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, Samara.org 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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The LPC and “open” primaries

I have written a bit in the past on the idea of political parties in Canada adopting the concept of “open primaries”. I argued that this would help to empower backbench MPs and then commented on a proposal put forward by Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson that Canada’s federal Liberal Party consider open primaries to choose its next leader.

Recently, it was announced that the Liberal Party was indeed considering such a move. The announcement met with rather mixed reviews in the media, including on social media such as Twitter. What was interesting was that many were condemning the idea even before full details had emerged. It wasn’t until later in the week that the Liberal Party released documentation explaining the proposal in any sort of detail.

Read more

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Electoral Reform and DPR Voting, Part 2

(Note: Back in April of this year, I wrote about Direct Party and Representative Voting, an electoral voting system invented by Stephen Johnson. That post continues to get regular hits on this blog, and recently, Mr. Johnson contacted me asking if I would be interested in revisiting the topic. He provided me with a few more points addressing some of the questions I had raised in my original post. I invited Mr. Johnson to contribute a post to this blog, and he accepted. This is the second of two posts. Click here to read Part 1.)

Electoral Reform and DPR Voting, Part 2

by guest blogger Stephen Johnson

Can DPR Voting claim that no votes are wasted?

In DPR Voting you cast your Party vote for the party you support and this determines which party (or parties) form the Government. You can vote for the party of choice whether or not there is a party candidate standing in the constituency. The Party votes are added up nationwide and then the percentage of votes of each party is used to determine the total number of votes each party has in the parliament. This means that every vote makes a mathematical difference to the result of the election and determines the number of votes each party will have in the parliament regardless of where the vote is cast. The mathematical consequence of percentages is that if one party gets one extra vote the percentage of the total vote for that party increases and the percentages for all the other parties is reduced. There are no longer any marginal constituencies, as there are in the FPTP system. Every vote in every constituency is equally important. Your vote makes a real difference to the party you vote for, and for many people this is the real purpose of going out to vote.

Read more

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Electoral Reform and DPR Voting, Part 1

(Note: Back in April of this year, I wrote about Direct Party and Representative Voting, an electoral voting system invented by Stephen Johnson. That post continues to get regular hits on this blog, and recently, Mr. Johnson contacted me asking if I would be interested in revisiting the topic. He provided me with a few more points addressing some of the questions I had raised in my original post. I invited Mr. Johnson to contribute a post to this blog, and he accepted. This is the first of two posts, you can read Part 2 here. The views expressed below are Mr. Johnson’s.)

Electoral Reform and DPR Voting, Part 1

by guest blogger Stephen Johnson

The functioning of our democracy depends in part on the acceptance by the people of the way the electoral system works.  This blog (April, 2011) reviewed Direct Party and Representative Voting, a new proportional electoral system, and found some merit and some shortcomings. Stephen Johnson argues that the system deserves a closer look as a PR system to replace ‘First Past the Post’ (FPTP). Read more

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Some interesting links

1. The Big Society

The Canadian media has recently been reporting that the current Conservative Government is considering emulating the UK Coalition Government in adopting David Cameron’s Big Society. Some of what has been written here in Canada is critical of this, which is their perogative, but I found that they often failed to adequately explain the plan. See, for example, this post by Murray Dobbin, in which he dimisses the initiative as “social engineering from the right” and pointing out that the Big Society “scam” has been “widely ridiculed” but makes little effort to explain how it’s supposed to work. I am not argueing for or against this initiative, but I did think some Canadians (and perhaps some Brits) might be interested in learning more about it via David Cameron himself. Cameron appeared before the UK House of Commons Liaison Committee earlier this week and answered questions on a variety of issues, but a lot of the focus was on the Big Society. Canadians unfamiliar with the UK will not always understand exactly what he is talking about or referring to, but there is still enough information provided to perhaps provide some insight into what Cameron hopes the Big Society will be. You can either watch proceedings here, or read a transcript.

As a side note, this might be of added interest to Canadians who are likely to find the sight of a PM answering questions before a House of Commons committee for 90 minutes a rather mind-boggling affair.

2. New Zealand referendum on its electoral system

New Zealand adopted Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) in 1996, and in the 2008 election, the National Party promised to hold another referendum asking New Zealanders if they were satisfied with MMP or if they wished to change it. That referendum will take place on 26 November, and Australian elections expert and blogger Antony Green will be going to New Zealand for the last week of the campaign and will provide more details on the referendum and the election over the next two weeks. His first post on the referendum looks at New Zealand’s view of Preferential Voting, which is the voting system Australia uses. Those interested in electoral reform may want to bookmark Antony’s blog to keep track of his future posts. For those unfamiliar with the debate in New Zealand, you might find this piece of interest.

