Obligatory post on the Labour leadership race

Tomorrow, we’ll find out who will be the new leader of the Labour party. The only real suspense is which Miliband brother will walk away with the top spot, David or Ed.

I will admit that I’ve not been following the race that closely, for a couple of reasons. First, I’m not British, but even if I were, I doubt my natural inclination would be to vote Labour. I seem to be more of a Lib Dem at heart. My interest in UK political parties is primarily academic rather than personal. By that I mean, it doesn’t really matter to me which party (or parties) form the government, never mind who leads these parties. My interest is that of someone who simply has a general interest in politics. I’m interested in the Coalition not because it’s a Conservative-Lib Dem coalition, but simply because it’s a coalition government in a Westminster parliamentary system! A rare beast indeed and so worthy of interest, in my opinion at least.

Second, the race has hardly been much of a race. As I stated above, despite the fact that there were five candidates running, it was clear from the start that a Miliband would emerge the winner. At the outset, the general consensus seemed to be that older brother David would walk away with the prize. It has become mildly more interesting as we get to the very end because it seems younger brother Ed has caught up, and perhaps might even take it on second ballot preferences, but we’re still going to end up with a Miliband. The reality is that there’s been more interest in the question of would one brother serve under the under brother than there has been in the merits of the three other candidates in the race.

If David Miliband emerges as leader, the assumption is that he will continue to position Labour as a more centrist party, in other words, continue what Tony Blair began. Ed Miliband, however, would move the party more to the left. I doubt very much that it would be a return to Labour’s militant, socialist roots, but the assumption is that Labour under Ed Miliband would strive to distinguish itself much more clearly from the other two main parties.

Right now, according to Political Compass at least, all three of the main parties in the UK are right of centre on the economic scale, and both the Conservatives and Labour score much higher on the authoritarian side of things than do the Lib Dems (with Labour actually more authoritarian than the Conservatives and a bit more to the right than the Lib Dems). It would probably benefit voters in the UK to have a major party that was more economically left-leaning again, and it could well also benefit Labour to move that way. But if they move too far to the left, i.e., re-adopting their old commitment to nationalize virtually everything, that would probably make them rather unelectable.

I find myself largely in agreement with this piece from the Daily Telegraph. I think Moore is right when he says that the campaign has lacked boldness:

Boldness would have required an analysis of the past 13 Labour years which would have been intensely annoying to one section or another of the party electorate, so the candidates avoided it. It is fashionable just now to trash Tony Blair, but even such populism would have been dangerous. No critic has offered a coherent replacement for the Blair version of New Labour, so the candidates have confined themselves to a few disparaging hints. Under Blair, after all, for the only time in its history, the party had the habit of winning.

For a Canadian, there are the inevitable comparisons between Labour and Canada’s federal Liberal party – primarily when it comes to one leader being replaced by his former Finance minister/chancellor and the internal wars that waged between the two camps. The Liberals have been plagued by leadership issues ever since, and more importantly, they too have never opted for boldness and reassessed their thirteen years in power (1993-2006). The party remains mired around the 30% mark in the polls (usually a bit below that), with no vision of change to offer the country.

It’s certainly not too late for whichever Miliband emerges as leader to put forward a bold new vision for the party. Only time will tell if he has the courage to do so.

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Observing question period

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend in person a session of Question Period at one of Canada’s provincial legislatures.

I have watched television coverage of this legislature’s proceedings, including Question Period, and knew that it could be rather raucous at times. I was informed afterward that this had been a relatively quiet day, which made my observations that much more distressing.

When you watch this legislature’s proceedings on television, it seems to be a fairly orderly process, most of the time. The cameras focus only on the person speaking, meaning that you very rarely get any wide angle shots that allow you to see what is going on in the chamber as a whole. Also, the television broadcast picks up mostly only the sound from the microphone of the person speaking, so while you can hear some background noise (meaning comments, jeers, etc., from other members), this doesn’t drown out the person speaking. Consequently, this leaves the viewer with the impression that people in the Chamber are actually paying attention to what is going on.

