Electoral reform – not hot with Canadians but still worth pursuing

Canada’s federal Liberal Party is currently in the midst of a leadership race. During a debate held on 19 January 2012, the issue of electoral reform was raised a few times. The party has adopted an official position endorsing preferential voting (or the Alternative Vote), and most of the candidates stated that they backed that option.

On Twitter, respected Canadian pollster Nik Nanos tweeted:

#LPCldr electoral reform – not likely hot with Canadians – Cdns want to hear about jobs and healthcare.

This comment reinforced two points for me.

The first is my strong opposition to trying to implement electoral reform via a referendum. Mr. Nanos is entirely correct – the majority of Canadians don’t care about electoral reform. Even among political geeks, electoral reform tends to be a bit of a fringe issue. This is one (certainly not the only) reason why a referendum on electoral reform is such a bad idea if you seriously want said reform to pass. Most people will not follow the debate, and so won’t really know what they’re being asked to vote on. And even those who will be more aware will be asked to choose between a system they know well, even if they’re not entirely happy with it, and one they’ve most likely never experienced. I like to use this analogy:

Electoral Reformer: What’s your favourite soft drink?
Average voter: 7-Up.
Electoral Reformer: 7-Up, yes, that’s pretty good, but you know what? I’ve got this drink that is way better than 7-Up. Do you want to have that instead?
Average Voter: Can I try it first before deciding?
Electoral Reformer: No, you just have to trust me. It’s way better than 7-Up. And if you vote for this new one, we’ll get rid of 7-Up forever. Trust me – it’s better.

How do you expect someone to vote when asked to choose between something they know and something totally new and foreign to them? Of course most people will stick with what they know. Three provinces in Canada have held referendums on electoral reform (one province has held two) and the reform was defeated each time. The Canadian media seems to be largely opposed to electoral reform, and the press was dominated by columns and opinion pieces warning of the chaos that would ensue if we dropped FPTP.

The second thing is, while electoral reform is not a priority issue for most Canadians, that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be pursued. Just because something doesn’t crack the average voter’s Top 10 List of Important Things doesn’t mean it’s not important or necessary. Improving our democracy shouldn’t be contingent on whether or not it’s a popular issue. It should be pursued because it is necessary and the right thing to do.

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Preferential voting isn’t the solution some think it might be

There have been a growing number of columns and articles in various Canadian media over the past few months bemoaning the state of our parliamentary democracy and proposing various changes which might improve the situation. More often than not, electoral reform is mentioned – either in the column itself, or by a reader commenting on the piece.

There does seem to be a growing recognition or acceptance that the First-Past-the-Post voting system doesn’t quite work the way people would like. I won’t say it doesn’t work the way it should because it works exactly as it should. It simply isn’t the ideal system for multi-party democracies.

Inevitably, in these discussions, someone proposes some form of proportional representation, usually Mixed-Member-Proportional, where most MPs would be elected the usual way, but then each party’s numbers would be topped up with list MPs to more closely reflect the party’s actual percentage of the vote. And also inevitably, many other people chime in denouncing any form of PR because it leads to coalition government which is of course completely unstable – just look at (insert name of favourite basketcase country here).

The voting system change that seems to garner (or be garnering) the most support is the very one the UK rejected in the 2011 referendum – the Alternative Vote (AV), or preferential voting. As I’ve explained in the very, very many posts I wrote during the lead-up to that referendum, under AV, voters rank the candidates in order of preference. To be elected, a candidate has to get over 50% of the votes cast. If no candidate tops 50% after the first count, then the candidate with the lowest vote total is dropped from the ballot and the votes for that candidate are redistributed based on the second preferences indicated by voters. This process continues until someone ends up with over 50%. See this post I wrote back in 2011 to explain to British readers how the vote would work.

AV isn’t used in a lot of places. Australia is the best example available of a western democracy which uses it. At the federal level, they use “full prefential voting” to elect the House of Representatives (a completely different system is used to elect Senators – see this handy guide to voting systems used in Australia). That simply means that voters have to rank every single candidate on the ballot. I believe they can leave one candidate unranked, and that will be counted as their last choice, but if they leave more than one candidate unranked, the ballot is rejected. At the State level, some states also use full preferential to elect their Legislative Assemblies, while others use “optional preferential”. Under this variant, voters can rank as many or as few candidates as they want – this was the model proposed in the UK. Under optional preferential, voters can treat their ballot as a FPTP ballot if they so desire – voting for one candidate and one candidate only.

The Alternative Vote appeals to many because it is fairly simple (not quite as simple as FPTP, but certainly far less complex than other voting systems out there), and it would address the issue of MPs being elected with minority support. As I’ve also repeatedly blogged, the majority of MPs in Canada win their seat with less than 50% of the vote cast in their riding – sometimes a lot less. AV would put an end to that, in theory, at least.

