Government and e-democracy

Governments haven’t been the quickest to embrace the internet as a means to expand and facilitate public consultation, beyond the ubiquitous “Contact Us” forms on websites, and the ability to submit briefs by email. Even something as simple as a petition, at least here in Canada, still has to be submitted the old-fashioned way: on paper, with real signatures.

I am certain every government, both in Canada and elsewhere, has its own reasons for not venturing into the digital world more enthusiastically. However, a couple of recent, but very different, exercises in e-democracy from two different sources might provide some insight into why e-democracy initiatives haven’t moved to the forefront: it’s too difficult to control.

1. From the UK: Spending Challenge and Your Freedom

The Coalition government has launched two online consultations. The first was the Your Freedom site, launched on 1 July 2010, which simply asked people to tell the government which laws and regulations it should get rid of. The other, launched on 13 July 2010, was from the Treasury Department, Spending Challenge, and sought to engage the public in findings ways the Government could save money and deliver programs and services for less.

Both proved rather popular, the Your Freedom site perhaps more so, with 2,205 ideas, 7,419 comments and 18,000 votes made within the first 24 hours, causing the site to crash repeatedly. I don’t think the traffic was that heavy over at Spending Challenge, but I’ve not found any specific data on that.

However, both sites revealed the same things. Firstly, the comments and suggestions put forward fell into three categories: serious ones, colourful but still serious ones, and those that were, to be British about it, taking the piss.

Both sites were also plagued by another problem, one common to anyone who’s ever participated in an online forum, or maintained a blog: trolls. In both cases, the government has been forced to suspend, at least temporarily, some of the interactive features of each site. The following status update appeared on the Your Freedom site, on the weekend (but has now been removed):

Status update – Sunday 18 July 2010, 11pm

Users are currently unable to log in to this website due to a few users posting offensive content.

We are working to stop this happening so you can continue to be involved in Your Freedom.

Things were worse over at Spending Challenge. The site was forced to turn off its interactive features just days after launch. Blogger Clifford Singer clearly outlines what the main problems were in this post.

Anyone who’s ever attempted to moderate a discussion forum knows it can be a full-time job, especially if the forum deals with anything remotely controversial. The busier the forum, the more open it is to trolls, and the moderation requirements increase substantially. Perhaps the government simply underestimated how popular the sites would be. Perhaps, because governments are rather new at this sort of thing, they didn’t understand that the internet is home to an awful lot of people who use any venue they can to spout some really awful things. On the Your Freedom site, for example, on the Moderation Policy page, we learn that the site administrators “aim to review and take action on any flagged material within two working days”. Two working days online is an eternity and simply not a quick enough response time when dealing with abusive commentors. In the end, the issue is one of control: the government simply had not put in place sufficient means to ensure that either site was properly moderated, and they quickly lost control of the situation.

2. From Canada: Digital Economy Consultation

On May 10, 2010, the Government of Canada launched an online public consultation aimed at creating a digital economy strategy for Canada. The public consultation period ended on July 13, at which time this website was closed to additional comments and submissions.

However, just days before the end of the public consultation period, a debate on the census had become the second most popular topic. This was, of course, a reaction to the Government’s decision to end the long form census, a decision that has been roundly criticized by an ever-growing number of sources. The debate on the census had become so popular on the Digital Economy site that it was featured on the home page as one of the “top three ideas”. Then, as the Globe and Mail’s Jennifer Ditchburn reports, the discussion disappeared. It was still on the site, but all links to it had been removed. The only way to find the discussion was if you had the exact URL bookmarked.

The government claims the discussion was moved to an “off topic” section because it was not deemed relevant, and perhaps that is a legitimate reason. Blogger David Eaves disagrees, pointing out that “since the digital economy is part of the information economy (information – like that created by the census), (…) part of the digital economy strategy should to reinstate the long form census”. It is a bit perplexing that the census discussion was allowed to stand – until opposition to the government’s move to abolish the long form became more widespread. If the topic was simply irrelevant to the main discussion, wouldn’t that have been noted when the thread first appeared?

For governments seeking public input online, they have to be aware that open forums attract two things:  abuse and views that will run contrary, sometimes very contrary, to government policy. The first is perhaps the most difficult to deal with effectively. If the disruptive or offensive content isn’t dealt with quickly, the overall tone of the site quickly deteriorates, making constructive contributions more difficult. However, if moderation is excessive, with moderators selectively removing problematic postings, you run the risk of appearing to be deleting content based on ideological grounds. As well, excessive moderation can run counter to the aim of the site: letting people have their say.

