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?

Related Posts:

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)

Related Posts:

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.

Related Posts:

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.

Related Posts:

Collective ministerial responsibility: a brief history

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related Posts:

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.

Related Posts:

David Frum misses the point

“Parliamentary control of the executive—rightly conceived—is not the enemy of effective government, but its primary condition.” Bernard Crick, The Reform of Parliament, 1970, p 259

David Frum is not a fan of the Reform Act.

What underlies Frum’s objection to the Act is a blurring of the distinction between, on the one hand, the legislature and the Executive, and on the other, party and government. It’s not that Frum doesn’t understand that these distinctions exist – he does – to a degree, at least. But he doesn’t seem to understand them well.

Frum doesn’t want to relinquish one iota of a party leader’s control over candidate nominations. He writes:

No party can perfectly protect itself against ever nominating crooked or stupid or obnoxious candidates. But it can screen against them and then take decisive action against those who somehow slip through the screens.

(…)

Nominations are decided by relatively small numbers of people who typically cluster more toward the political poles than the political center and have their own narrow agendas. Their influence is counteracted in Canada by the party leader’s ultimate veto power over nominations. That power is rarely used, but it shapes the whole process.

To be fair, Frum isn’t the only critic of the Reform Act to voice this concern. However, what he and the others seem to ignore is that no one is advocating that there be no screening of potential candidates. The only thing that is being proposed is that party leaders not sign off on nomination papers. I wrote a lengthy post outlining how the UK Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties select candidates. Both have a very comprehensive screening process in place for persons interested in running for the party. The screening is done by a board (or boards throughout the country) that consists of sitting MPs and senior Party volunteers. They have specific criteria drawn up detailing what qualities a party candidate must have, and they test each interested applicant, running them through interviews and scenarios. If the person makes the grade, they are on a List of Approved Candidates and can then seek out the nomination in constituencies that will need a candidate in the next election. The final decision regarding who will be the candidate is left to the local constituency’s selection committee, but all of the candidates that apply to local constituencies have already been screened and approved by the party. Even if, as Frum claims, nominations are currently “decided by relatively small numbers of people who typically cluster more toward the political poles than the political center and have their own narrow agendas”, that would be circumvented by a process such as the one used by the UK parties. It is very thorough and does not involve the party leader at any stage in the process. Why couldn’t Canadian parties implement similar procedures?

Frum’s rejection of “looser” candidate selection is grounded in the fear that this will result in a caucus overrun by “irresponsible and refractory” MPs who will constantly undermine the leader. This is where Frum’s willful (or perhaps unconscious) blurring of the distinctions between the legislature and the Executive, and party and government, becomes most apparent. Frum writes:

If a prime minister has pledged that his government won’t take action on abortion during its next mandate — and a backbencher insists on trying anyway — that action makes liars out of the whole government. Voters can’t be counted on to grasp the distinction between the “government” on the front benches and the government members behind them.

The votes of those backbenchers sustain the government. Stray musings by those backbenchers can doom it.

Here Frum argues that the problem is that “voters can’t be counted on to grasp the distinction between ‘the government’ on the front benches and the government members behind them.” That may be so, but it doesn’t change the very important fact that this distinction exists – it is the very foundation of our system of government. We do not elect the Prime Minister. We do not even elect the Government. We elect individual MPs and they form a Parliament. The Executive (Government) is drawn from the Legislature and is accountable to it. MPs from the political party from which the Government is formed (or parties in the case of a coalition government) are not part of the Government. They have the same job as all of the opposition MPs in the House – and that is to hold the Government to account, and to withdraw confidence if the Government is undeserving of that confidence. If anything, I would argue that backbenchers from the governing party should hold the Government to account even more stringently than the Opposition does because they should want their party to provide the best government possible. They shouldn’t tolerate abuses of the legislative process. They should want imperfect bills to be amended and improved. They should not provide unconditional support if that confidence is not warranted.

Disaffected backbenchers would gain new leverage over party leaders, because a small minority of them – 15% — could at any moment set in motion a leadership review.

The Reform Act is a grant of power to each party’s most irresponsible and refractory MPs.

