make second preference choices – before they actually know the result, which inevitably would disproportionately favour the Liberal Democrats as being the ‘centre’ party.

For voters who aren’t slavishly devoted to a particular party, voting isn’t always a simple exercise. Some of us most certainly do have clear preferences at the ballot box; these are by no means artificial constructs. It could be that the only definitive preference one has is which candidate or party we don’t want to see elected, and our preferences regarding the remaining candidates are more fluid, but this is still a preference. It is only for someone who is so devoted to a single party that they won’t even consider the merits of any other candidate that ranking candidates would be an artificial construct.

This attitude also assumes that FPTP doesn’t place an artificial construct on a voter’s intentions. For some, voting under FPTP often leads to voting for a party that is not one’s preferred choice in a bid to block one’s least preferred option from winning, in other words, strategic voting. This was clearly in play during the May 2010 UK general election, with many traditional Labour supporters in ridings they knew their candidate wouldn’t win voting for the Liberal Democrat candidate in hopes of blocking the Conservatives from taking the seat.

I also find curious Halfon pointing out that AV forces voters to mark their artificial voting choices before they know the result of the vote. I don’t quite see what the potential problem is here (but then again, I’m not someone who is fully committed to one particular party). I assume he’s implying that for someone like him, who doesn’t have any preferences beyond his one and only first choice, if he were forced to vote a second time, then he would find it easier to make a choice, even if his beloved party’s candidate wasn’t on that second ballot. However, while this might make things easier for Mr. Halfon and those like him, it doesn’t do much to help people who don’t have such strong party allegiance. What if my two least favourite candidates are the ones that make it to Halfon’s proposed Second Ballot round? How does this improve things for me as a voter? I would much prefer to rank my choices on the first (and only) ballot, and then have my preferences distributed on subsequent counts. I might still end up with my least favourite candidate as MP, but could happen under any voting system.

While Halfon believes FPTP has only one real flaw, it should be noted that Second Ballot presents other issues. It can punish parts of the political spectrum which split their vote. For example, in the 2002 French Presidential election, the left-wing vote splintered in the first round between 10 candidates, while the right-wing vote was concentrated on four candidates (Chirac, Le Pen, Madelin, and Megret). The result was that two right-wing candidates topped the poll: Chirac with 20% and Le Pen with 17%. They went into the run-off second ballot. However, if you grouped the candidates into three broad political camps – Left, Right and Centre – you had the Left on 46%, the Right on 43%, and Centre on 11%. The vagueries of the Second Ballot system disenfranchised the Left wing voters completely.

I can’t end this without commenting on the last part of that quote from Halfon’s piece: “which inevitably would disproportionately favour the Liberal Democrats as being the ‘centre’ party.” Perhaps that is the crux of Halfon’s objection to AV. His beloved Conservatives wouldn’t be the second choice of that many voters (except perhaps BNP and UKIP voters).  I wonder if it was demonstrated that AV would actually benefit the Conservatives, would he suddenly be more in favour of adopting it?

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Inquiry into government and coalition formation

The UK House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has decided that it will look into how the current Coalition Government came about. I am not certain if this is a result of some of the revelations that came to light in the BBC special “Five Days that Changed Britain“, but this BBC article certainly gives the impression that this might be the case.

According to the article, the Committee wants to examine if undue pressure was put on then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown to resign, how policies that weren’t part of either the Conservative Party’s or the Liberal Democrats’ manifestos ended up in the Coalition agreement and “wants to know the implications of the fact that this and other policies may lack a ‘popular mandate’”. Reading that gives the impression that no Government should ever propose a policy on which it hasn’t actually campaigned because it simply doesn’t have a mandate to do so. This, however, is a bit of clever editing on the BBC’s part.

The Committee’s website provides more detail about the scope of their inquiry, and the actual statement concerning non-manifesto policies reads:

This raises questions about the origin of these proposals, the implications, if any, of the fact that they lack a popular mandate, and, potentially, the process for deciding whether to implement them. (italics mine)

By omitting “if any”, the BBC leaves the reader with the impression that there are definitely implications resulting from the Coalition proposing policies on which neither party campaigned, while the Committee is stating that this may not be an issue at all – that is what it wants to determine. The Committee also hyperlinks “if any” to the Wikipedia entry on the Salisbury Convention, about which I have previously blogged.

