Fixed-term Parliaments – Addendum

A comment on my earlier post suggesting that the reason why the Lords defeated the Fixed-Term Parliaments Bill was because fixed-term parliaments was not a promise made by either the Liberal Democrats or the Conservatives in their 2010 manifestos.

This, however, is incorrect. Both parties promised fixed-term parliaments. The Lib Dems did not indicate how long the term would be, but the Conservatives do specify a five-year term. Click here for the relevant section of the Lib Dem manifesto (p. 2) and and here for the Conservative promise – it’s the first item listed in the Cleaning Up Politics section.

Given that both parties campaigned on this promise, and that it was carried over to the Coalition Programme for Government, I would argue that the Salisbury Convention should have applied in this instance. For those not familiar with this convention, it is a practice adopted by the House of Lords which has evolved so that:

In the House of Lords:

A manifesto Bill is accorded a Second Reading;

A manifesto Bill is not subject to “wrecking amendments” which change the Government’s manifesto intention as proposed in the Bill; and

A manifesto Bill is passed and sent (or returned) to the House of Commons, so that they have the opportunity, in reasonable time, to consider the Bill or any amendments the Lords may wish to propose.

There was some debate following the 2010 election if the Salisbury Convention would apply since the government was a Coalition and neither party had campaigned on the Coalition programme. The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee briefly looked at this issue in its report on Lessons from the process of Government formation after the 2010 General Election, but concluded only:

It is for individual Members of the House of Lords to decide whether to apply this convention to Bills which originate from the coalition Government’s programme for government. We have sought the views on this matter of the Leaders of the main political parties in the House of Lords, as well as the Convenor of the Independent Crossbench Peers. However, we received a range of opinions from a number of witnesses and no definitive consensus has emerged. Baroness Royall, Leader of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition in the House of Lords, has argued that these cannot rightly be called manifesto Bills. Robert Hazell argued in oral evidence that the convention actually applies to all government Bills.

However, earlier in that same report, the Committee notes (italics added):

A policy contained in a coalition agreement does not have the same mandate as a manifesto pledge, except where the policy was reflected in the manifestos of both parties to the coalition. In the case of a pledge which was contained in one coalition party’s manifesto, the popular mandate in support of it was not enough to give that party a majority. Where policies are included in a coalition agreement that were not included in the manifesto of any party to a coalition government, these carry the same authority as a non-manifesto policy adopted after an election by a single-party government.

Fixed-term parliaments were promised by both parties, therefore I would argue that this Bill should be treated the same as a Bill originating from a manifesto pledge from a government made up of a single party.

Edit: Apparently the Conservatives added fixed-term parliaments to their manifesto retroactively.

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Fixed-term Parliaments Bill – update

(Note: this post was written back in May 2011. The Fixed-term Parliaments Bill received Royal Assent on 15 September 2011. When looking for the status of a bill before Parliament please always consult the Bills before Parliament page of the UK Parliament website for the most up-to-date information about any bill.)

The Coalition government’s Fixed-Term Parliaments Bill suffered a defeat of sorts in the Lords yesterday during report stage consideration.

The bill proposed that elections be held every five years, arguing that this would be more democratic since it removed power from the Prime Minister to call an election whenever he or she wanted. I’ve blogged about the UK proposal in detail here.

The reason why the Lords voted to amend the bill was that they argued that the coalition didn’t have a mandate to bind future parliaments:

“The government have a perfect right to commit themselves to a fixed-term for the current parliament provided they continue to maintain the confidence of the House of Commons,” Lord Butler said.

“Certainly they do not have the right to make a permanent change to our constitution to meet the convenience of a temporary coalition.”

They passed an amendment which would require future parliaments to pass a resolution indicating whether they wished to continue with the fixed-term law.

This strikes me as rather strange reasoning. As I wrote in my earlier post on the bill, the Fixed-Term Parliaments Bill does two things. It sets the duration of a parliament at five years (which is the constitutional limit for any Parliament to sit), and it also set out a formula to allow for the earlier dissolution of the House should the government lose the confidence of the House before the five-year term is up.

It is certainly true that this last part – the new rules for dissolving the House and forcing an election before the end of the five year mandate – was a direct result of the “temporary coalition” as it was aimed specifically at making it difficult for either party in the coalition to back out of the coalition, which would inevitably lead to the defeat of the government. However, under “normal” Westminster parliamentary circumstances, in the event that one party should form a majority government, these conditions would not come into play since only a full-on revolt by its own members would likely bring down a party that holds a majority of the seats in the House. I know UK backbenchers are less whipped than their Canadian counterparts, still nonetheless, the odds of a majority government falling before the five-year term expires are pretty slim.

