Coalition Street or Parliament Hill Street Blues?

There is an interesting article on the BBC website discussing the dearth of British political dramas on television. Inspired by the airing of a Danish political drama, Borgen, on BBC Four, the writer, Terry Stiastny, wonders why there have been no British equivalents since the excellent House of Cards which aired in the 1990s.

Borgen is a political thriller about the election of Denmark’s first female prime minister (not the actual first female prime minister who was elected last year – the series aired a year before that actually occurred, so it’s about a fictional first female prime minister) and her coalition government. Borgen will appeal to all political junkies, especially anyone with an interest in coalition politics, but also people interested in good drama – the show also focuses on the main character’s personal life, and how she negotiates being a wife and mother with her political life. And to readers in Canada who are intrigued by this, Borgen is available through *ahem* unofficial sources. Not that I am advocating that anyone do anything illegal here. I’m simply saying it is available if you really want to see it (and it is definitely worth watching). (UPDATE: You can now order a region 1 DVD boxset of series 1 from, and pre-order series 2.)

But back to the issue of political dramas on television. The UK has produced some classic political comedy. Yes Minister/Yes Prime Minister are perhaps the best known – certainly familiar to viewers outside the UK. More recently, we have The Thick of It. While The Thick of It hasn’t aired in Canada (to be honest, I don’t think any network here could air it because of the language), many in Canada who work in and around politics are very familiar with the series, having found ways to view it. But as the BBC article notes, there hasn’t been a political drama television series produced in the UK since House of Cards.

The article posits two possible reasons for that. First, the UK public is too cynical about politics to warm to a political hero or anti-hero, and second, there exists a general ignorance of Westminster among writers.

Lord Michael Dodds, who wrote the novel House of Cards was based on, is quoted as saying “that awful word, ‘politics’” puts people off, while Dr Matthew Ashton, a lecturer in politics and media at Nottingham Trent University, explains:

“If you tried something like the American West Wing, which I think is still the gold standard for political TV – where you’ve got a very idealistic view of the presidency and the people who run it – over here, people would say politicians just aren’t like that, and I think they’d reject it.”

He may well have a point – there have been sufficient political scandals over the years, not least among them the expenses scandal, that have served only to further lower politics and politicians in the eyes of the general public. That is why political satire is probably more popular – it makes fun of politicians. It will be interesting to see how Borgen is received by the UK public – the lead character, Birgitte Nyborg, is likeable and optimistic.

The second reason advanced to explain the dearth of political drama does make a lot of sense. If most writers and those who commission scripts and proposals for television series are largely ignorant of the inner workings of Parliament, it isn’t something they’ll naturally think of writing about. House of Cards was based on a novel, external source material. There aren’t that many novels written about politics. Memoirs and other works of non-fiction yes, which can be turned into biographical pieces, but ultimately, these will focus on the whole life of the individual, not exclusively on their political life.

This made me wonder about Canadian television series about politics. After a bit of searching online, I have ended up with the following list:

  • Quentin Durgens, MP (1965-69)
  • Not My Department (1986)
  • In Opposition (1989)
  • Rideau Hall (2002)
  • Trudeau (2002)
  • H2O (2004)
  • Snakes and Ladders (2004)
  • DaVinci’s City Hall (2005)
  • Dan for Mayor (2010-11)

Of those programs, only one (Quentin Durgens, MP) seems to have been popular, lasting four season. Most of the others were short-lived, usually only one season. DaVinci’s City Hall was a spin-off of sorts of a very popular program (DaVinci’s Inquest), about a Vancouver chief coroner. In DaVinci’s City Hall, the coroner enters municipal politics, running for mayor. While the original program ran from 1998 to 2005 – hugely successful for a Canadian drama, the spin-off was cancelled after one season. It would seem Canadians like their coroners to stick with forensics and solving crimes, not running for office. Rideau Hall was a short-lived comedy series about an earthy, one-hit wonder disco queen named Regina Gallant who is recommended for appointment as Governor General by a conniving Prime Minister anticipating she will become a national embarrassment in the job, allowing him to move ahead in eliminating the position, along with the Canadian Monarchy. The series brought in fairly good ratings for the CBC and it was expected the show would be renewed for a second season; however, the show was cancelled after the Canadian Television Fund’s budget was cut by the federal government and CBC could only afford to keep its more popular shows. Snakes and Ladders, also a comedy, was about a woman who takes a job as an executive assistant for a cabinet minister, was critically acclaimed and won awards, but never got the viewership. Dan for Mayor, another sitcom, again focused on municipal politics in a small town. Not My Department was the CBC’s attempt at a Canadian version of the highly popular BBC series Yes Minister, but is described as “painful”. I couldn’t find much of anything about In Opposition. Trudeau is a mini-series based on the life of Prime Minister Pierre E. Trudeau and was one of the highest-rated Canadian television programs of the year, winning several awards. H2O is an original mini-series about a Prime Minister agreeing to a US plot to divert water from the Great Lakes.

Canadian programs face special challenges simply finding an audience, given the heavy competition from US programs, which all have much bigger budgets and much bigger names attached to them. Snakes and Ladders, by all accounts, was very good – but it never found an audience in its first (and only) season, and Canadian networks, in particular the CBC, don’t have the budget to stick with programs over the long-term and try to build an audience for them. Canadians did watch Trudeau, but that mini-series benefitted from its subject matter – Trudeau continues to both fascinate and irritate Canadians. H2O‘s popuarity was undoubtedly aided significantly by the fact that it starred Paul Gross, who also co-wrote the series. Plus it played to Canadians’ underlying suspicions about their neighbours to the south.

Is there an audience in Canada for good television drama (or comedy) about politics? We might soon get an answer to that question. The CBC is in the process of developing a six-part mini-series based on the most excellent novel, The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis (read my review here). If the series is well-received, then we’ll know that Canadians aren’t too cynical about politics to embrace a political hero. Sadly, we’ll have to wait until probably some time in 2013 to find out.

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The debate on Scotland indepedence heats up

Debate on the issue of independence for Scotland has heated up again this past week in the United Kingdom.

On Tuesday (10 January), the Government launched its consultation on “facilitating a legal, fair and decisive referendum on whether Scotland should leave the United Kingdom”, which you can download here.

The “legal” bit seems to be the crux of the matter here. I am not a constitutional expert by any stretch of the imagination, and so I won’t attempt to weigh in with my own opinion on the matter; rather, I will share with you what others far more knowledgeable than I have to say.

To summarize, the issue appears whether the Scottish Parliament can legally deliver its manifesto commitment to hold a referendum. According to the UK Government:

The Scottish Parliament only has power to legislate on matters that are devolved and has no power to legislate on matters that are reserved to the UK Parliament. The Union of the Kingdoms of Scotland and England is one of those reserved matters. In our view legislation for a referendum brought forward by the Scottish Government would likely be challenged in court and the Scottish Government would lose.

This will sound somewhat familiar to many Canadians. Just as Canada’s Constitution Act, 1867, set out the powers of the Parliament of Canada and those of Provincial legislatures (sections 91 and 92), the Scotland Act 1998 contains a list of matters that are within the jurisdiction of the Scottish Parliament, i.e. not reserved. That is essentially the power to make laws in relation to matters of health, education , transport, policing and justice. All other matters are reserved, to the UK Parliament, including the Union of the Kingdoms of Scotland and England. Canada has this as well – the Constitution stipulates that residuary powers are the jurisdiction of the Parliament of Canada:

The Constitution Acts, 1867 to 1982, s. 91, confer on the Federal Parliament the power ” to make Laws for the Peace, Order and good Government of Canada, in relation to all Matters not coming within the Classes of Subjects by this Act assigned exclusively to the Legislatures of the Provinces“. This power is “residuary” in the sense that any matter that does not come within the power of provincial legislatures comes within the power of the federal Parliament. This residuary power ensures that every area of legislation comes under one or both of Canada’s two orders of government.