Sadly, what you experience live is very, very different. What hits you first is how loud it is in the Chamber. In fact, you really cannot hear anything, not the questions, not the answers, not even the Speaker when he intervenes, because of all the heckling, chatting, clapping, jeering and everything else going on. I was sitting in the visitors’ gallery on the government’s side of the Chamber, which made it that much more difficult to hear the ministers when they stood to answer questions, because their backs were to me. However, it was also very difficult most of the time to hear the questions coming from the Opposition side over the heckling from the government side.

The next things that strikes you is that no one seems to be paying any attention to what is going on. I wish this was an exaggeration, but it isn’t. When a member from the Opposition benches would ask a question of a minister, more often than not, that minister would be engaged in a conversation with the colleague sitting next to them, or even worse, sitting behind them, meaning they literally had their back to the person asking the question. The Opposition side is little better, however. They rarely seemed to show any interest in the answer the minister provided. Instead, they too would be busy reading notes, or chatting with colleagues. In fact, the few times someone did seem to be paying close attention to what was being said really stood out because it was the exception, not the norm. I must add, however, that I doubt any of them could have heard much of the exchange over all the jeers, clapping and general cacophony.

What these two points drove home to me was just how scripted, formulaic and, sadly, pointless was the entire exercise. The ministers delivered scripted answers that barely touched on the subject of the questions asked of them, or if they did “directly” address the question, they did so in the most superficial way. The Opposition, meanwhile, didn’t seem to care what answer they received. Their supplementary questions simply harped on the same point over and over again. On rare occasions, they would pick up on something in the answer provided, and pursue it in their supplementary, which would force the minister to move away from their script somewhat and actually engage in a slightly more meaningful exchange, but those instances were few and far between. The worse aspect of Question Period, however, has to be the planted, softball questions that government backbenchers are forced to ask. These are nothing but blatant attempts by the government to score PR points by boasting of its own accomplishments. The Opposition greets these questions with utter scorn. I can’t help but feel that this is a completely humiliating experiencing for a backbencher. They can’t ask questions that might be relevant to their own constituents, about issues facing their constituency; they aren’t granted that right by their party. They are heckled by the opposition members for doing so, and the ministers get extra insults thrown at them for taking such easy questions, but the irony is that should the Opposition party find itself in power, it will do the very same thing with its own backbenchers.

In the end, Question Period is simply one big show for the lights and cameras. There’s no real exchange going on, there’s no real holding the government to account – which is the whole point of oral questions – it’s simply an opportunity for Opposition and government alike to get their soundbites du jour on the air.

I felt particularly embarrassed and bad for the school groups who were there watching. It’s not really anything that’s going to boost anyone’s opinion of politics and politicians.

I’ve never attended Question Period in the federal House of Commons, but after attending this provincial session, I have to think the situation is identical, perhaps even worse in Ottawa. The only real plus with the television coverage from Ottawa is that some camera angles do show the other side’s front bench, which perhaps forces the front bench at least to at least pretend it’s paying more attention. But in this provincial legislature, the members who aren’t speaking know they aren’t on camera, and so there is no attempt to even look remotely interested in the proceedings. To be fair to them, the answers are so scripted, and the questions so fixated on certain talking points, the entire proceeding is excruciatingly boring. That said, I can only imagine how alienating it must be if an Opposition member was trying to ask a serious question (rather than simply trying to score a cheap shot) of a minister, and that minister had their back to them the entire time as they engage in conversation with colleagues instead of paying attention to the question being directed to them.

I think what made it worse is that the members all know it’s just a big show. They lob insults and jeers at each other, but then you see them laughing and grinning at each other (and getting up to talk to each other). To me that indicates there would be no serious interest in trying to make Question Period better in any way – they’re not interested in a serious back and forth exchange. It’s all about cheap shots and soundbites and that suits them all just fine.

I regularly live-stream both Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs), and other Oral Questions sessions from the UK House of Commons, and my overall impression of what transpires at Westminster is infinitely more positive. I don’t doubt now that it’s probably a different experience in person, but there are several factors that I think make the entire process more productive at Westminster. At the top of my list would be the seating arrangements. In Canada (both federally and in the provincial legislatures), our politicians sit behind desks, at assigned seats. At Westminster, the front bench (and everyone else) really do sit on a bench. They have no desks, so can’t sit there with newspapers and briefing materials and other distractions spread out before them. There aren’t assigned seats – whichever ministry is up for Questions that day positions itself accordingly. This has benefits beyond Oral Questions. During debates on other matters, when most cabinet ministers are not in the Chamber, the front benches are filled by other MPs. In the Canadian House of Commons and in provincial legislatures, members must stay in their assigned seats, making the absences of top ministers glaringly obvious. In fact, it makes the absences of many members very obvious to the viewer. At least in the UK, members can reposition themselves to occupy the main benches on both sides of the House.