That said, I don’t really see how fixed terms can be viewed as something arising solely from the fact that there is a “temporary coalition” forming the government. Any government elected is already bound, in a way, to respecting the five-year term limit since that is the conventional maximum length of time that a government can sit. To quote myself from that earlier blog post:

the current maximum duration of a UK Parliament is five years. This was set by the Septennial Act 1715 (as amended by the Parliament Act 1911). Under this Act, if a Parliament is not dissolved in the period up to five years after the day on which it was summoned to meet, it automatically expires. Consequently, setting the fixed-term at five years isn’t a deviation from actual practice; what is different is that normally, parliaments do not sit for the full five years. There currently exists nothing regulating how early a new election can be called – that has always been a prerogative power exercised by the Queen – by convention on the advice of the prime minister. What this bill seeks to do is end a prime minister’s ability to call an election at any time of his or her choosing during the course of a parliament.

As I’ve also previously written, eight of the thirteen Canadian provinces and territories and the federal government now have fixed-term election legislation in place. Unlike the UK bill however, none of these bills proposed tougher conditions for dissolving parliament earlier. Indeed, as the Lords point out, when theses bills were passed by their respective legislatures, there was nothing in the bills that would bind any future parliament to respect them – other than the fact that such a law had been enacted. To date, every provincial and territorial government faced with a fixed-term for the next election has respected or is in the process of respecting that date (some will be holding their first election under the fixed-term legislation this year). I am certain that in some cases, the government of the day may well have preferred to pick a different time to call an election. Yet they’ve all respected the legislation, at least, thus far, and I would argue that the more this happens, the less likely it will be that a future government would risk not respecting the legislation, though they certainly could do so. The Canadian bills were all written in such a way as to explicitly retain the prerogative powers of the Governor General or Lieutenant Governor to prorogue or dissolve parliament at his or her discretion. This means that in fact, if a provincial premier or the Prime Minister wants an earlier election, he or she can ask the province’s Lieutenant Governor or the Governor General to dissolve parliament. This is what Prime Minister Stephen Harper did in 2008, and it is this example that illustrates why the Coalition was, in my view, right to outline clearer rules for an early dissolution of parliament.

The federal government introduced fixed-term elections legislation in 2006, which set elections for the third Monday in October of the fourth calendar year after the previous poll, starting with 19 October 2009. However, in September 2008, Prime Minister Harper requested a dissolution from the Governor General on the grounds that Parliament was becoming, in his words, “dysfunctional”. This request was granted, as the bill allowed for. The problem for many was that Parliament had become “dysfunctional” largely because it was a minority government situation, and, because the Opposition was holding up much of the government’s legislation, the government  made virtually every bill a confidence bill, which caused some members of the Opposition to abstain from voting rather than risk defeating the government since they weren’t in a position to face the electorate at that time.  As Professor Robert Hazell from the Constitution Unit, University College London notes in a paper on Fixed Term Parliaments:

This episode shows that simply fixing election dates through legislation is not enough if the prerogative power of dissolution remains unaffected. But if the prerogative power of dissolution is retained as a safety valve, it needs to be protected from manipulation. The Governor General was put on the spot by Harper’s request for an early dissolution, and the Crown drawn into political controversy.

However, it appears that the main issue the Lords have with the bill is not that it sets forth tougher requirements for an early dissolution, but that the Coalition has no mandate to force future parliaments to serve a five-year term. The Lords, however, did pass the Bill that would see the number of seats in the House of Commons reduced from the current 650 to 600. Did the Coalition have a mandate to force future parliaments to have fewer Members? Apparently they did.

I shall reiterate that I personally am not convinced that fixed-term parliaments are a good idea or necessary, but the Lords’ reasoning for defeating the bill do strike me as somewhat questionable. The Bill itself is not dead. MPs will have a chance to reconsider it and overturn the amendment (and any others the Lords make)  once it returns to the House of Commons, probably later this month.

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How the AV referendum killed the republican movement

In an earlier post, I wrote that referendums aren’t very useful means of deciding key policy issues and that the entire referendum campaign on the Alternative Vote has been rather disgraceful.

This view has only been reinforced following news today that the No side admits it used completely made-up figures when it claimed adopting AV would cost £250-mn. Of course, this revelation came out on the day of the vote, too late for many who had already voted by postal ballot and who might have voted No in large part because they believed these claims.

However, the way in which the referendum on AV has transpired raises another interesting point. If a referendum on a relatively minor issue such as changing the country’s voting system can be defeated by a campaign based largely on lies, half-truths and hyperbole, how on earth would a referendum on a much more emotional issue, such as doing away with the monarchy be handled?

During the lead-up to the 29 April wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton, debate on the continued existence of the monarchy surfaced, with many calling for a move to an elected head of state. I don’t really know how strong the UK’s republican movement is, but there were certainly a fair number of op ed pieces and people commenting that the monarchy was an anachronism, and didn’t reflect a modern, democratic and egalitarian country. Many also pointed out that while the Queen herself remains fairly popular, the heir to the throne, Prince Charles, is not, and that the thought of Charles becoming King would only accelerate the move towards a republic.