It is really important to understand that this is the only advantage or benefit AV has over FPTP. In many ways, it can lead to even more distorted results than FPTP currently does, e.g. a single party winning even more seats than it might have under FPTP. It is not at all proportional, so it won’t put an end to majority governments formed by a party with much less than majority support, meaning many voters will continue to feel as if their votes don’t count.

Each form of AV also presents other problems. Full preferential, where a voter would have to rank every single candidate on the ballot paper, would force many – probably most voters -  into making what can only be described as artificial choices. Some voters simply don’t have a second choice – they vote for one party and one party only, and would have no desire to even attempt to rank any other candidates. Other voters might have an easier time ranking the two or three major parties on the ballot, but here’s the big problem. Most ballot papers in Canada have several candidates listed, often as many as 10 or so. Apart from the candidates representing the three or four major parties in the country, there are also a large number of candidates representing fringe parties most people have never heard of, as well as candidates running as independents. Leaving aside the one-party-only people, for everyone else, it would be a very trying experience, if not even a complete joke, to try to rank the fringe and independent candidates. And never mind trying to rank candidates you’ve never heard of, what about having to rank candidates you dislike equally? Think about this for a minute, about how many candidates were actually listed on your ballot the last time you voted. Now imagine having to rank every single one of those individuals in order of preference in order for your ballot to count.

So go with optional preferential – problem solved. Indeed. But let’s remember that the only advantage AV has over FPTP is that it is supposed to ensure that the MP elected is elected with over 50% support in that riding. While most think that means “50% of the votes cast”, if you’re using optional preferential, what you end up with is someone elected with 50% of the votes still in play, which may be a very different number from the total number of votes cast. Under optional preferential, voters can choose to cast their vote for one candidate only, and indeed, many do just that. This is a phenomena known as “plumping”. Optional preferential has been used in Canada in the past, in three different provinces, and I have a post looking at what happened in those provinces during the time they used optional preferential. As you can see, the plumping rate was quite high – sometimes over 60%. That means only a minority of people were actually ranking more than one candidate. I am willing to guess that at best, most voters who do bother to rank will rank only two or three candidates. If the majority of ballots can’t be transferred after the first count, the one advantage AV has over FPTP pretty much disappears.

As well, optional preferential can end up costing parties seats because of voters treating their ballot as a FPTP ballot. See this post by Australian elections expert Antony Green on the recent election in Queensland. There is also evidence that optional preferential disadvantages smaller parties (and independents) – just as FPTP does. As Green points out in this post, wherein he re-does the 2010 Australian federal election using optional preferential rather than full preferential, “optional preferential voting always advantages the party with the highest first preference vote.”

It may interest some proponents of AV to know that the State of Queensland is currently conducting an inquiry into its electoral law, and an important focus of that is whether optional preferential should be retained (discussion paper PDF here). From page 37 of that discussion paper (emphasis added):

A key issue with OPV is that it has the potential to become a de facto ‘first past the post’ system. Preferences can be quickly exhausted where a large number of voters choose to vote ‘1’ only. This is particularly problematic where a large number of candidates are contesting a seat. In such a circumstance, it would be possible for a candidate to be elected with only a small proportion of the vote, which could leave the majority of the population unrepresented.

As part of its analysis of a survey of ballot papers from the 2009 state election, the ECQ found that approximately 63.03% of ballot papers were marked ‘1’ only. At the 2006 election, 62.15% of surveyed ballot papers fell into this category. Up until the 2001 election, the number of ballot papers marked ‘1’ only had been significantly lower (20.7% in the 1995 election).

Meanwhile, others in Australia are calling for a move towards proper proportional representation.

While I agree with most that AV/preferential voting might be the easiest electoral reform to implement here in Canada because it isn’t that different from FPTP, there are some very important issues associated with it that need to be carefully considered. It won’t be the panacea many seem to think it might be.

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Coalition government is not a marriage

On 7 January 2012, Conservative Party leader David Cameron and Liberal Democrat Party leader Nick Clegg held a joint press conference, which you can watch here, to promote the Coalition government’s Mid-Term Review. That review lists what the government says it has achieved in meeting its coalition agreement and outlines further reforms to come. Both Cameron and Clegg stressed that the coalition would last the full five-year term.

One of the stranger questions asked during the press conference was if the coalition was like a marriage. Indeed, when Cameron and Clegg held their first press conference together back in 2010 to launch the coalition, some of the press coverage read as if it should have been on the Society pages rather than in the Politics section (see for example, this piece, or this one). Cameron answered that question thusly:

“To me it’s not a marriage, it’s a Ronseal deal, it does what it says on the tin – we said we would come together, we said we would form a government, we said we would tackle these problems, we said we would get on with it in a mature and sensible way, and that is exactly what we’ve done.”

