Balancing Canada’s constitution: a proposal for Senate reform (pt.2)

(The following is part 2 of a two-part post by guest blogger JD Mussel. You can read part 1 here. JD is a Dutch-Israeli undergraduate student at Leiden University College in the Hague, the Netherlands. He is majoring in policy science with a focus on constitutional design. He frequently contributes to the political science blog Fruits and Votes. JD’s opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of this blog’s administrator.)

Part 2: The specifics of Senate reform and their effects

In my previous post I discussed the problems of majoritarianism and the resulting executive dominance in Canada’s system of government. In this post I will explore in detail my specific recommendations for reform, as well as the way in which they would empower the Senate to fulfil its role of balancing out the power of the government and holding it to account, all the while better representing Provincial interests.

Creating bicameral incongruence

An interesting question is by what formula the Provinces should be represented in the Senate; it would be reasonable to think that a different basis of representation, such as equal representation for each province, could make the partisan composition of the Senate become incongruent to that of the Commons. However, such change to the current situation is not critical, much less sufficient for that end. Instead, the decisive factor would be the method of appointment or election, which must be one which makes a one-party majority very unlikely.

One way to appoint Senators that is likely to both create intercameral incongruence and a ‘Provinces’ chamber’ would be appointment by Provincial governments or legislatures. The main drawback of this solution would be an entanglement of provincial and federal politics, eliminating the separation between the two which is one of the advantages of federalism. People would no longer be able to vote in provincial elections without effecting the federal government. In the long term, this strongly incentivises federal parties to take over control of the provincial party systems, which would severely undermine any role the Senate may at first have as an agent of the Provinces’ interests.

The way forward would appear to be direct elections. In order to prevent governments from winning upper-house majorities – the absolutely crucial part of the equation – the electoral system should be some form of proportional representation. In order to avoid excessive party domination, it would be a good idea to choose a candidate-based PR system, such as the single transferable vote (STV). This fully candidate-based proportional system would inject a dose of intraparty competition that is not only likely to weaken the parties, but strengthen the role of provincial interests. The way for candidates to compete against other candidates of the same party is to differentiate themselves by catering to particularistic interests of the electoral district, in this case – the Provinces. Meanwhile, the degree of choice voters have under STV in ranking candidates from various parties (very much unlike the first-part-the-post used for elections to the House of Commons) is also commendable, and is more likely to result in the election of independents than other PR systems. The result of this electoral system should be a diverse representation of the electorate, with a majority for any single party becoming a highly unlikely prospect.

Proposal 1: that the Senate be directly elected, using proportional representation by means of STV

The next question is the election cycle. The best possibility would be to simply to hold Senate elections concurrently with elections to the House of Commons. Such elections would, however, best be staggered, with half of the Senate being elected at each general election, for two main reasons: firstly, it would increase the Senate’s independence by reducing the prime minister’s power to threaten dissolution to one that concerns only the more senior half. Secondly, in combination with proportional representation, it would make it more difficult for a government to achieve a majority in the upper house. Under PR, a party needs close to or over 50% of the vote to win a majority of seats contested – therefore, if Senate elections were staggered, two successive landslide wins would be necessary for a single party to win a Senate majority. Furthermore, longer terms may lead to longer-term thinking in the Senate as a result of the delay in concern for re-election. For these reasons one-half of each Province’s Senators should be elected at each federal parliamentary election, which would currently mean a term of no longer than eight years, while the minimum would depend on the frequency of elections.

Proposal 2: that elections to the Senate be staggered, with one-half elected at each general election; Senators’ terms last from election to the one after next.

Breaking Deadlock

Currently, the Senate’s full power is used only sparingly, due to the way in which it is appointed; there can be no doubt that an elected Senate would be much more assertive. For enabling an effective role for the Senate in review of legislation and government actions the crucial factor is that the Senate retain a large degree of power over legislation. The only reason governments have to co-operate with a Senate’s accountability measures, such as inquiry or information disclosure order is the latter’s potential threat of declining to pass government legislation until the government complies. A house of review with no legislative power would be ineffective, as it could simply be ignored. Likewise, a house that chooses to not exercise its legislative power is also a poor check. Therefore an assertive body of senators is essential to allow the senate to fulfil is role a check on government power.