As for the problem of receiving comments and suggestions that simply run counter to official government policy, that one is easier to deal with. If a government isn’t really interested in considering ideas other than those the party believes in, maybe it shouldn’t go through the charade of soliciting public input in the first place.

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Progressively confusing

I used to have a blog called Vues d’ici, in which I mostly blogged about various aspects of Canadian politics.

A few posts were different, addressing matters not specifically related to Canadian politics. I was reminded of one of them recently after reading an opinion piece by Tony Wright the Guardian entitled “We can’t all be progressives“. In his article, Wright, a former Labour MP, writes:

“So now we have progressive Conservatism implementing a programme of “progressive” cuts, adhering to what George Osborne christened a “progressive budget”, with the Liberal Democrats as progressive partners. If everyone is now a progressive, either the term has to be dumped or a serious attempt has to be made to give it some meaning.”

The reason why this piece reminded me my old blog is because I once wrote a post questioning the assumption that “progressive” was synonymous with “left-wing”. Contrary to what Mr. Wright says above, I would argue that “progressive” already has a well-defined meaning. A quick scan of various online dictionaries reveals that they are all rather unanimous in how they define progressive when used in the political sense. Here are just a few examples.

From Dictionary.com:

1. favoring or advocating progress, change, improvement, or reform, as opposed to wishing to maintain things as they are, esp. in political matters: a progressive mayor.
2. making progress toward better conditions; employing or advocating more enlightened or liberal ideas, new or experimental methods, etc.: a progressive community.

From theFreeDictionary.com:

1.  Moving forward; advancing.
2. Proceeding in steps; continuing steadily by increments: progressive change.
3. Promoting or favoring progress toward better conditions or new policies, ideas, or methods: a progressive politician; progressive business leadership.

From eHow.com:

Definition of Progressive Politics (in the US sense)

Progressives’ main objective is to change the status quo. If the country is isolationist, they are expansionists; if the country’s economy is industrial, they favor a return to agrarianism. They favor small government in a time of big government programs and government intervention in big money-markets. They are not revolutionaries because they believe in American democracy and the responsibility of government to address the needs of its citizens.

Progressive politics is not Democratic—or Republican. It adapts with each election and change in the domestic economic landscape and world circumstances. Progressives favor more change than Republicans or Democrats but are more conservative in outlook than populists.

The value of progressivism in American politics may be its ability to open up new ways of thinking about old problems.

Nowhere does it say that a progressive has to be left-wing (unless one interprets “liberal” as meaning left-leaning). Progressiveness simply means you favour change, reform, doing things differently. It doesn’t say you have to change things to make them fit with a more socialist approach, or that the reforms proposed have to be of the left-wing variety. One simply has to challenge the status quo. It’s natural that a former Labourite such as Mr. Wright will disagree with some of the changes and reforms the UK Conservative-Lib Dem coalition is introducing, but that doesn’t mean that some of their changes aren’t progressive if they indeed mark a departure from how things are currently done. They can still be progressive policies, simply not left-wing policies.

Progressives can be leftists, certainly. But they can also be centrists, or right of centre. No particular political ideology has a monopoly on wanting to improve or reform how government operates. People on the left with disagree with reforms introduced by those on the right or centrists, just as those on the right won’t like the changes introduced by a more left-wing government. But if “progressive” means open to change, reform, doing things differently, not preserving the status quo, then quite a few of the measures proposed by the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition are indeed progressive.

For example, yesterday, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg officially launched the Your Freedom website, on which people can suggest laws they’d like to see repealed, laws that make people “feel under threat” and “serve no real purpose”, and will also be able to propose ways to reduce bureaucracy. The government isn’t beholden to actually repealing the laws proposed, but the government insists they will all be considered. This certainly strikes me as a new way of doing things, and should lead to some reforms and changes. People may not agree with which laws get repealed – right now one of the most popular suggestions calls for repealing various drug laws, particularly those affecting the use of cannabis, and it is doubtful the government will move in that direction, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t a progressive initiative. Tied in with this program, Clegg stated in an interview with the BBC (viewable here at time of writing) that they were also starting a new process by which when a minister proposed a new regulation, he or she had to repeal an existing one at the same time – a “one in one out” rule.

The real issue here is that “progressive” has become confusing. As stated above, I disagree with Wright that the term has to be dumped or more clearly defined. I believe the definition is quite clear. The problem is that at some point, progressive became synonymous with “left wing”, and so only the policy changes introduced by leftist parties could be rightly considered “progressive”. No one would dare call anything Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives did “progressive”, yet her government certainly transformed the United Kingdom. People on the left deplore her reforms and the changes she introduced, but no one can argue that she didn’t introduce reforms and new ways of doing things. Thus the problem of attributing an ideological stance to “progressive”: when centrist or even right of centre parties use the term, as does the coalition government in the UK, people on the left say the term has been “hijacked”, and dismiss it as meaningless (as per the first part of this podcast).