This prompted the BBC’s political editor to write a column entitled: Coalition: Official – it’s not a marriage. The column starts:

It’s not a marriage. It never was. They were never in love so they are not renewing their vows.

That, in summary, is the reaction inside Downing Street to how the media, including me, have spoken about today’s joint news conference to be held at Downing Street by David Cameron and Nick Clegg.

Robinson goes on to explain:

The reason this debate about terminology is revealing is that both sides of this coalition have concluded that all this talk of marriage is toxic as it invites hacks like me to conclude that the Tory and Lib Dem partners are still “in love” – something which infuriates many of their natural supporters – or preparing to “divorce” in the run-up to the next election.

The Cameron/Clegg talk of their strengthened “shared purpose” was, of course, always going to make it hard to resist the temptation to ask whether both men are protesting too much. I doubt that many hacks today will resist.

It’s not surprising that the UK media haven’t known exactly how to cover the coalition – it is a rarity in First-Past-the-Post jurisdictions such as the UK. Indeed, the UK media, almost from day one, has regularly speculated not on if the coalition would collapse – that seemed to be a given, but when this would occur. At times it seemed that every single policy was “the one that will tear the coalition apart”, bring about the aforementioned “divorce”.  What the press have failed to understand is that, in the words of the Constitution Unit’s Robert Hazell, is that the UK has a coalition government, but not a coalition Parliament.

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have not merged their two parties, therefore it is not surprising – or at least, should not be surprising – that the backbenches of each party often disagree. Such disagreement in the House does not mean that the coalition itself is coming apart at the seams. Indeed, even the parliamentary splits aren’t always divisions between the Lib Dems and the Tories, but divisions within the Conservative Party itself, as this other analysis from the Constitution Unit explains. A coalition is not merger of two parties; it is an attempt by two parties to find common ground in order to govern jointly.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg was questioned by the House of Lords Constitution Committee on 9 January 2012 and addressed many of the issues surrounding the workings of the coalition, in particular how it impacts the doctrine of collective ministerial responsibility. It’s an interesting discussion and I recommend watching it.

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Election Watch 2013

There will be some noteworthy elections coming up in 2013.

AUSTRALIA

Unlike most parliaments in the UK and Canada, which normally last 4 to 5 years, the Australian House of Representatives sits for a three-year term. Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard had announced that the next election would be held on 14 September 2013; however, current PM Kevin Rudd has hinted that he might change that date. The 2010 election resulted in a hung parliament, with both Labor the the Coalition tied with 72 seats each. Labor ended up forming a minority government, with the support of Green and Independent MPs. Update: the election will be held on 7 September 2013. Please see this post for more information.

CANADA

There won’t be another federal election until October 2015, but there are a few provinces which may be heading to the polls this year (one definitely will be).

British Columbia

British Columbia will be electing a new parliament in May of this year. The incumbent Liberals are not doing well at the polls, and Premier Christy Clarke’s decision not to hold a fall sitting probably won’t help matters.

Ontario and Quebec

Ontario’s last election was in October 2011 while Quebec’s was in September 2012 but both resulted in hung parliaments. Ontario ended up with a minority Liberal government, but Premier Dalton McGuinty unexpectedly prorogued the Legislature in October and simultaneously announced his resignation as party leader. The Liberals chose a new leader on 26 January 2013. The House will return on 19 February 2013. While the new leader has stated she is determined to make the minority parliament work, one can never rule out an election.

Quebec ended up with a minority Parti québécois government. The government’s budget passed by one vote in late November. Polls show a close three-way race between the PQ, Liberals and Coaliation Avenir Quebec. Minority parliaments rarely last much more than a year, so the situation in Quebec bears watching.

Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia’s last election was in 2009. It is one of the few provinces which does not have fixed election dates, but since the government is coming into its fourth year in office, an election is likely in 2013. An election must occur by June 2014.

Nunavut

The last election in Nunavut occurred in October 2008, and so the current parliament is entering its 5th year. Nunavut does not have fixed election dates, so an election will be held some time this year, no later than October 2013.

UNITED KINGDOM

UK local elections

The 2013 United Kingdom local elections are due to take place on Thursday 2 May 2013. Elections will be held in 35 English councils, including all 27 non-metropolitan county councils, the 5 unitary authorities covering ceremonial counties, and 3 other unitary authorities, and to a single Welsh unitary authority. What will be interesting to watch for is how the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) performs. The party has surged in recent polls, often polling ahead of the Liberal Democrats, and recently finished 2nd in two by-elections for parliamentary seats. In the 2011 local elections, UKIP took control of Ramsey town council, and maintained its seven councillors across England, and one in Northern Ireland.