3. Rules of Royal Succession

At the recent meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government, the leaders of the member nations agreed to change the succession rules and give female members of the Royal Family the same rights to the throne as men, and to end the ban on heirs to the throne marrying Catholics. This hasn’t prompted much debate in Canada, but if you’re interested in the constitutional aspects of these changes, you might find this meeting of the UK House of Commons Constitutional and Political Reform Committee worth a listen. The witnesses are Professor Robert Blackburn, Kings College London, and Dr Robert Morris, Constitution Unit, University College London. While most of the discussion is focused on the UK, they do raise some of the issues facing Commonwealth jurisdictions, including Canada.

4. A UK Clarity Act?

According to this article in the Independent, the UK is considering adopting its own version of Canada’s Clarity Act in order to counter the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP)’s drive towards a referendum on independence for Scotland.

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Saskatchewan 2011 Political Party Platform comparisons

As was the case during the recent federal election here in Canada, many people are now looking for a site comparing the platforms of the political parties contesting the upcoming Saskatchewan election (7 November 2011).

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

Saskatchewan Political Party Platform comparisons:

Platform comparison from Canadian Voter

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Report on 2010 elections for positions in the House

The UK House of Commons Procedure Committee released a report on 31 October 2011, which reviewed the elections held, for the first time, in most cases, to fill various positions in the House. It is an interesting report as it provides more detailed information into how exactly these elections proceeded.

In the dying months of the previous parliament, the House of Commons adopted many of the recommendations of the Committee on Reform of the House of Commons (the Wright Committee). These recommendations were implemented for the first time in the new Parliament elected in May 2010.

Among the changes introduced were first time elections for the Deputy Speakers of the House, the chairs of the main select committees and the chair and members of the new Backbench Business Committee, and a new system adopted by the parties to elect their members of the relevant select committees. While the entire report is interesting, I will focus on the elections affecting select committees.

To recap for those who don’t know, one of the recommendations of Wright Committee adopted in March 2010 and implemented for the first time following the May 2010 general election was the election of the chairs of the major select committees. Previously, this process had been a private arrangement between the party Whips. Standing Order No. 122B outlines a three stage process:

  1. The Speaker writes to the party leaders indicating the proportion of chairs of select committees falling to each party based on the composition of the House following the election;
  2. The House agrees to a motion tabled in the names of the leaders of all parties entitled to one of more chairs specifying to which party each chair is allocated;
  3. Two weeks later, ballots are held for each of the posts, except in cases where only one candidate has come forward, in which case they are declared elected without a ballot. The vote is conducted using the Alternative Vote system (preferential ballot), meaning MPs rank the candidates in order of preference.

What happened in May 2010

A total of 24 committee chair positions were open for election. Of these, 8 were elected unopposed and 16 were contested and decided by secret ballot. The allocation of chairs between the parties, as stated above, follows the convention of mirroring the party breakdown in the House. The Speaker sent a letter indicating the proportion each party was entitled to and was arithmetically correct, but the motion tabled by the party leaders was not, nor does it have to be. The motion allocated one fewer chair to Labour and one more to the Conservatives than would have been the case if the figures supplied by the Speaker had been strictly followed.

Members nominated for a committee chair position engaged in rather vigorous campaigning. One of the main problems faced by candidates was making themselves known to new MPs who weren’t familiar with their record in the House or past work on committees. The volume of communication sent out by some candidates even overloaded the email system. This went on for the two week period between the House agreeing to the motion tabled by the party leaders and the actual ballot date. As mentioned, AV is used, since it eliminates the need for subsequent ballots and it ensures that the winning candidate has the support of more than half of those voting.

Once the committee chairs were elected, committee membership was elected. The Wright Committee had proposed that the members of select committees should be elected by secret ballot by each political party, according to their level of representation in the House and using transparent democratic means. The House would then endorse the results.

In 2010, the process of internal party elections was carried out after the election of the chairs. Once complete, the party Whips submitted a list of names for each committee to the Committee of Selection and the House agreed to the formal motions to nominate the select committees. Little information was published as to how the division of seats between the parties was made nor on the method used for election within each party. The Labour Party asked Members to nominate themselves for a select committee. Those who had applied for an undersubscribed committee or where the number of candidates matched the number of vacancies were declared elected unopposed. They then held a two-stage election process with elections for the vacancies on the 12 most subscribed committees followed by an election for the rest of the vacancies.