People will always disagree over what constitutes progress, or what is a progressive idea or policy. Or even when there is agreement that a certain goal is progressive – such as furthering individual freedom, the different ways of achieving this will be considered progressive by some, but not by others, depending on their ideological beliefs. But in the end, if a policy does move something forward, in some way, that is progress, and therefore, progressive.

Of course, I doubt there will be much agreement on what constitutes “moving something forward” either…

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The hatreds will always be there

There was an interesting op-ed piece in the Guardian this weekend on the plight of former prime ministers. While focusing on former British PMs, the same certainly applies to former Canadian PMs.

In the US, where the office of President – if not always the individual holding the office – is revered, former presidents are not only granted respect once they leave office, but are frequently called upon by incumbent presidents for advice, or to lead high profile missions abroad. They continue to play prominent roles in US politics and society. Even those who leave office in disgrace, such as Richard Nixon, usually end up rehabilitated to a degree with the passage of time: their accomplishments in office are acknowledged, and their disgraces, while not exactly swept under the rug, aren’t focused upon as intently.

This is probably largely due to the fact that US presidents are the head of state, elected directly by the people, while prime ministers are the head of government, and more importantly, the leader of a party. A party in power can decide to change its leader part-way through their term in office and replace him or her with someone else, as has recently happened in Australia, and has happened in the UK when Tony Blair resigned, replaced by Gordon Brown, and in Canada, when Jean Chrétien was replaced by Paul Martin. The voting public has no say in this – it is, for all intents and purposes, a bit of administrative housekeeping.

This illustrates clearly how parliamentary systems work: we in countries such as Australia, Canada and the UK, do not elect our head of government, the government is formed by MPs, the post of PM filled by whichever MP happens to be leader of the party that forms the government (or in the case of a coalition, usually the leader of the largest party in the coalition). If the party becomes dissatisfied with the person leading it, it is the party’s prerogative to change leaders. In some ways, the leader is almost incidental, but the irony is that the leader comes to symbolise the party and government in the minds of the general public. While we know that we don’t actually vote for the PM, many people do indeed vote with that in mind – who they would like to see (or certainly don’t want to see) in the post of Prime Minister.

However, does this mean that once out of office, former PMs should be discarded to the annals of history? Certainly their time in power would allow them to accrue a great deal of insight into both domestic and world affairs that could be, and should be, of great value to the country. But that is not what happens. For the most part, we do not call upon their expertise. Incumbent PMs do not seek out their advice, nor do they ask them to play prominent roles on behalf of the country internationally (or domestically). In some cases, former PMs prefer to return to some sort of private life, eschewing the public spotlight, working quietly for causes dear to their heart. But in general, as Glover notes: “Leaders are driven out either by their party or the country; and either way are left haunted by a sort of ignominy for which we expect them to do unspoken penance. They become relics of old conflicts. Thatcher is just as toxic now to the left as she ever was; Brown will never be forgotten by the right. Blair will never be able to shake off Iraq.” The same holds true in Canada: Brian Mulroney will forever be a reminder of failed constitutional talks and the Free Trade Agreement, Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin of the sponsorship scandal, Joe Clark of bumbling incompetence.

Party allegiance is a much bigger factor in parliamentary systems than it is in the US. The president is not the leader of the party he or she represents in the way the prime minister is the actual leader of the party that he or she represents. If anything, they are party leader first, PM second. In the US, the people may elect their president from one party, but ensure Congress and the Senate are dominated by the other, while in parliamentary systems, it is impossible to separate the executive and legislative branches this way. And even when one party controls the White House, Senate and House of Representatives in the US, as President Obama has learned, that is no guarantee that the president’s policies will get through.  There is also an understanding that the president is the the leader of the entire nation first and foremost, and that they achieved office because the people, not their party, put them there. This inherent respect for the office of president goes beyond the party affiliation of the individuals who hold, or have held, that office, which is why incumbents can easily reach out to their predecessors across party lines. Party affiliation doesn’t really matter. What matters is that they were elected by the people to the highest office.

Such outreach by a sitting PM to former prime ministers, even those of the same party, very rarely happens in parliamentary systems. The one exception might be Margaret Thatcher in the UK. While it isn’t very surprising that David Cameron invited her to 10 Downing Street after he became PM, Gordon Brown did the same thing when he became PM, which raised a few eyebrows. But in both cases, Dame Thatcher was merely invited to visit 10 Downing – she was not asked to take on any role or act on behalf of the government.