However, if the referendum on AV is anything to go by, the big loser here may very well be Britain’s republican movement, as Alex Massie wrote yesterday in the Spectator:

If the British public rejects a relatively minor change to the electoral system there is almost no chance, at any conceivable point in any conceivable future, they will vote for a republic. Custom and the Burkean arguments for custom are powerful things (and probably the best arguments in favour of FPTP). I know that republicans often think that time is on their side and that the stupid people will eventually “wake up”. They won’t. If electoral reform is a goner that’s even more reason to suppose that a republic will, happily, remain an eternally lost cause.

The No2AV side repeatedly claimed that AV wasn’t “British”, and that alone was reason enough to vote against it. If a change to the voting system can be considered an assault on the very essence of what is “British”, how on earth could anyone even contemplate doing away with the monarchy – which predates FPTP by a few centuries at least.

Massie may sound elitist when he writes that the ‘stupid people’ won’t ever wake-up and see the light, but I have to agree with him. People aren’t so much ‘stupid’ as they are indifferent. If they’ve never given much thought to the merits of an elected vs hereditary head of state, they will be easily manipulated during a campaign to move from one to the other. Nothing is more typically British than the monarchy, and if a voting system can be undermined for not being ‘British’, then the idea of an elected head of state could surely be considered treason.

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On Filibusters

The Coalition government’s Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill has hit somewhat of an impasse in the House of Lords. Several marathon debate sessions, one lasting over 21 hours, during which various peers refused to “give way” (interrupt their speech to allow another peer to ask a question or comment), while others discussed such gripping topics as prime numbers, have occurred, and despite rumours of deals being reached behind the scene, it doesn’t look as if the bill will be passed by the Lords any time soon.

The bill deals with three related, yet separate, issues: 1) the proposed May referendum on the Alternative Vote, 2) constituency boundaries reviews, making them more frequent and also changing existing constituencies’ boundaries to make constituencies more equal in size, and 3) reducing the number of MPs (and thus constituencies) from the current 650 to 600. The problem is that for the referendum on AV to take place, the bill has to receive royal assent by mid February.

The Lords are mostly concerned with the constituency boundaries aspects of the bill. They’ve proposed to the Government to separate the referendum from the rest of the bill, thus allowing that part of the bill to be passed and receive Royal Assent in ample time to meet the required deadline. The Government, however has refused.

This has generated a fair bit of debate in the UK about the role of the House of Lords, particularly given that it is an unelected body. The Lords’ normal role is that of a revising chamber. It doesn’t normally seek to obstruct government legislation, but simply to give government bills detailed scrutiny and perhaps even propose certain revisions in the form of amendments. This is particularly important when certain bills are fast-tracked through the Commons via the use of various motions that curtail how much debate occurs – including at the committee stage. This was certainly the case for the Voting System and Constituencies Bill.

The Lords are normally governed by the Salisbury Convention – wherein they will not obstruct the passage of any bill that is based on pledge contained in the governing party’s manifesto. However, there was no Coalition manifesto, thus many argue that the Salisbury Convention does not apply in this case. The problem for the Lords, however, is that they’re beginning to act like an elected chamber in their efforts to obstruct a piece of government legislation. This is prompting some calls for the need to move to a fully elected House of Lords, but others warn that if the Lords were an elected body, this sort of behaviour would only become more common.

Filibusters may be more familiar to some in the context of US politics, but they aren’t completely unheard of occurrences in parliamentary systems.

The Standing Orders of the UK House of Commons do not establish any formal time limits for debates or for how long a member may speak, thus making it easier for members of a party to hijack proceedings with long speeches. In the House of Commons, however, the government will normally move a “guillotine” motion – what in Canada is called a time allocation motion – to limit the duration of a debate. The House can also put an immediate end to debate by passing a motion to invoke the Closure. The Speaker is allowed to deny the motion if he or she believes that it infringes upon the rights of the minority. Unlike the House of Commons, however, the House of Lords has nothing corresponding to the guillotine therefore there is no effective machinery for curtailing debate, which is why the suggestions that a guillotine motion might be introduced in the Lords is raising all sorts of eyebrows. To quote (the rather prone to hyperbole) Labour Lord Toby Harris:

So rumours are now swirling around that Thomas Galloway Dunlop du Roy de Blicquy Galbraith, Lord Strathclyde, the Leader of the House, has started threatening that he will table a ‘guillotine’ motion to cut off consideration of the Bill.

This would be unprecedented. It has NEVER been done before.

And as the whole point of the House of Lords is that it takes the time to scrutinise legislation properly, such a motion would be a constitutional outrage.

So not content with appointing dozens of new Conservative and LibDem place people to pack the Government benches, the Conservative Coalition is now contemplating playing fast and loose with the Constitution itself, so as to get through their Bill to change the composition of the House of Commons.

Is Lord Strathclyde trying to win the Robert Mugabe Award for Constitutional Innovation?

Australia and New Zealand both have rules in place in their Standing Orders that make a filibuster practically impossible, though they do occur on occasion, such as in 2009 in New Zealand.