On the surface, there is some truth to this. Our main political parties are “big tent” parties, meaning they attract supporters under a very broad banner, such as “conservatism” or “social democracy”, but these supporters often have very disparate views on some issues – views which may be at odds with official party policy. Big tent parties seek to find a middle-ground, to appeal to voters beyond their more traditional base. They have to if they want to win enough seats and possibly form a government. The main consequence of this push to the middle ground is that within the party, some will become increasingly disgruntled by the party’s lack of concrete action on a particular issue. In the United Kingdom, for example, there are regular rumours of Conservative MPs challenging party leader and Prime Minister David Cameron’s leadership. This is in no small part due to the reality that the Conservatives are in a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, which has forced the party to put aside some of its key manifesto commitments in order to find a compromise position with its coalition partner. The UK’s membership in the European Union is one such issue. Many Conservatives believe the UK should withdraw from the EU and want a referendum on that very question. The Liberal Democrats are staunchly pro-EU. The Conservatives are also feeling pressure because of the growing support (in polls) for the UK Independence Party (UKIP), a strongly Eurosceptic party committed to withdrawing from the EU.

But here’s the thing – despite all of the rumours of dissatisfaction with David Cameron, no leadership review has been triggered. It would take only 46 of the Conservatives’ 303 MPs to trigger such a vote. This hasn’t happened. But even if a review was launched, it would take 152 of those 303 MPs to force David Cameron out as leader. Perhaps the main reason why no review vote has proceeded is because the disgruntled MPs know they’d never get enough support to actually unseat Cameron.

As I explained in a previous post, in a study of some countries which do allow caucuses to trigger leadership reviews and spills (the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland), between 1965 and 2008, only 17 party leaders have been ousted by their caucus. Of that number, only 3 were actually Prime Minister at the time. The reality is that parties in power rarely oust their leader; they will only do after a poor election showing, or a sharp decline in the polls leading up to an election.

Frum raises the spectre of abortion in his piece. Yes, for Canada’s federal Conservative Party (CPC), many of its supporters are strongly opposed to abortion, yet the party, while in Government, has pledged to not reopen that debate. This doesn’t mean that all of the party’s MPs are happy about that. If the measures proposed in the Reform Act were in place, it would take 24 of the CPC’s 161 MPs to trigger a leadership confidence vote. I don’t know that there are 24 CPC MPs sufficiently committed to the issue of abortion to want to initiate such a vote. But even if that were the case, it would then take 81 MPs to vote against the current leader. If the leadership review was triggered based solely on one fringe issue, I find it very difficult to believe that a majority of the caucus would vote for a leadership change. The more fringe the issue, the less likely a leadership challenge would succeed. This is the point that Frum doesn’t seem to grasp. He assumes the parties would become beholden to the fringe. This isn’t the case. Dissatisfaction with the party leaders would have to be widespread throughout the caucus in order to gain majority support for a leadership change. This reform would not “empower factionalism”, as Frum argues, rather it would isolate it. The dissenting MPs would have to find other reasons – larger reasons – to attract majority support from the rest of the caucus in order to successfully challenge a leader. A faction within a party might be able to trigger a confidence vote, but they would need massive support beyond their fringe grievance for that vote to be successful.

Of course this might present a greater problem for parties with much smaller caucuses – namely opposition parties. A party in power is going to be far more leery of doing anything that might jeopardize their hold on the Government – and coming across as divided is something they will seek to avoid. If the dissatisfaction can be shown to be limited to a handful of MPs committed to one particular issue, that could actually isolate the faction even more. If the party successfully defeats the faction, their popularity with middle-of-the-road voters could actually increase. Smaller caucuses could well be more vulnerable to such hijacking because the numbers required are so much lower. But even then, I am not certain that this would occur. The federal Canadian Liberal Party currently has a caucus of only 36 MPs. Under the Reform Act proposals, it would take only 5 Liberal MPs to trigger a confidence vote in the party leader, but it would take 19 MPs to vote against the leader to force him out. It might be easier for Liberal MPs to trigger a vote, but it would still require widespread dissatisfaction in the caucus to oust the leader. Appearances of internal division will be as detrimental to a small party as they are to larger parties; most caucuses would seek to mitigate that, and only force a leadership review if they knew there was widespread support in caucus for a change.