Nevertheless, for good and effective government, complete deadlock should be avoided. A good mechanism would therefore be needed, in order to resolve disagreements between the Houses and to encourage Senators to work towards a compromise instead of being obstructive. The current formal powers of the Senate are almost symmetrical to that of the House of Commons, with only very few limits, specifically regarding initiative and amendment of money bills. A deadlock-breaking mechanism exists, in a form inspired by the British Constitution: additional appointments can be made (on the prime minister’s advice), limited to either 4 or 8 extra senators. As a deadlock breaker it is simply a way for the government party to come closer to having a majority in the Senate. If the Senate were elected, it is possible that governments will get into the habit of making these appointments at the start of each session, effectively a government bonus in the Senate which has no place in the reformed institution proposed here.

Actually, a certain deadlock-breaking mechanism is already inherent in the election cycle proposed above. Should the two houses disagree on a bill, and the government is well-positioned in the opinion polls to win an election, there’s an incentive for the prime minister to advise a ‘one-and-a-half’ dissolution, whereby the House of Commons and half of the Senate face new elections. This threat would be a potent bargaining tool in the hands of the PM, while also poses its own risks for him. A government which is not faring well in the polls will almost certainly not make use of this avenue. In such a case, there is a greater threat of deadlock; seeing as the Senate can block supply, there is even a threat that the opposition in the Senate will try to bring down the government and force an election. There is a good case for removing the Senate’s power to block supply, which effectively makes the government depend on both houses for funding. It can be argued that the government should only be responsible to one house to avoid the deleterious effects of instability, not to mention government shutdowns. Secondly, one could argue for removal in the interest of the financial efficiency that one-party government promotes; if such a government must compromise with other parties to pass its budget, this potential will decrease. However, a check on the government’s finances is as important as any other for the Senate for checking the government’s power and keeping it accountable.  I would suggest some limitation to the Senate’s power to block supply, so that it cannot veto the bare essentials necessary to fund government, but so that it can still veto radical changes to fiscal policy, including such things as tax increases.

Proposal 3: that the Senate’s power to block supply be somewhat constrained to the effect of preventing government shutdowns as a result of deadlock.

The proposals

Proposal 1: that the Senate be directly elected, using proportional representation by means of STV

Proposal 2: that elections to the Senate be staggered, with one-half elected at each general election; Senators’ terms last from election to the one after next.

Proposal 3: that the Senate’s power to block supply be somewhat constrained, to the effect of preventing government shutdowns as a result of deadlock.

Conclusion: curbing the excesses of the Westminster system

Some readers of this blog will note similarities between the proposal outlined here and the system existing in Australia on the federal level as well as in several states, and indeed, the Australian experience was the inspiration. As in Canada, the Australian government utterly dominates the lower house; but unlike its Canadian counterpart, the Australian Senate, elected through PR, has a very effective review role. The Australian Senate not only improves and moderates legislation, but also holds the government accountable and transparent in various ways, creating checks and balances not present in most versions of the Westminster system.

The Australian system of government, the inspiration for these proposals. Note well the intercameral incongruence, which is created through the use of PR for Senate elections.

The Australian system of government, the inspiration for these proposals. Note well the intercameral incongruence, which is created through the use of PR for Senate elections.

In all probability, a Canadian Senate reconstituted along the lines described above would be similarly empowered to increase scrutiny and oversight, carrying out inquiries and ordering the disclosure of information from the government, thereby checking executive power and increasing transparency. In the new Senate, devoid of a government majority, governments will have to negotiate with other parties to pass much of their legislation. Most proposals should pass with no significant clashes, or with improvements arising from bipartisan collaboration, but more controversial bills will have to be toned down and negotiated to have a chance of success.

Due to the more frequent need to secure compromises, the government’s ex-post accountability before the electorate would be watered down somewhat. Nonetheless, majority governments will remain in a very powerful position; the Senate will be able to constrain a government, but not to force one out. Since the other parties will remain unable to either remove such a government, or pass anything without its concurrence, a majority government would be partly responsible for any proposal that does pass, keeping accountability strong. The situation would of course be different, as it is now, in the case of a minority or ‘hung’ parliament. Such scenarios may sometimes prove trickier for governments than today, but in most cases, if a majority can be secured for some bill in the House, the same parties’ support will also be sufficient in the Senate.