The Conservatives adopted a similar process to Labour. The process of administering the election will handed over from the Whips, who ran the contest in 2010, to the 1922 Committee for future elections.

The Liberal Democrats were awarded a number of select committee places in accordance with their party strength. Interested members signed up for vacancies and there was no need for ballots.

Committee Recommendations

After reviewing the election process for committee chairs, the Procedure Committee made a few recommendations. The members of minority parties complained that they were excluded from even standing for a post as a select committee chair. While the Committee sympathised, they did not recommend a change to the election process for select committee chairs.

Other members complained about the volume of communications issued by candidates in contested elections, arguing for more control over how MPs campaigned. Others called for opportunities for members to meet with and hear from the candidates for each post, which would have been very helpful for the newly-elected MPs. The Committee reviewed these issues and in the end decided against more central control over the campaign. Given the number of elections involved, they decided that it would be unwise to lay down rules about how each event should be organised, leaving it instead to the candidates to decide how best to reach out to their fellow MPs.

Another issue raised was the participation of Ministers. Voting for the chairs was open to all MPs, but since the role of select committees is to hold Ministers to account, some suggested that it was not appropriate for Ministers to have a vote in deciding who should undertake that role. The Committee recognized this as a valid concern, but problematic to address. Excluding Ministers from voting would affect the party’s balance of the electorate. Changing the rule to say that Ministers could vote in all elections except those relating to their department might be difficult to police. Instead, the Committee concluded that Minister would be “well-advised to refrain from voting in the election for a chair to scrutinise their own department” but decided that a more formal prohibition would be undesirable.

The Committee also reviewed the use of AV for the vote and decided that it would be best to move from AV to FPTP. The Committee justified this on the following grounds: 1) FPTP is simple and is the voting system MPs are most familiar with and 2) the results from 2010 showed that even in the contests which required more than one round of counting, the candidate who was in the lead on the first count remained there and won. Of the 16 contested elections, seven were decided on the first count, five on the second, three on the third and one required 6 counts. In each case, even the one which went six rounds of counting, the winning candidate was ahead by a significant margin in the first round of counting and the subsequent rounds only served to increase their lead until they surpassed the 50% mark.

I have to say that I find this recommendation a bit problematic, given the reasons the Committee provides to justify it. First, AV is hardly that much more complicated than FPTP. While I can understand that a newly-elected MP might find it difficult to rank several candidates, none of whom he or she knows at all, they probably would find it as difficult to vote for a single candidate among a list of names that they don’t know at all. As for the second reason provided, simply because the elections held in June 2010 weren’t that close, this doesn’t mean that in future years, there won’t be much closer races. At least with AV, the eventual winner will be the candidate who eventually receives 50% of the vote. With FPTP, if there are very close races for some chair positions, the winning candidate may well be elected by a bare majority of the vote – maybe even one vote.

In my view, this would be problematic when electing the chair of a select committee. I would think that it would be preferable to have a chair who had the backing of an overall majority of his or her fellow MPs, even if that means they are the “compromise” candidate, than to end up with a chair who was narrowly elected over another candidate, and given the vote totals, very likely elected only by their own party, with no support (or barely any support) from members of other parties, which is exactly what could happen using FPTP. The chairs of select committees have to represent and answer to the House, not simply their party caucus. The whole point of moving away from Whip-appointed chairs to House elected chairs was to make the committees more independent and accountable. FPTP could very well undermine this in the event of a very hotly-contested race between several candidates.

Because FPTP was never meant to be used in instances where there are more than two candidates running, I think the Committee is making a mistake in recommending that AV be dropped in favour of FPTP for the election of committee chairs. Alternatively, they could recommend that if there are only two candidates contesting for one position, FPTP could be used since one candidate will inevitably end up with more than 50% of the vote, but in instances where there are three or more candidates, AV be used to ensure that the eventual winner have majority support of the House.

Regarding the election of committee membership, the Procedure Committee got little feedback from members and thus concluded that there was little evidence that any changes were needed. However, they did recommend that it would be more in keeping with the “spirit of the Wright reforms” if each party published details of the process by which it elected its members to select committees.

As stated at the outset, the report covers much more than simply the elections for Select Committee chairs and members. I strongly recommend readers have a look at the report in its entirety.

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