This is also the case in the Canadian House of Commons, where filibusters are quite rare. At the provincial level, however, there were two notable filibusters that occurred in the Province of Ontario. On May 6th, 1991, when the New Democratic Party formed the government, Mike Harris, leader of the Progressive Conservative Party, introduced a bill whose title included the name of every lake and river in the province. Reading the bill into the record took the entire sessional day until adjournment at 6:00 p.m., thereby preventing the Government from proceeding with Orders of the Day. Shortly after that, the Standing Orders were amended by the Government so to limit the time period given for Introduction of Bills and, at 4:00 p.m., if the House has not commenced Orders of the Day, the Speaker interrupts the proceedings and calls Orders of the Day.

A few years later, in 1997, the PCs formed the government and found themselves the subject of a filibuster. The opposition NDP and the Liberal Party teamed up to stall passage of a government bill to amalgamate the City of Toronto. Both parties introduced thousands of amendments to the bills. The NDP  introduced 11,500 amendments to the megacity bill; each amendment would name a street in the proposed city, and provide that public hearings be held into the megacity with residents of the street invited to participate. The Liberals also joined the filibuster with a smaller series of amendments; a typical Liberal amendment would give a historical designation to a named street. The NDP then added another series of over 700 amendments, each proposing a different date for the bill to come into force. The filibuster began on April 2, 1997 and occupied the legislature non-stop, day and night, until if finally ended on April 11.

The result of this were more changes to the Standing Orders that, among other things, included time limits on members’ speeches in the House, limits on frivolous or vexatious motions or amendments, and other restrictions on debate of government bills at second reading, thus making it almost impossible for opposition parties to resort to similar tactics.

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More UK Committee links

I am continuing to follow the hearings of both the House of Lords’ Constitution Committee and the House of Commons’ Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. The HOL Committee is currently studying the matter of fixed term parliaments, as they consider the Fixed Term Parliaments bill, while the HOC Committee is conducting a more general investigation into the matter of coalition formation to see if there are lessons to be learned from what transpired in May.

I’ve previously shared with readers a couple of videos, one from the HOL and one from the HOC. There are a couple more that I will point you to, if interested, but I won’t embed them on my blog. In the HOC Committee video that I posted previously, you can hear the Rt Hon David Laws (Lib Dem) and Lord Adonis (Lab) provide the committee with their take on the negotiations that went on in May. Last week, Oliver Letwin (Con), Minister of Sate at the Cabinet Office and one of the lead negotiators for the Conservatives, delivered his side of the story.

Meanwhile, we previously heard from Canadian Professor Henry Milner as he testified before the HOL Constitution Committee on the issue of fixed term parliaments. Today, they heard from Professor Vernon Bogdanor and Dr. Ruth Fox on the same topic. You can watch that here, if interested. Bogdanor is not a fan of fixed terms, and he raises some interesting points.

While the committee hearings are very interesting (at least to political geeks like myself), there is also a plethora of documentation available on the committee websites that are also very interesting to sort through. Much of it consists of the uncorrected transcripts of the hearings held by the committee (so if you don’t want to watch the videos, you can read the transcripts), but I will single out a couple of reports that aren’t transcripts at which you might want to look.

From the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee site:

  • The Committee’s 2nd Report on the Fixed Term Parliaments Bill (PDF) (note – 2nd report means it is the 2nd report prepared by the Committee this session, not the 2nd report on this particular bill.)

From the House of Lords Constitution Committee:

  • Fixed Term Parliaments – Written Evidence (PDF): This is a compilation (152 pages) of written submissions received by the Committee on the issue of fixed term parliaments. It includes many submissions from Canadian sources, including a letter from House of Commons Speaker Peter Milliken and some provincial Legislative Clerks, and contributions from Canadian political and constitutional experts. I particularly enjoyed the Memorandum from Professor Mendes (University of Ottawa), found on p. 105. There are also contributions from experts from Australia, New Zealand, various European countries, etc.

Next week (4 November), Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell will appear before the HOC Political and Constitutional Reform Committee to discuss his role, and the role of the civil service, in the formation of the coalition Government and the forthcoming Cabinet Manual. The Cabinet Manual is currently being prepared by the Cabinet Office and will consolidate existing conventions that govern much of the way central government operates into a single written document.

Should be gripping stuff!

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Inquiry into government and coalition formation

The UK House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has decided that it will look into how the current Coalition Government came about. I am not certain if this is a result of some of the revelations that came to light in the BBC special “Five Days that Changed Britain“, but this BBC article certainly gives the impression that this might be the case.

According to the article, the Committee wants to examine if undue pressure was put on then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown to resign, how policies that weren’t part of either the Conservative Party’s or the Liberal Democrats’ manifestos ended up in the Coalition agreement and “wants to know the implications of the fact that this and other policies may lack a ‘popular mandate’”. Reading that gives the impression that no Government should ever propose a policy on which it hasn’t actually campaigned because it simply doesn’t have a mandate to do so. This, however, is a bit of clever editing on the BBC’s part.