In the long term, elections to the two houses may become strongly defined by the system. Elections to the House of Commons would become more strictly about the choice of government, with more people likely to vote strategically, voting their true preference in the Senate election.  Due to its electoral system, the Senate will almost certainly become more representative of the electorate than the House of Commons. Among its ranks there will be small parties which have great difficulty in capturing seats in the lower house. Such small parties (and independents) will begin focussing on elections to the Senate, where they will have a real chance to influence policy. They may also come to emphasise their role in making the Senate the place where the government is held to account, as the Australian Democrats did with their slogan ‘keep the bastards honest!’ Meanwhile, for the big parties, the distinguishing element of Senate elections would become competition among candidates of the same party (under STV). In order to differentiate themselves, a party’s candidates are will likely compete with each other in terms of bringing various benefits to their province.

Of course, this is not the whole picture; an elected Senate, where the government is permanently in minority, would fundamentally transform Canada’s political equation. Executive dominance, largely the unfortunate side-effect of the Westminster system’s majoritarianism, would be remedied while preserving most of its benefits. While the government, in most cases, should be able to continue to control the House, opposition parties in the Senate will have not only the power, but also the mandate to hold governments to account and subject their policies to a ‘sober second thought’. This, I am convinced, would be the best way of curbing the excesses of the Westminster system – by accomplishing what few of the participants in the FPTP-vs.-PR debate seem to contemplate: an elegant compromise between the accountability of the former and the representativeness of the latter.

Suggested further reading

Platypus and Parliament: The Australian Senate in Theory and Practice

Accountability Versus Government Control: the Effect of Proportional Representation

From breaking governments to a brake on government: a new bicameralism in Victoria?

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Balancing Canada’s constitution: a proposal for Senate reform (pt. 1)

(The following is part 1 of a two-part post by guest blogger JD Mussel. JD is a Dutch-Israeli undergraduate student at Leiden University College in the Hague, the Netherlands. He is majoring in policy science with a focus on constitutional design. He frequently contributes to the political science blog Fruits and Votes. JD’s opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of this blog’s administrator.)

Part 1: Curbing the excesses of majoritarianism

Introduction

Canada has a parliamentary form of government, using first-past-the post to elect the members of its confidence chamber, the House of Commons. Despite the recent period of minority governments from 2004 to 2011, minorities are the exception in Canada as elections usually result in a Commons majority for one party. House majorities don’t usually result from majorities in vote terms, but are manufactured by the majoritarian first-past-the-post electoral system. The upper house, the Senate, is formally co-equal but is appointed on advice of the prime minister. While this doesn’t always mean that the Senate has a government majority, it has usually made the Senate passive even in times of a split parliament (different majorities in each house) as it usually defers to the greater legitimacy of the elected House of Commons. Meanwhile, the Constitution’s division of power between the federal level and the provinces may be said to favour the federal level, particularly in light of the fact that the Supreme Court is appointed by the federal government. Canada therefore has a constitution which can be characterized as being as close to Westminster’s as possible for a federal country with judicial review, having a lower house elected using a majoritarian electoral system, with few checks on the government’s power.

election chart

The electoral mechanics of first-past-the-post illustrated: in 2011 the Conservative Party won a House majority on just under forty percent of the vote. Not a representative result, but one offering ex-post accountability.

The main advantages of Canada’s system of government is that the way in which governments are formed flows directly from election results, providing a strong sense of accountability. Voters generally have the choice between two parties that could potentially form a government, and the party that receives the most votes usually receives a working majority to do so. Canada does not have a two-party system, but there has been a two-party alternation in government. When voters rally behind one opposition party, they can replace an unpopular government with relative ease. As a result of the system’s concentration of power, it is easier for Canadian governments to act decisively, an advantage in a crisis as well as a virtue for the democratic process, as it allows parties to more faithfully stick to their election promises. But much more important is the accountability this affords: majority governments, not having to compromise with other parties, have wide latitude to carry out their election promises, and can consequently be held accountable for its actions at the next election. It is far more straightforward to assign blame to the single party that forms government than it is in the context of a coalition or even a minority government.