To summarise briefly, the Salisbury Convention came about following a landslide electoral victory by Labour in 1945, and since then, the House of Lords has not opposed, on second reading, any bill that can claim authority from the winning party’s manifesto. In other words, following a general election, anything included in the election platform of  the party that ends up forming the government will not be opposed on second reading by the Upper Chamber. There is no such convention in place in Canada. The Canadian Senate may choose to fast-track a bill without opposing it in any way, but there is no equivalent to the Salisbury Convention in Canada. The Canadian Senate doesn’t give any special treatment or consideration to Government legislation which is based on something contained in that party’s election platform. All bills are treated equally, which is how I think it should be. Just because a party promised something doesn’t mean it’s a good piece of legislation and deserves a freer pass. Also, just because something was included in a party’s manifesto doesn’t mean most voters support that policy. People vote for parties for all sorts of reasons. I’m willing to bet most don’t actually read the manifestos. Some may have voted for that party despite some of the things in its manifesto. I don’t know too many people who always agree 100% with every single item a party promises during an election campaign.

I will admit to having difficulty understanding why this should be an issue at all. It’s quite obvious that governments regularly introduce policy on issues that weren’t discussed during the election campaign, and that were not included in that party’s election platform. While having a bill fast-tracked through the Upper Chamber without opposition is nice, it’s certainly not necessary for a bill to eventually pass. It may slow down the legislative process, but it certainly doesn’t stymie a Government from moving forward with policies it wants to implement.

In my post on the Salisbury Convention I wrote that a convention is just that – a convention. It’s not a Standing Order, or a legal requirement. It’s become a tradition, but that doesn’t mean it has to remain one, or that it can’t be modified to take into account the realities of coalition government.

The same is true for the UK’s overall fixation on party manifestos. If future elections more regularly result in no party receiving an overall majority, and coalitions become more frequent occurrences, there will simply have to be a growing acceptance of coalition governments putting forward new programs for government that may include some actual manifesto promises, variations on manifesto promises, and compromise policies that don’t really reflect anything that was in any partner party’s manifesto. This is the reality of coalition government.

As for the issue of the Coalition’s policies lacking “a popular mandate”, that is a bit naive to me. It seems based on an assumption that most people who vote have actually read every party’s manifesto and vote according to what is included in them. Certainly, some people probably do just that, but I doubt it’s a majority of voters. Election campaigns usually end up focusing on at best a handful of issues, and sometimes on only one or two key issues, with the bulk of what parties include in their manifestos largely ignored in debates and by the media. In the May 2010 UK election, many people said they voted for the Liberal Democrat candidate, not because of what the party stood for, but because they were hoping to prevent the Conservative candidate from winning that seat. Is that sort of thing an endorsement of a party’s manifesto or more a reaction against another party’s manifesto (or simply against the other party in general, manifesto or no manifesto)? There is also the reality that under First-Past-the-Post, a party can win a large majority of seats with much less than a majority of the vote (sometimes even finishing second in the popular vote). Since most people did not vote for that party, even if they end up with a majority of seats, do they really have a popular mandate? They certainly don’t have a mandate from a majority of voters.

Overall, however, I do find the Committee’s terms of reference rather interesting. It does indicate to me that there is, at the very least, an acknowledgment that coalition governments may well become more frequent occurrences, thus prompting the need to review the various “constitutional and practical issues related to government and coalition formation”.  Some of the questions they seek to address could result in very interesting discussions. In particular, I would single out the following:

1. What constitutional and practical lessons are there to be learned from the process of government formation after the 2010 general election?

6. What impact did media pressure have on the position of the incumbent Prime Minister and coalition negotiators?

7. Could and should this impact have been mitigated?

8. What is the origin of those constitutional proposals in the coalition programme for government which were not addressed in the manifesto of either party?

9. What are the implications, if any, of the fact that these proposals lack a popular mandate?

10. Are there more satisfactory models for coalition and government formation in use elsewhere in the world, or in other parts of the United Kingdom?

11. Should the head of government or Cabinet require the endorsement of the House of Commons, by way of an investiture vote?

I’m thinking some of those might even make for interesting blog posts…

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Whipped votes, free votes and representative democracy

In this post, I explained what representative democracy is:

In countries with representative democracy, we elect people to a legislative body to represent us. The representatives form an independent ruling body (for an election period) charged with the responsibility of acting in the people’s interest, but not as their proxy representatives, that is not necessarily always according to their wishes, but with enough authority to exercise swift and resolute initiative in the face of changing circumstances.

