Report of the Electoral Matters Committee

ParlVicThe Parliament of the Australian state of Victoria’s Electoral Matters Committee released the report of its Inquiry into the future of Victoria’s electoral administration. It’s a lengthy (144 pages) report, and much of it deals with the nitty-gritty of voting in the State of Victoria. Chapter 3, however, might be of more general interest to Canadians who advocate for the adoption of the preferential ballot (aka the ranked ballot, or the Alternative Vote).

There are two different voting systems used in the State of Victoria. Full preferential voting is used to elect Members to the Legislative Assembly, while single transferable vote (STV) is used to elect the upper chamber, the Legislative Council.

Full preferential means that for a ballot to count, what is known in Australia as a formal ballot, the voter has to rank, in order of preference, every single candidate listed on the ballot. If the voter fails to do so, theirs becomes an informal ballot and is not counted – what we here in Canada would call a spoiled ballot.

While one of the main concerns about voting here in Canada is undoubtedly the issue of voter turnout, this is not the case in Australia, which has compulsory voting. Instead, the main concern around the use of full preferential is the increase in the number of informal ballots. This isn’t a phenomenon limited to the State of Victoria; the rates of informal voting are increasing in most Australian jurisdictions, both at the state and federal level.

At the 2010 Victorian state election, the rate of informal voting for the Legislative Assembly was 4.96%, which means that just under 5% of the ballots cast couldn’t be counted because they hadn’t been filled in properly. This is the highest rate of information voting ever, and a 50% increase over the 2002 election. While I can understand why this trend would worry people, when contrasted to Canadian elections which see a voter turnout barely topping 50% at times, I can’t help but see this as a relatively mild concern. Yet, it is a problem, and Chapter Three of the report looks at ways to try to reverse this trend.

Long story short, the Committee put forward the following recommendation:

Recommendations 3.1: The Committee recommends the Victoria Government amend the Electoral Act 2002 (Vic) to introduce a system of optional preferential voting (OPV) for Victorian Legislative Assembly elections. In drafting these amendments the Victorian Government should examine the model of OPB used in NSW and Queensland.

Both New South Wales and Queensland use what the report calls “full” Optional Preferential Voting (OPV). Electors in NSW and Queensland have the choice of voting for one candidate, more than one candidate, or all of the candidates on the ballot paper. In other words, they don’t have to rank every single candidate on the ballot paper; they can rank only their first choice, or rank as many or as few as they please. Both states have lower rates of informal voting than Victoria; the rate for the 2011 Legislative Assembly election in NSW was 3.2%, while the rate in the 2012 Queensland Legislative Assembly vote was 2.2%.

While the rate of informal voting (spoiled ballots) might be better under full OPV, it has other problems associated with it. The report does reference these. The most glaring one, to me at least, is that because voters can choose to rank only one candidate on their ballot, there is a risk that full OPV becomes a de facto First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) system. And indeed, there is evidence that this is happening. In 2011, the Queensland Attorney General reported to Cabinet on Queensland’s OPV voting system and noted that in the 2009 state election, 63% of ballot papers were marked “1″ only. At the 2006 election, the rate was 62%. Up until 2001, the rate had been significantly lower – only 20.7% in 1995, for example.

Why does this matter? As I have explained in numerous past posts on this topic, the only advantage any type of ranked ballot has over FPTP is that it is supposed to eliminate candidates being elected without majority support. As we all know, under FPTP, it isn’t unusual for candidates to win with minority support, meaning, they receive less than 50% of the votes cast. A majority of MPs in both the UK and Canadian Houses of Commons were elected with less than 50% support – often a lot less.

There is significant support for adopting preferential voting in Canada – both federally and more recently, it has been proposed for municipalities in Ontario. I don’t think anyone in Canada is proposing full preferential – requiring voters to rank every single candidate on the ballot paper – at least, every single discussion I have seen on the topic here in Canada refers to optional preferential. However, I have also never seen anyone address this reality about OPV – that not all voters will bother to rank candidates, and if most ballots are marked with “1″ only, then we’ll still be stuck with essentially a FPTP system.

Another problem with OPV is that it favours the candidate in first place on the first count. Or as Antony Green put it: “Optional preferential voting makes it easier for the candidate leading on first preferences to reach 50% of a shrinking pool of votes in the count, and harder for a second placed candidate to come from behind and win.” This again reinforces the FPTP-ness of OPV.

Full preferential is problematic in its own right, however. Most ballot papers here in Canada have more than 3-4 candidates on them. While it might be easy enough for most voters to rank candidates from the big parties, how do you then rank independents and candidates representing fringe parties you may never have heard of? Or take the mayoral race for the City of Toronto – while only a handful of candidates get any real media coverage, there are over 40 candidates actually running for mayor at time of writing. Who on earth would even want to attempt to rank all of them in some sort of order of preference?

While the Victoria Electoral Matters Committee is favouring OPV, I think my preferred option would be Modified OPV, as used in Tasmania. It’s sort of a hybrid of full and optional preferential. In Tasmania, for a vote to count, the voter has to rank at least five candidates. They can rank more than five if they want, but the rest are optional. I think this would be a good compromise for any jurisdiction in Canada that might adopt preferential voting. It would ensure that the system doesn’t resort back to a de facto FPTP system, but at the same time, wouldn’t force Canadians into making (too many) “artificial” choices. Note – I’m not 100% beholden to the number five – but I wouldn’t go any lower than 3 and think it might be best if it were more than three as that might have unduly negative consequences for minor parties.

If you’re interested in the Electoral Matters Committee report, it can be downloaded here.

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Australia might be headed for a double dissolution

Australia-VotesAustralia, like Canada and the United Kingdom, has a bicameral parliament, meaning it consists of two Houses, the lower house, the House of Representatives and the upper house, the Senate. Unlike Canada and the United Kingdom, however, Australia’s upper chamber is elected.

The House of Representatives normally lasts no more than three years. Senators, however, are elected for six-year terms. This means, that, under normal circumstances, when the House of Representatives is dissolved every three years for a new general election, the Senate continues to exist as Senators remain in office until the completion of their term and only half stand for election at any one time.

The most recent general election in Australia occurred on 7 September 2013. The House of Representatives was dissolved, and 40 of the 76 Senate seats were also contested.

Australia’s Constitution does allow for dissolution of the Senate, but only under very specific circumstances. This provision is called a double dissolution.

Double Dissolution

In Australia, as is the case in Canada and the United Kingdom, legislation must pass both Houses of Parliament before it can receive Royal Assent and become law.

In the UK, once a bill has passed third reading in both Houses, it returns to the House where it was introduced for the second House’s amendments (proposals for change) to be considered. Both Houses must agree on the exact wording of the Bill.

If the Commons makes amendments to the Bill, the Lords must consider them and either agree or disagree to the amendments or make alternative proposals. If the Lords disagrees with any Commons amendments, or makes alternative proposals, then the Bill is sent back to the Commons. A Bill may go back and forth between each House until both Houses reach agreement. This is usually referred to as the “ping pong” stage. In exceptional cases, when the two Houses do not reach agreement, the Bill falls. If certain conditions are met, the Commons can use the Parliament Acts to pass the Bill, without the consent of the Lords, in the following session.