The Committee’s website provides more detail about the scope of their inquiry, and the actual statement concerning non-manifesto policies reads:

This raises questions about the origin of these proposals, the implications, if any, of the fact that they lack a popular mandate, and, potentially, the process for deciding whether to implement them. (italics mine)

By omitting “if any”, the BBC leaves the reader with the impression that there are definitely implications resulting from the Coalition proposing policies on which neither party campaigned, while the Committee is stating that this may not be an issue at all – that is what it wants to determine. The Committee also hyperlinks “if any” to the Wikipedia entry on the Salisbury Convention, about which I have previously blogged.

To summarise briefly, the Salisbury Convention came about following a landslide electoral victory by Labour in 1945, and since then, the House of Lords has not opposed, on second reading, any bill that can claim authority from the winning party’s manifesto. In other words, following a general election, anything included in the election platform of  the party that ends up forming the government will not be opposed on second reading by the Upper Chamber. There is no such convention in place in Canada. The Canadian Senate may choose to fast-track a bill without opposing it in any way, but there is no equivalent to the Salisbury Convention in Canada. The Canadian Senate doesn’t give any special treatment or consideration to Government legislation which is based on something contained in that party’s election platform. All bills are treated equally, which is how I think it should be. Just because a party promised something doesn’t mean it’s a good piece of legislation and deserves a freer pass. Also, just because something was included in a party’s manifesto doesn’t mean most voters support that policy. People vote for parties for all sorts of reasons. I’m willing to bet most don’t actually read the manifestos. Some may have voted for that party despite some of the things in its manifesto. I don’t know too many people who always agree 100% with every single item a party promises during an election campaign.

I will admit to having difficulty understanding why this should be an issue at all. It’s quite obvious that governments regularly introduce policy on issues that weren’t discussed during the election campaign, and that were not included in that party’s election platform. While having a bill fast-tracked through the Upper Chamber without opposition is nice, it’s certainly not necessary for a bill to eventually pass. It may slow down the legislative process, but it certainly doesn’t stymie a Government from moving forward with policies it wants to implement.

In my post on the Salisbury Convention I wrote that a convention is just that – a convention. It’s not a Standing Order, or a legal requirement. It’s become a tradition, but that doesn’t mean it has to remain one, or that it can’t be modified to take into account the realities of coalition government.

The same is true for the UK’s overall fixation on party manifestos. If future elections more regularly result in no party receiving an overall majority, and coalitions become more frequent occurrences, there will simply have to be a growing acceptance of coalition governments putting forward new programs for government that may include some actual manifesto promises, variations on manifesto promises, and compromise policies that don’t really reflect anything that was in any partner party’s manifesto. This is the reality of coalition government.

As for the issue of the Coalition’s policies lacking “a popular mandate”, that is a bit naive to me. It seems based on an assumption that most people who vote have actually read every party’s manifesto and vote according to what is included in them. Certainly, some people probably do just that, but I doubt it’s a majority of voters. Election campaigns usually end up focusing on at best a handful of issues, and sometimes on only one or two key issues, with the bulk of what parties include in their manifestos largely ignored in debates and by the media. In the May 2010 UK election, many people said they voted for the Liberal Democrat candidate, not because of what the party stood for, but because they were hoping to prevent the Conservative candidate from winning that seat. Is that sort of thing an endorsement of a party’s manifesto or more a reaction against another party’s manifesto (or simply against the other party in general, manifesto or no manifesto)? There is also the reality that under First-Past-the-Post, a party can win a large majority of seats with much less than a majority of the vote (sometimes even finishing second in the popular vote). Since most people did not vote for that party, even if they end up with a majority of seats, do they really have a popular mandate? They certainly don’t have a mandate from a majority of voters.

Overall, however, I do find the Committee’s terms of reference rather interesting. It does indicate to me that there is, at the very least, an acknowledgment that coalition governments may well become more frequent occurrences, thus prompting the need to review the various “constitutional and practical issues related to government and coalition formation”.  Some of the questions they seek to address could result in very interesting discussions. In particular, I would single out the following:

1. What constitutional and practical lessons are there to be learned from the process of government formation after the 2010 general election?

6. What impact did media pressure have on the position of the incumbent Prime Minister and coalition negotiators?

7. Could and should this impact have been mitigated?

8. What is the origin of those constitutional proposals in the coalition programme for government which were not addressed in the manifesto of either party?

9. What are the implications, if any, of the fact that these proposals lack a popular mandate?

10. Are there more satisfactory models for coalition and government formation in use elsewhere in the world, or in other parts of the United Kingdom?

11. Should the head of government or Cabinet require the endorsement of the House of Commons, by way of an investiture vote?

I’m thinking some of those might even make for interesting blog posts…

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British Politics and Policy at LSE

I recently discovered an excellent blog produced by the London School of Economics and Political Science, entitled British Politics and Policy at LSE.

From the blog’s About the blog page:

We seek to make available analysis of UK politics and public policy in an immediately accessible and highly relevant way for a wide readership, drawing primarily on the community of academics and researchers at the London School of Economics, but also including many outside contributors with LSE connections. We invite contributions and comments on blogs from any interested reader.