The problem

The main drawback of Canada’s system of government is the lack of a check on the power of the government, a government rarely formed on true majority support. As a result of the development of party discipline, which is as strong in Canada as in any parliamentary regime, ‘responsibility’ to parliament is almost symbolic. The government so dominates parliament that one might almost say that the true relationship is the opposite: that the House of Commons is responsible to the government, which can dissolve it at any time, and which can order its parliamentary majority to pass laws with few constraints additional to that of public opinion. Some have gone so far as to call it an ‘elective dictatorship’, and there’s some truth to that. This excessive concentration of power in the federal executive has brought about polarising decisions, sharp swings in policy from one government to the next, as well as clashes between the federal government and the provinces. The case could be made that part of the problem is that Canadian government is too centralised, with no actor with an effective mandate to represent provincial interests at the federal level.  But the broader underlying issue is the shortage of actors of any type that would check the government and balance Canadian politics. As Madison wrote in Federalist no. 51, ‘A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions’. Though the danger of a lack of checks and balances may not have fully materialised yet, the power of the executive should not remain unconstrained, particularly in light of the fact that it rarely rests on majority support. On the whole therefore, what Canada’s constitutional situation calls for is more veto players: political actors with the power to act as a check on the party in government.

Reform alternatives and a proposed framework

There are a number of conceivable approaches to this question. One possible way of increasing the number of veto players would be to change the electoral system for the House of Commons to some form of proportional representation. Minority or ‘hung’ parliaments would become the norm, and parties would need to secure other parties’ support in order to remain in government. As currently happens as a result of hung parliament, the first governments under this system will be minority governments, but coalitions are likely to form eventually. By increasing the number of parties necessary, in most cases, to form a government and make policy, this would mostly solve the current ‘elected dictatorship’ and policy instability problems. However, this would come at the cost of the main benefits of the current system. The current efficient choice of government at the polls, the decisiveness of election results and resulting accountability and decisive policymaking would greatly diminish under proportional representation in the House of Commons. Besides, while proportional representation may ensure that no party achieves a majority in the House, it is no guarantee for effective review. A coalition government may be constrained by the divergent agendas of its constituent parties, but once coalition partners agree on a broad legislative programme, they can dominate the House to a degree not much lesser than a single-party majority government.

There is however a different option for reform, providing a new veto player by reforming a different institution: the Senate. In order for it to form an effective check on government power, its partisan makeup needs to become incongruent with that of the House: the parties in opposition should have a majority in the Senate. The Senate could then become an effective ‘house of review’, empowered not only to improve legislation and moderate policy but also hold governments to account. A secondary aim would be to give Senators institutional incentives to stand up for provincial interests and making the Senate into an institution geared to protect the provinces against federal encroachments, just as the ‘triple-E Senate’ campaign prevalent in Western Canada has in mind. Besides, it would put an end to the current patronage and lack of accountability in the current Senate.

For these reasons, the path forward should be in reforming the Senate. The primary goal should be to prevent the party in government from attaining a majority in that chamber, with a secondary goal of having Senators chosen in such a way that offers some incentive for protecting provincial interests. The aim is to strengthen the position of the Senate vis-à-vis the government of the day in order to limit the existing executive dominance over the system, thus transforming bicameralism into a source of checks and balances in Canada’s constitution. My next post will explore and identify more specifically how this goal would best be fulfilled and what Canadian politics would look like after the change.

(Part 2)

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On by-election timing

I have previously written about the differences in calling by-elections in both Canada and the UK, pointing out that, in general, by-elections in the UK tend to be called within days of a seat becoming vacant, while in Canada, it can often take months for a by-election to be called.

The Canadian federal electoral district of Macleod has been without representation for almost six months now. By-elections must be called within 180 days of the Chief Electoral Officer being officially notified of a vacancy, which means the deadline for calling the by-election will be 17 May 2014. There are currently four other vacant seats in the House of Commons.

In the UK, Conservative MP Patrick Mercer resigned his seat on 29 April 2014. Two days later, on 1 May, the writ was issued and the by-election date set for 5 June. The constituency of Newark will be without an MP for little more than a month.

As I had explained in that earlier post, in Canada, under the Parliament of Canada Act, when a seat in the House is vacant, the Speaker of the House of Commons informs the Chief Electoral Officer by means of a Speaker’s warrant.