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The Politics of Coalition: the video

In support of their book, The Politics of Coalition: How the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government Works, which was published in June 2012, Dr. Robert Hazell and Dr. Ben Yong of UCL’s Constitution Unit delivered a talk in October highlighting some of their main findings. That talk was recorded, and is now available for general viewing online.

I strongly encourage anyone interested in coalition government and minority parliaments to watch the video (and buy the book). Drs. Hazell and Yong were given wide access to everyone who mattered – including Prime Minister David Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, as well as ministers, MPs, Lords, civil servants and others. While they focus primarily on the coalition’s first 15 months in office, the authors also look down the road, raising important lessons political parties in the UK would do well to consider since hung parliaments are likely to be increasingly regular occurrences.

From a Canadian perspective, despite the more recent difficulties the coalition parties have encountered, it’s still very refreshing to know that elsewhere in the world, political parties are both capable of and willing to work together and that the very idea of coalition government isn’t considered something evil or unconstitutional. Canadian political parties, both federal and provincial, would do well to take note.

Where to buy The Politics of Coalition: in the UK, from Amazon.co.uk, in Canada, from Amazon.ca, in the US, from Amazon.com.

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The length of two swords

Recently, the brilliant UK actor Philip Glenister (Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes, State of Play, Mad Dogs, Hidden, etc.) was interviewed on the Andrew Marr show in connection with his latest role, that of Chief Government Whip in the play “This House“, which is set in 1974, when Labour had a shaky minority government.The discussion turned to the innately adversarial nature of politics in the UK House of Commons, with Marr noting that the play was in some ways an attack on the British parliamentary tradition, that of two sides against each other, and that underneath, there was a dream of a better way of doing things, a call for politics to be more consensual. Glenister noted that UK was “one of the few democracies, just by the layout of our parliament… it’s in a rectangular shape as opposed to in the round. It’s only one of two in the world.”

If Glenister is correct, and there are only two democracies in the world with rectangular Chambers which force government and opposition to face off against each other on opposing sides, then the Canada is the other one. The Canadian House of Commons, the Senate and most of the Canadian provincial and territorial legislatures are also rectangular, the exceptions being the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba, the Legislative Assembly of Nunavut and the Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories.

What is being implied here is that layout of the Chamber, government on one side, opposition parties on the other, makes our politics more adversarial because it imposes an “Us vs Them” feel from the outset. This is the same argument put forward by architects in this very interesting article, “The Shape of Debate to Come“.

However, it is debatable to what extent the shape of the chamber might influence how adversarial or consensual debate will be. As Professor White notes in the above article, countries which end up with a more consensual approach to politics also tend to use some form of proportional representation rather than First-Past-the-Post:

But, in an email, he said there was “pretty much zero” chance of more co-operative behaviour in Canadian legislatures. And he put the differences in approach in legislatures such as Wales and Scotland more down to mixed electoral systems, not just first-past-the-post.

He said: “Unquestionably the opposing rows of benches in standard Westminster parliaments reinforces the adversarial nature of the place; for my students I liken it to opposing armies or sports teams squaring off. At the same time, I see seating arrangements as very much secondary to underlying political culture and prevailing political norms.

“The Manitoba [legislature], which is semi-circular, has exceedingly nasty, adversarial partisan politics, and the US Congress these days is hardly a paragon of non-partisanship.”

Because PR makes it very difficult for any one party to form a majority government on its own, this means that coalition government tends to be the norm in countries which use some form of PR, and that reality alone will require parties to work harder to find some sort of consensus. As Prof. White points out, despite sitting in the round, politics in both Manitoba and the US Congress are very partisan and adversarial, and both jurisdictions use FPTP. The Australian House of Representatives is horseshoe-shaped, and politics Down Under is every bit as partisan as it is up here, particularly in the current minority parliament. Australia uses the Alternative Vote to elect its MPs, a voting system which requires voters to rank the candidates on the ballot in order of preference, and to win the seat, a candidate must gain over 50% of the vote, either outright, or through transferred preferences. AV, like FPTP, is not at all proportional, which may explain why political debate in the House of Representatives is partisan and adversarial.

This summer, it was reported that the UK Parliament could be closed for five years for extensive refurbishment, with MPs and Lords “convened in a replica chamber or a conference centre for the duration of the repair work, which could start in 2015.” This immediately alarmed some. The Spectator’s Fraser Nelson raised the threat of some advocating that a new, refurbished chamber would be “a chance to move the MPs to a lifeless, European style semi-circular chamber that supposedly encourages them to co-operate.” Fraser comments on how deathly boring debate is in the Scottish Parliament, which is circular. He does not mention that Scottish Members of Parliament (MSPs) are elected using Mixed-Member Proportional representation (MMP).