Since, in the opinion of the UK Government, any unilateral move towards a referendum by Scotland would be illegal, the Government is proposing passing legislation that would give the Scottish Parliament the power to deliver a referendum, but with a few strings attached – the question would have to be a straightforward simple question asking Scots if they want Scotland to be independent, yes or no, and the referendum would have to take place within eighteen months of the bill’s passing.

This isn’t what the Scottish Nationalist Party is proposing. The SNP also originally stated that the referendum would be held around 2015, but this week, Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond announced it would be held in the fall of 2014, with full details to be released later this month. The SNP are open to a two-part question, one asking about outright independence, and a second proposing increased financial powers for the Scottish government short of full independence, which has been dubbed “devolution max” or “devo max”. This is viewed as a gradualist approach to independence, a tactic which should be familiar to Canadians since the Parti Québécois has frequently endorsed such an approach for Quebec (called “étapisme”).

It is clear that the Canadian experience with the Quebec sovereignty debate is well-known in the UK. On Wednesday (11 January), during Questions, the Rt. Hon. Michael Moore, the Secretary of State for Scotland, engaged in the following exchange:

Iain Stewart:The House of Commons Library has given me strong evidence to show that the economies of Quebec and Canada as a whole suffered in the 1990s due to constitutional uncertainty. For the sake of jobs in Scotland and England, does my right hon. Friend agree that the last thing we need is a prolonged period of constitutional uncertainty, and that the First Minister should stop playing politics and get on with it?

Michael Moore: My hon. Friend is correct to point to that independent analysis and the experience of Quebec and the rest of Canada. It is vital that the economic uncertainty we now face because of the referendum is resolved, which is why we have brought forward proposals to make the referendum legal, fair and decisive. I want it to happen as soon as possible.

Later that day, during Prime Minister’s Questions, David Cameron also made it clear the UK has no desire to repeat Canada’s experience:

Edward Miliband:I want to ask the Prime Minister about Scotland. We on this side of the House believe that the United Kingdom benefits the people of Scotland and the people of the rest of the United Kingdom in equal measure. We are stronger together and weaker apart. Does he agree that we must make the case for the Union—not simply a case against separatism, but the positive case about the shared benefits to us all of Scotland’s part in the United Kingdom: the shared economic interests, the shared institutions such as the NHS, the defence forces and the BBC, and above all the shared values we hold together?

The Prime Minister: I am happy to say that this is an area where the right hon. Gentleman and I will be in 100% agreement. I passionately believe in the future of our United Kingdom, and passionately believe that we are stronger together than we would be by breaking apart. Frankly, I am sad that we are even having this debate, because I support the United Kingdom so strongly, but we have to respect the fact that Scotland voted for a separatist party in the Scottish parliamentary elections, so the first thing that it is right to do is make clear the legal position about a referendum, which is what my right hon. Friend the Scottish Secretary has been doing. We have made the offer to devolve the power to hold that referendum so that it can be made in Scotland and held in Scotland. Frankly, I look forward to having the debate, because I think that too many in the Scottish National party have been happy to talk about the process but, do not want to talk about the substance. I sometimes feel when I listen to them that it is not a referendum they want, but a “neverendum”. Let us have the debate, and let us keep our country together.

Edward Miliband:May I agree with the Prime Minister? This is not a fight about process between the Westminster Government and the Scottish Government, or between the British Prime Minister and the Scottish First Minister. The way to tackle this issue is to have immediate cross-party talks in Scotland about the timing of the referendum, the nature of the single-question referendum and the vital involvement of the Electoral Commission. Does the Prime Minister also agree with me that we need as soon as possible, as he said, to get beyond process and have that discussion about the substantive issues? This is a momentous decision that our children and grandchildren will have to live with if we get it wrong, so we need a serious, thoughtful and inclusive debate about the choices and the benefits to Scotland of staying in the United Kingdom. On this important issue, the people of our country deserve nothing less than that serious debate about the benefits of the United Kingdom.

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman is right on those three points. On the process of negotiation, which is very important now, particularly given that the SNP has come out and made more clear what it wants to do, I am very happy for the UK Government and the Westminster Parliament to speak directly to the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament, and let us come to a conclusion about the best time and the best way to hold the referendum. But it must be clear, it must be legal, it must be decisive and it must be fair. Those are the absolute keys. I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman: as soon as those process questions are settled, we need to get on to the substance. [ Interruption. ] The only point I would make about the timing—[ Interruption. ] As SNP Members, who cannot seem to keep quiet, are so keen to leave the United Kingdom, I do not quite understand why they want to put off putting the question for so long.

As stated at the outset, I am not a constitution expert, and so I will leave you with some links to articles, columns, etc., written by people with far more expertise.

1. Alex Massie has written a good introduction to the issue for the Daily Beast.

2. The Constitution Unit’s Robert Hazell writes that David Cameron might regret taking this all or nothing approach, while Barry Winetrobe asks what “Union” is everyone fighting over?

3. The Guardian does a reality check on whether the UK Government has the power to dictate terms of a referendum.

4. The New Scotsman asks if David Cameron is right to fear an “independence bandwagon”.

5. Some Q&As on the issue: from the BBC and from the Telegraph.

6. Françoise Boucek warns that, based on Canada’s experience, the campaign for Scottish independence will be long and attritional.

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On candidate selection

Recently, a Canadian Member of Parliament elected as a member of the New Democratic Party (NDP) from the province of Quebec announced that she was crossing the floor to join the Liberal Party. The MP, Ms. St-Denis, explained that she found herself increasingly disagreeing with the positions the NDP were espousing in the House of Commons, and more in agreement with the positions taken by the Liberals.

In this instance, no one can accuse Ms. St-Denis of political opportunism. The NDP is currently the Official Opposition in Ottawa, while the Liberals, historically Canada’s most successful political party, were reduced to third party status in the last federal election. Ms. St-Denis joining their caucus increases the party’s seat total to 35.

More interesting, perhaps, was the reaction on various blogs, Twitter and other online forums. NDP bloggers immediately dismissed her as a “nobody” joining a dying party – good riddance. Many also decried her actions as “undemocratic”, a betrayal of what her constituents wanted and had voted for, and challenged her to resign her seat and seek re-election as a Liberal. Others called for a ban on floor-crossing.

However, as Graham Fox, the President of the Institute for Research on Public Policy, noted on Twitter:

“The logic behind banning floor-crossing would also mean that leaders should not have the power to throw MPs out of caucus.

If we don’t want MPs to have the ability to “violate the voters’ decisions”, why would we allo party leaders to have that power?”

He added in French (translation mine):

“Bien que chocantes, les defections politiques ne sont pas necessairement anti-demo, et rappellent que les partis ne comptent pas pour tout.” (While upsetting, political defections aren’t always undemocratic and remind us that political parties don’t count for everything.)

In response to that, @jesse_helmer replied:

“I have trouble squaring calls for reform that would weaken part [sic] discipline with opposition to switching parties.”

These are important points. If you support the idea that MPs should have more independence – for example, if you would prefer to see fewer whipped votes in the Canadian House of Commons (almost all votes are whipped), if you would like to see an end to scripted questions during Question Period, and MPs, especially backbenchers, free to ask whatever questions they want, even if it embarrasses their party, if you would like to see an end to party whips controlling who sits on committees, etc., then it makes little sense to support banning floor-crossing, which is probably the ultimate freedom an MP has to voice his or her disagreement with the direction in which their party is moving.

Similarly, if you argue that it is “undemocratic” for an MP to cross the floor because he or she was elected as a member of that particular party, then it is equally undemocratic for a party leader to kick an MP out of caucus and force them to sit as an independent, since that would also be going against what voters had voted for.