I like the dispatch box. Of course, it’s only the minister answering the question and the members of the shadow cabinet that actually go to the dispatch box to ask and answer questions – other MPs ask questions from where they are sitting – but it results in a much smaller divide between the two. This smaller space, combined with benches gives me the impression that there is a more genuine willingness to both ask serious questions and a greater onus on the government side to provide actual answers. The desks uses in Canada act as a barrier, a defensive line each side can hide behind.

Government backbenchers at Westminster can also more freely lob questions not only at ministers, but also at the Prime Minister during PMQs. I’m not saying there aren’t ever any “planted” questions of the kind we have in Canada, but if a government backbencher has a legitimate concern affecting their constituency, they can freely question the minister or PM.

Of course, the grass is always greener on the other side of the Atlantic. While I might find what transpires in the UK preferable to what we experience in Canada, that doesn’t mean everyone in the UK is satisfied with the state of their Question Period, as I’ve previously posted about.

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Clegg’s Conference Speech

Caveat: I’ve never listened to a speech delivered by Nick Clegg to the party faithful before. I have listened to a couple of speeches he’s done as Deputy Prime Minister, but never one delivered in his capacity as leader of the Liberal Democrats.

I did watch Clegg’s keynote speech delivered earlier today at the Lib Dem party conference. My caveat above is only to make it clear that I have no point of comparison against which to measure this year’s speech. I don’t know how previous speeches have gone down, during the years when the Lib Dems probably thought, if they were being honest with themselves, that being in power wasn’t going to happen any time soon. I don’t know if Clegg was realistic in those speeches, or if he spoke as if there was an actual chance that the Lib Dems might win the next election. I can imagine that it’s a difficult position to be in, leader of the perennial third party – you have to act as if you might really make it to government one day, when deep down, you know that’s not very likely to happen.

But it did happen, and the Lib Dems are actually part of government. Perhaps much to the dismay of some, since it involves working with the much-hated Tories, but nonetheless, there they are. I must say that I was quite impressed with Clegg’s address, and rather surprised that the BBC’s Nick Robinson described it as “largely defensive“. I didn’t find it defensive. I thought Clegg conveyed a degree of maturity and responsibility, appropriate to his new role as Deputy PM.

His speech did focus on driving home the Lib Dem contributions to the Coalition and its policies. Perhaps that is why Robinson saw it defensive. Clegg knows many in the party aren’t happy with some of the policy decisions the Coalition has taken, and fear that they’ll either be swallowed up by the Tories or pay a heavy price at the polls in the next election, so I can understand why he’d make a point of stressing how Lib Dem values are prevailing and will continue to prevail. He needed to try to reassure party members, and I thought he did a fairly decent job of it. “Hold our nerve and we will have changed British politics for good”, was one line, another was “we’ve always been the face of change, now we’re the agent of change.”

What impressed me the most, however, was how relatively non-partisan the speech was. He said nice things about David Cameron (“he showed he could think beyond his party and help build a new kind of politics”), but did pledge to ensure that the Coalition would never repeat the Conservative excesses of the Thatcher era.  He made a case for coalition government, saying it can be “braver, fairer and bolder than one party acting alone”. This coalition is the “right government for right now”. The BBC, which was live-streaming the speech, also had a liveblogging feed set up. Brian Wheeler commented: “This is very sober stuff. No jokes, no ritual bashing of other parties and definitely no crowing about being in government” which is exactly what I’ve been trying to convey here.

He was most critical of Labour, both past and future: he attacked them for not taking full advantage of huge majorities and a strong economy to bring true, progressive change to the UK, and almost pleaded (I thought) with the party to be a more effective, constructive opposition. But he could have been far more partisan, and perhaps in the past, he was.