But is the electoral system alone enough to determine how consensual or adversarial politics will be in a given jurisdiction? Thomas Carl Lundberg, in his paper “Politics is Still an Adversarial Business: Minority Government and Mixed-Member Proportional Representation in Scotland and New Zealand“, concluded that while both nations introduced MMP in part to bring about a “new politics”, in the end, “the impact of institutional engineering upon the behaviour of politicians has been limited.” New Zealand adopted MMP in 1996, Scotland in 1999. New Zealand has seen the formation of mostly minority governments under MMP (albeit minority coalition government rather than single-party minority government) supported by other smaller parties through confidence and supply agreements, while Scotland has experienced two terms of majority coalition government, one term of single-party  minority government, and most recently, to the surprise of most, a single-party majority government.

The reasons why MMP has had limited success in curbing adversarial politics in Scotland and New Zealand, according to Lundberg are varied. Long before New Zealand adopted MMP, it had a very strong two-party system (Labour on the left and the National Party on the right) and a long history of single-party majority government. With the introduction of MMP in 1996, that didn’t really change. Politics remained quite adversarial between Labour and the National Party, but both of the main parties learned to work with the much smaller parties in order to form governments.

Scotland on the surface may appear more consensual, but there are other tensions at work. Scotland has a true multiparty system, that is one in which “there are three to five relevant parties which are not separated (polarised) by a large or intense ideological distance” (which isn’t the case in New Zealand). Rather, Scotland’s party system “is characterised by two significant cleavages” – class divisions and “the process of building the UK (with England at the centre dominating the periphery composed of Scotland, Wales and Ireland) in the latter.” The two largest parties in Scotland are Labour and the Scottish National Party – both are centre-left, and they have a long, adversarial relationship dating back before devolution, or to quote the former leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats: “there is a level of visceral hatred between the Nationalists and Labour to this day. So, it just transferred from London to Edinburgh … we just so massively underestimated how important it is for people to have good, personal relationships across all parties.”

Simply put, how adversarial or consensual politics might be in a given democracy will depend on many factors. While the shape of the debating chamber and the voting system used to elect members undoubtedly play a part, changing one or both will not necessarily bring about more polite politics.

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On the decline of Statements by Members

From the Canadian House of Commons Standing Orders:

31.  A Member may be recognized, under the provisions of Standing Order 30(5), to make a statement for not more than one minute. The Speaker may order a Member to resume his or her seat if, in the opinion of the Speaker, improper use is made of this Standing Order.

The Standing Orders of the Canadian House of Commons allow Members who are not ministers to address the House for up to one minute on virtually any matter of local, provincial, national or international concern. These Statements by Members take place in the 15 minutes before the daily Question Period, at 2:00 p.m. on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, and at 11:00 a.m. on Friday.

As Standing Order 31 states, the Speaker will order a Member to resume his or her seat if they make improper use of this Standing Order. The guidelines are fairly clear:

  • Members may speak on any matter of concern and not necessarily on urgent matters.
  • Personal attacks are not permitted.
  • The Speaker may interrupt an individual statement and ask the Member to resume his or her seat when:
    • offensive language has been used;
    • a Senator or the actions of the Senate have been criticized;
    • a ruling of a court of law has been denounced; or
    • the character of a judge has been attacked.
  • Speakers have also cautioned Members not to:
    • use this period to make defamatory comments about non-Members;
    • use the verbatim remarks of a private citizen as a statement; or
    • make statements of a commercial nature.

Most Members follow the guidelines and use their minute to raise an issue that is of interest or concern to their constituents, to bring attention to the accomplishments of a local sports team or individual, etc. However, increasingly, these Members’ Statements have become far more partisan and personal attacks against other Members or other parties’ policies are daily occurrences.

Evan Sotiropoulos provided a detailed study of Statements by Members during the 38th and 39th Parliaments in the Canadian Parliamentary Review. As Sotiropoulos notes:

The 38th Parliament and the 39th Parliament present fertile ground for comparative research. Both were minority governments with the same Speaker (Peter Milliken) following the same Standing Orders. Stated otherwise, a number of key independent variables used to explain the dependent variable, that is to say, the level of unparliamentary/partisan language in the daily Statements by Members – were constant. The crucial difference was that the 38th Parliament was a Liberal-led government, whereas the 39th Parliament was Conservative-led. Therefore, the idea that the official Opposition, regardless of party affiliation, would use its time in a more partisan manner could be analyzed against two similar, yet distinct Parliaments.