I have previously written about some of the main arguments for and against floor crossing, and so I won’t repeat myself in detail here. The question you have to ask yourself is what is the role of an MP? Is it simply someone who toes the party line no matter what and votes as they are told to vote on every given issue, or do we want MPs to use their own judgement, analyze each issue and vote as they see best, even if that includes deciding that they no longer agree with their party, or that their party’s positions aren’t in the best interest of their constituents?

There is another issue at play here, however, one that has been largely overlooked. The last election, the one which saw Ms. St-Denis elected, happened only recently, in May 2011. In a column from La Presse, Vincent Marissal writes that Ms. St-Denis is apparently one of four new NDP MPs from Quebec who aren’t entirely happy being NDP MPs, but whether the other three will quit the party may depend on the outcome of the current NDP Leadership contest:

Pourrait-il y avoir d’autres défections? C’est douteux pour le moment mais, à Ottawa, des néo-démocrates ont laissé entendre que Mme St-Denis «était l’une des quatre députés» susceptibles de quitter le bateau. À suivre, surtout si Thomas Mulcair mord la poussière dans la course à la direction. (translation: “Could there be more defections? It’s doubtful at the moment, but in Ottawa, the New Democrats hinted that Ms. St-Denis “was one of four MPs” susceptible of jumping ship. This is to follow, especially if Thomas Mulcair bites the dust in the leadership race.”)

Many people have been asking why she ran for the NDP in the first place, when she clearly seems to be more of a Liberal in terms of policy positions. Ms. St-Denis admits that she ran not expecting to be elected, which was a safe-enough assumption on her part. Historically, the NDP has never won more than a few seats at any one time in the province of Quebec, and the party didn’t have much of an organization (or many members) in that province. However, the May 2011 election saw some seismic changes in Canada’s political landscape, most notably the demise of the pro-independence Bloc Québécois (reduced from 47 seats to 4 seats). The BQ’s support largely went to the NDP, which had gone into that election with one MP from Quebec and emerged after the election with 59 of the province’s 75 seats.

Because, historically, the NDP never expected to win many seats in Quebec, they often ran placeholder candidates in many of the ridings. These candidates are often chosen at the last minute, and may not be very well vetted since the party is mostly focused on being able to say they are running a full slate of candidates. The NDP isn’t the only party to do this, of course, and most of the time, there’s no chance that these candidates will win. But sometimes they do win, and the party finds itself with new MPs who may not be fully committed to the party and its policies.

Another factor is that there is strong evidence that a lot of the former BQ voters in Quebec who turned to the NDP weren’t really voting for the party per se, but for its leader, Jack Layton, who passed away this summer. Mr. Layton was extremely popular and quite well known in Quebec – more popular and better known than his party and its policies, it’s probably fair to say. Ms. St-Denis acknowledged that, saying people in her riding had voted not for the NDP but for Jack Layton, and Layton was dead, implying that her move from the NDP to the Liberals didn’t really matter because voters hadn’t really voted for the NDP and its policies.

And it’s also fair to say that the NDP’s policies never really received much media attention. Since 1993, the NDP has been the 4th party in the House of Commons, which meant that media attention was largely focused on the parties (and policies of the parties) which had a real chance of forming the government: the Liberals and Reform/Canadian Alliance/Conservatives. That they finished second in the May 2011 election, becoming the Official Opposition for the first time in the party’s history, caught almost everyone off-guard. Late in the election campaign, when it became increasingly clear that something was going on, both the media and the other parties were left scrambling – the media trying to figure what the NDP stood for, and the other parties what to attack them on. Therefore it really shouldn’t come as a surprise if some of the people who ran for the NDP in Quebec, never expecting to win, weren’t that familiar with what the party actually stood for – some of them didn’t even campaign at all in the ridings in which they were candidates.

As I have written repeatedly, in various posts, the Canadian House of Commons is already extremely whipped, with MPs already quite subservient to their party leadership (particularly in contrast with MPs from the UK). Party discipline does not need to be strengthened in the Canadian House of Commons, if anything, anyone interested in political reform should be looking at ways of weakening the power of party whips and party leadership, and giving MPs more freedom to carry out their roles and obligations as individual Members. Banning floor crossing runs counter to increasing MP independence. More attention should also be given to candidate selection. Parties should focus less on trying to run full slates and more on the quality of their candidates. Perhaps the phasing out of the vote subsidy will force some parties at least to do just this because they won’t have the financial resources to run a full slate, and there won’t be any financial incentive to have a warm body on every ballot. In the end, perhaps that will be a good thing.


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No backbench rebellions, please, we’re Canadians

There has been much media focus in the United Kingdom over the numerous government backbench rebellions among both Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs since May 2010. This is regularly monitored on the website. By September 2011, the number of Coalition Commons rebellions so far this Parliament stood at 150, a rebellion rate of a rebellion in 44% of votes. Sixty-six of those rebellions involved Liberal Democrat MPs, a rate of a rebellion in 19% of votes. More recently, Mark Pack took a closer look at the Liberal Democrat rebellions, and provided quite a few interesting statistics which you can read here.

I have previously written that such large scale rebellions are practically unheard of in the Canadian House of Commons. After reading Mr. Pack’s piece, I decided to try to cobble together some statistics from Canada, using information provided by the How’d They Vote website as my starting place. (Note: How’d They Vote closed down in late 2012. I have removed the link to the website for that reason.)

Because the focus of How’d They Vote is not MP rebellions, trying to collate figures comparable to those from the UK isn’t easy. The current Parliament began in June 2011 and, to date, there have been only two MPs who have voted against their party – neither of them Government MPs. I decided to focus on the previous Parliament, which ran from 18 November 2008 to 26 March 2011 and was a hung Parliament with a Conservative minority government. There were a total of three sessions during the 40th Parliament: the first lasted only 13 sitting days (18 November 2008 to 4 December 2008) and had no recorded divisions. The second session ran from 26 January 2009 to 30 December 2009, while the third session met from 3 March 2010 to 26 March 2011.

How’d They Vote does provide information on the number of times MPs “dissent” from their parties on votes. For example, during the 2nd session of the 40th Parliament, 116 MPs1 (out of 308) dissented at least once. Of those 116, 59 dissented only once, and 36 dissented twice, leaving 21 MPs having dissented more than twice. Two dissented 5 times, five dissented 4 times, and 14 three times. The 3rd session was even more “rebellious” with 169 MPs dissenting at least once. Of those, 85 dissented once, 38 dissented twice, 18 three times, 9 four times, one MP five times, another 6 times, two MPs dissented 11 times each, nine dissented 12 times, two 13 times, another two 14 times, one 15 times and one 16 times.

But upon closer examination of these votes, these “rebellions” occurred only on votes on Private Members’ bills. I have a bit of a problem considering these votes “dissensions” since (in theory at least), votes on private Members’ bills and motions are not supposed to be whipped votes, so there isn’t (in theory at least) a party position to vote for or against. Members are supposed to cast their vote based on the merits of the individual bill. Private Members’ bills rarely get more than second reading, therefore there is little danger (at least in theory) of MPs voting in favour of them at second reading or report stage. If the Government doesn’t like the bill, it will simply ensure that it dies on the Order Paper. Votes on Private Members’ bills are supposed to be free votes, thus making “dissent” (or rebellion) impossible since there is nothing to rebel against. The fact that such votes are considered “dissent” only serves to illustrate how pervasive the use of the whip is in the Canadian House of Commons.

If we focus only on the votes on Government bills, since what we are trying to assess here is how rebellious are Government backbench MPs, the picture is very different. There were 63 Government bills introduced in the 2nd session, and 60 in the 3rd. Of the 63 Government bills introduced in 40-2, only 22 had recorded divisions at at least one stage of their progress through the House (several had several divisions). That number falls to 15 for Government bills in the 3rd session.