In parliamentary systems, party allegiance is certainly a key obstacle preventing sitting prime ministers from reaching out to former PMs, but there is another factor as well – internal party politics. If a sitting prime minister feels pressure from his or her party to step aside for someone else, it isn’t unexpected that there will be much resentment, even hostility, between the ousted leader and the person who replaces him or her that will last long after they are both out of office. This was clearly the case between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in the UK, and between Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin here in Canada.

This is perhaps a weakness of our parliamentary system. I don’t know if there is an easy way to overcome our tradition of dumping former PMs on the trash heap of history. Certainly, nothing would stop a sitting prime minister from reaching out to former PMs, but it is unlikely to happen, especially if this outreach were to cross party lines. Our party system is such a dominant feature of our politics, it doesn’t easily allow one party to acknowledge the contributions of another. Still, part of me would like to see our former PMs play a more prominent role in our nation’s political life, acting as a sort of éminence grise. This would be a far better role for them to play than acting as a panel of judges on a television program the way former PMs Kim Campbell, Joe Clark, Paul Martin and Brian Mulroney have done here in Canada. If that is the best we, as a nation, can offer our former PMs, that is a rather sad state of affairs.

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On Petitions

All authorities agree that the right of petitioning parliament for redress of grievances is acknowledged as a fundamental principle of the constitution. It has been uninterruptedly exercised from very early times and has had a profound effect in determining the main forms of parliamentary procedure. – Speaker Gaspard Fauteux (Debates, June 18, 1947, pp. 4278-9)

The right of citizens to petition Parliament for redress of grievance well entrenched, based as it is on tradition that dates back centuries and established precedent. The following historical overview is taken from the House of Commons Procedure and Practice, 2nd edition 2009.

Petitioning the Crown (and later Parliament) for redress of a grievance originated in the 13th century, during the reign of Edward I. Petitioners had recourse to the Crown’s prerogative power, which was above the common law. Petitions granted to individuals and communities were in the nature of private laws; those granted to the nation as a whole made public laws.

In medieval times, before Parliament had assumed its present constitution and when its judicial and legislative functions were as yet undefined, Receivers and Triers of petitions appointed by the Crown travelled the country to hear the complaints of the people. Certain matters would be referred to local courts by the Triers, but others would be found appropriate for consideration by the High Court of Parliament.

As Parliament evolved from a primarily judicial to a predominantly legislative body with its judicial functions taken over by the courts, the character of petitions changed. By the end of the fourteenth century, legislative remedy was sought by individuals and corporations who petitioned Parliament or the House of Commons. At the same time, petitions from the Commons to the Crown—these being of a general nature and expressing national grievances—became frequent. The English Parliament’s first legislative acts occurred with the Commons petitioning the King for certain amendments to the law. This was the precursor to legislation by bill, as later the Commons assumed the task of drafting the desired statute which could then be accepted or rejected—but never amended—by the Crown. The seventeenth century saw the development of what may be considered the “modern” form of petition: addressed to Parliament, drawn up in a prescribed manner, usually dealing with public grievances.

In Canada, provisions for petitions (long a feature of the pre-Confederation legislative assemblies) have always been part of the written rules of the House. The rules adopted in 1867 were somewhat expanded in 1910, and operated without substantial modification for some 76 years. However, starting in the immediate post-Confederation period, an extensive body of practice began to build, resulting in a collection of form and content requirements which were not codified in the Standing Orders but which had to be met in order for a petition to be received by the House.

In the early and mid-1980s, the resurgence in the use of petitions led to a situation in which the presentation of petitions occupied large amounts of the time of the House, sometimes to the exclusion of other business. As well, the Chair was at times called upon to intervene or rule on matters relating to the admissibility of petitions and the manner of their presentation. As a consequence, the Special Committee on the Reform of the House of Commons (the McGrath Committee) made several recommendations intended to clarify the rules relating to petitions, to promote increased uniformity in their presentation, to ensure their admissibility as to content and to provide guidelines as to form and the petitioners’ signatures. In 1986, the House adopted amendments to the Standing Orders based on these recommendations.

The most significant of the changes adopted in 1986 was the requirement for certification of petitions by the Clerk of Petitions prior to their presentation in the House. Also included were a number of requirements, some previously uncodified but well established by precedent and practice, to be met in order for petitions to be certified correct as to their form and content (for example, petitions must contain a prayer requesting action, must be respectful in tone and must bear original signatures). Guidelines issued by the Speaker made reference to these and to other established practices concerning the presentation of petitions during Routine Proceedings. A new rule provided for mandatory government replies to petitions.