What Sotiropoulos found, however, was that the Conservative Party, whether in opposition or in government, was more likely to use Members’ Statements to make partisan attacks than were the Liberals:

The Conservative Party, both in opposition and in government, regularly was more partisan in its use of Members’ Statements than its main adversary, the Liberal Party.

According to this research in the 38th Parliament, a Conservative MP was three times more likely than his Liberal counterpart to stand up during Members’ Statements and deliver a political/partisan statement. In the 39th Parliament, the opposition Liberals became more unparliamentary/partisan in their Members’ Statements – confirming, to some extent, the initial theory that the official Opposition would use its time in a more partisan manner. Although Liberal MPs contributed to the increase of partisanship during the 39th Parliament (doubling their partisan statements from 13.5% to 24.9%) Conservative MPs were still twice as likely to deliver a political punch.

Similarly, a more recent analysis of Statements by Members from 1994 to 2012 by Eric Grenier produced similar findings:

An analysis of almost 1,000 speeches made during the Statements by Members period between 1994 and 2012 over the first three normal sitting days after the summer indicates that the number of partisan statements have almost doubled since the Conservatives were first elected. (…)

About 24 per cent of Statements by Members on the sampled days since 2006 were of a partisan nature, compared to 14 per cent in the period between 1994 and 2005 when the Liberals were in power. Four of the five years where more than 1 in 5 statements were partisan took place under the Conservatives. The lone exception is 1995, when the debate over the then-upcoming Quebec referendum was especially nasty.

In response to Grenier’s piece, a former senior adviser to Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Keith Beardsley wrote a very telling blog post explaining how the Conservatives started using Members’ Statements more strategically. Beardsley explains:

While in opposition from 2003 to 2006, we found that quite often our very last MP’s statement (the one just before Question Period started) was quoted in the media the next day.  Simply put the media had arrived in the House for Question Period and they were paying attention to comments from the MPs.  SO 31s delivered earlier in the sequence were largely ignored by the press.

Opposition parties are always looking for ways to get into the media and this became one way to do it. The added bonus was that the then Liberal Prime Minister had no way to respond to what was said. By putting a slight edge to the attack in the SO 31, you could unsettle the PM and distract him just before the Leader of the Opposition stood to ask the first of a series of 3 to 5 questions. Over time we began to use the last of our SO 31s as the equivalent to a question in Question Period especially when it was delivered by one of our attack dogs. The SO 31 allowed one minute of time to stand, while a question only allowed 34 seconds. That one minute statement also allowed more time to drive home our message than any question could. The added advantage for us was the Prime Minister had no way to reply but had to sit and take it.

There have been repeated calls – from MPs and from political observers – for something to be done about this misuse of Statements by Members. MPs have called on the Speaker to clamp down on these ultra-partisan attacks. Former Speaker Milliken attempted to do so – cutting off any MP who started in attacking another MP, but MPs simply changed their tactics by making virulent attacks on an unidentified politician, and identifying the individual in question (usually the Leader of the Opposition) only at the very end of their statement. By then it was too late for the Speaker to do anything about it.

Many political columnists have called for Members’ Statements to be done away with; however, as Mr. Beardsley points out in his blog piece, backbench MPs have few opportunities to speak about matters of concern to them and their constituents. The UK House of Commons has addressed this with the introduction of Backbench Business debates which allow backbenchers to bring forward issues of interest to them for debate in the main Chamber or in Westminster Hall. It has to be said that these debates are much more interesting and even useful than are Members’ Statements. Others have suggested moving them to a different part of the day. Members’ Statements currently garner attention because they precede Question Period, which is really the only part of sitting day to which the media and the general public pay any attention. If Statements by Members were moved to later in the day, the unfortunate reality is that no one would be around to hear them and there would be little motivation for MPs to use them to carry out attacks on their opponents.

Of course, if MPs are as distressed by the tone of these Statements as they claim to be, they could simply choose to stop misusing them.

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E-petitions with 10,000 signatures will now get a response

In a written ministerial statement, Leader of the House, the Rt. Hon. Andrew Lansley announced that any e-petition which received 10,000 or more signatures would receive a response from the Government:

Once an e-petition has passed 10 000 signatures, departments will provide a  response  that will appear on the website and  be e-mailed to all signatories who opted-in to receive updates on that petition.  Responses will include a statement of the Government’s policy on the issue, and details of any relevant Parliamentary processes that are ongoing.