Looking at the data for every single recorded division on Government bills in both the second and third sessions, there was not a single Government backbench MP who voted against his or her party.

Nor did any opposition MP break ranks with their party during divisions on Government bills and motions.

Granted, on some votes, there were a fair number of MPs who were absent for the vote, but it isn’t possible to know if this was because they disagreed with their party’s position or for some other reason.

Simply put, party discipline reigns supreme, and Canadian MPs toe the party line.


1How’d They Vote lists 117 MPs as having dissented during the 2nd session of the 40th Parliament because they include Peter Milliken in the list of MPs. Milliken was Speaker of the House of Commons in the 40th Parliament, and of course, the Speaker does not vote except in the event of a tie, and then exercises the casting vote. There are parliamentary conventions in place which govern how a Speaker should vote in such instances, and thus Milliken’s vote cannot be considered a “dissenting” vote since he was not voting for or against any party position, but rather as per parliamentary convention concerning the casting vote. Consequently, I have not included Speaker Milliken in the above discussion.


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Recall of MPs draft bill: some concerns

The UK Coalition government has presented to Parliament a draft bill on the recall of MPs.

As I have previously written, there is currently only one Commonwealth jurisdiction which has recall legislation in place, and that is the Canadian province of British Columbia. You can read about BC’s recall legislation in this post.

The UK government is proposing something far more limited. Recall of an MP would be triggered in one of two ways:

  • An MP is convicted in the UK of an offence and receives a custodial sentence of 12 months or less; or
  • the House of Commons resolves that an MP should face recall for “serious wrongdoing”.

There are caveats to the above. For example, detention on remand or solely on mental health grounds would not trigger a recall petition. Convictions outside the UK would not trigger recall under the first condition, but could be taken into account by the House under the second condition.

If either one of the above two conditions is met, the Speaker would then notify the returning officer in the MP’s constituency that a petition is to be opened.

The petition may be signed by constituents if they are on the electoral register on the first day of the signing period or the day on which they sign. The petition will be opened two weeks after the receipt of the Speaker’s notice and the petition available for signature for eight weeks. The petition would have to be signed by at least 10% of registered voters in that constituency. If that threshold is achieved, the MP’s seat will be automatically vacated and a by-election called. The recalled MP could seek re-election in the by-election, unless they no longer meet the eligibility criteria for candidacy.

The White Paper accompanying the draft bill is lengthy – 100 pages, and I admit that I have not yet read through the entire document. However, I do have some immediate questions concerning what has been proposed.

Regarding the first condition that would trigger a recall petition, an MP being convicted in the UK of an offence and receives a custodial sentence of 12 months or less, this is in the draft bill to address a perceived shortcoming of the Representation of the People Act 1981, which only disqualifies MPs who receive custodial sentences of more than 12 months. My question is this: why not simply amend the Representation of the People Act 1981 to close this loophole and have MPs disqualified for any custodial sentence, as per the caveats outlined in the draft bill?

Regarding the petition process itself, I think the 10% signature threshold is far too low. I would increase that to at the very least what British Columbia requires – 40%. Ideally, I would prefer to see that a majority of registered voters in the constituency want the MP recalled.

The White Paper states that recall shouldn’t be triggered for “purely political” reasons, but only where an MP’s conduct falls below the standards expected of those elected to public office, however, if only 10% of registered voters need to sign the petition to disqualify the MP, it could become a very partisan affair. For example, if the MP in question was a Labour MP, there could be a concerted effort by non-Labour supporters in that constituency to get the required number of signatures purely in the hope that a different party might succeed in winning the seat in the by-election. Setting the threshold higher, say at BC’s 40% would greatly safeguard against such partisan activity. And in a more general sense, what if, at the close of the eight-week signing period, a petition ends up signed by 23% of registered voters? That means 77% of registered voters didn’t sign the petition. Surely the fact that an overwhelming majority of registered voters did not sign a recall petition should matter more than the fact that a minority did sign it?

Also, unlike the recall petition process in British Columbia, voters themselves will not be able to initiate a recall petition. The petition will be triggered either by the MP receiving a jail sentence, or by the House of Commons itself. Voters will only be able to confirm if they want their MP recalled once one of those two conditions occurs.

There is also no definition of what would constitute “serious wrongdoing”. The White Paper acknowledges that any statutory definition of “serious wrongdoing” would be “limited in scope and open to interpretation by the courts” and that it would require updating on a regular basis. Therefore, no formal definition is provided, which to me seems to be as problematic as trying to define “serious wrongdoing”.

You can download the PDF of the draft bill and White Paper here:

The House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform committee has issued a call for evidence on the Government’s proposals, with a deadline for receiving submissions of 30 January 2012. The press release from Cabinet Office is here.

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Some Interesting Links

Blogging has been and will continue to be rather light over the next few weeks due to other pressing demands that arise during the holiday season. However, I do want to share a few interesting links with readers.

1. Codifying the UK Constitution

Last year, the UK House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee launched an inquiry into Mapping the path to codifying – or not codifying – the UK’s Constitution. On 8 December 2011, a fourth hearing took place, with the following individuals appearing as witnesses:

  • Rt Hon Tony Benn, former parliamentarian
  • Richard Gordon QC
  • Frank Vibert, Department of Government, London School of Economics

It was a fascinating discussion, and you can watch it in its entirety here.

2. Constitutional Crisis in Papua New Guinea

At the time of writing this, Papua New Guinea (PNG) finds itself with two Governors General, two Prime Ministers, two cabinets and two police commissioners. The Australian provides a good backgrounder to how this situation came about here. Australian and New Zealand media seem to be covering the story quite well. For anyone on Twitter, you may be interested in following @Tavurvur, who has been tweeting regular updates about the crisis. He also blogs.

3. Canada’s Governor General

The Walrus magazine has an interesting, in-depth profile of Canada’s current Governor General, His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston. The article also contains quite a bit of information about the post of Governor General.

4. Changing the Rules of Royal Succession: Committee Report

As I have previously mentioned, the UK Political and Constitutional Reform committee conducted an inquiry into changing the rules of royal succession. The Committee’s report was released on 7 December 2011, and you can read it online here.

5. Call for Evidence: Recall of MPs

The UK Coalition Government has put forward a draft bill on the recall of MPs. The House of Commons Political and Constitution Reform committee is examining the Government’s proposals and is soliciting public input. If you are interested in putting forward your views in the draft bill, please read this page for how to proceed. The deadline for submissions is 30 January 2012. You do not have to be a resident of the UK to comment.  (For more information what is a draft bill, you may want to read this post.) The Canadian province of British Columbia is the only Canadian jurisdiction which has recall legislation in place, as I discussed in this post.

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Thoughts on “Saving the House of Commons”

Aaron Wherry of Canada’s Maclean’s magazine recently wrote a blog post proposing a series of reforms to “save” the House of Commons. Some I have previously discussed on this blog, such as changes to Question Period. Readers proposed other reforms and ideas the comments. I thought I would offer my own thoughts on some of what was proposed.

1. Wherry proposed amending section 67 of the Elections Act “to remove the requirement that any candidate wishing to run for a party must have the signature of that party’s leader to do so”.

This is not something I have looked at or considered to any extensive degree, but on the surface, I don’t have any issues with it. I think it would complement open primaries very nicely.

2. Reform of Question Period as per the changes suggested by MP Michael Chong (fortify the use of discipline by the Speaker; lengthen the amount of time given for each question and answer; allocate half the questions each day for Members, whose names and order of recognition would be randomly selected; dedicate Wednesday exclusively for questions to the Prime Minister; dedicate Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday for questions to other ministers).