There are a number of other questionable points in Frum’s article. For example, he writes:

Seemingly small changes in political rules can yield very large changes in political result. Given Canada’s record as arguably the best governed country in the developed world, you’d want to be very cautious about tinkering with those rules.

Advocates of the Reform Act, however, deny that Canada is so well governed. They see a Parliament crushed and stifled; MPs deprived of their historic role; local constituencies trampled by an all-powerful Prime Minister’s Office.

(…)

The promise is that, freed from PMO control, MPs will speak out on behalf of the good people of his or her constituency with a verve and brio sadly lacking today. But where’s the evidence that such local interests go unarticulated today? I’ve seen none adduced.

Again, Frum misses the point. A stronger Parliament will mean better government. That said, the changes proposed in the Reform Act are not procedural reforms. At best, they would encourage backbenchers from the governing party to do their job of holding the Government to account more effectively by not allowing the Executive to take their support for granted. This would improve government, not hurt it, hence the quote at the start of this post: “Parliamentary control of the executive—rightly conceived—is not the enemy of effective government, but its primary condition.” As for his claim that there is no evidence that MPs don’t articulate the concerns of their constituency, has he not listened to Members’ Statements or Question Period in recent years?

And even if one accepts the view that Canada is “arguably the best governed in the world” – which appears to be based not on any OECD or other empirical study but on Mr. Frum’s personal opinion from an earlier op ed piece, does that mean it can’t be improved at all? Frum’s main argument seems to be that we should avoid reforms because there is nothing wrong with the status quo. Our politics may be dull, but “more exciting politics is not the same thing as better government.” I counter that no one is advocating for “more exciting” politics, but better politics. And better politics will inevitably mean better government.

Related Posts:

Some final thoughts on the Reform Act

In my first post on the Reform Act, I addressed the proposal of allowing a caucus to implement a leadership review upon a petition of 15% of the elected members and a secret ballot vote garnering over 50% support. This was complemented by a brief look at how this process has worked in other jurisdictions. My second Reform Act post focused on the proposal that we remove the party leader’s veto over riding nominations. This last post will focus on Chong’s proposal that caucuses elect their chairs and admit and eject caucus members based on the 15%/50% rules employed to trigger a leadership review.

I will start by saying that I honestly have no real opinion concerning the matter of caucus chairs. I don’t know what procedure is currently used by any party in Canada. I have no objection to caucus chairs being elected, and think that this is probably a good idea to pursue, but honestly – I have no problem leaving this to each party to decide. I will say that I don’t think this is something that should be enshrined in law – much like the leadership review rules. It is something that should be in a party constitution.

I will address the proposal governing the expulsion and re-admission of a member from caucus. The Reform Act proposes that the Parliament of Canada Act be amended to include the following:

49.2 A member of a caucus may only be expelled from it if
(a) the caucus chair has received a written notice signed by at least 15% of the members of the caucus requesting that the member’s membership be reviewed at a meeting of the caucus; and
(b) the expulsion of the member is approved by a majority vote by secret ballot of the caucus members present at that meeting.
49.3 A member of the House of Commons who has been expelled from the caucus of a party may only be readmitted to the caucus
(a) if the member is re-elected to the House of Commons as a candidate for that party; or
(b) if
(i) the caucus chair has received a written notice signed by at least 15% of the members of the caucus requesting that the member’s readmission to the caucus be considered at a meeting of the caucus, and
(ii) the readmission of the member is approved by a majority vote by secret ballot of the caucus members present at that meeting.

I admit to mixed feelings about this proposal. Again, I don’t believe this is something that should be legislated, but incorporated in a party constitution. I do understand why Mr. Chong is seeking to incorporate these reforms in either the Canada Elections Act or the Parliament of Canada Act – it would be the only way to guarantee that every party adopt and abide by such reforms, but ideally, it would be better if parties voluntarily incorporated these reforms (or similar reforms) in their own governing documents.

In the UK, as I have explained in my previous posts on this topic (and repeatedly in other posts on this blog) political parties already have caucus-based leadership review mechanisms in place and candidate selection procedures which do not at all involve the party leader. However, to the best of my knowledge, the decision to expel someone from caucus remains very much in the hands of the party leadership in the House. What is interesting here is that given the relative independence of UK MPs vis à vis their Canadian counterparts, it is very rare that the whip is withdrawn, as they say in the UK.