All e-petitions currently open for signature on the site, which  have more than 10 000 signatures, will receive a response from departments; we expect most of these to be published before the House returns from the Conference recess. Responses to e-petitions that subsequently pass the 10 000 signature threshold will  be published on a rolling basis on the relevant page of http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk

Until now, there has been no formal obligation on government departments to respond directly to e-petitions (or paper petitions for that matter). Petitions which garnered 100,000 or more signatures were referred to the Backbench Business Committee for consideration for debate, but they represented a fraction of the e-petitions on the site.

In the House of Commons, during questions on House Business, the chair of the Backbench Business Committee, Natascha Engel, asked Mr. Lansley if he would work with the Committee to ensure that eventually, every single petition receives some sort of feedback. Lansley replied:

I intend to work with the hon. Lady and Members across the House, including my colleagues in the Government, to ensure that those who give their time and energy to bringing issues before the House feel that they are responded to properly and timeously.

To summarize then, any petition (digital or otherwise) which receives 100,000 signatures or more will be automatically referred to the Backbench Business Committee and eligible for consideration for debate, either in the House of Commons or in Westminster Hall. This does not mean that said petition is guaranteed a debate. The Committee itself cannot schedule such a debate unless the petition is brought forward by an MP as a topic for a Backbench Business debate. Even if this happens, the proposal must meet the criteria for debate, and there is still no guarantee that such a debate will occur. Similarly, an MP can propose having a debate on any petition – regardless of the number of signatures the petition may have received, if he or she believes the subject of the petition is an issue which merits a debate.

As well, any petition which receives 10,000 or more signatures is now guaranteed to receive a response from the relevant government department.

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Why Maher is wrong on Senate Reform

A recent column by Postmedia’s Stephen Maher argues that recent scandals involving senators might spur forward attempts to reform the Upper Chamber. Unfortunately, the arguments he makes rather miss the point.

Maher acknowledges that the Senate does good and important work, and that their committee work in particular is often better than the work of the House of Commons’ committees. He then goes on to say that this doesn’t change the fact that the Senate is an anachronism, unrepresentative and lacks legitimacy “to fulfill their proper functions, as a check on the government of the day” because they are appointed.

The Senate and senators do not lack legitimacy because they are appointed – their legitimacy stems from the Constitution. Judges are also appointed and act as checks on the government of the day, and no one questions their legitimacy. One might prefer that senators (and perhaps even judges) be elected, but that won’t make them more legitimate. It is the Constitution that establishes the legitimacy of the Upper House.

Maher points out that there are no NDP or Bloc Quebecois senators, and therefore that isn’t democratic. True – but that reality is largely because both the NDP and BQ would like to see the Senate abolished and have no interest in having senators appointed from their ranks. Because they oppose the very existence of the Senate, one would have to ask if they’d even bother running candidates if we ever moved to an elected Senate. If the NDP opted to not run candidates in Senate elections because it would rather see the Upper House abolished, wouldn’t that make an elected Senate equally undemocratic?

Maher then writes:

Electing senators to a single nine-year term — as the government has proposed — would give them democratic legitimacy and some degree of independence from the party machine.

I have written previously about my objections to limiting senators (and in the UK, Lords) to serving a single term in office if elected. This may perhaps make them more “legitimate” in the eyes of some, but it certainly does not make them more accountable, which is a big part of democratic legitimacy. It is one thing to elect someone to office, but without the possibility of judging how that person performed by having the opportunity to either re-elect them or kick them out, how is that any better than having them appointed? I think Maher confuses the concepts of “accountability” and “legitimacy” – as I’ve stated at the outset, the Senate’s legitimacy stems from the Constitution. Electing senators doesn’t make them more legitimate. It could, however, make them more accountable – but only if they are allowed to seek re-election. Limiting them to a single term in office fails on that front.

I also don’t understand how Maher can think that elected senators would somehow be more independent of the party machine. They would be running as representatives of a given political party. They, like MPs, would depend on the party for their nomination. They would be, if anything, more beholden to toeing the party line.

Maher then suggests that:

And the prospect of elections might prevent embarrassments, in part because only professional politicians would get elected.

Conservative Patrick Brazeau, who called a reporter a bitch on Twitter, would never get elected.

Neither would Liberal Rod Zimmer, and his odd marriage would have remained a private matter.

Again, these arguments are somewhat baffling. Is Maher suggesting that no embarrassing MP has ever been elected? I certainly can think of a few. And do we really need more professional politicians? Maher suggests that Senator Brazeau would never get elected – I think there are very good chances that Senator Brazeau would indeed do quite well at the polls. He’s young, attractive, and the party could always stick him in a very safe riding, which would guarantee his election. Maher then uses the example of Senator Zimmer and his much younger wife, suggesting that voters would never elect a man married to a much younger woman. My reply to that is: Pierre Elliot Trudeau.