Again, I didn’t find this to be a defensive speech. It was sober, yes, even humble. Did it succeed in quelling the doubts and fears of many in his party? I don’t know. Perhaps many were expecting a far more partisan speech, but Clegg’s in a difficult position. Labour is the only real target he has, since he can’t really rip into the Tories anymore, other than to remind them that the Lib Dems will be their Jiminy Cricket, but even when it came to his hits on Labour, perhaps because the party’s in the midst of a leadership race, he didn’t hit as hard as he could have.

Of course, I’m not a party member, and have no vested interest in what happens to the Lib Dems in 2015, so perhaps my assessment is more positive. However, I do think that even as a party member, I would have been quite satisfied with this speech.

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Book review: The Best Laid Plans

WARNING: Slight spoilers below. Also, The Best Laid Plans is a work of fiction. Eric Cameron is a fictional character. There has never been a real Finance minister in Canada named Eric Cameron.

The Best Laid Plans is a novel by Terry Fallis which won the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour in 2008.

The premise of the novel is quite simple. The main character, Daniel Addison, leaves Ottawa after several years working for the Liberal Party, most recently as head speechwriter for the leader (who is Leader of the Opposition), and returns to academia as an English professor at the University of Ottawa. Daniel’s decision to leave the world of politics began with a growing malaise as he became more jaded and cynical, but was finalised when he discovers his long-term girlfriend in a compromising position with the party’s House leader. That scene alone should win a prize for most creative use of parliamentary language to describe something other than parliamentary procedure.

However, Daniel can’t make a clean break from politics or the party – he has to do one last favour for them. There is an election coming up, and the Liberals need to find someone to stand for them in the riding of Cumberland-Prescott, a seat which has been Tory forever, and is currently held by the Conservative Finance minister, Eric Cameron, dubbed the most popular Finance minister in Canadian history. It’s a hopeless cause of course, and Daniel is desperate to find someone willing to run. He finally manages to convince his landlord, a retired Engineering professor named Angus McLintock, to stand, in exchange for Daniel taking over the teaching of English for Engineers, which has been foisted upon Angus again, much to his absolute dismay. While there is no chance that a Liberal will win Cumberland-Prescott, Angus makes doubly sure of that by insisting on several conditions: no lawn signs, no press, no photos, no actual campaigning, etc. He even leaves the country during the latter part of the campaign.

Of course, things don’t go as planned, and in the dying days of the campaign, a scandal involving Eric Cameron comes to light. The rest of the novel traces Angus’s reluctant acceptance of being an MP, and his decision to do things his way, much to the party leadership’s dismay.

Anyone who is interested in Canadian politics (or even politics in general) will probably enjoy this novel. It provides the reader with a fascinating look at party politics and behind-the-scenes machinations. And if you’re particularly a fan of the idea that MPs should behave more independently, you’ll embrace Angus McLintock – even if he is a Liberal.

Farris published a sequel earlier this month entitled The High Road. You can read that review here (although there are spoilers re: The Best Laid Plans).

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Don’t worry about polls

“Don’t worry about polls, but if you do, don’t admit it.” (Rosalynn Carter)

Opinion polls taken outside of an election campaign might provide a snapshot of current public opinion regarding political parties, but most of the time, the findings should be taken with a grain of salt. The way the media reports on such polls should be taken with an entire salt shaker.

The Independent has a story with the ominous headline: “Clegg sold out to get power, say voters“, followed by a by-line which informs us that “Four in 10 supporters say they wouldn’t have voted for him if they’d known about coalition.

Two things about this. First of all, while 40% of supporters is a significant percentage, the paper could have just as easily emphasised the fact that 60% of supporters were OK with the coalition. There is also the fact that quite a few traditionally Labour supporters voted Lib Dem for the first time in the May 2010 election in a bid to prevent the Conservatives from winning. It’s not clear to me if the poll questioned only traditional Lib Dem voters, or anyone who voted Lib Dem in the last election. If many of the normally Labour voters were included in the poll, rather than only traditionally Lib Dem supporters, of course you’re going to end up with a significant number saying they’d never have voted Lib Dem had they known there would be a coalition with the Conservatives. That vote was largely anti-Tory, not pro-Lib Dem.