I have written many posts about Question Period in the Canadian House of Commons and in favour of adopting a format more akin to that used in the UK House of Commons (see this one, for example). Chong’s proposals are based on the UK model, but don’t go far enough. Rather than simply lengthening the amount of time for each question and answer, do away with time limits completely. The UK House of Commons had a target quota for questions – if a ministry gets the full one-hour of questions to itself, the target is 25 questions and answers (note, that’s a minimum). Rather than allocate “half the questions each day for Members … randomly selected”, make it completely open to all MPs. If only one ministry is up for questioning at a time (rather than the whole cabinet as is currently the case), of course each opposition party’s critic for that portfolio will be present, but they certainly shouldn’t be entitled to half of the questions. Any MP should be free to ask questions (non-scripted), including MPs from the government party. There could certainly be a dedicated PMQs on Wednesday, but that doesn’t mean that there couldn’t also be questions to a ministry that day as well. In the UK, one of the smaller departments gets a half hour of questions before the half hour dedicated to PMQs. The same could be done in Ottawa.

Side note to this, as I’ve repeatedly stated, adopting a UK-version of Questions would only work if we also adopted Urgent Questions and revamped Ministerial Statements.

3. Wherry proposes getting rid of Members’ statements.

For those who aren’t familiar with this proceeding, Members’ statements is a daily occurrence which precedes Question Period and lasts 15 minutes. During this time, backbenchers have a minute to make a statement on any topic of their choosing. Normally, this is used to promote an event in their riding, or to bring attention to the achievements of a person or school or organization, etc., in their riding. Increasingly, however, these statements are used to make partisan attacks on other parties or politicians, which is contrary to the rules. I’d have no issue with getting rid of Members’ Statements.

4. No reading of speeches during debates.

As Wherry notes, the rules already prohibit the reading of speeches and has been in place since Confederation.  The purpose of this rule, is quite simple: it exists to maintain the cut and thrust of debate, which depends upon the speeches of successive speakers referencing the arguments of previous speakers to some extent. If this rule is ignored, debate becomes nothing more than a series of set speeches prepared beforehand without reference to each other. However, as we learn in House of Commons Procedure and Practice (pp. 607-8), by 1886, it was clear that the convention was often being ignored, which prompted the House to adopt a resolution condemning the very prevalent practice of Members reading their speeches. Little changed, however, and several Speakers addressed the issue in statements to the House and rulings against the practice of reading speeches. The 1956 statement by Speaker Beaudoin remains the definitive statement on established practice in the House of Commons:

A Member addressing the House may refer to notes. The Prime Minister, the cabinet ministers, the Leader of the Opposition, the leaders of other parties or Members speaking on their behalf, may read important policy speeches. New Members may read their [maiden] speeches. The Members speaking in a language other than their mother tongue, the Members speaking in debates involving matters of a technical nature, or in debates on the Address in Reply to the Speech from the Throne and on the Budget may use full notes or, if they wish, read their speeches.

The use of extensive notes, even prepared notes, by Members delivering their remarks is still prevalent in the House of Commons and the Chair has been disinclined to insist that Members not read their speeches. This is in sharp contrast to what transpires in the UK, where you never see anyone reading from texts. In the UK House of Commons, the principle has been quite strongly reinforced by recommendations of the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons, which recommended, among other things, that Members who wished to take part in a debate should be in the House to hear the opening speeches, and if not, they should not expect to be called upon to participate. If they were called, they should make some effort to respond to and reference previous speeches before pursuing their own line of argument, and remain in the Chamber after they’d finished speaking to listen to at least two more speeches in order to ascertain the reaction to their own comments. Speakers regularly reinforce the views of the Committee in a letter to Members.

Debate in the UK House of Commons perhaps also benefits from the fact that there aren’t any time limits on speeches (unlike in Canada), and because of the practice of giving way, while in the Canadian House of Commons, we have Questions and Comments. As well, found that many MPs are told at the last minute that they are to speak in a debate and are given prepared texts by the party whips to read. This certainly doesn’t help the situation.

5. Requiring justification for the use of time allocation and/or closure

One of the fundamental principles of parliamentary procedure is that debate in the House of Commons must lead to a decision within a reasonable period of time. While the political parties in the House may disagree on what a ‘reasonable period’ might be, they would all agree that eventually, debate must end and the House must decide a matter. Therefore, time allocation and closure motions do have their place; the problem is that they are often used to avoid debate and scrutiny. Therefore I don’t have any real objections to what Wherry proposes: require a Minister “to provide justification for the curtailment of debate; the Speaker would be required to refuse such a request in the interest of protecting the duty of MPs to examine legislation thoroughly, unless the government’s justification sufficiently outweighed said duty; criteria would be set out for assessing the government’s justification, which would provide the Speaker with the basis for a decision to allow for the curtailment of debate.”

6.  The Aucoin/Turnbull/Jarvis reforms

I admit to being less familiar with these proposals, which Wherry sumarizes thusly: “Codify the following: that elections occur every four years on a specific date unless a majority of two-thirds of MPs approve a motion to dissolve Parliament for a new election; that  the opposition can only bring down the government via an explicit motion of non-confidence that also identifies the member who would replace the prime minister and would form a new government that has the support of a majority of MPs in the House; and that the consent of a two-thirds majority of the House of Commons be required to prorogue Parliament.”

This sounds somewhat similar to what the UK recently adopted with its Fixed-Term Parliaments Act. That Act fixes elections at every five years and stipulates that while a motion of confidence in the Government will still require the current 50%+1 to pass, this now won’t automatically trigger the dissolution of Parliament. There will now be a 14-day period to see if a new Government can be formed which will command the confidence of the House. If no alternative Government emerges, then Parliament would be dissolved. If the House wanted to dissolve Parliament before the 5-year term was up without recourse to a motion of non-confidence as described above, this would require a majority of tw0-thirds of MPs to approve a motion to dissolve Parliament.

I am not a strong supporter of fixed-term parliaments. I am not convinced that they solve the problems they are supposed to address, and I do think that they create new problems while exacerbating others. I do like the UK changes re: non-confidence motions not automatically leading to the dissolution of Parliament, and I don’t have objections per se to requiring a super-majority vote in favour of a motion to dissolve Parliament before the usual end of a parliamentary term. I don’t think a motion of non-confidence would need to identify “the name of the member who would replace the prime minister and would form a new government”.

Ultimately, it is only the House of Commons itself which can initiate any sort of change in how it conducts its business. Also, a lot of the issues these suggestions are meant to address could be “fixed” by the political parties themselves if they simply decided to ease up on their control of their own members. It is interesting to see these issues debated in the media since it means that many Canadians are concerned about the health of their democratic institutions. The question is – do our politicians share this concern?

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Christina Blizzard doesn’t get coalition

I was hoping, in the wake of the formation of the UK Coalition government in 2010, that Canadian political journalists and columnists would perhaps follow events in the UK a bit more closely (or at all) and maybe even occasionally write about how the Coalition was getting along, if only to provide a contrast to how things were here in Canada during the previous minority government situation.

Alas, that didn’t happen, and there is rarely any coverage of UK politics even in the “international” sections of our media. However, the rare times UK Coalition is mentioned, it is inevitably in a negative light – as something that Canadians should well avoid. And usually, the person writing the article simply doesn’t seem to understand how coalition government works.

The latest example of that is a column from Christina Blizzard with the absolutely bizarre title “We don’t want our politicians getting along“. Ms. Blizzard covers politics in the Canadian province of Ontario, where the most recent election (6 October 2011) resulted in a hung parliament and a minority Liberal government. During the campaign, the Liberals had made it very clear that they would not enter into any coalition or other arrangement with other parties, while the Progressive Conservatives tried to scare voters by claiming that this was exactly what the Liberals were planning to do. As I’ve previously discussed on this blog, coalition has become a very bad word here in Canada.

Ms. Blizzard’s column is not going to help matters here in Canada since she seems to fail to understand the point of a coalition, and how one measures its success (or failure). If I read her correctly, Blizzard postulates that coalitions are to be avoided/don’t work because 1) voters really don’t want parties to work together; 2) the only time coalitions do work is during times of war and 3) the junior party in the coalition usually suffers in the polls. Let’s look at some of her claims in more detail.