Several changes were adopted in 1987, in particular a new requirement that signatories to petitions must include their addresses. As well, the number and sequence of Routine Proceedings rubrics was revised so that “Presenting Petitions”, formerly the fifth of nine items, became the ninth of ten. In 1991, a further amendment set a limit of 15 minutes on the time provided for the presentation of petitions during Routine Proceedings. An amendment adopted in 1994 provided that the original petitions be transmitted to the Ministry (Privy Council Office) and that government responses to petitions may be tabled by depositing them with the Clerk of the House.

In 2003, the House simplified requirements for petitions, including the prayer for relief. The House amended Standing Order 36 to ensure:

  • that certification be granted to petitions even if they are addressed to the government or a Minister or a Member;
  • that the minimum number of 25 signatures with addresses be maintained, although wording would be added to deal with the situation of persons who do not have a fixed address;
  • that certification be granted even if the full prayer is not shown on every sheet, so long as the subject matter is indicated; and
  • that certification be granted even when petitions call for the expenditure of public funds.

The most important change was that the Standing Orders would be amended, for a one-year trial period, to stipulate that, where a government response to a petition was not tabled in the House of Commons within 45 days, the matter of the failure of the Ministry to respond would be referred to the appropriate standing committee. The House deemed it appropriate to renew this provisional order in the days leading up to the 38th general election, before making it permanent on October 29, 2004.

Each province and territory has its own rules and guidelines governing petitions.

E-Petitions

One thing that has not changed since Confederation is that the petition must be written or printed on paper of “usual size”, which is interpreted to mean 8.5″x11″ sheets. Electronic petitions cannot be certified. This may surprise some, as we have all seen countless entreaties online to “sign” an e-petition, but they will not be accepted by the House of Commons, and only one provincial legislature allows e-petitions. Consequently, anyone concerned enough about a given issue to “sign” an online petition ahould understand that e-petitions will have no sway with either the federal or any provincial government. In fact, they won’t even be accepted by the legislative body in question.

There are jurisdictions in the Commonwealth that have started accepting e-petitions, however, including Scotland, Wales, the Australian Senate, some Australian state governments (Queensland, Tasmania), and more recently (2006), the British Prime Minister (10 Downing Street).  After the May 2010 election in the United Kingdom, the new government announced it would not answer any of the petitions that had been submitted to the previous administration. This provoked frustration and disappointment among some who had worked to get a significant number of signatories to their petitions (only petitions with more than 500 signatures are replied to). Number 10 had a change of heart and reversed its position, saying all petitions which had exceeded the 500 signature threshold as of 6 April 2010 will now get a response. The Number 10 e-petitions system is under review by the new Government and a new e-petitions system will be launched later in 2010. (Update: the HM e-Petitions are now active.)

Usefulness of Petitions

How useful petitions are is a matter of debate. In some jurisdictions, there is no requirement that the government respond to petitions at all. For example, only three ministerial responses were received to the 2587 petitions tabled in the Australian House of Representatives between 1999 and 2007. This situation has changed, however.  In 2008, the Rudd government announced that for the first time since Federation, the House of Representatives would have a Petitions Committee to “listen to millions of Australians.” The committee now refers petitions to the relevant minister and conducts public hearings. Today the committee’s online register of petitions records a large number of ministerial responses as well as the program of public hearings at which the committee takes evidence from petitioners and government officials.

While petitions are supposed to be a tool by which citizens bring grievances to the attention of government, in some instances, the process is hijacked by the politicians themselves. When a particularly contentious policy is brought forward by a government, some opposition members will table petitions, ostensibly from constituents, but often signed by members of their own staff, arguing against the policy. Government members respond in kind, tabling petitions in support of the policy, but not really from actual constituents. This creates the impression, in the public record at least, of strong support for or against a measure which might not actually be shared by the voting public.

However, in some instances, public petitions may indeed force a government to reverse course. Most recently, in the Canadian province of British Columbia, a province-wide petition drive was launched in April of this year to repeal the planned introduction of a new 12% Harmonised Sales Tax (HST), which is to take effect 1 July. BC has petition-driven referendum legislation in place, consequently, if the anti-HST petition managed to gather the signatures of 10% of registered voters in each constituency by 1 July, the government will either have to introduce a bill to scrap the HST, or refer the matter to a province-wide vote. The campaign met the required target with weeks to spare.  The province of Ontario is also introducing the Harmonised Sales Tax on 1 July, and while there have been countless petitions tabled against the tax in Ontario, Ontario does not have petition-driven referendum legislation in place. Consequently, in Ontario at least, the HST will be implemented as planned.