The process is similar in Canada. The Senate often makes amendments to bills, some of which involve corrections to drafting errors or improvements to administrative aspects. The House normally accepts such amendments. If the House does not agree with the Senate amendments, it adopts a motion stating the reasons for its disagreement, which it communicates in a message to the Senate. If the Senate wishes the amendments to stand nonetheless, it sends a message back to the House, which then accepts or rejects the proposed changes. If an agreement cannot be reached by exchanging messages, the House that has possession of the bill may ask that a conference be held, although this practice has fallen into disuse, with the last one occurring in 1947. Over the years, the exchange of messages and the appearance of Ministers before House and Senate committees have considerably reduced the need for this procedure. If no agreement between the two houses is reached, the bill remains on the Order Paper where it dies at the end of the session; no new bill may be introduced in the Commons on the same subject matter and containing similar provisions.

As stated, the Canadian Senate and the UK House of Lords are not elected bodies, therefore, these upper chambers will tend to recognize the primacy of the elected chamber. In Australia, because Senators are elected, the situation is more complex.

When the government does not have a majority in the Senate a situation can arise that the two Houses disagree over proposed legislation. In most cases compromises are reached and amendments are made by one or the other House until the bill concerned is in a state acceptable to both.

However, there have been occasions when no agreement could be reached between the two Houses. The Constitution provides the double dissolution mechanism as a means of breaking a deadlock between the Houses when such compromise is not achieved.

In effect the legislation may be put to the people, presenting the electorate with the opportunity to change the composition of the Senate following a full Senate election. There is also of course the possibility of a change in the composition of the House (i.e. a change of Government)—the deadlock may be broken in either direction.

If, after a double dissolution and elections for both Houses, the Houses continue to disagree on the same bill, the Governor-General may convene a joint sitting of both Houses to enable the members of both Houses to vote together to resolve the matter. The House of Representatives has almost twice as many Members as the Senate, consequently a joint sitting is likely to see the will of a majority of the House overcome Senate resistance.

There have been only six double dissolutions; the last occurred in 1987.

Current Situation

The Liberal/National Coalition campaigned on a promise to (among other things) repeal the previous Labor Government’s carbon tax. After forming the Government following the September 2013 election, House of Representatives passed the Abbott Government’s legislation to repeal the Clean Energy Finance Corp. on 21 November 2013. The Senate rejected the bill on 10 December 2013. Three months have now passed, the the bill is scheduled to be re-introduced in the House of Representatives on 27 March 2014. If the Senate again refuses to pass the bill, the Prime Minister will be in a position to advise the Governor-General to dissolve both Houses. The Coalition had indicated even before the September 2013 election that it would trigger a double dissolution if it was prevented from repealing the carbon tax.

These are the steps which must take place before a double dissolution is possible.

Double dissolution

  1. The House of Representatives passes a bill and sends it to the Senate.
  2. The Senate rejects the bill, or fails to pass it, or passes it with amendments to which the House of Representatives will not agree.
  3. After an interval of three months (but in the same or the next session of Parliament), the House of Representatives passes the bill a second time and sends it to the Senate again. The bill reintroduced must be the original bill, except that it may be modified by amendments made, requested or agreed to by the Senate.
  4. The Senate again rejects the bill, or fails to pass it, or passes it with amendments to which the House of Representatives will not agree.
  5. The Prime Minister may now advise the Governor-General to dissolve both Houses. Once the preceding conditions have occurred, whether and when to advise a double dissolution is a matter for the Prime Minister. There is no constitutional necessity to do so, or to do so within any period of time.However, a double dissolution cannot occur within six months of the end of a three year term of the House of Representatives.
  6. Elections are held for both Houses.

Joint sitting

  1. In the new Parliament the House of Representatives passes the bill again and sends it to the Senate. The bill may be reintroduced with or without amendments made, requested or agreed to by the Senate. There is no constitutional necessity to reintroduce a bill that was the cause of the double dissolution.
  2. The Senate again rejects the bill, or fails to pass it, or passes it with amendments to which the House of Representatives will not agree.
  3. The Prime Minister may now advise the Governor-General to convene a joint sitting of the members of both Houses.
  4. The joint sitting votes on the bill as last proposed by the House of Representatives and on any amendments made by one House and not agreed to by the other. To be passed, amendments and the bill (as, and if, so amended) must be agreed to by an absolute majority—i.e. more than half of the total number of the members of both Houses.

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Quebec Provincial Election 2014

128px-Quebec_flagThis blog will not engage in a discussion of the policies of political parties, either at the provincial or federal level. However, it will provide links to sites that might prove useful to voters for the 7 April 2014 Quebec election.

Vote Compass/Boussole électorale

Vote Compass is an educational tool developed by political scientists. Answer a short series of questions to discover how you fit in the Quebec political landscape. If you’re unsure of which party to vote for, this might help. And even if you are certain which party you want to support, the Vote Compass results might surprise you!

La Boussole électorale est un outil d’éducation développé par des universitaires. Répondez à un court questionnaire pour découvrir où vous vous situez dans le paysage politique québécois.

Directeur général des élections du Québec/English site

Toutes les informations concernant les éelections générales/All the information you might need concerning general elections in Quebec.

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On misunderstanding ranked ballots

Recently, the Government of the Province of Ontario, Canada, announced that it would consider legislation that would allow municipalities in the province to use ranked ballots (aka the alternative vote, preferential voting, etc.) to elect mayors and/or councillors. Currently, these elections are conducted using single-member plurality (aka First-Past-the-Post).

Regular readers of this blog know that I have written extensively about this voting system, primarily during the 2011 referendum on AV held in the United Kingdom. This link will take you to the list of posts that have the “Alternative Vote” tag attached to them. Many of those posts were written to address what could only be described as absolutely ludicrous criticism of AV that was routinely raised by those who opposed the system. I made it clear that I myself am not necessarily a huge fan of AV, especially if used to elect MPs – it isn’t at all proportional and can lead to as distorted results as does FPTP, plus it has it’s own special set of problems – but I still felt a need to address the inaccuracies that were circulating.

Now the issue has surfaced in Canada, and with it, media coverage. And as expected, most of the reporters writing about ranked ballots really don’t fully understand how the system works.

First, a bit of context. I stated above that AV isn’t a proportional voting system. That is one of the main reasons why it would not be my first choice for electing federal MPs or provincial MLAs. However, in Ontario (as is the case in the majority of municipalities in Canada), political parties do not exist at the municipal level. Because of this reality, a proportional system isn’t needed, and AV/ranked ballots would actually be an ideal system. Consequently, I do fully endorse its use at the municipal level. Now, we don’t know yet what exact system of ranked ballots might eventually be adopted. The bill put forward would simply amend existing legislation to allow cities to adopt some form of AV, but it would be up to the city to decide if they want full preferential, optional preferential, etc. Consequently, I cannot address specifics, only how AV works in general.