I have already linked to a few entries from this blog in previous posts. I’d like to highlight a few others here today.

Patrick Dunleavy wonders is this is the death of the Westminster model, now that there are no large “Westminster model” countries left in the world with single party majority governments. This blog entry will be of interest to Canadians. Dunleavy explains that four of the five key “Westminster model” countries have coalition governments in balanced parliaments where no party has a majority.”The one exception is Canada, where the Parliament has been hung since 2004, across three general elections. But somehow Canadian politicians have still not got the knack of constructing a coalition government.”

Another post that will be of interest to Canadians in particular is one by Anne White, written back in April before the UK general election, and looks at what the UK might learn from Canada’s recent experience with repeated hung parliaments.

In today’s post, Andy White explains why tactical voting isn’t a practical strategy under the Alternative Vote (AV), which, of course, the UK will be voting on in a referendum in May 2010.

Still on the topic of AV, Stephanie Rickard posits that the more proportional a country’s voting system is, the more likely it is to fully honour its international commitments on world trade issues, and wonders if switching to AV will make the UK a better player in international forums.

I can’t recommend this blog highly enough to anyone interested in UK politics in particular, but also to anyone interested in political reform, electoral reform, Westminister politics, and politics in general. You can also follow them on Facebook, and Twitter.

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Thoughts on the monarchy

While campaigning during the course of a general election campaign in Australia, Prime Minister and Labor Party leader Julia Gillard stated:

I obviously am a Republican. I believe that this nation should be a republic. I also believe that this nation has got a deep affection for Queen Elizabeth.

What I would like to see, as Prime Minister, is that we work our way through to an agreement on a model for the republic but I think the appropriate time for the nation to move to being a republic is when we see the monarch change.

Obviously I’m hoping for Queen Elizabeth that she lives a long and happy life and having watched her mother I think there’s every chance that she will live a long and happy life. But I think that’s probably the appropriate point for a transition to a republic.

Debate on the monarchy in Australia is not new. The country held a referendum in 1999 on whether or not to become a republic, with the status quo option winning 54.8% to 45.1%. Republicanism emerged in Australia long before 1999, however. Many of Australia’s earliest colonists were Irish Nationalists exiled by the British for pushing the cause of Irish independence as well as English radicals including Chartists, machinery- wrecking Luddites, and the Tolpuddle Martyrs, a group of six farm labourers exiled from Dorset in 1834 for setting up a Trade Union. Many of these migrants brought revolutionary fervour with them and continued political activities in the early penal colony. But they were up against the British Empire at the height of its world dominating power. Small-scale rebellions were swiftly dealt with. In 1854 a group of disgruntled gold miners built a stockade around the Eureka Hotel in Ballarat, declaring it the “Republic of Victoria”. The British response was swift and bloody.

It was well over a century later that the republican cause gained widespread appeal. As the Second World War ended and the British Empire dissolved, the advantages of a close relationship with “the mother country” were less apparent. Some servicemen back from the Pacific believed that Britain had abandoned Australia during the war. This view was confirmed for many when the UK turned its back on Australia as a trading partner and joined the Common Market.

Indeed, demographics, trade and geography all favoured republican independence for decades. The democratic shortcomings in the existing arrangements were exposed in 1975 when the Governor General, the Queen’s representative in Australia, dismissed then prime minister, Gough Whitlam. At the time Labor was a monarchist party, but that changed when Whitlam came into conflict with Parliament and was sacked by Governor General Sir John Kerr.

The father of modern Australian republicanism is probably former Labor Prime Minister, Paul Keating. In 1993 Keating established a “Republic Advisory Committee” to look at the constitutional changes necessary. In the early 1990s Malcolm Turnbull, then a prominent lawyer, started the Australian Republican Movement (ARM). It was an attempt to increase public pressure for constitutional change.

This contrasts quite sharply with debate on the issue in Canada. While it is true that the most recent royal visits – one by Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall in the fall of 2009, and one by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip in June 2010 – have sparked various editorials, opinion pieces and pundit debates on whether Canada should remain a monarchy, the issue dies down almost immediately once the Royals have left the country. There isn’t the sustained interest in the issue that seems to exist in Australia, nor is the Canadian republican movement as organized or public. While Canada has held many referendums on various issues, there is no measurable interest in holding one on the question of should Canada become a republic.

I don’t purport to know why these differences exist, but I do have a few ideas as to what might explain them. As stated above, demographics, trade and geography all favoured republican independence in Australia. This is less the case in Canada. Granted, on the demographic front, Canada, like Australia, is increasingly less British. Immigration to both countries is significant, and newcomers hail from countries with no obvious ties to the British crown. Even without a strong republican movement, one would expect that over time, Canada’s demographic make-up would suffice to change public opinion about the role of the monarchy in this country. Despite the demographic changes taking place, however, there are other factors at play. Canada is geographically closer to the United Kingdom, and Canadian trade ties with the UK are stronger than are Australia’s. For example, in 2009, the UK was Canada’s 2nd  most important export market (far behind the US of course), while it was 6th main market for Australian exports. The UK ranked 6th as a source of imports to Canada, while it was 10th for Australia.