The truth is that politicians don’t get along.

Nor should they. They’re elected to represent the differing interests and views of the diverse communities across this province.

That’s why I believe the proposed federal coalition of opposition parties before the last election was doomed from the start.

It is true that voters have different priorities, which is why they vote for and elect MPs from different parties. Does this mean, however, that voters don’t want politicians to try to find common ground and work together? The reality is that the ideological differences between the major political parties in both Canada and the UK grow smaller all the time as parties on the left and right try to appeal to the political centre in order to broaden their appeal with larger numbers of voters. To try to argue that our political parties divide on hardcore ideological differences which make cooperation impossible ignores this reality. The fact that no party in the recent Ontario election managed to win an outright majority of seats doesn’t mean that voters want a political stalemate; rather it means that voters weren’t sold completely on any one party’s platform and instead want the parties to address the issues facing the province together to try to find workable solutions.

Ms. Blizzard makes a reference to the failed coalition attempt at the federal level in 2008. I do agree with her that it was doomed from the start, but not because politicians don’t get along, or because they represent differing interests and views. The proposed Liberal-NDP coalition failed because 1) the coalition would have been led by a politician who had already announced that he was stepping down as his party’s leader because of their dismal showing in the October 2008 election; and 2) the Liberals and NDP together still did not command a majority of seats in the House of Commons, which is why they needed a supply-confidence agreement with the pro-Quebec independence party, the Bloc Quebecois. These are exactly the same reasons why a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition wouldn’t have worked in the UK in May 2010. A Lib-Lab coalition would have been led by a political leader who knew he was a liability and had agreed to step down and the two parties together did not have a majority of seats in the House of Commons – they would have had to depend on support from all the minority parties in the House of Commons, including the nationalist Welsh and Scottish parties. In both cases, this was simply an undesirable situation best avoided, but not for the reasons Ms. Blizzard puts forward, that politicians inherently don’t get along and shouldn’t.

Coalitions only work in wartime.

This is quite obviously patent nonsense. Most countries in Europe have coalition governments – they work just fine during peace time. New Zealand has had coalition governments since it changed its voting system in 1996, and those governments have functioned just fine. Perhaps Ms. Blizzard is referring to the fact that the UK and Canada have very limited experience with coalition government, and that experience has been largely (but not solely) limited to national unity coalitions during wartime. However, she doesn’t specify that this only what she is talking about. Some Canadian provinces have had coalition governments while the country was not at war, and they functioned fine. The most recent example was the NDP-Liberal coalition in Saskatchewan that was formed after the 1999 election. There is some truth to the argument that coalition governments can be more factious because they have to find common ground between sometimes rather disparate partners, but you can hardly argue that single party government always functions well. Evidence in the UK is that the coalition government is functioning far more smoothly than did the previous Labour government, with far less friction between key players in both parties than there was between key figures in the Labour party.

At other times, they spell political suicide to whichever party props up the government.

Here Ms. Blizzard seems to miss an important point: there is no party “propping up the government” in a coalition – all the parties in the coalition ARE the government. And in countries were coalitions are the normal, expected outcome of a general election, being in a coalition does not spell political suicide for any of the smaller parties because no party expects to govern on its own.

You need only look to the U.K. to see how a coalition can be death to a political party.

Liberal-Democrat Party leader Nick Clegg was the golden boy of politics during last year’s British election. The mercurial rise in popularity of the impressive young politician gave him the balance of power in a minority government.

Here Ms. Blizzard makes a fundamental error which makes me question her ability to write about politics. The Liberal Democrats (not hyphenated, I would like to point out to Ms. Blizzard) and Nick Clegg did not have “the balance of power in a minority government” – they held the balance of power in a hung (minority) Parliament. The very fact that Ms. Blizzard is confusing a Parliament with a government doesn’t bode well for her credibility as a political commentator.

He agreed to a coalition — and he’s now David Cameron’s deputy prime minister.

So he’s being held just as accountable for the unpopular cuts Cameron’s Tories are being forced to make as is the government.

Ms. Blizzard again demonstrates her complete lack of understanding of how coalition government works when she states: “he’s being held just as accountable for the unpopular cuts Cameron’s Tories are being forced to make as is the government.” Why is she making some sort of distinction between the Lib Dems and “the government”? Of course Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems are being held just as accountable for the economic cuts and other policies the government has brought forward – they are part of the government.

The government is not the Conservative Party, it is a Conservative-Liberal Democrat government. The two parties form the government. The Lib Dems are not separate from the government, this isn’t a minority Conservative government with supply-confidence support from the Lib Dems. It is not only Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg who got a cabinet post – there are four other Lib Dem ministers, as well as a number of Lib Dem secretaries of state. They work side by side with the ministers from the Conservative Party. They sit at the cabinet table. Decisions and policies are made by both parties working together. Both parties will be held accountable accordingly.

Clegg’s in a no-win situation, and it could spell the demise of the Lib-Dems.

How will he define his party next election when, in the eyes of voters, he’s one and the same as the Conservatives?

I will acknowledge that this is a special challenge for the Lib Dems, and one that is generating a fair degree of speculation in the UK media concerning possible electoral pacts in the 2015 election (see this post in the Specator, for example). However, this is primarily due to the fact that the UK has very limited experience with coalition government, and because of this, neither the parties nor the general public, really know how to react to and deal with this reality. It isn’t a failure of coalition government, but of the UK’s lack of experience with coalition government. This is much less of an issue in countries where coalition government is the norm, not some weird exception or crazy experiment.

A coalition government’s success or failure is not contingent upon the popularity or unpopularity of its constituent members, but on whether or not it governs effectively. Yes, the Lib Dems’ poll numbers have dropped since the May 2010 election, but the party expected that to happen. And I don’t think it’s a mistake to say that their numbers have dropped not because they’re in a coalition per se, but because they’re in a coalition with the Conservatives. A lot of Lib Dem supporters are more favourable to the Labour Party and were quite dismayed with the party entered into a coalition with the much-hated Tories. Again, this can’t be said to be a failure of coalition government in and of itself.

All in all, another very disappointing commentary on coalition government from a Canadian journalist.

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Youth Voter Participation in the May 2011 Canada General Election

In an earlier post, I looked at the main reasons put forward by the 7.5 million eligible voters who did not cast ballots in the May 2011 election, as identified in a survey by Statistics Canada. Elections Canada has recently released findings on youth voter participation in the May 2011 general election, with “youth” being defined as young adults aged 18 to 34.

The survey was conducted following the May 2011 election and consisted of a national random survey of 1,372 youth and young adults aged 18-34, as well as a non-random sample of 1,293 youth from five subgroups: Aboriginal youth, ethnocultural youth, youth in rural areas, youth with disabilities and unemployed youth not in school.

The survey found that the most commonly cited reasons for voting focused on the importance of voting: it was a civic duty, and it was an expression of opinions and views. The most commonly cited reasons for not voting were: too busy (with work, school, family); travelling at the time; and insufficient knowledge about the parties, candidates and issues.

Of those three reasons, the most “legitimate” to me is the travelling excuse. The election took place on 2 May, when many university students would have been in the process of travelling back to their home town from university, or perhaps travelling to another part of the province/country for summer employment. However, even this excuse is tenuous. Canadians have more than one voting day open to them. As I stated in that earlier post, Canadians have opportunities to vote in advance polls, which are generally held on the 10th, 9th and 7th days before the actual election day (this is based on a 36-day timeline, counting down from the issuing of the writs (day 36) to election day, day 0). This means that a student could have voted in an advance poll on April 22, 23 and 25. Voters can also vote in person at their local Elections Canada office for most of the election period. These offices are set up in every single riding in the country after an election is called. Granted, this is a bit more of a hassle because it requires completing an Application for Registration and Special Ballot, but it is still an option. As well, voters can apply to vote by mail, again by completing the aforementioned Application for Registration and Special Ballot. My only point here is that if one knows one will be unable to vote on the actual day of the election, there are other options available.