I have a number of posts that explain how AV works, at, least, the form that was proposed for the UK. If you are not familiar with ranked ballot voting systems, you might want to read this post I wrote explaining how to vote and how votes would be counted under the AV system proposed for the UK. I don’t want to go into detail about that in this post. Suffice it to say that voters will be asked to rank the candidates on their ballot in order of preference. Votes are counted the usual way, but if no candidate receives 50% + 1 of the votes cast on the first count, the last place candidate is dropped, the ballots cast for that candidate are then redistributed based on second preferences. The votes are then recounted. If there is still no candidate with 50% + 1 of the votes still in play, then the process is repeated until a candidate emerges with 50%+1 of the votes still in play.

There are couple of important points to understand. Ranked ballots favour the candidate who is ahead on the first count. Australia is the only jurisdiction which has a long history of using AV, both at the federal and state level, and it is extremely rare that a candidate who was in 3rd place on the first count ends up winning. It has happened only twice in over 30 years. It happens a bit more often that a candidate in second place after the first count goes on to win, but most of the time, the candidate who was ahead on the first count wins. And that makes sense – the closer you are to the 50%+1 target, the fewer vote transfers you need. The candidate in second place needs a far greater number of transfers to simply catch up, never mind win. The further back you are after the first count, the more unlikely it is that you’ll gather enough vote transfers to make up the gap and pull ahead. Please keep those points in mind.

One of the first articles which appeared was this Globe and Mail piece by Adrian Morrow. Mr Morrow writes:

Toronto city council voted last June to ask the province for the power to switch from first-past-the-post to ranked balloting. But Ontario is now looking at going further to allow all municipalities to change their method of voting. Whether legislation would offer a choice between the current system and ranked balloting only or whether other methods of voting, such as proportional representation, would also be allowed, is not clear.

Proportional voting systems are designed to ensure that party seats in a party accurately reflect the overall percentage of votes cast for each party. As I mentioned above, there are no political parties at the municipal level in the province of Ontario. If you don’t have political parties, you can’t use proportional representation. There isn’t anything to proportionally allocate.

Mr. Morrow also writes:

Under a ranked-ballot system, voters number their choice of candidate. If no candidate wins a majority of number-one picks, then voters’ second and third choices are tabulated until a candidate achieves more than 50 per cent of the vote.

This is simply a very awkward statement. It isn’t exactly wrong, but it’s far from being an accurate explanation of how votes are counted under AV. Please refer to the link I posted to my earlier blog post explaining how votes are counted under AV.

Recently, the Ottawa Citizen ran an editorial entitled Ranked ballots and fair elections. While there are a couple of good points raised in the editorial, the following made my head spin:

Preferential ballots can shift the balance of power in another, possibly unintended, way. They can allow candidates who are the third or second choice of many — but the first choice of almost none — to win.

I have tried desperately to figure out how on earth whoever wrote this thinks ballots are counted under AV. This simply makes no sense whatsoever. How on earth does the writer think candidates ended up in second or third place after the first count? It was because people voted for them AS THEIR FIRST CHOICE. They simply didn’t get as many first choice votes as the person who did end up in first place. Let me illustrate it this way.

There are five candidates running for Mayor of a small town. There are 25,000 eligible voters who cast ballots, ranking the candidates in order of preference. With 25,000 votes cast, a candidate would need to 12,501 votes to be elected. After the votes are counted the first time, we have the following result:

Candidate

First Preference Votes

Raul Castillo 9000
Jane Green 8500
Angela Chu 4000
David Black 2500
Mike Howe 1000
Total Votes 25,000
Votes needed to win 12,501

No candidate reached the 50%+1 mark, but, contrary to what the Ottawa Citizen editorial writer would have you believe, all of the candidates were the first choice of a large number of voters. Mr. Castillo was ranked #1 by 9000 voters, and the second place candidate, Ms Green, was ranked #1 by 8500 voters. Even our last place candidate, Mr. Howe, was the first choice of 1000 voters. If we look at the above scenario, only two of the five candidates have a chance of winning: Mr. Castillo and Ms Green. Mr. Howe would be the first candidate dropped from the ballot because he finished last, and his votes would be redistributed based on second preferences. The fourth place candidate, Mr. Black, would need 10,001 votes to win, and the best he could pick up would be 1000 second preference votes from Mr. Howe’s supporters, and it is unlikely that all of Mr. Howe’s supporters ranked Mr. Black as their 2nd preference. Mr. Black wouldn’t even be able to move ahead of Ms. Chu, and he will be the second candidate eliminated if no one wins on the second count. Ms. Chu would need 8501 votes to win, and even if she were the second choice of all of Mr. Howe’s and Mr. Black’s supporters, that would still not be enough to even move her ahead of Ms. Green.

I won’t go through the whole scenario of how subsequent votes counts might go. My point here is solely to make it clear that it is simply impossible for someone who is “the first choice of almost none” to ever be elected under AV. I can only surmise the the editorial writer has zero understanding of how AV works, and how votes are counted.

If this initiative moves forward in Ontario, I expect there will be many more equally ill-written and ill-informed articles and editorials on the Alternative Vote. You might want to bookmark some of my earlier pieces for future reference.

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On reforming PMQs

The UK’s Hansard Society released a report examining public attitudes to Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) and asking whether PMQs is a ‘cue’ for their wider negative perceptions of Parliament. Some of the key findings include:

  • 67% of respondents agree that ‘there is too much party political point-scoring instead of answering the question’ – 5% disagree
  • 47% agree that PMQs ‘is too noisy and aggressive’ – 15% disagree
  • 33% agree ‘it puts me off politics’ – 27% disagree
  • 20% agree that ‘it’s exciting to watch’ – 44% disagree
  • 16% agree that ‘MPs behave professionally’ at PMQs – 48% disagree
  • 12% agree that PMQs ‘makes me proud of our Parliament’ – 45% disagree

Reaction to the report in the UK has been quite interesting. Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, has long called for an overhaul of PMQs. For example, he delivered a speech to the Centre for Parliamentary Studies back in 2010 wherein he provides an interesting history of how Prime Minister’s Questions has evolved, looks at past (failed) attempts to reform it, and outlines what he considers to be the main problems with PMQs today:

We reached the point where almost nothing was deemed beyond the personal responsibility of the Prime Minister of the day, where the party leaders were responsible for a third of all the questions asked (and often more like 50 to 60% of the total time consumed) all set against a background of noise which makes the vuvuzela trumpets of the South African World Cup appear but distant whispers by comparison. If it is scrutiny at all, then it is scrutiny by screetch which is a very strange concept to my mind. The academic analysis does not make for enjoyable reading either. A survey by the Regulatory Policy Institute of all PMQs posed in 2009 concluded that the Prime Minister had answered only 56 per cent of all questions asked of him. If it seems harsh to cite Gordon Brown in this fashion then it should be observed that the same survey determined that only 56 per cent of the questions asked of him were actually genuine questions in the first place. What the detailed exercise revealed, depressingly, was that PMQs had become a litany of attacks, soundbites and planted questions from across the spectrum. It was emphatically not an act of scrutiny conducted in a civilised manner.