The key point here is that in countries such as Canada, the UK, Australia, the US, etc., elected officials act in the people’s interest, but not always according to their wishes. This means that in some instances, one’s MP (or congressperson, or representative, or MLA, etc.) will vote in a way that might run counter to prevailing opinion in his or her constituency because sometimes, what people want isn’t always the best way to proceed, or doesn’t reflect current circumstances, or might not be in the best interests of the country.

In parliamentary democracies, there is another factor at play. Party politics and party discipline are incredibly powerful forces in countries such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand and to a lesser extent, the UK, much stronger factors than they are in the US, for example, where the parties don’t campaign on single national manifestos. While an MP is elected to represent their constituents, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that, the vast majority of the time, how an MP votes on various issues will be determined by their party’s whip and not by what their constituents want. The reality is that an MP who regularly (or sometimes, even only once) votes against their party’s official position on a given issue will soon find themselves ostracized by the party, if not ejected from caucus completely. Indeed, in many ways, it is an act of political courage for an individual MP to defy their party and vote the way their constituents want, or according to their own conscience.

What this means is that if a party has an official position on a given issue, its MPs are expected to vote that way if the issue comes up for a vote in the legislature, even if majority opinion in an MP’s constituency differs. While this might seem wrong on the surface, one could counter-argue that voters in that constituency knew what the various parties’ positions were on each major issue, and so it would be expected that whoever they elect will vote according to that party’s position. Consequently, if majority opinion in a riding is against  a carbon tax, for example, one would expect that whichever party opposes implementing a carbon tax would get a majority of votes and their candidate elected.

Of course, reality isn’t as straight forward. Election campaigns are frequently dominated by only handful of key issues – one of which is almost always the economy, and so voters may well ignore party positions on minor or secondary issues, focusing instead on where they stand on the larger issues of the day. There is also the issue of voting systems to take into account. In the UK and Canada, which still use First-Past-the-Post (FPTP), the vagaries of this electoral system are well known. FPTP really only works properly (so to speak) if there are only two parties which are serious contenders. In jurisdictions that have three (or more) very competitive parties, FPTP breaks down. For example, if four parties are contesting for a seat in a given constituency, three of which clearly favour strong environmental protection measures while one opposes it, the pro-environment vote can end up being split three ways,  allowing the  candidate representing the less pro-environment party to win. Such scenarios are not infrequent. Most MPs in Canada and the UK are elected with less than 50% of the vote cast in their ridings. Some win their seats with only a third of the votes cast, some with even less. Is it fair in such cases to say that voters are endorsing the positions on key issues held by the winning candidate’s party?

My point here is to attempt to highlight the fact that how an MP votes on a given issue will be governed by party discipline and not prevailing public opinion in that member’s riding. This is called a “whipped vote” – where members of a party are compelled to vote a certain way or else risk being reprimanded or punished by their party. Most votes in the Canadian House of Commons are whipped votes. The opposite of a whipped vote is a free vote (in the UK, a “free vote” would be a one-line whip):

There are no rules or Standing Orders defining a “free vote” in the House of Commons nor is there any requirement that free votes be identified as such in the Journals. Simply defined, a free vote takes place when a party decides that, on a particular issue, its Members are not required to vote along party lines, or that the issue is not a matter of party policy and its Members may vote as they choose. A free vote may be allowed by one or more parties or it may be allowed by all parties. When all parties agree to a free vote, the recorded division may be called as a row-by-row vote or in the normal manner of a party vote. The decisions taken by the parties (as to whether or not a matter should be decided in a free vote) are not issues on which the Speaker can be asked to rule.

In the Canadian system of responsible government, free votes have a special relationship to the confidence convention. The principle underlying this convention is simply that the government must enjoy the support of the majority of Members of the House of Commons and be responsible for its actions to this elected body. The confidence convention holds that where a motion does not contain an explicitly worded condemnation of the government, or where the government has not declared a particular vote to be a question of confidence, or where there is no implicit vote of non-confidence (such as in a motion to adopt the Budget, the Address in Reply or the granting of supply), then the government is at liberty to interpret the result of the vote in any manner it wishes. Consequently, when under such conditions the government declares that it will treat a matter as a free vote, the convention holds that the defeat of the item does not amount to a vote of non-confidence in the government.