The above also applies to those who didn’t vote because they were “too busy”. As I wrote in my earlier post:

I find it rather difficult to believe that these family obligations and work/school conflicts were issues during the advanced polls and on election day. On election day itself, polls are open for twelve hours, ranging from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. to 8:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. depending on which province or territory you live in.

The study identified the key barriers to voting, both motivational and access barriers. Motivational barriers to voting among youth were: lack of political interest and knowledge, a belief that all political parties were the same and that none of the parties spoke to issues relevant to youth, and a lower sense that voting is a civic duty. I will address the matter of access barriers shortly, but first I want to look at these motivational barriers in greater detail.

It might be somewhat tempting to lump the first two – lack of political interest/knowledge and belief that all parties are the same – into one. If one has little interest in or knowledge of politics, it will be more difficult to identify and appreciate the differences between the various parties. Also, if one has little or no interest in politics, one will not be moved to make any real effort to investigate the parties and where they stand on key issues. However, these are two distinct issues. The first is the most problematic, and certainly not limited to young people. A lot of people aren’t at all interested in politics, and there is little anyone can do to change that. You can’t force people to take an interest in something in which they have no interest. Believing the parties are all the same, however, could be addressed if parties campaigned more intelligently and if the media made a greater effort to point out the differences in the various party platforms.

The principle means available to any voter interested in knowing a party’s stand on issues is, of course, the party’s electoral platform, or party manifesto. Unfortunately, these documents tend to be fairly lengthy and, to be blunt, rather tedious reads. They are also, understandably, quite biased. I don’t know how many voters actually do read any party manifestos prior to voting, but I am willing to wager that the number is a very small one. To properly compare party positions, one would have to read the manifestos of all the parties contesting the election, and even then, how each party organizes its various pledges might make comparison rather difficult since parties might use very different language to describe essentially similar pledges, or describe their pledges in very vague terms that make comparison difficult. I do believe, however, that there is a very strong desire out there for straightforward, non-biased comparisons of where the parties stand on key issues.

Soon after the writ was issued for the 2 May 2011 election, I noticed a sharp increase in the keyword search activity on this blog from people looking for party platform comparisons. In response to that, I began scouring various media sources to see if any had put together any sort of chart or guide comparing the main parties’ positions on key issues. I did find a few, which led to the creation of this post, which essentially re-directed people to these other sites. I could have prepared a comparative chart myself, but opted instead to simply link to sites which had already done so. The reason was quite simple: I didn’t have the time to wade through the various party manifestos to prepare such a chart myself. The number of hits to this one particular post continued to increase throughout the campaign, to the point where the number of unique visitors to this blog quadrupled in the dying days of the campaign period. This reinforced my belief that all voters, not just youth, want simple, straightforward, non-biased comparisons of what the parties are offering. I attempted to create similar posts for the myriad of provincial and territorial elections that have occurred this fall, and in each instance, the posts in question proved to be hugely popular.

On a related note, the Elections Canada survey also found that young people who relied on television as their main source of information about the election were less likely to vote. This does not surprise me. Other than formal reports about the election campaign on nightly newscasts, election-related material on TV consisted of the leaders’ debate and political party campaign ads. The ads run by the main parties were, for the most part, negative ads. They did little to promote reasons to vote for the party running the ad; instead, they attacked the other parties. And since each party was the target of an attack ad from one (or more) of the other parties, a political novice would be left with the impression that none of the parties were worth voting for. The leaders’ debate wasn’t much more edifying. It too mostly consisted of the leaders attacking and criticizing each other.

I am assuming that the Elections Canada survey is referring to TV watched during the election campaign period, but even if we look at political coverage outside of the election period, it too was hardly an endorsement for any political party. Anyone watching proceedings in the House of Commons, particularly during Question Period, would hardly be left feeling very positive about any of the parties and would most certainly not having any sense of where the parties stood on key issues, or how their views differ.

The most common access barriers cited by young voters were lack of knowledge about the electoral process, including not knowing about different ways to vote and not knowing how or when to vote, followed by difficulty getting to the polling station, difficulty providing identification or proof of address, and not receiving a voter information card. Most of these are systemic issues that could fairly easily be addressed by Elections Canada. The problem of not being able to get to the polling station could be addressed by increasing the number of polling stations and adopting something Australia does: allow voters to vote at any polling station in their constituency, rather than at one designated polling place. This way, polling booths could be set up in malls, in the lobbies of businesses, perhaps even in subway stations, etc. Since everything can now be computerised, I fail to see what logic there is in continuing to force people to vote at one designated spot, usually a church basement or school gymnasium, which might not be the most convenient place for many. Online voting is another option that should be looked at. Elections Canada has called for tests of online voting, and hopefully, this will happen.

Most of the other barriers mentioned would indicate that people don’t know the Elections Canada website exists. All of that information (and more) was available on the Elections Canada site – everything from explanations of the electoral process, the different voting options available, when to vote, where to vote, what to do if you’d not received a voter information card, etc. Given the search word activity on this blog, I can’t say that I’m surprised that many don’t know Elections Canada exists, never mind that it has a website. I don’t know how Elections Canada can address this – perhaps it should consider making itself known on social media sites by setting up a Facebook page, having a Twitter account, etc., since these are media young people use a great deal.

Canada’s Chief Electoral Officer, Marc Mayrand is calling for a national strategy to target young voters to try to engage (or re-engage) them in our democracy:

“What is it that makes Canadians interested in politics?” Mr. Mayrand asked. “What is it that turns them off from time to time? And what is it that we can do about changing the culture around this?”

Not easy questions to answer, certainly, but questions that need to be asked – and acted upon.

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On floor crossing

There was a debate in the UK House of Commons today on a ten minute rule bill which would require MPs who switch parties to resign their seat and fight a by-election to secure the approval of their voters, if they want to remain in Parliament.

For Canadian (and other) readers who aren’t familiar with a ten minute rule bill, bills introduced under the ten-minute rule are one of the ways in which backbench MPs (private Members) can introduce legislation. However, the process is used more as a means of making a point on the need to change the law on a particular subject as there is little parliamentary time available. They mainly provide the opportunity for MPs to test Parliament’s opinion on a particular subject. The ten minute rule allows a brief introductory speech of no more than ten minutes and one of the same length opposing the motion to be made in the House of Commons after question time on Tuesdays and Wednesdays when the House is likely to be full. If the bill is approved by the House at this first reading stage, it joins the queue of private members’ bills waiting to receive a second reading. The government will only rarely allow a ten minute rule bill to progress far enough to become law so MPs tend to use this procedure simply as a way of gaining publicity for a particular issue.

The bill introduced by Conservative MP Chris Skidmore would provide that any Member of Parliament who changes voluntarily his or her political party affiliation described on the ballot paper at the time he or she was elected is deemed to have vacated his or her seat; and would ensure that any such action by an MP would trigger an automatic by-election so that their constituents can have the final say on their decision. This would apply only to MPs choosing to cross the floor, and not to MPs who might be forced out of their party by the party Whip. Skidmore notes that 41 countries have similar legislation in place.

There have been similar bills in the Canadian House of Commons, most recently Bill C-306. Indeed, Mr. Skidmore referred to this bill in his presentation before the UK House of Commons. Bill C-306, a private member’s bill, is virtually identical to Mr. Skidmore’s. It would require that a Member’s seat in the House of Commons be vacated and a by-election called for that seat if the Member, having been elected to the House as a member of a political party or as an independent, changes parties (or in the case of an MP elected as an independent, becomes a member of a party). However, the seat would not be vacated if the Member, having been elected as a member of a political party, chooses to sit as an independent.

