deconstructing the machine

The Unbroken Machine is a great book. As I said in an earlier post, the book seems to have been written, at least in part, as a challenge to the Fair Vote Canada electoral reform campaign for proportional representation. Anybody interested in electoral reform should read The Unbroken Machine. It is thorough. And it is certainly challenging. I agree, with author and blogger Dale Smith, that Canadians should know how their system is supposed to work. By ‘should’, I mean that our self-government would proceed with less confusion and frustration on the part of those of us who are governed, and with more consistency by those who govern us.

Each chapter in The Unbroken Machine covers an aspect of Responsible Government. In the first chapter the idea of Responsible Government is championed as a ‘good’ form of government, although we have never truly achieved that ideal. The case is put forward that we are not using our government correctly, because of a general ignorance of how it is meant to function: our Civic Illiteracy.

And that is tackled in the second chapter, where a general theory of Responsible Government is presented, and some of the main features are described and put into perspective. The role of political parties is described, and that includes a spirited defense of their deeply partisan behaviour.

The third chapter deals with elections. Significantly, the candidate selection process, within the parties themselves, is the starting point. The author makes the argument that this is a critical step in the democratic process, a step at which people in their ridings need to participate more. The real virtues of first-past-the-post are defended, especially within the context of Accountability, and the faults of proportional representation are highlighted. Accountability is one of the foundations of Responsible Government. This idea of Accountability is  championed throughout the book, and I will come back to it in later posts.

Chapter 4 is about the House of Commons, and describes the way MP’s act and proscribes the way they should act. There is a very good, if brief, critique of how financial records are kept and circulated. A lot of useful ideas to consider here. Also, a refreshingly candid justification for question period.

Chapter 5 is a cautious defense of the Senate as is. As the author points out, the Senate has become the punching bag of Canadian institutions; it is very popular to talk of its reformation or abolition. So, whether one is for or against the Senate, it is worthwhile to read a reasoned promotion of the Senate that lists the institution’s positive contributions, as well as pointing out the weaknesses of current popular proposals for Senate reform.

Maybe it’s because of all the crank stuff I have thought about and written, but I could understand the positions taken throughout all the chapters so far. Some points of contention, sure, but I can empathize even if I disagree.

The sixth chapter, with the great title ‘The Maple Crown’, is about the Canadian monarchy, and I found it the most provocative. The Unbroken Machine claims, correctly, I think, that since 1931 Canada is formally a monarchy, and that the monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, who sits upon the British throne in London, is also the Queen of Canada (Elizabeth I, then?).

It is profoundly difficult for me to see myself as a royal subject rather than a free citizen, and I was surprised how much that bothered me, the 21st century renaissance man that I think I am.

Much of my distress may be in struggling to understand rigorously what is the relationship between a subject and his monarch. Or, should that be: a Monarch and Her subject?

Am I in some sense someone’s property?

Is my property not really mine but Her’s, and I’m just taking care of it for Her?

Is it my ‘civic’ duty to obey the Queen?

She was born into the job; is She divinely appointed?

One of Her titles is Defender of the Faith (that Faith being Anglican); do I commit treason by championing evolution and ethology on this public blog in Her realm?

The Unbroken Machine rather brushes past these interesting questions; the Queen is the Canadian head of state. Well, fair enough, I suppose, but that means that there is a person who, thanks specifically to her family connections, thanks especially to the violence her ancestors were able to inflict, is granted by the Canadian establishment a whole lot of leeway, but at the same time it is expected (hoped?) that this individual will not overtly use Her tremendous legal and enforceable advantages over the rest of us. I find this a profoundly difficult situation to justify. (Is it treasonous to say that this sounds a lot like sucking up to a local mobster?)

In The Unbroken Machine, Dale Smith is not afraid to level criticism where he feels it is deserved, but in this sixth chapter there are instances that I would find very hard to defend. One is that Quebecois nationalists are

“… forgetting … that it is thanks to the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and the Quebec Act of 1774 that the province exists at all and that its people have been allowed to retain their language, religion, and culture.”

In historical context, the British Empire acted as it did in 1763 and 1774, anticipating, correctly, rebellion from the restive English-speaking  American colonists the Empire was abusing to the south. So, one could say: Québec exists thanks to America’s drive for freedom and democracy. Or, we could also note that the French-speaking people persevered in Lower Canada despite the prejudice and abuse from the English-speaking upper class the Empire installed to rule over them. So, one could as well say: Québec exists thanks to the resilience of the Canadiens themselves. And also, “forgetting”? Really?

Here’s another point hard to defend. Later in this sixth chapter the author talks about the costs of maintaining the Canadian monarchy. A fair case is put forward that we Canadians are getting a deal by sharing the Royal family with Britain, compared to, for example, the cost of electing a head of state as is done in America. But, even so,

“We must also be wary of those who would see that all spending for pomp and ceremony be eliminated in the name of frugality. While no one is looking for the kinds of lavish gold-plated displays of dictators in the Third World, there needs to be an awareness that democracy costs, diplomacy costs, and ceremony plays an important part in our society…”

So, democracy costs because Canada is a monarchy? Isn’t a kingdom a gold-plated dictatorship anyways? And then, incredibly…

“… Nobody actually wants to live in  a drab, colourless society where pomp and ceremony are extinct.”

And I just have to wonder how, for example, someone in one of the hundred or so Canadian communities waiting for clean water, will wrap their head around that statement.

As I said earlier, I found this chapter on the Canadian monarchy most challenging, personally. But I am glad I read the book; I learned a lot. Dale Smith is a genuine expert who has offered honest insight into how he sees Canadian governance. Throughout the book, the author defends Canada’s Responsible Government and its various facets. However, at each stage he also offers suggestions for improvement, ways to strengthen Accountability and clarify the relationships between the various parts.

It is stated several times in the book that there has never been ideal Responsible Government in Canada; always there has been backsliding. But, as we wobble about in our uncertain orbit, the ideal still beckons. Dale Smith has made a strong effort to show how we have gone astray, and how we could drift further, and also, how we could take positive steps towards the ideal, and become more satisfied with our governance as a consequence. The first step is overcoming our Civic Illiteracy, so buy and read the book!

Have a safe and happy New Years Eve!


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