Speaker Bercow also identifies three steps that could be taken to address what ails PMQs, namely:

  1. Change the culture. “It would require the Prime Minister and a new Leader of the Opposition, as so nearly happened in 1994, to agree on a common understanding of behaviour, one which offered teeth to our existing code of conduct which states unequivocally that “Members shall at all times conduct themselves in a manner which will tend to maintain and strengthen the public’s trust and confidence in the integrity of Parliament and never undertake any action which would bring the House of Commons, or its Members generally, into disrepute”.”
  2. Shift the focus back to backbenchers. “If the session is to remain 30-minutes long, the next Leader of the Opposition could usefully ask whether he or she truly needed as many as six questions of the Prime Minister in order to land a blow or whether, in the spirit of Margaret Thatcher in the late 1970s, three or four would do instead.”
  3. The content of the encounter. “Is it the right device for ensuring effective scrutiny? Does it need to be supplemented by other institutions? Are open questions posed in the vain attempt to catch a Prime Minister out actually the best means of inquiry?”

In response to the recent Hansard Society report, Speaker Bercow sent a letter to the three party leaders asking them to curb the “yobbish” behavious of their own MPs during PMQs. He has received favourable responses from both the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats, and a more cautious reply from Prime Minister Cameron. Some MPs are in full agreement with both the Hansard Society report and Speaker Bercow, while others have essentially told him to stop whining about PMQs.

There have been many suggestions put forward regarding how to improve PMQs, both on blog posts and in the comments section on media coverage of the Hansard Society report. Some of the suggestions put forward on this blog post on the Liberal Democrat Voice blog are quite typical. The most popular seems to be giving the Speaker more power to make the PM actually answer the question asked/allow the speaker to decide that a question hasn’t been answered. While understandable that people get frustrated by non-answers that don’t directly address the content of the question asked (and the problem is far greater during the Canadian House of Commons Question Period), there is a problem here. In some instances, it will be very obvious that the PM’s answer completely ignores the main (or entire) thrust of the question. In other instances, however, this will be less obvious. The reality is that the Speaker is not in a position to know if a question has been “properly” or “fully” answered because he or she is not the minister and is not briefed on that matter and simply does not know how much information the minister is in a position to make public at that time. That would call for a subjective judgement call by the Speaker, which no Speaker would want to have to do.

In fairness, Speaker Bercow has shut down the Prime Minister on a few occasions when his answer has started to deviate into obvious non-answer territory, for example, in this exchange from 6 November 2013:

John Cryer (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): Many women face discrimination at work when they become pregnant, so how will charging them £1,200 to go to an industrial tribunal help them? Before the Prime Minister has another attack of the Lyntons and starts talking about all the dreadful trade unionists on the Opposition side of the House, I should like to make it clear that I am a trade unionist and damn proud of it.

The Prime Minister: Millions of people in our country can be very proud of being trade unionists. The problem is that they are led so badly by bully-boys—[Interruption.] They are led so badly by people who seem to condone intimidating families, intimidating witnesses and intimidating the Leader of the Opposition. That is what we have come to with Unite. They pick the candidates, choose the policy, pick the leader and bully him till they get what they want.

Mr Speaker: Order. Actually, I think the question was about tribunals, if memory serves. [Interruption.] No. It is a good idea to try to remember the essence of the question that was put.

There has also been much concern expressed over “planted” questions. It’s important to understand that planted questions in PMQs aren’t quite the same sort of planted or lob-ball questions Canadians witness from government party backbenchers in the Canadian House of Commons. It is important to remember that which MPs get to ask questions during PMQs is determined by a lottery, therefore the party whips have no control over which or how many of their MPs will get called on. Yes, there are attempts by Number 10 to suggest questions Conservative MPs might want to consider asking, but as I explained in that post, few MPs agree. However, that doesn’t stop some government backbenchers from willingly asking questions that are framed in a way to highlight something positive that the government has done. They do this for a couple of reasons: first, it can be an attempt to ingratiate themselves with the party leadership in the hopes of future promotion, and second, they often use them to highlight something in their own riding and thus promote themselves to their constituents. An example of this could be this question from the Conservative MP from Portsmouth North on 29 January 2014:

Penny Mordaunt (Portsmouth North) (Con): Portsmouth is an entrepreneurial city, delivering a drop of 25% in jobseeker’s allowance claimants over the past year. With this in mind, is the Prime Minister aware of a commercial plan put forward to the Department of Energy and Climate Change to build a number of specialist vessels designed to revolutionise and facilitate the industrialisation of the tidal energy sector? Does he agree that Portsmouth would be an excellent place to build those ships?

The Prime Minister: First, may I congratulate my hon. Friend on everything she has done in recent weeks to highlight the importance of Portsmouth and all matters maritime, in the broadest sense of the word?

I am aware of this interesting project, and I understand there will be a meeting with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills shortly. It is testament to the excellent reputation of Portsmouth that there is so much interest in this commercial sector, which my hon. Friend, I and the whole Government want to see expand. The appointment of a Minister for Portsmouth, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon), will make a big difference. It is good news that the youth claimant count has fallen so quickly in Portsmouth, but we must stick to the economic plan and keep delivering for Portsmouth.

Who is to say if that was a planted question, or one that the Member willingly wanted to ask as it highlighted both her government’s work and her constituency? It certainly isn’t as blatantly “planted” as this exchange from the Canadian House of Commons question period (19 November 2013) which is little more than an excuse to attack the leader of the Liberal Party:

Ms. Joan Crockatt (Calgary Centre, CPC): Mr. Speaker, when it comes to protecting children, our government’s record is unequivocal. We have already passed mandatory prison sentences for child sexual offences, including aggravated sexual assault and Internet luring. Unbelievably, yesterday, when the Liberal leader was asked whether he would repeal these tougher sentences, he said, that he wouldn’t rule out repealing mandatory minimums for anyone. While the Liberals waffle, can the Minister of Justice explain how our government will strengthen sentencing for child sexual offenders?

Hon. Peter MacKay (Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, CPC): Mr. Speaker, while sexual assault against children in Canada is actually on the rise, hearing that the Liberal leader is talking about repealing mandatory sentences for sexual predators is, frankly, appalling. Both Liberal and Conservative governments have passed mandatory prison sentences. This includes an omnibus crime bill that was introduced in 1968 by—wait for it—the then justice minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Our government will soon introduce legislation to ensure multiple child sex offenders serve consecutive sentences. I hope that the Liberal Party and all parties present will support this important protection for Canadian children.

The BBC ponders if PMQs really is getting worse in this rather lengthy piece. The consensus seems to be that things have indeed deteriorated since the 1980s. In another BBC piece, the Spectator’s Isabel Hardman looks into the issue, essentially arguing that passionate debate is to be preferred over decorous, consensual debate. She raises the example of Winston Churchill refusing to rebuild the bombed Commons with a circular Chamber because too many earnest parliaments had been destroyed by “the group system.” She also notes that parliament offers plenty of decorous, respectful debate – and no one turns out to watch it. This last point is very true. The House of Commons is always packed for PMQs, with some MPs even sitting in the aisles because there isn’t enough room on the benches to accommodate them all. This presents a sharp contrast with almost all other proceedings in the House – including the departmental oral questions, which are often quite sparsely attended.