It is not clear when the first free vote was held in the House of Commons; however, since the 1946 free vote on milk subsidies, there have been several free votes on government business. For example, free votes were held on the issues of the selection of a national flag, capital punishment, abortion, the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, constitutional amendments, and same-sex marriage. (House of Commons Procedure and Practice, 2nd Edition)

However, as C.E.S. Franks explains, even free votes often aren’t very free (PDF). The free votes on the issues of capital punishment and abortion were not free votes for the New Democratic Party. On both those issues the NDP has a clear, stated policy, and members were expected to toe the party line. The more recent vote on same-sex marriage (not mentioned in Franks’ article, which was published in 1992) in December 2006 was a free vote for the Conservatives and Liberals, but the NDP and Bloc Québécois whipped their vote.

Franks argues that:

Not only are free votes rare in Canada (and in other Westminster-style democracies), but their use has largely been restricted to matters of morality and conscience where the divisions cross party lines. To expect much greater use of free votes would be to demand massive changes in the processes of representation and decision making in the parliamentary system. It would change the system of responsibility and accountability: if members of Parliament rather than the government makes the decisions, then members rather than government should be held accountable. The opposition, in so far as its members had supported an item of business in a free vote, would no longer be in a position to oppose. The choices facing the electorate would be more blurred than at present.

Franks also points out that while voters frequently call for more independence for elected MPs, that they be more responsive to their constituents rather than the party, the reality is that more voters vote for a party and its leadership than they do for the local candidate representing that party.

Free votes certainly have their place in our political system, but I have to agree with Franks. It is not through increasing the number of free votes that we will strengthen the role of individual MPs – notably, backbenchers. I also agree with him that it wouldn’t be a bad thing if dissent was more generally tolerated by our political parties.

See also:

It’s my party

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British Politics and Policy at LSE

I recently discovered an excellent blog produced by the London School of Economics and Political Science, entitled British Politics and Policy at LSE.

From the blog’s About the blog page:

We seek to make available analysis of UK politics and public policy in an immediately accessible and highly relevant way for a wide readership, drawing primarily on the community of academics and researchers at the London School of Economics, but also including many outside contributors with LSE connections. We invite contributions and comments on blogs from any interested reader.

I have already linked to a few entries from this blog in previous posts. I’d like to highlight a few others here today.

Patrick Dunleavy wonders is this is the death of the Westminster model, now that there are no large “Westminster model” countries left in the world with single party majority governments. This blog entry will be of interest to Canadians. Dunleavy explains that four of the five key “Westminster model” countries have coalition governments in balanced parliaments where no party has a majority.”The one exception is Canada, where the Parliament has been hung since 2004, across three general elections. But somehow Canadian politicians have still not got the knack of constructing a coalition government.”

Another post that will be of interest to Canadians in particular is one by Anne White, written back in April before the UK general election, and looks at what the UK might learn from Canada’s recent experience with repeated hung parliaments.

In today’s post, Andy White explains why tactical voting isn’t a practical strategy under the Alternative Vote (AV), which, of course, the UK will be voting on in a referendum in May 2010.

Still on the topic of AV, Stephanie Rickard posits that the more proportional a country’s voting system is, the more likely it is to fully honour its international commitments on world trade issues, and wonders if switching to AV will make the UK a better player in international forums.

I can’t recommend this blog highly enough to anyone interested in UK politics in particular, but also to anyone interested in political reform, electoral reform, Westminister politics, and politics in general. You can also follow them on Facebook, and Twitter.

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A Parliament, by any other name…

In an earlier post, I vented about the Canadian media’s tendency to declare the results of recent elections “minority governments” even before it emerged what sort of government would be formed. I wrote that it would be preferable to refer to outcomes wherein no party won a majority of seats as a “hung parliament”, as occurs in the UK. Recently, a friend of mine referred me to a blog post that proposed the term “balanced parliament”.

Today I learned two things. First, that the term “hung parliament” is of relatively recent usage even in the UK, and second, that the Liberal Democrats (and the Scottish Nationalist Party) use the term “balanced parliament”.

Regarding the history of “hung parliament”, I refer you to this most informative blog post by Stuart Wilks-Heeg, “Uninventing the ‘hung Parliament’”. According to Wilks-Heeg’s research, the term “hung parliament” did not enter common usage until the mid-1970s:

Searches of media databases reveal that the results of the February 1974 General Election were initially described in The Times and The Guardian as ‘a balance of power position’, ‘a deadlock situation’ or a ‘stalemate general election’. The first use of ‘hung Parliament’ in the press appears to have been almost four months after the election, in an article in The Guardian by Simon Hoggart on 22 June 1974, while the term first appears in Hansard a full four years after the February 1974 election, in a speech made by Kevin McNamara MP on 6 March 1978.