After receiving the warrant, section 57 of the Canada Elections Act authorizes the Governor in Council to fix the date on which the Chief Electoral Officer is to issue the writ. The date of issuance must fall between the 11th and 180th days after the Chief Electoral Officer receives the warrant from the Speaker. The Governor in Council also fixes the date for election day, which cannot be earlier than 36 days after the Chief Electoral Officer issues the writ. As I explained, the “Governor in Council” is the Governor General, acting on the advice of the Prime Minister; in other words, it is the Prime Minister who decides when to call a by-election. It is the Prime Minister who determines how long some Canadians will go without representation in the House.

I wonder why things were arranged like this. It isn’t the Prime Minister’s House of Commons; it shouldn’t be up to the PM to decide that some citizens will be denied representation for months on end.

In the UK, the Prime Minster has no say in when by-elections occur.

The writ for a by-election in the UK is usually issued on the same day as or the day following a motion in the Commons for the Speaker to make out the warrant for the issue of a writ. By Parliamentary convention the Chief Whip of the party to which the previous Member belonged will usually arrange for the motion to be moved.

The writ is issued by the Clerk of the Crown in Chancery and sent to the Returning Officer or Acting  Returning  Officer  for  the  constituency. The Clerk of the Crown in Chancery, as explained on the UK Parliament website:

is head of the Crown Office, which has custody of the Great Seal of the Realm, and has administrative functions in connection with the courts and the judicial process. The Clerk of the Crown in Chancery initiates a parliamentary election in a constituency by sending an election writ to the Returning Officer, and receives all ballot papers and ballot stubs after the election is complete; these are retained for a year. Since 1885 the office of Clerk of the Crown in Chancery has been combined with that of Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Justice.

In other words, he or she is a civil servant.

As explained in this Commons Library Standard Note, the by-election timetable is set in motion following the receipt of the writ. Previously, the governing legislation allowed for a 13-day timetable, but in practice no by-election using a 13-day timetable had occurred in the last few decades. The Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 has lengthened the by-election timetable from between 13 to 19 days to between 21 and 27 days.

The only means by which the UK Government could hold up the process of issuing a writ for a by-election is by delaying the appointment of the MP who is resigning to the Chiltern Hundreds. As I have explained in this post, MPs in the UK cannot actually resign their seat. Death, disqualification and expulsion are the only means by which a Member’s seat may be vacated during the lifetime of a Parliament. When an MP wants to resign his or her seat, the Chancellor of the Exchequer will disqualify them by appointing the MP to one of two offices that are used for disqualification: Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Chiltern Hundreds and of the Manor of Northstead. In the case of former MP Patrick Mercer, he announced his resignation on 29 April, and on 30 April, the Chancellor of the Exchequer appointed him to be Steward and Bailiff of the Chiltern Hundreds. The next day, 1 May, the chief whip of the Conservative Party moved the writ in the House of Commons.

Surely this is a better model? It removes the possibility of a Prime Minister playing politics with by-election timing and in the process, denying citizens their right to representation in the House of Commons for months on end.

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On early candidate selection

There will most likely be general elections in both Canada and the UK next year. I say most likely only because Canada’s “fixed election dates” aren’t binding on the the Prime Minister/Governor General. There will definitely be a general election in the UK – on May 6 2015, to be exact. Their fixed-term parliaments law is binding. The next election in Canada should happen in October 2015, but as I said, the PM could well decide to call one earlier or even later.

As regular readers know by now, I like to highlight differences between how things are done here in Canada and how they are done elsewhere. Today I’m going to focus on when candidates are selected for the next election.

In Canada, political parties tend to wait until a few months or even weeks (or even days) before an election is expected or called to choose their candidates. Some, usually in ridings in which a party isn’t very competitive, might not get a candidate until after the writs have dropped. The deadline for candidate nominations is the 21st day before voting day.

In the UK, parties like to get a much earlier start. In fact, it isn’t at all uncommon for parties to select a candidate years in advance of the next general election.

For example, the last general election in the UK was in May 2010. In January 2011, the Labour party gave the green light to candidate selections in 26 marginal ridings – constituencies in which they had finished a very close second in the May 2010 election. What that means is that Labour had nominated candidates – what are called prospective parliamentary candidates, or PPCs – in place up to four years in advance of the next general election.

Labour isn’t alone in doing this. All three of the main parties will target key ridings that they think they have a chance of winning next time around – the aforementioned marginals – and will try to get a candidate in place at least a year, often 2-3 years ahead of the next election. Parties appearing to lag on this front will be the subject of media attention.