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When policy ideas are actually matters of debate

In recent years, in North America at least, whenever a politician changes their mind on a certain policy position, the press immediately jumps on this, calling the change a “flip flop”, which helps create the impression that the politician in question is indecisive and uncertain of where they really stand on a given issue, and because of that, aren’t good leaders or potential leaders.

This is an unfortunate development because politicians become increasingly hesitant to admit that perhaps one of their policies wasn’t as well thought-out as they had thought, or that after study and consultation, they realise that a proposed policy isn’t the right one to pursue. They then move ahead with policies and programs that fly in the face of actual research and common sense, simply because they don’t want to admit they were wrong and be accused of being a dreaded “flip flopper”. Why anyone would prefer a politician who thinks they’re infallible, or that their ideas and policies couldn’t possibly be wrong over someone willing to modify their program to fit existing realities is puzzling, but this seems to be the state of affairs in both the US and Canada.

The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in the UK was formed rather quickly, after only five days of negotiations, and came out with a detailed Programme for Government a couple of weeks later that was based on some ideas from each party’s manifesto, but that also included a slew of new ideas that neither party had campaigned on. The release of the programme occurred before the House of Commons opened, which allowed for much debate in the press about the merit of many of the proposed policies.

One such proposal was to grant anonymity to men accused of rape up until they were actually convicted. The reasoning behind this seemed reasonable – not all accusations of rape are legitimate, and many men have had their reputations destroyed by false accusations, even though they were ultimately found not guilty.

However, as soon as this policy initiative was made public, it caused great concern in many circles. Feminist groups said it would tip justice and public opinion in favour of the defendants. Acting Labour leader Harriet Harman said the plan would prevent other victims of serial rapists from coming forward.

Two weeks after the coalition programme was released, during his first Prime Minister’s Questions, David Cameron indicated that the coalition was modifying its policy. Instead, the accused would be named if prosecutors brought charges, suggesting any suspects released by police without charge would have their names permanently shielded from the public. A week later, during a debate on the issue in the House of Commons, a few interesting things became apparent. The lack of preparation that had been done in including the measure in the coalition document was one of them. The pledge had not appeared in the manifesto of either the Lib Dems or the Tories. Crispin Blunt, the junior justice minister responding to Caroline Flint, the member who requested the debate, admitted that the evidence simply was not yet in place to make an informed decision on it.

Another policy proposed by the coalition was to introduce a new rule that would require a vote of 55% of MPs in order to force dissolution of the House. The traditional 50% + 1 vote would remain for a vote of non-confidence, but to force an election would require a second vote and 55% support. This was proposed in tandem with the coalition’s move to fixed term elections, and was designed specifically to ensure that the coalition would have a good chance of lasting the full five years since the combined forces of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats total 56% of the seats in the House.

This proposal was greeted with perhaps even more outrage than was the proposal for anonymity for those accused of rape, with both government backbenchers and opposition parties warning that such a move could result in chaos, with a government losing a confidence vote, but the opposition unable to muster the numbers required to force a new election.

Yesterday, during a debate on constitutional and political reform, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg indicated that the government carefully considering the issue:

“We are already conducting detailed work on the steps that are necessary to remove any theoretical possibility of a limbo in which a government that could not command the confidence of the House refused to dissolve Parliament and give people their say. That would clearly be intolerable. Any new arrangements will need to build on existing conventions so a distinction is maintained between no confidence and early dissolution.”

In other words, the 55% rule wasn’t cast in stone, and MPs would have the opportunity to properly consider the proposal at length when it came before them.

In both instances, what was at least an apparent partial back-tracking on government policy failed to raise a single accusation of “flip-flopping” (though the Daily Mail did refer to Cameron making a U-turn on the rape anonymity issue).

In a column for The Independent, Simon Carr finds this approach refreshing. He notes that the new government is less arrogant, in part, maybe, because this is a coalition – “government MPs are less seduced into the arrogance of office because they have to rely on the support of strangers.” As well, they’re amateurs, and, adds Carr, “they haven’t thought things through. That’s a good thing, it turns out.” They have lots of ideas, the details of which remain to be worked out, and they’ll be worked out in the House of Commons when the bills are tabled. As Carr concludes: “They have had the confidence to surrender the affectation of omnipotence and omniscience – and have abandoned the state’s ambition to omnipresence.”

A government that doesn’t claim to be all powerful and all knowing, and willing to admit it doesn’t have all the answers? What a refreshing change.

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Yes Deputy Prime Minister

The position of deputy prime minister in Westminster parliamentary systems varies from one jurisdiction to another.