The second thing is perhaps a bit more of a head-scratcher. The Liberal Democrats have always been strongly in favour of electoral reform, with their manifesto calling for a move to STV. Now any move to a more proportional electoral system would most likely result in regular coalition governments.

Therefore, what I’m finding somewhat confusing here is if you’re a staunch Lib Dem supporter, you have to know that 1) the party advocates moving from FPTP to a more proportional electoral system; 2) such a move would result in coalitions being the norm rather than exceptions; 3) even with some form of PR, the Lib Dems would most likely remain the 3rd place party; 4) it wouldn’t always be possible to form a coalition with Labour.

I can understand that quite a few Lib Dem supporters might be more at home with the thought of a Lib Dem-Labour coalition than they are with a Lib Dem-Conservative coalition, but the reality is that sometimes the latter would be the only real option available.

My advice to the Lib Dem leadership is to not worry too much about this or any other poll. It’s more than likely that had the Lib Dems opted to join forces with Labour after the election, we’d be hearing the same opinions expressed. It’s also a bit ludicrous to ask people if they’d vote differently after they know what the results of the vote. Would that theoretical 40% seriously have voted for Labour and kept a failing government in power under Gordon Brown?

The Lib Dems will be in government until May 2015, which is an eternity in politics. Come May 2015, all parties will come under the spotlight again in a general election, perhaps on a completely new voting system. That’s the opinion poll that truly matters, not one taken four months after the last election.

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Rethinking fixed-term parliaments

I have discussed the issue of fixed-term parliaments previously (see this post and this post), mostly in the context of the legislation under consideration in the UK, however, it is an issue I’d written about on a previous blog (now defunct), when various Canadian provinces and the Canadian federal government were considering adopting fixed-term parliaments.

My initial position, which has remained unchanged, is that fixed-term parliaments aren’t necessary because the main “problem” they seek to address isn’t really that much of a problem, and that in all likelihood, fixed-term parliaments would simply create new problems. Based on the experiences of various Canadian provinces, I believe my initial objection to the need for fixed-term parliaments has been borne out.

The main justification for adopting fixed-term parliaments is that it levels the playing field for all parties since the governing party can no longer call an election when it wants to, at a time that might be particularly beneficial for that party.

In Canada and the United Kingdom, parliaments last a maximum of five years (in a sense, there is already a term limit in place). The governing party can call an election pretty much whenever it wants to, with the only limit on that freedom being that an election has to occur five years to the day of the previous election, for example, if an election was held on 1 May 2006, another election would have to occur on or before 1 May 2011. That would be the latest possible date for a new election; the problem, for some at least, is that there is no earliest possible date limit.

The argument in favour of fixed-term parliaments is that because it is the governing party which has the power to decide when the election will be, it can choose  a time that will be the most favourable to it, for example, when opinion polls indicate a sizable lead over other parties, when the economic forecast looks particularly strong, or when it can exploit any weaknesses in the opposition parties, i.e. leadership issues, fund-raising problems, lack of nominated candidates etc.  Also, since the governing party has a particular date in mind for an election call, which it of course keeps secret, it can begin unofficially campaigning weeks, even months ahead of time, travelling around the country or province making spending announcements, all on the taxpayer’s dime. Or it can table a particularly generous budget, full of tax cuts and spending announcements, then call an election to campaign on its generosity.

The introduction of fixed-term parliaments was supposed to put an end to that sort of thing. True – now the date of the next election is no secret, and if the governing party finds itself trailing in the polls when election date rolls around, or if the economy takes a turn for the worse, there isn’t much it can do about that. Similarly, opposition parties know when the date of the election will be, and so would no longer find themselves caught unprepared: they’d have time to put together a comprehensive platform, and ensure all their candidates and constituency teams were in place. Other arguments in favour of fixed-term parliaments include: fixed election dates would make it easier for parties to recruit stronger candidates since they’d have more time to reorganize their lives to accommodate a run for public office; and that fixed-term parliaments would improve the overall tone and caliber of debate.  However, the only issue that truly has been addressed is that of the governing party having total control over the calling of an election. There is no real evidence that any of the other proposed pluses have indeed materialized, and as I stated previously, new issues have emerged.