It is important to understand a couple of points before proceeding with this discussion. In the UK, as I have explained in other posts, backbench MPs from all parties – including the government party (or in the current Parliament, government parties) rebel much more frequently than do Canadian MPs. See for example, this post from 2011 on UK MPs rebellions in the current Parliament, and this post on the total absence of MP rebellions here in Canada. The current UK Parliament is on track to be the most rebellious since World War II, and this is in no small part due to the fact that it is a Coalition government – Conservative MPs in particular feel less loyalty to the government since it is not a Conservative government. However, as Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart note:

this Parliament is on course to be the most rebellious since the war. But before the most rebellious was the 2005 Parliament, and before that the 2001 Parliament. For sure, there has been an increase in assertiveness since 2010, but it is merely the latest stage in the growing independence of the British MP.

There are a myriad of reasons why it is easier for UK MPs to rebel by voting against their party; I go over some of them in that 2011 post mentioned above. Perhaps the most important of these is the system of three-line whips used in the UK House of Commons which means party discipline doesn’t apply on all votes. But even on three-line votes, MPs will still defy their party whips. Because it is a relatively normal thing for UK MPs to rebel – and this includes government party backbenchers voting against the Government as well as opposition MPs voting against their party’s stated position (and perhaps supporting a Government bill, for example), it is very rare that an MP in the UK will be expelled from caucus. And when an MP is expelled from caucus, it’s usually not for voting against a bill. I point this out only because voting against your party in the Canadian House of Commons is probably the surest way of being expelled, and also the main reasons why Canadian MPs very rarely ever do so.

In the current (41st) Parliament of Canada, five MPs have left their caucus. Three did so voluntarily, two because they were facing charges (one has since rejoined caucus), the other due to what he believed to be the “Government’s lack of commitment to transparency and open government.” The other two MPs, both from opposition parties, were expelled because they disagreed with their party’s line. One voted against the party’s stated position (and with the Government), the other was expelled for criticizing her party’s support for a provincial initiative.

In the current UK Parliament, 8 MPs have either resigned the whip (voluntarily left caucus) or had the whip withdrawn (been expelled from caucus). Of those, none were for voting against the party or over policy disagreements. Two resigned the whip while facing accusations or charges of sexual assault – one had the matter settled and returned to caucus, the other is still waiting for the matter to be settled. The other six had the whip withdrawn and the reasons are as follows: for questioning the continued existence of Israel; for taking time off from Parliament to compete in a reality show; for allegations of lobbying; for criminal charges following the expenses scandal.

This is why I don’t have an issue with party leadership retaining the right to decide if an MP should have the whip withdrawn – as long as it is done judiciously and for serious offenses or behaviour. Voting against the party line, except on confidence matters (if you’re a government backbencher), should not be a reason to expel someone from caucus. So while most critics of the Reform Act object to it over the leadership review and candidate nomination proposals, my main objection concerns the caucus control of who gets expelled and re-admitted to caucus. I’d like to believe that if the first two reforms were implemented, this reform might not be necessary.

Related Posts:

On forcing out a party leader

As touched on in my first post on the Reform Act, some critics of the bill argue that formal rules establishing a procedure by which a party caucus could initiate a vote of confidence in, followed by the possible removal of, its leader aren’t necessary since caucuses already have that power. Alice Funke, for example, writes:

there is nothing in the law currently preventing party caucuses from doing this very thing now, and indeed they have done so frequently in our current system: Joe Clark was pushed into a leadership review, Michel Gauthier was pushed out as leader by the Bloc Québécois caucus, a good part of Stockwell Day’s caucus left him and the Canadian Alliance and joined the remainder of the Tories instead. And a significant group of Paul Martin backers were hatching plots to oust Jean Chrétien as Liberal leader and Prime Minister.

Today on Twitter, Ms. Funke linked to this article which describes how the British Columbia Social Credit Party caucus forced their leader (and at the time Premier) Bill Vander Zalm out in 1991.