These candidates then have 2-4 years to campaign in their constituency – doing door-to-door canvassing, attending local events – in other words, getting themselves known to local voters. Most of these activities don’t really cost anything – the largest expense would be travelling around the constituency.

I mentioned this to some colleagues and they thought it was extremely bizarre. Why on earth, some asked, would a party want to commit itself or tie itself to a candidate so far ahead of an election? That struck me as a very odd response. If a party is willing to commit itself to a candidate they hope will be one of their MPs for at least the next four years, why wouldn’t they be willing to commit to them 2-3 years before the election date?

Recently, the federal NDP nominated a candidate in the riding of Edmonton-Centre for the 2015 election. A few weeks later, the candidate withdrew due to health concerns. I did see more than a few comments on Twitter questioning the wisdom of selecting a candidate so far in advance of the actual election. Again, I think it makes far more sense to get a candidate in place as early as possible. Health concerns happen; that’s not a good enough reason to not choose someone well in advance of the next election.

Some regularly complain that voters only vote based on party label – that no one votes for the actual individual anymore. Well, that’s hardly surprising if most, if not all, of the candidates in your constituency are nominated only a few weeks before voting day. Odds are most voters don’t know any of these individuals, and won’t be able to get a sense of them during the short election campaign. However, if a party had a candidate in place years in advance, that person would become quite well known in their own right, and some voters at least might be more open to voting for the actual person rather than their party label.

I wouldn’t expect parties to nominate a candidate years in advance in every single constituency. UK parties don’t do that. They target the marginals, the constituencies which they only narrowly lost in the previous election and that they think they have a real shot at winning next time around.

Of course, it is probably a lot easier for PPCs in the UK to campaign well in advance of an actual election; constituencies are much smaller in size – geographically-speaking – and it would be much easier to get around to the various villages and towns. However, the large size of most rural ridings here in Canada is another argument in favour of having a candidate in place 2-3 years ahead of the actual election: that way, the candidate can actually campaign effectively and repeatedly across the entire riding, something that may prove difficult to do during the official 36-day election campaign.

I think it makes a lot of sense for parties to identify seats they might win and ensure that they have candidates in place well in advance of the next general election. It would provide them with an active, constant presence in the riding, and allow their candidate to be known and build a base of support. And maybe it would help voters base their decision on the candidate, rather than just party label, which I think would be a very good thing indeed.

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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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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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The Reform Act and the issue of leader selection

Most opposition to the Reform Act seems to be focused on the proposal to allow a party caucus to trigger a confidence vote in the party leader. As I indicated in my first post on the bill, I am not opposed to this reform. I do, however, have some concerns that the Act does not go far enough; it does not allow the caucus to also select a leader (other than on an interim basis). In recent days, a number of columnists have also singled out this particular omission as problematic (Chris Selley, Dale smith and Jeff Jedras).

I’ve explained that, in terms of party leader selection, Canada is an outlier. Our party leaders are selected by the party membership, either using a one-member-one-vote (OMOV) system or a delegated system with equally weighted ridings, etc. The important point is that the caucus – the party’s elected MPs, don’t carry more weight when it comes to electing a party leader. Parties in other jurisdictions, namely the UK, Australia and New Zealand either completely exclude party members from having any say in choosing the party leader, or limit their input. For that reason, a decision by a party caucus to oust the leader is perhaps less controversial because it was the caucus which selected that leader in the first place – or at least, was largely influential in the choice of leader.

Because the Reform Act seeks only to allow a caucus to possibly oust a leader, and not to change how party leaders are selected, this raises one very important question: would a leader ousted by his or her caucus be allowed to run again?

The answer to this question might seem obvious at first: of course not! They’ve just been ousted – why would they even want to run again?

Below the surface, however, things aren’t quite as black and white. What if a party leader was very popular with the party members, but not with the caucus? What it the leader was an absolute nightmare to work with – controlling, abusive, spiteful – we’ve all had managers or supervisors like that at some point in our careers. What if the caucus decided that for its own mental health, the leader had to go. Wouldn’t such a person, knowing that they were quite popular with the base, seek revenge by opting to run again?