For example, in both Australia and New Zealand, the position has become an official ministerial portfolio, since 1949 in New Zealand and since 1968 in Australia. In Australia, the duties of the Deputy Prime Minister are to act on behalf of the Prime Minister in his or her absence overseas or on leave. The Deputy Prime Minister has always been a member of the Cabinet, and has always held at least one substantive portfolio. It would be possible for a minister to hold only the portfolio of Deputy Prime Minister, but this has never happened. If the Prime Minister were to die, become incapacitated or resign, the Governor General would normally appoint the Deputy Prime Minister as Prime Minister. If the governing or majority party had not yet elected a new leader, that appointment would be on an interim basis. Should a different leader emerge, that person would then be appointed Prime Minister.

In New Zealand, the position was traditionally held by the deputy leader of the ruling party, but since the introduction of the MMP electoral system in 1994, which makes coalitions more likely, the role may increasingly go to the leader of a junior party.

In Canada and the UK, the position of deputy prime minister is not a permanent cabinet post. In Canada, it is a purely honorary position, conferred at the discretion of the prime minister. The first deputy prime minister post was created in 1977. The official duties of the deputy prime minister are to answer questions pertaining to overall government policy during Question Period, and to chair the cabinet in the absence of the prime minister. The office has no standing in law, and does not carry any formal duties or tasks; that is, it is without a portfolio, though the prime minister may negotiate or assign specific tasks in conjunction with the title. With one exception, all deputy prime ministers have held a portfolio alongside this title.

In the UK, the office of the deputy prime minister is not a permanent position, existing only at the discretion of the Prime Minister. Former PM Gordon Brown did not have a Deputy Prime Minister; however, current PM David Cameron appointed Liberal Democratic Party leader Nick Clegg to be his Deputy Prime Minister in the Liberal Democratic Conservative coalition government.

Clegg, however, has far more power than any of his predecessors. He was put in charge of political and constitutional reform when the coalition government was formed, but that is far from all. According to the Coalition Agreement for Stability and Reform (PDF),  Mr. Clegg will have a say in government reshuffles, policy disputes and will even wield influence over the Budget. The Liberal Democrat leader will also play a key role in resolving arguments between the parties. Mr Clegg will have a seat on eight out of nine Cabinet committees hammering out government policy. He will chair the committee on domestic affairs, which will give him a major say in key policies on law and order, education and the NHS.

He is also the first Deputy PM to have his own equivalent of Prime Minister’s Questions. Starting 22 June 2010, Mr. Clegg will take part in Deputy Prime Minister’s Questions once a month, answering MPs questions for 30 minutes. He will also stand in at Prime Minister’s Questions when David Cameron is away. He has also been assigned responsibility for pushing through the coalition government’s parliamentary reforms.

This agreement marks the first time that the duties and responsibilities of the Deputy Prime Minister have been clearly laid out in detail.

Of course the reason why Clegg was granted such extraordinary powers (for a Deputy PM) is because of the coalition government situation. As leader of the second party in the coalition, he had to be given an important, high profile role in the new government. It is doubtful, should the next government be a more usual single-party majority government, or a single-party minority government, that the next Deputy PM, if there even is one, would enjoy the same level of power and influence as will Nick Clegg inside the Lib-Con Government.

However, he may be setting a precedent that a future Deputy PM might seek to emulate.

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Yes Prime Minister

In Westminster parliamentary systems, the prime minister is the presiding and actual head of the government and head of the executive branch. In such systems, the head of state or the head of state’s official representative (i.e. the monarch, president, or governor-general), although officially the head of the executive branch, in fact holds a ceremonial position.

What is particularly interesting, to me at least, is that in most, if not all of the countries using the Westminster system, the constitutions of those country make no mention of the position, power and status of prime ministers. This is certainly the case in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Canada (although in the Constitution Act, 1982, a passing reference to a “Prime Minister of Canada” is added, though only regarding the composition of conferences of federal and provincial first ministers.)

Why this is interesting is because the role, importance and power of the prime minister, at least in Canada, has greatly increased in recent decades, undoubtedly due to the very fact that the constitution is silent what the role and powers of this post.

Canada adopted the British practice of having a Cabinet led by Prime Minister when the country was formed in 1867. Interestingly enough, in the British tradition there was no official leader of the British Cabinet until the 19th century. Prior to that time, Cabinet Ministers enjoyed control over their respective departments and worked in concert to address broad government matters. By the 1800s, however, it became customary to recognize a “senior” or “first” minister in the Cabinet, who was later given the title of Prime Minister.