Wilks-Heeg provides two charts that track the usage of “hung parliament” in the media from the mid-70s to 2010. He also identifies where the term seems to have originated:

Its introduction in British politics appears to have been based on an adaptation of the US expression ‘hung jury’, used to indicate a situation in which a lack of agreement among jurors requires them to be dismissed and a second trial with a new jury established. Hence, the House of Commons elected in February 1974 gradually came to be described as ‘hung’ by commentators as it became clear that, as the head of a minority Labour government, Harold Wilson was likely to dissolve Parliament once more and call a fresh General Election in the hope that a majority government would be returned.

Wilks-Heeg argues that hung parliaments are not negative things, and that a new way to describe such an outcome is needed – he suggests either a “negotiating parliament” or a “balanced parliament” – which is what the Liberal Democrats and SNP use.

In a related post, Paul Mitchell looks at Why “hung” parliaments and coalitions are normal in Western Europe, and expresses dissatisfaction with both the terms hung parliament and balanced parliament. No need for a special term, writes Mitchell, since “[V]irtually everyone else in Europe just calls such outcomes ‘a parliament’.”

I must say I do like the simplicity of referring to such outcomes as “a parliament”, because that is exactly what it is. I prefer this to “balanced parliament”, probably because “balanced” to me evokes a fairly equal result. The result of the recent Australian election is just that – a balanced parliament with only a one seat difference between the two main parties. The results of the last Canadian election were much less balanced, ditto the recent UK election. Some non-majority election results end up with one party literally only a seat or two shy of majority status – that’s not very balanced to me. I know this is simply an issue for me because of how I interpret the word “balanced” and many would probably disagree with me on this point, but because of this, I sort of prefer “hung” to “balanced”, or would use “hung” in some instances, and “balanced” in others, depending on the actual outcome (i.e. Australia 2010 – balanced, Canada 2008 – hung).

But my first choice would be to simply call a non-majority result a parliament. It would be a remarkable thing indeed, should our next general election here in Canada result, yet again, in no party winning a majority of seats, to hear news anchors state that “Canadians have elected a new parliament”, and let the parties work out amongst themselves what form of government will emerge.

Related Posts:

Australia: Where to From Here?

This will seem very lazy on my part, but I am simply going to link you to an excellent blog post by Antony Green on what might happen next following the hung parliament outcome in Australia. To refresh everyone’s memory, the seat count following last week’s election is 72 Labor (incumbent party), 73 Coalition Party, 1 Green and 4 Independents, with 76 seats needed for a majority government.

Australia’s political system is very similar to both Canada’s and the UK’s but just different enough for me to not feel comfortable voicing my own thoughts on the matter. However, I have absolutely no qualms about referring people to someone more knowledgeable than myself.

I would also recommend reading the comments posted. Many readers posed additional questions to Antony, which he’s taken the time to answer, and there is a lot more to be learned in the comment section as well.

Hung Parliament – Where to From Here?

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Australia’s election and AV opponents

While the vote counting isn’t quite over yet in the recent Australian election, it is certain that the country will have a hung (or if you prefer, balanced) parliament in its lower house, the House of Representatives. Currently, the two main parties each have 72 seats, while one Green party member and four independents have also been elected. With only one seat remaining undeclared (as of this writing), and 76 seats required for a majority government, it is clear Australia will have a minority government of some sort – either Labor or Coalition.

(Note to those who don’t follow Australian politics much or at all. Coalition here refers to a grouping of parties that run under the same banner, not a coalition government. The Coalition includes the Liberal Party, the Nationals, the Liberal National Party of Queensland, and the Country Liberals.)

Australia uses the Alternate Vote (AV) to elect members to the House of Representative. The Australian Electoral Commission provides an excellent overview of how the system works, but simply put, a voter is required to write the number ’1′ in the box next to the candidate who is their first choice, and the numbers ’2′, ’3′ and so on against all the other candidates until all the boxes have been numbered, in order of the voter’s preference. If a voter opts to not rank all the candidates on their ballot paper, that is considered an “informal vote” and is not counted, even if some of the candidates are ranked. The only exception is if only one box is left blank, then it is assumed that candidate is the voter’s least preferred, and the ballot will be counted.