Canada’s geographic closeness to the UK probably explains why our trade figures are better than Australia’s, but trade figures alone aren’t enough to engender emotional attachment to the monarchy. Personally, I believe the monarchy helps define Canada for many Canadians as something that makes us different from Americans. Australia doesn’t have to worry about sharing a border with a country with ten times its population. Canadians not only look just like Americans, we sound like them too (to many foreigners anyway), and Canadians are notoriously sensitive about being mistaken for Americans when travelling abroad. No one mistakes an Australian for an American. For a Brit, perhaps, but certainly not an American. The cultural shadow of the US simply does not hang over Australia the way it does over Canada. Perhaps that explains in part why there is less interest in loosing our bonds with the monarchy.

Another important factor is that our main constitutional debate has focused for many decades, and continues to focus, primarily on the issue of Quebec’s role in Confederation. Similarly, when debate on political reform does arise in Canada, it tends to focus on issues such as senate reform and electoral reform. Australia already has an elected senate, so there is no need to debate that issue there. They also have various voting systems in place both federally and at the state level, ranging from IRV, to AV, to STV. While some of these options may be little better than First-Past-the-Post, the fact remains that FPTP is not used anywhere in Australia, while any attempt to adopt something other than FPTP in Canada has failed, while voter dissatisfaction increases and turnout continues to decline. My point here is simply that for most Canadians interested in political and constitutional reform, I don’t think becoming a republic is at the top of anyone’s list.

I don’t doubt that one day, Australia will indeed become a republic. Will Canada follow that road as well? Perhaps – once we address what I, and many others, consider much more urgently needed political and constitutional reforms.

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The only good reform is no reform

Opposition to the various political reforms announced earlier this week in the United Kingdom is quite varied. Most of it focuses on the proposal for the referendum on the Alternative Vote to replace First-Past-the-Post, as I discussed in an earlier post. Others are looking at the issue of fixed-term parliaments.

I confess that I remain unconvinced that fixed-term parliaments are really necessary in parliamentary systems. The federal government in Canada as well as several provinces have adopted such legislation. In all instances, they’ve fixed the term limit at four years, as I explained in some detail in one of my first posts on this blog. However, while I’m not convinced by the necessity of fixed-term parliaments, I don’t see it as an objectionable reform either. It does indeed prevent a sitting prime minister from calling an election at his or her whim – usually at a time when his or her party is doing very well in the polls, or to take advantage of disarray among the opposition parties. That alone perhaps justifies the need for such a reform, since it does limit the power of the executive and puts all parties on a more equal footing since they know exactly when the next election will be.

Consequently, I found it rather surprising that some would label fixed-term elections “undemocratic”, as has done Simon Heffer in today’s Daily Telegraph. Heffer objects to all of the reforms being proposed by the Coalition, which I’ll touch on later.  But it seems that it is proposal for fixed-term parliaments that upsets him the most:

Let us take that last point first. How is having a fixed-term parliament supposed to be consonant with the rest of our constitution, let alone with better government? Ask most electors and they will say that what is most needed is the means to throw a useless government out long before it has had five years to inflict untold damage on the country. This technically exists under the present system, but because of the terror the whips exert over their charges, we have instead what Lord Hailsham called “an elective dictatorship”.

Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if we could have thrown out Gordon Brown when the extent of the financial crisis became apparent in 2008? Or to have evicted John Major when his central policy – membership of the exchange rate mechanism – evaporated in September 1992, just five months after what then seemed a fraudulent election? Or to have removed the Callaghan government when it had to ask the IMF to run the economy in late 1976? All three of those administrations limped on into their fifth year, and a fat lot of good it did us.

Fixed-term parliaments are profoundly undemocratic and an abomination in the context of our constitution. They would ensure that a useless government stayed there. In America, both the president and the legislature are elected separately. That is the case in France, too. Our head of state is neither political nor subject to election, so at times of governmental failure, we would merely be locked into a parliament that for everyone’s good should be removed, and without checks and balances.

As Heffer acknowledges, there does exist a means to “throw a useless government out before it has had five years to inflict untold damage” – that is the non-confidence vote. However, it isn’t because of the existence of party whips that governments are rarely brought down. Heffer is being far too simplistic here. The only time a vote of non-confidence has a realistic chance of defeating a government is during a minority parliament. When a party commands a majority of seats in the House of Commons, barring a major revolt among its own members, the government will survive a confidence vote.

What Heffer doesn’t say, however, is that one person’s idea of “untold damage” inficted on a country by a government might be another person’s desired policies for said country. The flip side of making it more difficult to dissolve parliament is that making it easier for opposition parties to bring down governments wouldn’t necessarily be an improvement. In a situation where the governing party and the main opposition party were ideological opposites, even very legitimate policy measures might be viewed by the opposition as wreaking “untold damage” on the country.