Since Confederation, the role of Prime Minister has undergone considerable change in Canada. In the early years, it was customary for the Prime Minister to exercise very little control over other senior Cabinet Ministers. In fact, it was common to refer to the Prime Minister as simply the “First amongst equals.” Today, however, it is customary for the Prime Minister to dominate his or her Cabinet, and to play a much more central role in government decision-making.

Canadian PMs control the appointment of the people to fill the following positions:

  • all members of his/her Cabinet who he/she may replace at any time;
  • all justices of the Supreme Court of Canada;
  • vacant seats in the Senate;
  • all heads of Canadian Crown Corporations whom the Prime Minister may replace at any time;
  • all executive positions such as the head of the Canadian Safety Transportation Board, the president of the Federal Business Development Bank;
  • all Ambassadors to Foreign Countries;
  • the Governor-General of Canada and provincial Lieutenant-Governors;
  • plus approximately 3,100 other powerful government positions, the bulk of which the Prim Minister usually designates a member of his staff to appoint with his or her concurrence.

As well, the Prime Minister appoints the person to head the Office of the Ethics Counsellor whose job is to monitor and when necessary, to investigate, the ethical conduct of the members of Parliament including the Prime Minister to whom the Ethics Counsellor reports.

The UK Prime Minister is similarly powerful. the Prime Minister appoints (and may dismiss) all other cabinet members and ministers, and co-ordinates the policies and activities of all government departments, and the staff of the Civil Service. The PM acts as the public face and voice of Her Majesty’s Government, both at home and abroad. Solely upon the advice of the Prime Minister, the Sovereign exercises many of her statutory and prerogative powers: they include the dissolution of Parliament; high judicial, political, official and Church of England ecclesiastical appointments; and the conferral of peerages, knighthoods, decorations and other honours. The Prime Minister also chairs a number of select committees; at present the Defence and Overseas Policy Committee, the Constitutional Reform Committee, the Intelligence Services Committee and the Northern Ireland Committee. In these committees, policies may be determined; hence the Prime Minister has to be very influential in these committees.

However, it should be noted that in the UK, certain appointments have been removed from the direct control of the prime minister. The appointment of senior judges, while constitutionally still on the advice of the Prime Minister, is now made on the basis of recommendations from independent bodies. Similarly, the House of Lords Appointment Commission (HOLAC) was established by the Prime Minister in May 2000 to recommend individuals for appointment as non-party-political life peers and to vet nominations for life peers, including those nominated by the UK political parties, to ensure the highest standards of propriety.

Many political and constitutional observers warn that, in Canada at least, so much power is concentrated in the prime minister’s office that even cabinet is becoming increasingly irrelevant. Former clerk of the Privy Council, Gordon Robertson, has said that “Our concentration of power is greater than in any other government with a federal cabinet system. With the lack of checks and balances, the prime minister in Canada is perhaps the most unchecked head of government among the democracies.

There are still, however some checks on the Prime Minister’s power. Cabinet or caucus revolts will bring down a sitting Prime Minister quickly, and even the threat of caucus revolts can force a Prime Minister out of office as happened to Jean Chrétien in 2003.

The Prime Minister is also restricted by the usually powerless Senate. The Senate can delay and impede legislation, as occurred when Brian Mulroney attempted to introduce the Goods and Services Tax (GST), and when Chrétien tried to cancel the privatization of Toronto Pearson International Airport. In both cases, the conflicts arose primarily because the Senate was dominated by members appointed by previous governments. Both PMs ended up “stacking” the Senate in their favour with a flurry of senate appointments in order to pass their legislation. Mulroney’s government used a constitutional provision to receive approval from the Governor General for the creation of eight new Senate seats in 1991.

Canada is one of the most decentralized of the world’s federations, and provincial premiers have a great deal of power. Constitutional changes must be approved by the provincial premiers, and they must be consulted for any new initiatives in their areas of responsibility, which include many important sectors such as health care and education.

The Supreme Court can also curtail prime ministerial power. As constitutional interpreter, the Supreme Court can invalidate government policy and force the government to either adopt a different approach, or take the somewhat controversial step of invoking the “notwithstanding clause,” something no Prime Minister has yet done.

The Constitution contains reserve powers which may be used by the Governor General against a Prime Minister. While that last occurrence of a Governor General refusing to carry out the wishes of a Prime Minister dates back to the King-Byng affair in 1925, the Governor General is legally capable of demanding that a Prime Minister step down, or can refuse to call an election.

The electorate does exert some power on the prime minister. Opinion polls, by-elections and pressure groups all contribute to electoral pressure on the person holding prime ministerial office. Still, the fact remains that in Westminster parliamentary systems, the absence of a clearly defined constitutional role has allowed the prime minister to become extremely powerful.

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