It is certainly true that even without formal guidelines or rules in place, a caucus can exert enough pressure to force a leader to resign, or at least agree to a leadership review at a party conference, but the process can be a lengthy, messy and often very public one which can end up being quite detrimental to the party in the long run. One only needs to think of the Chrétien-Martin divide which hurt the Liberal Party of Canada long after the fact, or the Blair-Brown divide which similarly plagued the UK Labour Party.

The Vander Zalm case is, in fact, a good example of why specific rules would be a good idea. Because the party itself did not have a process in place to allow the caucus to trigger an internal leadership vote of confidence, the party members had to resort to using a parliamentary procedure to achieve what they could not: they planned to table a motion of non-confidence in their own government. Ultimately, the motion wasn’t needed as Vander Zalm was found guilty of violating conflict guidelines and stepped down voluntarily.

There are a number of problems in using this example to prove that caucuses don’t really need formal rules to trigger for possible leadership change. First of all, simply put, I can’t help but think that this is a misuse of the Confidence Convention. The SoCreds were unhappy with their leader, not the fact that their party formed the Government. Confidence of the House is given to a Government; who heads that government is an internal matter for the governing party to decide. Related to this, this option is one that could only be used by a party that formed the government. Opposition parties cannot move want of confidence motions in the House against themselves or their own leader – they can only move want of confidence motions against a sitting government. Consequently, an opposition party unhappy with its leader can’t go this route.

Another problem is that it isn’t necessarily guaranteed to result in a change of leadership. As I explained in my previous post, the tradition in Canada for governments which lose confidence votes is not to resign, but to seek dissolution and trigger a new election. In the article, it appears as if the Social Credit caucus kept the Lt.-Governor informed of what was transpiring, explaining that they planned to “withdraw majority support from Vander Zalm and delegate it to another of their number.” And apparently the Lt.-Governor agreed that he would ask Vander Zalm to resign rather than agree to a dissolution. But what if the Lt.-Governor had not agreed to listen to the caucus? What if the premier had decided to pre-empt his caucus and seek a dissolution and new election? To put it simply, the party should not have had to go this route; if they were unhappy with their leader, they should have simply been able to resolve that internally without resorting to moving a want of confidence motion in the Government.

I am not a constitutional expert, but a lot of this sounds like involving the Crown in the internal machinations of a political party and that makes me somewhat uncomfortable. As per House of Commons Procedure and Practice, 2nd ed., “no act of the monarch (or Governor General as the monarch’s representative) is carried out without the formal advice and consent of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.” There is no mention of carrying out the advice of a party caucus. I will leave that issue to persons better qualified to comment on.

Many critics of the Reform Act worry that an empowered caucus will lead to chaos, with party leaders being shown the door on a regular basis. Is this necessarily what happens?

In Politics at the Centre: The Selection and Removal of Party Leaders in the Anglo Parliamentary Democracies, William Cross and André Blais compare leadership procedures in Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. It is important to know that of these five countries, Canada is the outlier, the only one where political parties have no specific entrenched procedures available to caucuses to challenge their leader. Chapter 5 looks at how and why party leaders’ tenure in office ends. This normally occurs in one of three ways: the leader resigns (either voluntarily, or under pressure), they are forced from office, or either they, or their party, die.  Cross and Blais examined the departures of 110 leaders between January 1965 and January 2008 and found that most (76%, or 84 of 110) resign, and the majority of those who resign (59, or 54%), did so under pressure. It probably goes without saying that most of these leaders who resigned under pressure did so to avoid being forced out. (p. 97)

What we are most interested in, however is how many leaders were actually forced from office. Over the 43-year period studied by Cross and Blais, only 17 leaders in those five countries were forced out: New Zealand 5, Australia 7, the UK 3, Ireland 1, and Canada 1. The Canadian case – John Diefenbaker, is the only one removed by “a process involving the extra-parliamentary party.” (p. 106) Additionally, it is important to note that most of these forced leadership changes occurred among opposition parties. During that same time frame, only 3 sitting Prime Ministers were forced out by their own caucus – Margaret Thatcher (1979-1991) in the UK, and Bob Hawke (1983-1991) and John Gorton (1968-71) in Australia. (p. 98) Thatcher had been in power since 1979, but by late 1990, the Conservatives had been trailing Labour for 18 months in the polls. These same polls showed that a change in leadership would give the Tories a lead over Labour. Bob Hawke’s popularity had been in decline from the late 80s, and while he led Labor to a narrow re-election in 1990, his party lost faith in his ability to counter the resurgent Liberal Party. John Gorton simply proved to be a poor choice for leader, and in his first general election as Prime Minister (1969), saw the Coalition’s 45-seat majority over Labor that he had inherited reduced to only a 7-seat majority. He was forced out as leader of the Liberal Party not long afterwards.