British Columbia was the first Canadian province to adopt fixed-term parliaments legislation in 2001, and its first election held under that legislation, also the first fixed-term election in Canada, was held in 2005. Since then, five other provinces and one territory have joined the fixed-term parliaments club (date of first fixed-term election in brackets): Ontario (2007), Newfoundland and Labrador (2007), the Northwest Territories (2007), New Brunswick (2010), Saskatchewan (2011) and Prince Edward Island (2011). The federal government also adopted fixed-term elections, however, given that we have had minority governments in place, there hasn’t yet been an election based on the fixed-term legislation. Still, five elections across the country have been conducted under fixed-term parliaments legislation, and these have provided us with some useful information.

First, while it used to be that only the governing party knew when an election would occur, and would not-so-subtlety start an unofficial campaign, now every party knows when the election will be, and all parties start unofficially campaigning weeks, even months, ahead of time. It’s not an official campaign, because most, if not all, provinces have strict rules in place that limit that sort of activity and how much money can be spent during and outside of campaigns (although there are no limitations on how much the government can spend under the guise of conducting “government business” that more closely resembles campaigning), but all parties nonetheless begin jockeying for attention. This will happen both inside and outside the legislature.

New Brunswick will be holding its first election under fixed-term legislation on 27 September of this year, and one political analyst from the province, Don Desserud, has already decided that fixed-term parliaments legislation was a mistake. Desserud writes:

We now have an extended pre-campaign period, what we call the “phoney campaign,” during which election finance rules restrict the opposition parties’ activities, but can do little to prevent the government from openly campaigning.

Ever since the New Brunswick legislature adjourned on April 16, all parties have been doing their best to campaign. No one even pretended they weren’t.

New Brunswick isn’t alone in this. The next Ontario election is still over a year away (October 2011), but the parties are already jockeying for position in the legislature, particularly during question period. While you can argue that question period is usually fairly raucous, there is something different afoot in Ontario. The Opposition Progressive Conservative party is trying to build name recognition for its relatively new leader, by regularly mentioning his name when they raise questions. This is contrary to parliamentary procedure, where Members are not to refer to other Members by name but by riding only, and the Speaker has had to warn them repeatedly that he will not allow this to continue.

Desserud adds:

The long, phoney campaign has had other negative effects. Most people (except political junkies like me) find even a four-week campaign tedious.

An election campaign that drags on for four months is interminable. We won’t know the election turnout until after the ballots are counted, of course, but I will be surprised if the participation rate improves.

I can only imagine the impact of a campaign that drags on for a year, if what is currently happening in Ontario continues until October 2011.

Desserud again:

Neither have I seen any evidence that the quality of the debate has improved, now that opposition parties have more time to build their policy platforms. If anything, the phoney campaign has dropped the level of debate to new lows.

Certainly, neither the PCs nor the Liberals have managed to present anything approaching a vision for the province or a plan to deal with the growing list of serious and difficult issues that the province faces.

Again, this certainly applies to Ontario, with the Opposition Progressive Conservatives more intent on discrediting the sitting Liberal government than they are on pushing an alternative vision for the province, while the sitting Liberal Government simply attempts to defend its record.

When debates over the issue of fixed-term parliaments have arisen in the past, some people pointed to sitting governments calling elections unnecessarily early rather than serving out their complete mandate. I have found some interesting statistics that indicate that this isn’t really the case. In Canada, parliaments, both federally and provincially, tend to last about four years without fixed-term parliaments legislation.  The New Brunswick Commission on Legislative Democracy conveniently informs us that since 1785, elections have been held in New Brunswick on average every 48.3 months (which you can find on page 6 of this PDF presentation). The Parliament of Canada website informs us that the average duration of majority governments in Canada since 1867 is 4 years and 6 days. Canada has had a fair few minority governments over the years (11), which last on average 1 year, 5 months and 9 days, and so if you calculate the average for all parliaments from the return of the writs to dissolution, the average duration drops to 3 years, 3 months and 27 days. Elections Ontario doesn’t provide averages, but it does provide the dates of general elections from election day to dissolution. I didn’t want to calculate the average duration going back to 1867, but from the 24th Parliament onwards (1951 to current), the average duration of a parliament in Ontario was 53 months (please note that I rounded off the dates for reasons of laziness and practicality).