The UK Coalition Government has tabled legislation to hold a referendum on adopting AV to replace First-Past-the-Post, something opposed by most supporters of the UK Conservative Party. Some are starting to point to the results of the Australian election as proof of why a move to AV would be a Very Bad Thing.

In particular, what they are finding abhorrent is that a candidate that might be running 3rd in the overall popular vote (based on first choice votes) could end up actually winning the seat once voter preferences are distributed, as has occurred in the Australian district of Denison, won by an independent. This is thought to be very unfair and undemocratic. Antony Green has an excellent blog post explaining how this outcome has come about. As informative as Green’s post is, what is perhaps more eye-opening is that he had to write a post explaining why this outcome was possible. He states that he has been “deluged with questions about Denison. The main one is how can Andrew Wilkie win the seat if the Liberal candidate is finishing second?” Even some commenters thank him for explaining to them how the system works. This ignorance of how the AV system works would be understandable if Australia had only recently adopted it, but this system has been in place since 1919, and voting is compulsory in Australia, so the ignorance can’t even be blamed on people not bothering to vote ever before and turning out for the first time for this election.

This combination of a 3rd place (or even lower place) candidate (in terms of overall popular vote) actually winning a seat due to the distribution of voter preferences and voters not understanding how to vote or how their system works is a toxic one for AV opponents. As far as they are concerned, this is proof of why moving away from FPTP would be a huge mistake.

Regarding the question of the perceived unfairness of a 3rd place candidate winning a seat, FPTP produces results that are equally “undemocratic” or “unfair”. In both Canada and the UK, few MPs actually win their seats with over 50% of the vote in their respective constituencies. I have previously posted about this with regards to the 2005 UK election. In Canada’s last general election (October 2008), 61% of MPs were elected with less than 50% of the votes in their respective ridings – a total of 189 MPs. Of that number, 149 received between 40% and 49% of the vote, 39 were elected with between 30% and 39% of the vote and one MP was elected with less than 30% of the vote. How anyone can consider the election of a candidate with the support of only 29% to be “fairer” confuses me.  The advantage of AV, at least in theory, is that the candidate elected is the most acceptable (or least objectionable) to a majority of voters, while under FPTP, all too often, the person elected is the preferred choice of only a minority of voters, and everyone else’s vote counts for naught.

Many commenters on Green’s blog post argue that the outcome isn’t fair because clearly, voters wanted the Labor candidate to win, and that clearly, Australia should adopt FPTP because it would put an end to such nonsense. Luckily, other commenters say otherwise:

I am quite shocked at many of the comments here.

The beauty of a preferential system is that you can confidently vote for a candidate that you know will poll a very low vote. This is because you get to order the candidates in order of your preference. So your first preference might be the Socialist Alliance who will not get elected. But if they won’t you might prefer Andrew Wilkie over the Liberal or Labor stooge, etc, etc “until you have numbered every box.” Simple stuff really.

The first past the post system looks at these results and says 35% of people voted for Labor, thats the highest percentage, Labor candidate is elected.

Our preferential system looks at these results and says 65% DON’T want the Labor candidate elected, who would they prefer? A MUCH more democratic system.

The issue of voters not understanding how the system works shouldn’t be used to justify the status quo. Some people don’t exactly get how FPTP works either. I don’t know if Australians are taught about their voting systems in school. I would assume they probably are (one commenter indicated that he certainly learned about AV in school). You can’t force people to be interested in politics, and as I said, there are people who don’t really understand how FPTP works, or how to vote properly. In Canada, for example, only an X marked within the circle next to your preferred candidate’s name on the ballot paper is acceptable. If you use any other marking, or mark outside the circle, your ballot is disqualified. Ranking candidates is only marginally more complicated than choosing one and marking an X. In some instances, it might actually make things easier for many, for the very reasons cited in the comment I quoted above. People will be able to vote more freely, for the candidate of their choice, even if that candidate has no chance of winning because they’ll know that their vote won’t go to waste. How many people under FPTP vote against a candidate or party rather than for someone? They wouldn’t have to do that if they could rank their choices.

Finally, there are the usual warnings that hung parliaments will be the norm under AV. Hardly, if Australia is anything to go by. This hung parliament is the first since 1940. Using FPTP is no guarantee of a majority government outcome either, as Canada has demonstrated in recent years.

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