These examples demonstrate two important points. First, the caucuses of parties that are in government aren’t likely to force a leader (and Prime Minister) out if the party is doing well in the polls. The three Prime Ministers forced to resign by their caucuses were forced out due to declining polls or poor election results. The second point is that it is parties in opposition which are more likely to force a leader out, and these are the parties which would not be able to use the want of confidence approach to leadership change described in the Vander Zalm piece or as postulated by Dale Smith.

Of course, Cross and Blais’s research does not take into account the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd leadership spills of 2010-2013, but even by Australian practice as described in Politics at the Centre, that chapter was an anomaly. And as I stated in my earlier post, Labor has now changed its rules governing challenging a sitting leader; consequently, we will never seen anything like that occur again.

I admit that I still don’t quite understand the arguments of those who insist that formal rules for triggering a leadership change aren’t at all needed. I think Canadian political parties would benefit from having formal rules in place. Is the process outlined in Chong’s Reform Act the best way to proceed, perhaps not. I am not comfortable with these rules being incorporated into the Elections Act; I think they should be adopted by parties and included in party constitutions. And I certainly fail to understand how anyone can insist that the confidence convention is a viable option for parties to effect leadership change. It isn’t, and even if it were, it would only work for a party in government. Parties in opposition would be left with no clear options. Hopefully this short international context I’ve provided will help calm a few fears. The process isn’t abused by political parties. It doesn’t result in political chaos. If anything, it might avoid it.

Related Posts:

More thoughts on “The Reform Act”

Another reform being proposed by MP Michael Chong in his Reform Act (see this first post for background) is removing the party leader’s veto over riding nominations. Currently, the Canada Elections Act stipulates that the witness for a nominated candidate must file with the returning officer in the electoral district in which the prospective candidate is seeking nomination:

“an instrument in writing, signed by the leader of the political party or by a person referred to in subsection 383(2), that states that the prospective candidate is endorsed by the party in accordance with section 68.” [67(4)(c)]

The Reform Act proposes instead:

4. Paragraph 67(4)(c) of the Act is replaced by the following:
(c) if applicable, an instrument in writing, signed by the nomination officer of the political party’s electoral district association for the electoral district that states that the prospective candidate is endorsed by the party.
5. The Act is amended by adding the following after section 68:
68.1(1) A prospective candidate for a political party in an electoral district must be endorsed by the nomination officer of the party’s electoral district association of the party in that electoral district.
(2) The nomination officer referred to in subsection (1) shall be appointed by the members of the electoral district association by a majority vote.

Dale Smith provides a bit of a history lesson behind the requirement for the party leader’s signature on a candidate’s nomination form:

When the changes to the Elections Act were debated in 1970, the decision was taken to include the party name on the ballot next to the candidate’s name.  Prior to this, the ballot showed not only the candidate’s name, but also his or her address and occupation.  The issue of people with shared last names became an issue, as did the listing of occupation — especially for incumbents.  While there were concerns about this amounting to “free advertising” for the party, there were more concerns around spoofing party listings — that unless there was a control mechanism that anyone could simply declare on the ballot that they were the Liberal candidate, or that they might instead put down “Progressive Conservative Party for Canada” instead of “of Canada.”  That fail safe mechanism was determined to be the party leader’s signature.  Not once in the debates recorded in Hansard was there the concern that the party leader might use this power to blackmail any rebellious MPs — and yet that is what ended up happening.

The other concern, while not recorded in Hansard but has been repeated anecdotally by those familiar with the situation, was that a safeguard was needed against hijacked nomination races.  This being the days of Pierre Trudeau’s famous omnibus bill that decriminalized contraception, homosexuality and took the first steps in removing some of the more draconian restrictions against abortions, there was intense pressure by anti-abortion groups who were trying to stack the nomination races in their favour.  Once again, the leader’s signature was the stopgap.