All of the problems Maher mentions could be eliminated simply by changing how senators are appointed. The logical solution is simply to remove the power to appoint senators from the hands of the Prime Minister and turn that over to an independent Selection Commission. Criteria could be drawn up as to what background and characteristics senators should have. Anyone could submit names of persons they would like to nominate as a potential senator. This would have the added benefit of ensuring that people from specific professional backgrounds which are currently under-represented in the House of Commons – such as experts in certain fields such as finance, all things digital, medicine, etc., were appointed.

A Senate filled with persons appointed by an independent commission would also avoid the other problem Maher identifies – that of the regional imbalance. Maher is right to note that this would be far more problematic if we moved to electing Senators. He is also right to point out that it would be virtually impossible to get the Constitutional change necessary to remedy that imbalance. In short, we are pretty much stuck with that regional representation, which only strengthens the argument for the creation of an independent selection committee to deal with appointments to the Senate.

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E-petitions prove to be popular in their first year

A year after the launch of its e-petition site, the UK Government has released some interesting data which gives some idea of the popularity of e-petitions.

Over the past twelve months, 36,000 petitions have been launched, attracting 6.4 million signatures. This of course doesn’t meant that 6.4 million different people have signed them – some people have probably signed multiple petitions. According to the Government, that averages out to 12 people signing a petition every minute. The e-petitions website averages 46,500 visits a day, for a total of over 17 million visits over the course of its first year.

While those numbers are impressive, they are also a bit misleading. It seems that the popularity (or at least, the novelty) of e-petitions is wearing off. The site was at its most popular immediately after it launched, with the highest number of people visiting the site occurring last August. Indeed, a petition on the London riots reached the fabled 100,000 signature threshold within days. Since then, visitation to the site has varied, and visits reached a low in May of this year. Ten petitions surpassed the 100,000 signature mark, and six of these managed that in the site’s first 100 days.

Earlier this year, the Hansard Society released a briefing paper, What’s Next for E-Petitions, which identified four key problems with the Government’s e-petitions:

  1. Ownership and responsibility: The system is controlled by government but the onus to respond is largely placed on the House of Commons.
  2. There is no agreement about the purpose of e-petitions: Are they ‘an easy way to influence government policy’, a ‘fire alarm’ about issues of national concern, a ‘finger in the wind’ to determine the depth of public feeling on a range of issues? Or should they be used to empower the public through greater engagement in the political and parliamentary process, providing for deliberation on the issues of concern?
  3. Public and media expectations of the system are consequently confused: People expect an automatic debate once the signature threshold is passed and react negatively when this does not happen.
  4. There is minimal public engagement with Parliament or government: Beyond the possibility of a debate for those e-petitions that pass the 100,000 signature threshold, little or nothing currently happens with them. And if an e-petition does not achieve the signature threshold but still attracts considerable support (e.g. 99,999 signatures) there is no guarantee of any kind of response at all.

I agree with most of the concerns the Hansard Society has identified. One of the main problems with the e-petitions system as it currently exists is that these are petitions to Government, whereas traditionally, one petitions Parliament. Because they are petitions to a Government department, there is no easy way to link them to an MP, who would normally be the person to bring the matter before Parliament. Yet, as the Hansard Society points out, the onus is on the House of Commons to respond to the petitions.

Points two and three are also spot on. I have in fact previously blogged many times about the degree of confusion which exists over how the e-petitions scheme works and the expectations that a debate is guaranteed to happen if a petition surpasses the 100,000 signature threshold. This is in large part due to very sloppy reporting in the media when the scheme was launched, and unfortunately, has not improved.

I quibble a bit with regards to point 4. First of all, just as attaining 100,000 signatures will not necessarily guarantee that an e-petition will be debated, it is entirely possible for a petition which has received fewer than 100,000 signatures to be debated if an MP presents such a request to the Backbench Business Committee. The BBBCom has made this very clear on their website. As for the issue of responses, it is true that there is no guarantee of a response, but some petitions do indeed receive responses, even though they have fallen short of the mystical 100,000 signature mark. The main problem is that there doesn’t seem to be any coherent or consistent policy across government departments which would oblige them to respond to all petitions – regardless of the number of signatures received.

I do fully agree with the key recommendations put forward by the Hansard Society, however:

  • Ownership of and responsibility for the e-petitions system should rest with the House of Commons and not the executive.
  • The House of Commons should create a Petitions Committee, supported by staff in a Petitions Office, to engage with petitioners, moderate the process and provide a single route for consideration of both paper and online petitions.
  • Members of the Petitions Committee should be elected and have the power to refer petitions to a relevant Select Committee, to commission their own inquiries into specific petitions, to question ministers on the issues and to invite petitioners and others to give evidence at public hearings.

I believe that adopting those recommendations would improve the process significantly.

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