My main concern is the fascination Canadians have with PMQs, and the quite prevalent desire to adopt something similar here. In my view, PMQs is the least interesting procedure on offer in the UK House of Commons. I would much rather see the adoption of the rota system for questions to ministers, the introduction of urgent questions, reformed ministerial statements, and changes to the committees system. I don’t see how adopting the most boorish proceeding the UK House of Commons has to offer will improve anything here in Canada.

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On stage-managed oral questions

The British daily, The Telegraph, has revealed a series of emails from the Prime Minister’s parliamentary private secretary (PPS) to government backbenchers suggesting questions they could ask the PM during the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs). Luckily, most backbenchers refused to play along.

Canadians are well aware that party whips fully control Question Period in the Canadian House of Commons. They not only control which members of their caucus will ask questions by providing a list to the Speaker of which members to call, and in what order, but they also control what those members will ask by providing them with the question. This is why it is extremely rare to hear any MP ask a question specific to their constituency or concerning a problem faced by one of their constituents.

The process for oral questions in the UK is very different.

First of all, the parties have no control over which MPs will be able to ask questions, either during PMQs or during the daily departmental questions. MPs who want to ask a question of a minister have to submit their question in advance, usually about three business days. Once a Member tables a question, it is included in a random computer shuffle used to determine the order in which questions will appear on the Order of Business. You can see the Order of Business for future Oral Questions here.

Once the deadline for receipt of questions has passed, all of the oral questions received in time are put into a ballot, essentially a lottery to determine which ones will be asked. This lottery is completely random and blind to such things as party affiliation of the Member, seniority, method of tabling the questions, time of submission, or even the results of previous lotteries, meaning that one MP could be very lucky and be drawn several weeks in a row, while other MPs will go weeks without being drawn. This lottery is conducted not once, but twice, using two distinct, sequenced and individually random processes (one physical and one electronic), to produce the final list. Once the questions have been shuffled they are numbered consecutively up to the quota. Even the slots for the topical questions are drawn, even though the questions themselves are not pre-submitted.

So the party leadership has no control over which of its members will be asking questions of a minister. The Speaker does follow a list, but it is the list drawn up through the ballot process, not determined by the party whips. And the Speaker has full control over which Members to call for supplementary questions.

At the start of that day’s oral questions, the Speaker will call the Member whose question is first on the printed Order of Business. The Member stands up and says, “Number one, Mister Speaker.” As the text of the question is set out on the Order of Business it is not necessary for the Member to read it out. To follow the proceedings clearly it is necessary to have a copy to hand. The Minister then answers the question.

After the Minister has responded to the original tabled question, the MP who asked that question is normally the first to be called to ask a follow-up (supplementary) question on the same subject. When that supplementary has been answered by the Minister, the Speaker may call other Members to put forward supplementaries, usually alternating between the Government and Opposition sides of the House. Quite often, Members will rise from their seats in order to attract the Speaker’s attention. This is known as “catching the Speaker’s eye”. Sometimes, a Minister chooses to give a single reply to two or more questions on the Order Paper relating to the same topic. In that event, the Speaker will usually call for supplementaries from those Members whose questions have been answered together.

The process for PMQs is the same, except the questions aren’t pre-submitted. The first question is always the same one:  “If he will list his official engagements for (the day’s date)”  and all of the other questions are technically supplementaries to that first question.

The only exception to this process occurs during PMQs, where the Leader of the Opposition is guaranteed six questions. During departmental questions, the opposition shadow critics aren’t guaranteed any slots. They will either gain a spot via the ballot process, or else come in on supplementaries.

It is largely due to this process that it is very common to hear British MPs ask ministers questions about issues facing their constituencies, or to raise problems facing constituents, and why ministers, including the PM, can’t take their backbenchers for granted. While some government backbenchers will ask questions designed to flatter the government moreso than hold it to account, the situation is nowhere near as bad as it is here in Canada. Maybe it’s time we got the party whips out of our nation’s question period?

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A few thoughts on the Liberal Party’s Senate announcement

Much ado this week regarding the Liberal Party of Canada’s announcement that its 32 Liberals in the Senate would henceforth sit as independents, that if and when they form the government, they would set up an independent commission to oversee all future Senate appointments, and that all future Senators appointed that way would be independents.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have long advocated setting up an independent body to oversee Senate appointments, something modelled on the House of Lords Appointments Commission (HOLAC) which was set up in the United Kingdom in 2000. Consequently, I heartily approve of this initiative. Some comments on Twitter and elsewhere questioned the constitutionality of having an independent commission make the appointments, or more specifically, advising the Governor General on who should be appointed. I don’t see that the process would work that way at all.

If we use HOLAC as our model, the Commission would assess nominations against specific criteria. The nomination process itself would be open to anyone – you could even nominate yourself, as long as you met the criteria. The selection criteria HOLAC uses is quite specific. They seek nominees:

  • with the ability to make an effective and significant contribution to the work of the House of Lords, not only in their areas of particular interest and special expertise, but the wide range of other issues coming before the House;
  • with a record of significant achievement within their chosen way of life that demonstrates a range of experience, skills and competencies;
  • who are willing to commit the time necessary to make an effective contribution to the work of the House of Lords. The Commission recognises that many active members continue with their professional and other working interests and this can help maintain expertise and experience;
  • with some understanding of the constitutional framework, including the place of the House of Lords, and the skills and qualities needed to be an effective member of the House – for example, nominees should be able to speak with independence and authority;
  • who are able to demonstrate outstanding personal qualities, in particular, integrity and independence;
  • with a strong and personal commitment to the principles and highest standards of public life;
  • who are and intend to remain independent of any political party. Nominees and the Commission will need to feel confident of their ability to be independent of party-political considerations whatever their past party-political involvement. For this reason, all nominees are asked to respond to the questions on political involvement and activities which are similar to those used for most public appointments;
  • who are resident in the UK for tax purposes and accept the requirement to remain so.

Of course, we could develop our own criteria for the Senate, but I would hope it would be something along the same lines. The actual appointing of Senators would still be left to the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister. The way I would see the process working is quite simple. There is a vacancy for a Senator from the province of Ontario. The Senate Appointments Commission (SAC) reviews nominees from that province, vets them, and comes up with a shortlist of 4 or 5 candidates. That list is provided to the Prime Minister, who would make the final selection from the short-list and advise the Governor General accordingly. To the best of my knowledge, there is nothing in the Constitution governing how the Prime Minister selects an individual for a Senate appointment; consequently, being provided by a shortlist of candidates by an independent commission would not be unconstitutional, and it would certainly be a far more transparent and accountable process than what currently transpires.

The bigger issue is perhaps making the Senate completely non-partisan. I don’t dislike the idea at all, but I also don’t object to appointed Senators having a party affiliation. That said, I do believe that their party affiliation should not be the main reason why they were appointed. In other words, their appointment should not be a partisan decision made for partisan purposes. I also think the Senate would benefit greatly from having crossbenchers, as is the case in the UK House of Lords and the Australian Senate. Crossbenchers aren’t necessarily independents in the way we understand it; in both the UK and Australia, while they do include persons with no party affiliation, they also include persons representing smaller parties (i.e parties which will most likely never form a government).