Oddly – in my view anyway – this seems to be one of the most problematic proposals for a number of people. For example, Tim Harper of the Toronto Star writes:

On one point, Chong would take away the power of the party leader to select or reject election candidates, making that decision binding from the local electoral district association.

It is silent on the fate of a leader who watches a candidate die, or deal with past indiscretions or criminality, or start spouting contrary policy during the campaign.

The leader cannot fire the candidate and he or she must deal with the damaging fallout until the electoral district association deals with the matter. The leader also cannot move to dissolve the local association.

Dale Smith, in the same article quoted above writes “What we know of Chong’s proposals to date is that they don’t contain some kind mechanism to prevent hijacked nominations, which do remain a concern.” Many others have chimed in on Twitter and elsewhere warning of total chaos, as Andrew Coyne aptly observes: “Remove the power of the leader to decide who may run under the party banner, warned some, and it would lead to a wave of neo-Nazis hijacking nomination meetings. At best, it would empower tiny parliamentary factions to divide and disrupt the party’s business.”

Nothing of the sort occurs in other countries which manage to select candidates without the involvement of the Party leader. I will, as usual, use the United Kingdom as an example, only because it is more familiar to me. What follows is based on information readily available on both the UK Conservative Party and the UK Liberal Democrat Party websites. I couldn’t find anything about candidate selection on the Labour Party website. I have also been in contact with someone who recently went through the selection process for the Liberal Democrats, and he answered a few questions for me. I have also attempted to contact the UK Conservative Party for a bit more information, but have yet to hear back from anyone. If I do, and if necessary, I will update this post with any new information.

Both the UK Tories and the Lib Dems follow very similar procedure to select candidates. It can be summarised as follows:

1. Persons interested in being a candidate need to fill out an application form
2. Based on the application form, suitable candidates will be assessed by an assessment board/team based on criteria established by the party
3. If they pass the assessment, they will be added to a national List of Approved Candidates
4. Once on the List of Approved Candidates, they can then apply for selection in any seat advertising for a parliamentary candidate.
5. The Local Selection Committee decides on a short list of potential candidates (if more than one candidate applies). If you are short-listed, you have a short campaign to drum up support of local party members, at the end of which, the members vote for their candidate for the next Election.

I will go over these steps in a bit more detail.

1. So you want to be a candidate

The UK Tories invite anyone interested in becoming a candidate for the Party to first contact the Candidates’ Team by email or phone for advice on how to proceed. You will then be asked to contact a member of the Field Team, who is either a Party official or senior volunteer in your area. You’ll have an informal chat with about the process, and you can ask any questions you might have. If you still want to be a candidate after that, you have to fill in an extensive application form, which asks about your experience, career, who you are as a person. You also need to provide three referees: one of them must connected with the Party and one must have known you for more than five years.

The Liberal Democrats do things a bit differently. They suggest that you first fill in the self-assessment questionnaire on their website before you apply. Their application forms are similar to the Tories’ – your contact information, basic background information, three referees, one of which must be a Party member, a signed declaration and code of conduct form.

Note: In both cases, you are applying to the party’s central office, not to a local constituency selection committee.

2. The Assessment Process

If you are deemed suitable based on your application form, the UK Tories will then invite you to attend a Parliamentary Assessment Board (PAB). This assessment lasts about 5 hours, during which you will be assessed by MPs and senior Party volunteers. In order to attend a PAB, you must be a current Party member and have been for at least three months. You will also be charged £250 to cover the Party’s costs of hiring the venue and running the PAB. The skills the Party is looking for are: communication skills, intellect, the ability to relate to people, leadership and motivational skills, resilience and drive, and conviction. However, you don’t have to know all about the Party’s manifesto and policies – you’ll learn about that if you make the cut. At this stage, the Party is more interested in you and your abilities.

The Liberal Democrats process is a bit more informal, but that is probably due to their status as the third party. They simply don’t have the same resources available to them. They are more stringent on the Party membership side of things, however; you need to have been a Party member for 12 consecutive months in England and Wales and 9 consecutive months in Scotland. The Lib Dems hold Assessment centres across the country, and once you’ve applied, you should be assessed within six months. The assessment team (similar to the Tories’ PAB) doesn’t see your application form; they only assess your performance during the assessment centre. The process is based on a Competency Framework of the qualities a parliamentary candidate should possess. These competencies are very similar to what the Tories are looking for: communication skills, leadership, strategic thinking and judgement, the ability to represent people, resilience and values. The Lib Dems do expect you to know about their Party policies, however.