In our current system, if a leader loses a leadership review, this occurs at a party conference and all party members attending vote on whether or not they still have confidence in that leader. Some party leaders have actually “won” leadership reviews – but decided that their margin of victory wasn’t good enough and stepped aside voluntarily. Progressive Conservative leader Joe Clark did just that in 1983, after receiving “only” 66.9% support in a leadership review. The decision to revoke support comes from the same group of people that elected the leader in the first place. The Reform Act would change one aspect of this relationship, but not the other.

In other jurisdictions, because the party membership has either no say, or at best a limited say, in the selection of a party leader, it is simply a given that a leader ousted by his or her caucus will not run again. The UK Conservative Party, just to make things especially clear, include in their Constitution, a prohibition against a leader who has lost the confidence of his or her caucus running again. By not addressing this consequence of a caucus-led leader ouster, the Reform Act could create significant conflict between MPs and the party membership.

The main reason why many oppose the idea of allowing caucus to oust its leader is because this is not “democratic”. Perhaps it isn’t. The more important question, however, is this: where is the political accountability?

We have a form of representative government, meaning we elect MPs to represent us. This does not simply mean they parrot what we tell them to say, but that we entrust them to make decisions on our behalf, and to influence policies. Ideally, and this happens in other countries, they should also hire and fire the leaders who implement these policies. In Canada, however, this last part of the chain of political accountability has been severed. A leader largely elected by party members (because even the smallest party will have more members than it has MPs) isn’t accountable to his or her MPs. That leader can point to a larger, extra-parliamentary group to whom he or she is accountable. But those party members aren’t accountable to anyone.

But to many, being “democratic” matters more. They might counter that letting people – party members -  choose the party leader is a great way to engage people, to get more people involved in the political process. There isn’t really any evidence that this is the case. Actual data on Canadian party membership are close to impossible to come by, but it’s estimated to be, at best, 1-2% of the population. A leadership convention might result in a slight increase in party membership, but there is little evidence that this is sustained, or even increased, in the period between leadership races.

This interesting piece from 2011 on the decline of political parties in the UK contains some interesting statistics on party membership between 1951 and 2011:

PARTY MEMBERSHIP

  • 1951 Conservative 2.9m – Labour 876,000
  • 1971 Conservative 1.3m – Labour 700,000
  • 1981 Conservative 1.2m – Labour 277,000
  • 1991 Conservative 1m to 0.5m – Labour 261,000 – Lib Dem 91,000
  • 2001 Conservative 311,000 – Labour 272,000 – Lib Dem 73,000
  • 2011 Conservative 177,000 – Labour 190,000 – Lib Dem – 66,000 (Source: Estimates based on party reports and House of Commons Library)

What is particularly noteworthy is that the more “democratic” the party’s leader selection process became, the more their membership declined. Until the 1960s, UK Conservative Party leaders were not elected at all, but chosen after confidential discussions among Conservative “oligarchs” in backrooms. In 1963, the Party decided to let MPs vote for the leader. Only in 1997 did the Party opted for a two-stage system in which MPs would vote in a series of exhaustive secret ballots to produce two candidates who would then go forward to a final OMOV of the mass membership. Yet this loosening of the rules, allowing members to vote for a leader, has not increased party membership. The story is much the same for the Labour Party. From 1922 to 1981, only the Parliamentary Labour Party (MPs) had a say in selecting the party leader. In 1981, the party moved to an Electoral College which included MPs, Constituency Labour Parties and affiliated organizations (largely trade unions were allowed to vote, with each group weighted (MPs 30%, CLPs 30%, affiliates section 40%). Then in 1993, Labour adopted its current system, still an Electoral College consisting of the Parliamentary Labour Party (MPs and MEPs) – one third, CLPs – one third, and affiliates, also one third. Yet Labour’s membership is also in decline. Note – I am not implying that democratizing the leadership selection process directly led to a decline in membership – that occurred for a myriad of reasons. I am simply noting that opening up the process did not reverse the trend toward declining membership.

It also goes without saying that people who actually join political parties are hardly representative of the average citizen. They’re fanatics (and I do mean that in a nice way). Most people simply aren’t that invested in politics. While may critics of the Reform Act worry about parties being taken over by “special interest groups” if these reforms are implemented, one could almost argue that parties are already taken over by special interest groups – because I can’t think of a better term to describe a party member. I am not certain it is truly more “democratic” to leave party leader selection to such a small, highly unrepresentative group of people who are not accountable to anyone.

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