Some have asked how a future Liberal Government would get legislation passed in a non-partisan Senate. The same way it should expect to get legislation passed now: by presenting good pieces of legislation and being willing to accept amendments proposed by the Senate to improve the legislation.

There is an attitude that seems to be prevail in Canada that a government, in particular one with a majority, must ultimately be able to get its legislative business. That is nonsense. A government is entitled to put its legislative business to the House. It is not entitled to get its legislative business. It has to put its legislative proposals in front of the House of Commons and then the Senate. The job of the House of Commons and the Senate is to scrutinize and process them. Those bills that the government can win a majority for will succeed; those which it cannot will either be amended or defeated. In the House of Commons, if a party forms a majority government, that process is too often a moot point because government backbenchers never dissent. That means it is up to the Senate to fulfill that role. The House of Lords regularly defeats sections of bills (sometimes entire bills) put forward by the government of the day. This is not only accepted, it is expected. The Constitution Unit keeps a running tally of Government defeats in the House of Lords going back to the 2005-2006 session. So that is how legislation would be passed in a non-partisan (or much less partisan) Senate.

Those are my initial reactions. I am fully in favour of an independent appointments commission, and not opposed to, but not entirely sold on, the idea of an entirely non-partisan Senate. Right now, party affiliation is essentially the only reason someone is appointed to the Senate. I personally think that screening candidates by an independent body against specific criteria would mitigate partisanship significantly, and that is why I don’t think it would be necessary to then force individuals to sit as independents. But given that this is all hypothetical at the moment, I reserve the right to change my mind down the road.

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Coalition government: not liked, but expected

A few years ago, I wrote a post exploring why the very idea of  coalition government became such a negative thing in Canada. I’ve also written a number of posts explaining that, in the United Kingdom, coalition government has become the expected outcome in the event of a general election which results in a hung parliament (this being the most recent one).

UK polling firm Ipsos Mori today released its Political Monitor January 2014. Along with the usual data regarding voting intentions and satisfaction with the various party leaders and the economy, there are some very interesting numbers regarding the outcome of future elections.

A majority (51%) of those polled believe that the 2015 general election will result in another coalition government. That belief is strongest amongst Conservative (58%) and Liberal Democrat (66%) supporters. Labour Party supporters are less likely to think that will be the outcome (42%) – most likely because their party continues to lead in the polls.

But while a majority think there will be another coalition government in 2015, that doesn’t mean they like the idea. A strong majority, 60%, believe it’s a bad thing that no party achieved an overall majority in the 2010 election. That percentage has increased gradually since May 2010, when 52% thought it was a bad thing that no party had won an overall majority. And when asked about the 2015 election, 65% of those polled believe it will be a bad thing if that election again results in a hung parliament. Unsurprisingly, Liberal Democrat supporters are the only ones who overwhelmingly think hung parliaments are a good thing (55%). Supporters of the two largest parties, the Conservatives and Labour are equally unenthusiastic about hung parliaments, with only 21% thinking that it’s a good thing if no party wins an overall majority.

Ipsos Mori then asked supporters of each party who their preferred coalition partner would be from amongst the other parties, should the 2015 election result in a hung parliament. Conservative supporters strongly favoured a resumption of the current coalition with the Liberal Democrats (70%). Only 40% strongly supported a coalition with UKIP – assuming of course that UKIP even wins any seats in 2015. Labour supporters were almost equally supportive of a coalition with either the Liberal Democrats (62%) or the Greens (63%). Given that the Greens have only one seat in the current Parliament, and that is unlikely to change much in 2015, a coalition with the Green Party is not very likely. Liberal Democrat supporters actually favoured the Conservatives (65%) over Labour (53%) as coalition partners. That might surprise some. There is wide-spread assumption in the UK that the Liberal Democrats are a left-wing party, one that would more naturally align itself with Labour. I’ve never quite understood why people feel that way – the LibDems have always struck me as a very centrist party, even slightly right-of-centre in terms of economic policy. That their supporters more strongly favour the Conservatives as coalition partners possibly confirms my views. Or it could simply be a reaction to having had to endure a lot of abuse from Labour politicians and supporters since entering into a coalition with the Tories in 2010.

My interest in this is again to point out how the idea of coalition government has become, if not liked, at least accepted in the UK. The political parties and their supporters at least grudgingly acknowledge that it’s not only a viable alternative to single-party minority government in the event of a hung parliament, but perhaps a preferable option. Labour and Conservative supporters would certainly prefer that their party form a majority government on its own, there is no doubt about that. But the current coalition has demonstrated a couple of things: 1) despite constant predictions that it would fall apart, it hasn’t, and 75% of those surveyed believe it will last until May 2015 (only 40% thought that in July 2012); and 2) it has provided stable government during a difficult economic period. In other words, while it hasn’t always been pretty, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government has worked. And ultimately, isn’t that what matters most?

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Other reforms of Parliament are more urgently needed than electoral reform

A reader left the following comment on my post about the Reform Act’s proposals for party leader selection:

While there is much to be said for the concept of MPs having more weight than the average party member in selecting a leader, this assumes that the MPs are properly representative of the party’s voters. Because of our skewed winner-take-all vopting system, this is far from the case. As Stephane Dion never tires of pointing out, our voting system “makes our major parties appear less national and our regions more politically opposed than they really are.” It “artificially amplifies the regional concentration of political party support at the federal level. This regional amplification effect benefits parties with regionally concentrated support and, conversely, penalizes parties whose support is spread across the country without dominating anywhere.”

The Conservative “equality of ridings” provision ensures that representative from Quebec cast about 25% of the votes in a leadership contest. If the caucus elected the leader, Quebec representatives would cast 3% of the votes. Stephane Dion would be quick to say that this “weakens Canada’s cohesion.”

First things first. Once we have a fair, modern voting system that lets all votes count equally toward electing MPs, the caucus might be entrusted with more weight in selecting a leader. Not until then.

Many others have expressed a similar view, that electoral reform is a far more pressing issue. However, I disagree, and I think the above misses a couple of critical points: first, that the Canadian Parliament does not work properly; and second, that electoral reform will not only fail to address those very major problems, but might even exacerbate them.

Let me begin by stating that I am not against the idea of electoral reform; I have written a number of posts outlining some of the problems inherent with the use of single-member plurality (or First-Past-the-Post – FPTP as it is more commonly known) in a multi-party state such as Canada (and the UK). However, the problems facing the Canadian House of Commons have very little to do with the electoral system. The main problems (in my view at least) are as follows:

  • the absolute control of party leadership over caucus members;
  • the absolute control of political parties over too many proceedings;
  • the abuse of certain procedures such as time allocation by the Executive.