This practice, commonly known as “floor crossing”, doesn’t occur that often, but when it does, it generates a fair degree of debate on the rights of an MP to abandon the party under whose banner they were elected in favour of another party. There have been a few very high profile instances of floor crossings in recent years in Canada which raised many eyebrows. First among these was the case of David Emerson, who was first elected as a Liberal in the 2004 general election, narrowly defeating the incumbent MP. That election resulted in a hung parliament and a Liberal minority government, and Emerson appointed to cabinet. Emerson was then re-elected by a significant margin in the 23 January 2006 general election, an election which also resulted in a hung parliament, but this time, a Conservative minority government. At some point between election day and the day the Conservative government was sworn in, Emerson accepted an offer from from the Conservatives to cross the floor and become Minister of International Trade in the new Conservative minority government. Emerson’s decision was kept secret from his Liberal colleagues, the press, and even most Conservatives until 6 February 2006, when he arrived at Rideau Hall, the official residence of the Governor General, for the swearing-in of the new government.

Another recent high profile floor crossing incident involved a Conservative MP, Belinda Stronach, who joined the minority Liberal government on 17 May 2005, two days before a critical vote on the Liberal government’s budget. Stronach’s cross-over to the Liberals was instrumental in allowing the Liberals to survive the budget vote.

Those who oppose floor crossing normally argue that it is anti-democratic, that an MP was elected by his or her constituents as a member of a certain party, therefore if they change parties, this is counter to the wishes of their constituents. For example, in the recent debate on Bill C-306, the MP behind the bill argued:

The reality is that nobody votes for a candidate without considering what party he or she belongs to. It is a true slap in the voter’s face when elected representatives join another party without seeking approval from their voters.

Parties are there to present a series of values to Canadians. Election platforms are value statements, and Canadians connect with those values. Canadians know there are differences in values between political parties. They know that the NDP is not the Conservative Party. It is a grave injustice to treat their choices and their political values as though they have no consequence. It is an insult to their intelligence.

Further along in the debate, another NDP MP stated:

I did not know that even though my name is on the seat here it is not my seat. I do not own this seat. It does not belong to me. It does not belong to my party. It belongs to the 91,000 people I represent in Sackville—Eastern Shore.

I was elected as a New Democratic member of Parliament. (…) I was not elected as a Conservative, a Liberal or a Green member. I was elected as a New Democratic member of Parliament.

However, as the BBC’s Mark D’Arcy notes, there is an “ancient Commons convention that MPs are elected in their own right, not as party place-persons.” Under our system of government, voters are supposed to elect their MP based on that person’s qualifications, believing they are best suited to serve the constituency. This means that while you, as a voter, might favour Party A, if Party C has the strongest candidate, in theory you should vote for that person, even if they aren’t from the party you prefer.

Of course, not everyone votes that way. Some people are so blindly partisan that they will vote for one party and one party only, no matter how poor the candidate put forward by that party. Others don’t care who is running locally for a given party – they use their vote as a proxy vote for the party leader they prefer and would like to see as Prime Minister.

Indeed, Mr. Skidmore acknowledged this argument during his presentation in favour of his bill, stating that the most common arguments against a bill requiring floor-crossing MPs to stand face voters in a by-election hark back to a speech delivered by Edmund Burke in 1774, a view which Mr. Skidmore argues is no longer relevant today:

Burke argued that we are sent here as representatives, not delegates, and as such sit in the House as individuals, not bound by party constraint, but each free to choose how we best represent our constituents, even if that seems to be against their best interests.

The notion that constituents vote for their Members of Parliament as individuals to exercise their judgment on behalf of their constituents, and not to stand for the party ticket on which they were elected, may have been relevant in the 18th century, but that is no longer the case in the 21st century. We can no longer continue the charade that we are each elected solely as individuals. To do so is simply not to be speaking the same language as our constituents. It is an undeniable truth that the vast majority of constituents will vote for the party, with the Member the embodiment of the party locally.

But the fact remains that the convention is that MPs are elected because of their individual merit – their party affiliation is a secondary point. If one looks at it from that point of view, then the fact that an MP might cross the floor to sit as a member of a different party really doesn’t matter. The government’s spokesperson in the Canadian debate on Bill C-306 acknowledged as much:

While I understand that the goal of this bill would be to ensure that a member’s decision to cross the floor is endorsed by a member’s constituents, the result of it would be simple. This bill would seriously undermine the independence of members of this House and I do not think that is something we should encourage or support. (…)

This bill would have some practical negative consequences. The bill would impose restrictions upon members who wish to express a different position than the one endorsed by a majority of their caucus. This bill would also impede members of Parliament in representing the interests of their constituents, which is one of the fundamental duties under our Constitution.

I have some concerns about the technical wording of the bill and not only with its principles. I will speak a bit about the bill’s reference to registered parties. Our party system plays a fundamental role in our democracy but, in fact, there are a few statutory provisions regulating the role of political parties in Parliament itself, including the Parliament of Canada Act which Bill C-306 would modify.

In contrast, the roles, rights and obligations of individual members of Parliament are well established in Canada’s legislation whereby members of Parliament are central actors in our Westminster system of government. Practically, the caucus system in our Parliament is joined with, but distinct from, the registered party system.

Bill C-306 would go against existing rules and traditions by allowing the party machinery to take precedence over individual rights and responsibilities of each member of Parliament and their caucus choices. This does not correspond to our system of government. As I stated earlier, I believe Bill C-306 would have negative and undesirable consequences on the roles of members of Parliament.

In effect, the bill would require members who fundamentally disagree with their caucus or with the leader of their party to resign their seat or to sit as independents. However, it would blur the line between party membership and caucus membership. Such restrictions would strengthen the control of political parties over individual members by bolstering a party’s threat of expulsion in order to maintain party discipline and limit the representative role of members.

Therefore, the bill could discourage elected representatives from expressing their views in caucus debates and encourage party leaders to act without regard to their caucus members’ best interests.

We should remember that members of Parliament have three competing but equally important representative roles in Parliament. They are to represent the interests and opinions of their constituents, to present their personal views and judgments, and to support and promote their political parties and party leaders.

By seeking to punish members of Parliament who disagree with their parties so fundamentally that they decide to change their political affiliation, the bill would focus exclusively on the party role of members. This would be detrimental to the individual roles of members, including their duties to act as trustees of the public interest and that of their constituents.

In the UK House of Commons debate, the Member who opposed the bill (as per the conditions of the 10 minute rule bill) was also a Conservative, Sir Peter Bottomley. Sir Peter noted that when he first became interested in politics, there were no political parties listed on the ballot paper – only the candidates’ names, and that perhaps it would be a good idea to return to such a practice. He also noted that while it was true that many MPs owed their election to their party, he believed that constituents’ trust in their MPs “comes from what we do, not from whether we decide to change our party.” He did agree with Skidmore that the matter should be debated, but “that it should be the subject of a Bill that should be enacted is controvertible, and I would say that it is wrong.”

The BBC’s Mark D’Arcy raised another argument in favour of passing a bill to regulate floor crossing, which is that it “would also stop constituencies which thought they had elected someone with a particular point of view being lumbered with something they didn’t vote for”. This argument would have more legitimacy if countries such as the UK and Canada didn’t use First-Past-the-Post as their electoral system. Given that the majority of MPs are not elected with majority support in their riding, it is a bit difficult to argue that an MP winning his or her seat with less than 50% of the vote (often much less than 50%) can be interpreted as a solid endorsement of that MP’s party (or even that MP).

Bill C-306 was soundly defeated at second reading, 181-91. In the case of Mr. Skidmore’s bill, as is usually the case with ten minute rule bills, it didn’t receive any further debate.

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