Perhaps the statistics from only two provinces and the federal government aren’t quite enough to form an overall generalisation, but I will nonetheless.  My point here is simply that in Canada, there isn’t that much evidence to support claims that sitting governments tend to call elections well before their fourth year in office (particularly when you take minority governments out of the equation, and most provinces don’t end up with minority governments that often since most of them tend to be dominated by two parties). On occasion, a sitting government would call an election earlier than that. Sometimes their gambit was successful, but often, they’d pay a price for going to the polls unnecessarily early. Similarly, the only governments that drag out their term to the maximum limit are governments who know they’ll be defeated – badly – at the polls. It is seen as, and rightly so, a desperate bid to hold on to power for as long as they possibly can. I would argue that instinctively, most opposition parties know that, coming into a government’s fourth year in power, an election will be imminent and would thus organize themselves accordingly. There are always signs that a party is contemplating an election call, knowing the exact date doesn’t provide that much of an advantage.

Don Desserud’s sums up quite well the merits of moving fixed-term parliaments:

I do concede that with fixed-date elections, political parties should have an easier time attracting quality candidates. Unfortunately, I can’t think of any objective way to measure whether this has in fact happened.

But frankly, if that’s the only reason left for keeping the new system, I suggest we explore other means for attracting good people to run for office.

Fixed-date elections make election planning more convenient. However, the price we are paying for this convenience is a system that favours the party in power and serves only to convince the voting public that elections are horrendously boring and nasty affairs.

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Why the Tea Party won’t work in Canada or the UK

Alex Massie wrote an interesting, albeit brief, blog post on why there couldn’t be a “Tea Party” movement in the UK. The points he makes apply equally to Canada.

As Massie points out:

The establishment party controls who is put on the ballot even in the so-called open primaries and, generally speaking, the party isn’t going to risk putting forward for selection the British equivalents of [Christine] O’Donnell or Rand Paul.

This is the main difference between party politics in the US and party politics in Westminster system countries such as Canada and the UK. In the US, the two main parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, seem to exist in name only. They don’t function the way parties do here. Their candidates don’t campaign on a single party platform. You can end up with Democrats who are more conservative than Republicans from more “liberal” parts of the US. Anyone can present themselves as a candidate for a given party in a primary – they don’t need the party establishment’s approval to do so, as the recent victories by “Tea Party” candidates have demonstrated.

In Canada and the UK, the main political parties all control who can be nominated as a candidate for that party – to varying degrees. At the very least, you have to be a member of the party. To the best of my knowledge, the party has to approve your application to seek the nomination in a given riding. This means that even if the riding nomination is a heavily contested one with several candidates vying for the nomination, each person seeking that nomination has been approved by the party.

The only way the equivalent of a “Tea Party” candidate could attempt to be elected would be to run as an Independent candidate in a given riding. Independents are very rarely elected. More importantly, Independents have next to no power in the the House or legislature to which they are elected since the system is built around recognizing organised parties, not a loose collection of individual MPs.

This reality is also at the heart of the debate (such as it is) over whipping the vote. While it might be desirable to many that MPs be freer to vote according to their conscience, or according to the will of their constituents rather than toeing the party line, no party will endorse the candidacy of someone who doesn’t play by party rules. There have been instances, of course, where an MP has defied his or her party and voted differently on a whipped vote, been kicked out of caucus, then run and re-elected as an Independent. However, more often than not, that MP either opts to not run again, or is defeated by the party’s new candidate (or by another party’s candidate). Successful Independents are a rare breed. They need to be extremely popular individuals in their ridings, capable of holding the vote based on constituents knowing and liking that individual and being willing to vote for that individual despite their lack of party endorsement. The reality is that most candidates get elected because of their party affiliation, not because of their personal attributes.

If political parties are to allow their MPs more freedom in how they vote in the House, they will also have to be willing to loosen their control over the nomination process. I have a difficult time imagining any party endorsing a candidate who repeatedly refused to vote according to the party’s position on key issues. Before there can be more democracy for MPs in the House, there would have to be more democracy within the parties which would probably require a completely new approach to party politics in Canada (and the UK). I don’t know how eager any party would be to seriously consider undermining their own power.

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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.

Background

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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