When people talk of the need for electoral reform, most refer to PR — proportional representation — without specifying exactly what they mean by that. Unlike FPTP, proportional representation is not a single voting system — there are probably as many variations of PR as there are countries which use it. Most, if not all, forms of PR enhance the role of the party, in that you end up with some MPs who are not directly elected by anyone. Those who advocate for electoral reform above any other reform regularly criticize FPTP by hauling out the usual “In the last election, 39% of the vote resulted in 100% of power” or “millions of votes didn’t count!” arguments.

The problem with these arguments is that they ignore how our system works. We don’t vote for a government. We don’t elect a government. We elect individuals to represent each riding as an MP, that collection of individual MPs forms a Parliament, and the Parliament determines who will form the government. Rather than view a general election as one election, it really should be viewed as 308 (soon to be 338) individual elections.

This is why the argument that “39% of the vote shouldn’t equal 100% of the power” misses the point. You can’t focus on a “national” percentage of the vote for each party – it’s irrelevant because there is no national party or government vote on the ballot. You have to focus on each individual race in each individual constituency.

If you take this approach to it, then yes, every vote most certainly did count. In a very close three- or four-way race, as in Ahuntsic back in 2011, where the final tally was:

  • Bloc Quebecois – 14,908 or 31.8%,
  • NDP – 14,200 or 30.3%,
  • Liberal – 13,087 or 27.9%

every vote most certainly did count, was counted, and at the end of the count, the BQ candidate ended up with the most votes. Now you can certainly make the argument that no one should be elected with less than 50% of the vote, but it doesn’t change the fact that Athuntsic was very competitive and every single vote mattered and was counted and a winner emerged — the candidate with the most votes. And that was repeated in the other 307 separate elections that were held. Some were runaway victories for one candidate — and in those cases, that candidate would have won the seat no matter what voting system we had in place, while others were like Ahuntsic. Others were even closer still, tight two-way battles won by a handful of votes. How can you argue that in those instances, votes didn’t matter? Each one did — a lot. The winner may not have won with over 50% of the votes cast, but every single vote was counted and mattered.

It’s really not fair (or right) to say “votes don’t count” under FPTP — they do. Even if we had a preferential ballot (where candidates are ranked in order of preference, and votes transferred based on those preferences until one candidate has over 50%), there would be people who would not have ranked the candidate who ultimately wins, or maybe would have ranked that candidate last — yet you wouldn’t say their vote didn’t count. Under most forms of Mixed-Member Proportional, the bulk of MPs are still elected using FPTP — the only difference is that each party’s seat total is then topped up with list MPs (whom NOBODY votes for) based on the party’s percentage of the overall vote.

The problem with most forms of PR, because they involve list MPs chosen by the party leadership to fill seats assigned to the party to ensure its percentage of seats in the House more closely matches the overall percentage of the vote received by that party, is that the party becomes even more dominant. Look at New Zealand, for example. As one extreme example, in New Zealand, party votes — which are most votes in the House — are cast based on the number of MPs that party has. If a party has 10 MPs and indicates it will support a certain bill, the party vote is an automatic 10 in favour – and the MPs don’t even have to be in the Chamber when the vote occurs.

FPTP is not the real problem. The UK uses FPTP and their Parliament — while certainly not perfect — operates so much better in so many ways than does the Canadian Parliament. If you follow UK politics closely, as I do, you will reguarly see both political analysts and readers bemoaning how whipped their MPs are; yet compared to Canadian MPs, British MPs appear incredibly independent and even rebellious. If we had far more independent MPs — and by independent, I don’t mean persons elected as Independents, but MPs willing to act more independently/less like party automatons, then our current system could work better. If backbenchers from the governing party understood that they were not part of government and were willing to actually hold the the government to account and vote against it now and then when they believed it was in the best interests of the constituents to do so, as they do in the UK, then even a single-party majority government wouldn’t be able to exercise the same level of power that they currently do. In the UK, it’s not uncommon for governments with even large majorities to see legislation to pass by only a handful of votes because a good number of the governing party’s own backbenchers vote against it. This has been particularly true with the Coalition government (for obvious reasons — Conservative backbenchers feel less “loyalty” to the government since it’s not a Conservative government), but was also true on more than one occasion during the Labour majorities. Blair suffered a number of important backbench rebellions on key pieces of legislation, which in some cases passed by only a handful of votes, or because there was enough support from MPs from other parties to make up for the number of Labour MPs who dissented. Our problem isn’t so much FPTP, but a combination of excessive and abusive party discipline and a need to reform some of the House of Commons’ current practices to lessen the power of the executive vis-à-vis the legislature.

What reforms do I think would be needed here in Canada?

First, increase the number of MPs. While the next election will see a larger House – 338 MPs instead of the current 308, I would like to increase the number of MPs by a significant margin – at least by 100, preferably by as many as 150. One of the biggest problems here is that it is too easy for the party leadership to “reward” their MPs with positions, thus ensuring their compliance. In the UK House of Commons, with its 650 MPs, the leadership of the two main parties simply cannot exert the same level of control – there simply aren’t enough positions to hand out. Let me illustrate the problem.

The current Conservative caucus in the House of Commons in Ottawa numbers 162 MPs. One of those is the Speaker, which brings the total down to 161 MPs. Of that number, 70 would be what is called the “payroll vote” – the PM, Cabinet and the parliamentary secretaries. That is 43% of the caucus. On top of that, 24 of the House of Commons’ 28 committees are chaired by Conservatives. Now, committee chairs are elected by the committee members, but the committee membership is appointed by the party leadership. There are only 44 Conservative MPs who are NOT members of any committee — those who are in Cabinet (39), the Speaker, and four other MPs — two of whom were elected in by-elections only in November of last year and probably haven’t had a chance to be assigned to a committee yet. That means that there are only 4 members of the Conservative Party caucus who have no role in the House other than being an MP (not counting the Speaker). More importantly, this means that there are only four members of the Conservative caucus who haven’t been “awarded” a role by the party’s leadership. The situation would be similar (and even worse) for the other parties in the House given that they have smaller caucuses. However, it matters more, perhaps, for the Conservatives since they form the government. The Conservative backbench MPs are not part of the government; they are simply MPs whose task it is to hold the government to account — same as the Opposition parties. However, because all but a handful of them have been appointed to one position or another by their party leader, they don’t do this. The issue of the payroll vote is one that is regularly raised in the UK — even by MPs themselves (see this article from 2011 by Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston). I can’t recall seeing much, if any, discussion of the issue here in Canada.

This would lead to my second reform: change how committee members and chairs are selected. In the UK House of Commons, the issue of the pay-roll vote is a major one, as explained in detail in this article. That said, however, recent reforms all but eliminated the influence of the party leadership in committees. I have explained these reforms in detail in this post, but to summarize, Select Committee chairs are now elected by the whole House using ranked ballots. Party caucuses elect which of their members will sit on each committee. This has led to Commons Select Committees being far more independent, willing to engage in a series of important inquiries, newsworthy, and, in many ways, far less partisan. There is a greater sense that they are accountable to the Commons as a whole, rather than trying to advance their parties’ respective interests. A Private Member’s bill has been put forward in Ottawa proposing a similar reform for the Canadian House of Commons.