Fixed-term parliaments aren’t undemocratic. Parliaments in both the UK and Canada, both by convention and constitutionally, have a fixed-term of sorts built in – they cannot last longer than five years to the day of the previous election. No matter how bad the sitting government might be, it had the right to stay in power for the entire five years, unless it lost confidence of the House (which majority governments rarely, if ever, do). However, there was no limit on how short a parliament could be, and sitting governments were free to call an election at any time during that five-year mandate. This was often undemocratic in some ways because the sitting prime minister could choose to take advantage of a weak and divided opposition, or table a budget laden with tax breaks and other treats for voters, or set about announcing all sorts of expensive government projects in key ridings just before calling a new election. If anything, as I stated earlier, by limiting a prime minister’s ability to call an election when it suits them most, fixed-term parliaments may well limit a governing party’s tendency to engage in this sort of blatant vote buying, and more importantly, it allows the opposition parties the time to organize themselves since they now know when the next election will be. This strikes me as something that improves democracy, contrary to what Heffer seems to think.

To return to some of Heffer’s objections to the other reforms proposed, they are equally weak. Some of his comments:

The first element of the fantasy is the belief that the electorate wants electoral reform and constitutional change. I wonder in how many saloon bars the talk is of little else? There is a notion, reinforced by self-interested Liberal Democrats and minority pressure groups whose ability to shout far outweighs their ability to think, that the outcome of the recent election proved a demand for these changes. (…)

The idea that people want 50 fewer MPs is a fetish of the elite. (…)

Indeed, given the irrelevance of AV to the problems of our country, and the fact that it might well prevent there ever being another majority Conservative government, they would be more moral to side with Labour and if necessary short-circuit the Coalition rather than allow such an atrocity on to the statute book. (…)

If the party’s leader is happy to destroy the perfectly good system of governance our country has enjoyed since the Reform Acts, the party certainly should not be, and its constituents should sharpen up and tell it so. The changes being proposed do a massive favour to the Lib Dems and to the executive; they do nothing for democracy or the Tory party.

Heffer must have missed the poll done after the election that showed strong support (80%) for electoral reform. Even a majority of Conservative voters (71%) favoured change. All three of the major parties included various forms of political and constitutional reform in their manifestos. Perhaps these items weren’t the main concerns of most voters, but the parties promised change. Besides, even if political and constitutional change isn’t an issue that interests most people, does that mean that politicians should not strive to improve the political system? Most people do not follow politics very closely (or at all), so yes, in a way, Heffer is right that many of these isses are a “fetish of the elite”. That does not mean, however, that they are not worth pursuing.

It is the last two sections quoted that truly reveal Heffer’s objections to the proposed changes. AV “might well prevent there ever being another majority Conservative government” and that the “changes being proposed do a massive favour to the Lib Dems and to the executive; they do nothing for democracy or the Tory party.” It is somewhat ironic that Heffer is calling on Tories to do the “moral” thing and side with Labour to prevent AV from passing – even though the next election under FPTP might return a majority Labour government, which will no doubt proceed to wreak “untold damage” on the country, in Heffer’s view, anyway.

In other words, Heffer doesn’t really care about democracy unless it’s the type of democracy that clearly benefits the Conservative party.

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Yes Deputy Prime Minister, Part 2

In an earlier post, I looked at the position of Deputy Prime Minister, specifically in Canada and the UK, contrasting the tradtional role of DPM with the very high profile role assigned to Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, in the coalition government.

This post simply updates the previous. On 3 June 2010, Prime Minister David Cameron issued a written ministerial statement detailing departmental reorganisation. When the coalition was formed, Clegg was put in charge of political and constitutional reform. The ministerial statement outlines what that means in practice. The Deputy Prime Minister will be responsible for introducing fixed-term Parliaments and legislating for a referendum on changing the voting system; legislating to create fewer and more equal-sized constituencies, supporting people with disabilities to become MPs and introducing a power for voters to recall their MP. He will also oversee developing proposals for a wholly or mainly elected second chamber. During his first Prime Minister’s Questions on 2 June, Cameron promised MPs they will get a vote on House of Lords reform in December of this year.

The Lib Dem leader will have powers to speed up the introduction of individual voter registration, a move aimed at combating electoral fraud. He will also introduce a statutory register of lobbyists, reform party funding and move forward with plans for more “all postal primaries” to choose election candidates.

He will also be in charge of considering the “West Lothian question” – the longstanding anomaly which sees Scottish MPs voting on matters affecting England, but not vice versa.

The deputy prime minister will also have policy responsibility for the Electoral Commission, Boundary Commission and Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA), which is setting up the new expenses regime for MPs and peers.

Many of these responsibilities will be transferred to Mr. Clegg from the Ministry of Justice.

It is an ambitious agenda for parliamentary and constitutional reform, which I at least will follow with great interest over the life of this government. And as stated in the earlier post, Mr. Clegg will have his own Deputy Prime Minister’s Questions once a month, where he will answer questions in the House of Commons, primarily on the issues mentioned above. For anyone interested, you can livestream the UK House of Commons here. Clegg’s first DPMQs will be on 22 June.

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