Note: In both cases, the required skills and competencies potential candidates are measured against are drawn up by each party’s central office.

3. What happens if you don’t pass the assessment?

No worries! You can try again. The Tories admit that not everyone passes the first time – some require more training or experience. If that applies to you, you can try again in the next Parliament. And some people simply aren’t suited to become candidates, but the Party might find other ways you can help. As for the Lib Dems, if you don’t pass your assessment, you can reapply in either 1 or 5 years, depending on your final score.

4. You passed the assessment – now what?

In both cases, you’re now an Approved Candidate on the Approved Candidates List maintained by each party’s central office. And in both cases, you can now apply to run in any constituency in the country that needs a parliamentary candidate. That’s right – any constituency. However, the Lib Dems at least do encourage people to look for openings close to home. Someone from London seeking to run as a candidate in Newcastle probably wouldn’t be welcomed with open arms.

How do you apply to run for an advertised seat? You contact the Returning Officer named in the advertisement, complete the application form that will be sent to you by the deadline, and wait for the short-list decision from the Local Party Selection Committee (they might invite you to attend an interview). Local selection panels have the final say in who they choose as their candidate (s). In some cases, you might be the only person who applies. In other instances, there might be a number of Approved Candidates after that particular seat. If you are short-listed, there’s a short campaign – about three weeks – during which you will have to try to drum up support from local members. At the end of the campaign, there will be a meeting where local party members will vote for their candidate. If it’s you, you will fight the next General election for that seat.

The Liberal Democrat process described above is the general on which applies for candidates for both Parliamentary and Local elections. On the Party’s website, they stipulate the following:

The approval and selection of Parliamentary Candidates is the constitutional responsibility of each of the three Federal State Parties of England, Scotland and Wales. Each State has an elected Candidates Committee, which takes the decisions and sets the policies that govern the processes of the approval, selection and review of their Parliamentary Candidates.

At no point in this process does the Party leader have any say or input into who becomes an Approved Candidate or who will be contesting for a seat in the Party’s name. Nor can the Party leader veto the selection an Approved or selected candidate. But this doesn’t mean that there is no screening – quite the contrary. Each candidate who makes it onto the List of Approved Candidates has been screened and approved by the party’s central office based on criteria developed by the party. While local selection committees have the final say in which candidate they want, they can only choose from candidates who have been approved by the party. This eliminates (or at least greatly reduces) the possibility of local nomination meetings being stacked by special interest groups. And even if they are, they still will be limited to choosing between candidates who have been approved by the Party’s central office through the selection process described above.

According to my contact with the Lib Dems, the Approved Candidates list doesn’t carry over from one Parliament to the next. If you ran as a candidate for the Party in 2010, but didn’t win your seat, and want to try again in 2015, you have to go through the above process from the start. However, he did say that for previous Approved Candidates, the assessment might be shorter the second time around.

Would such a process work here in Canada? I don’t see why not. With regards to the Reform Act proposal, some concerns have been expressed regarding leaving the decision up to local party riding associations, since some of these local associations aren’t particularly healthy. Some parties may not have a very active membership in some parts of the country, which could make candidate selection problematic if decentralized. This is a legitimate concern, but I don’t see why our parties couldn’t set up Parliamentary Assessment Boards consisting of sitting MPs and long-time party volunteers who could assess candidates anywhere in the country via Skype, for example. The PAB could be supplemented by one or two local party members. Yes, the Canadian situation is different, but none of the problems or objections I’ve yet seen raised are insurmountable.

Do some oddball MPs get elected to the UK House of Commons? You bet they do! And that no doubt adds to the liveliness of the place (when compared to the Canadian House of Commons, for example). But here’s the thing – there are plenty of oddball MPs who get elected here in Canada even with the party leader signing off on nomination papers. The main difference here is that our party leaders can more easily keep their oddballs on a tight leash.

Related Posts:

Page 1 of 812345...Last »