Reform #3: Get the parties out of Question Period. Question Period in the Canadian House of Commons is, at best, a farce. It is completely controlled by the parties. Each party decides which of its MPs will ask a question, in what order they will ask the question, and even write the questions out that the MPs will ask. The Speaker has the power to call on any MP in any order, but rarely does so; he or she follows the lists provided by the party whips. In the UK, MPs submit their questions in advance, and these questions are drawn in a shuffle to determine which MPs will get to ask a question and in what order. What difference does this make? MPs are free to ask questions that matter to them and to their constituents. It is very common to hear MPs in the UK House of Commons ask ministers — including the PM — questions that are about a problem in their riding, or about a problem facing one of their constituents. You never hear that in the Canadian House of Commons. Also, questions in the UK are submitted at least three days ahead of the scheduled departmental question time to allow the ministers to prepare thoughtful answers. This in turn means that the questions do actually get answered, unlike in the Canadian House of Commons where a minister is as likely to answer with an attack on the opposition rather than address the actual question.

Reform #4: Bring in Urgent Questions and UK-style Ministerial Statements. You can read about both of those procedures in this earlier post.

Reform #5: Adopt the proposals put forward in the Reform Act. You can read my various posts about the Reform Act for more information.

The pressing problem here is that the Canadian House of Commons cannot carry out its duties of scrutiny and seeking information effectively. Changing the voting system will not address this; in fact, depending on which form of PR were to be adopted, it could worsen the situation by making the role of parties even more central to everything. The most democratic voting system in the world will mean nothing if the legislative body to which MPs are elected cannot function efficiently and effectively. Parliamentary and procedural reform are needed far more urgently. And the simple reality is that it might be easier to address the party control and discipline issues and need for Standing Order changes than to ever get any type of PR adopted.

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Collective ministerial responsibility: a brief history

I am currently engaged in a fairly major research project, which requires that I delve into many older texts looking at the evolution of parliament and its many conventions and procedures. One such book is A.H. Birch’s Representative and Responsible Government: an Essay on the British Constitution, which was published in 1964.

Birch provides a very interesting history of how the convention of collective ministerial responsibility evolved.

The convention of collective ministerial responsibility holds that the Cabinet is collectively responsible to the people, through the Parliament, for determining and implementing policies for national government. Broadly, it is required by convention that all Ministers must be prepared to accept collective responsibility for, and defend publicly, the policies and actions of the Government. Part of this, of course, requires that the loss of a want of confidence motion or on a major issue – such as the Budget -  is expected to lead to the resignation of the whole Government.

According to Birch, the idea or concept of collective responsibility was advocated as early as 1739, when then Prime Minister Robert Walpole told the House of Commons that the ministry should be accountable to Parliament, and when he was defeated in a Parliamentary vote in 1742, he resigned. However, Birch argues that it was only with the passage of the Reform Act of 1832 that the convention was firmly established.Three developments were necessary for this to occur:

  1. the effective unity of the cabinet;
  2. the effective control of the cabinet by the Prime Minister; and
  3. the understanding that if the cabinet were defeated in Parliament on a major issue or a vote of confidence, the Prime Minister would have no choice but to resign or ask for a dissolution.

We take the first two points – that the cabinet is united and that the PM controls the cabinet – for granted today, but as Birch explains, this was not always the case. Birch suggests that cabinet unity was established between 1780 and 1815. The first collective resignation of a ministry occurred in 1782. William Pitt, Prime Minister from 1783 to 1800, did “a great deal to develop the convention that cabinet ministers, whatever their private disagreements, should present a united front.” For example, he secured the resignation of the Lord Chancellor in 1792 after the latter had criticized the PM’s policies in the House. In 1812, “an attempt to form a government drawn from opposed groups was rejected as ‘inconsistent with the prosecution of any uniform and beneficial course of policy’.” Birch argues that since 1815, public disagreements between ministers have been rare, even though political memoirs and other sources make it clear that private disagreements were (and are) quite frequent. Birch also writes that since 1832, “there has been no occasion on which cabinet ministers have disagreed in public.” Of course, Birch wrote this in 1964. There have been a number of fairly public disagreements within the current UK Government, but given that it is a coalition government, this is perhaps not surprising (although in fairness, many of the disagreements have been between ministers from the same party and not conflicts between Liberal Democrat and Conservative ministers). It is an issue of concern for some, however; it is one of the key points being studied by the House of Lords Constitution Committee during its inquiry into the constitutional implications of coalition government.

The powers of the Prime Minister within the British and Canadian political structure have developed in recent decades to such an extent that some political analysts now refer to these countries as having a Prime Ministerial government rather than a Cabinet government. As Birch points out, the situation used to be very different. According to Birch, it was only when William Pitt became Prime Minister that the position of Prime Minister became ascendant over that of the monarch, facilitated in no small part by the declining mental health of George III. Prior to 1783, the position of Prime Minister was overshadowed by the power of the monarch. Cabinet ministers were “the King’s ministers”: they had separate access to the King and more importantly, perhaps, the King could actually dismiss a prime minister and appoint one of his former colleagues in his place. William IV, who succeded George III, did not make any attempt to yield the same sort of power over cabinet that George III had. When the young Victoria ascended to the throne in 1837, at age 18, she and Prime Minister Lord Melbourne developed a close relationship, with the prime minister tutoring the new queen in government and politics. From that point forward, the Prime Minister was in control of the cabinet.

The final necessary development was the understanding that the Prime Minister should resign or ask for a dissolution if his or her ministry is defeated in Parliament. This understanding did not exist when Pitt became Prime Minister in 1783, and indeed, he refused to resign during the first few years of his ministry despite many defeats in Parliament. Attitudes gradually changed, however; in 1830, Wellington resigned when his ministry lost a vote and faced another one on a much more important motion. After the passage of the Reform Act of 1832, “it quickly became regarded as axiomatic that the government must respond to a Parliamentary defeat on a major issue.”

Thus, between Pitt’s appointment in 1783 and the passage of the Reform Act of 1832, the three conditions necessary for the establishment of of the convention of collective responsibility fell into place. And it was strengthened in no small way by the nature of party politics at that time. Party discipline in Parliament was very weak – bordering on non-existent. As Birch explains, between the first and second Reform Acts (1832-1867):

the question was not one of discipline, for the means to enforce this did not yet exist: the question was one of the influence that leaders could bring to bear on their Parliamentary supporters. And, as Bagehot noted in 1867, ‘the power of leaders of their followers is strictly and wisely limited: they can take their followers but a little way, and that only in certain directions.

Indeed, during that time period, several party leaders would change sides between one ministry and the next.

It was against that background, during the middle decades of the 19th century, that the collective responsibility of the cabinet to Parliament because a central feature of British politics. Between 1832 and 1867, ten governments were brought down by defeats in the Commons. In eight of these instances, the Prime Minister resigned and in the other two cases, he sought and was granted a dissolution. More interestingly, perhaps, is that not one government lasted the entire life of a Parliament, from one general election to the next. The House of Commons truly was, as Bagehot noted, “a real choosing body; it elects the people it likes. And it dismisses whom it likes too.”

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