no assembly required
In the 1830’s, the Reformers’ version of Responsible Government was that the Governor’s appointed Council must have the support of the majority in the elected Assembly. In the Reform model the Assembly should comprise political party members, and those members should be loyal party members. The partisan nature of the Assembly was intended to prevent the Governor, the supreme legal and military authority in the colony, from winning extra Assembly support for his appointed Council by influencing Assembly members.
Given the relationship in the 1830’s between the Governor and the colonists, a warlord and his restive subjects, the Reformer model of Responsible Government was an effective solution, a win-win for both sides. It was a way for the Empire to lighten its grip while still maintaining control, and it was a way for the colonists to have some say in the way their taxes were spent.
The decades passed, and the tiny colony grew into a huge Dominion reaching three coastlines across the northern half of North America. We have a federal parliament and ten provincial and three territorial ‘parliaments’. The Governor evolved into the Governor General and the Lieutenant Governors. No longer local warlords, they are now ceremonial figureheads, appointed and instructed by the Assemblies their forebearers once ignored or manipulated. The Governor’s council came to be what we now call the Cabinet, the executive branch of the government for their respective Assemblies. The federal Assembly came to be called the House of Commons, after the older British institution. A lot has changed, but some things have not. The rigid party discipline Reformers demanded and developed; that remains. And, of course, each Cabinet has the partisan support of its Assembly.
Should we cleave to a set of governing traditions designed to counterbalance the power of the long extinct colonial Governor, servant of a long gone British Empire? For us that might be an awkward question. Our legends have it that Responsible Government was a great Canadian achievement. We are not going to easily come together and critique the work of our heroes. But, it makes sense to do so. Canada’s parliamentary system has an idiosyncrasy that we need to acknowledge.
When the British overthrew their monarchy, their parliament evolved, painfully, into the dominant institution of that land. It was a debating society (yelling at each other across the floor) making decisions for the good of the wider community. Evolving party structures were self-imposed on and by those quarreling British parliamentarians, to tame the anarchy, weed out the most intransigent and foolish, and, it was hoped, guide the Assembly debaters to make better decisions in the British Parliament.
In Canada this was just not the case. In British North America our Assembly was always subservient to the might and prestige of the colonial Governor. Our ancestors were allowed colonial Assemblies at his whim. The Governor, as and when needed, approached elected members of the Assembly and cajoled or bribed or otherwise persuaded in order to get the needed support for his programs. Rigid party discipline, conceived and perfected by the Reformers, was intended to deny the Governor these options. The Reformers’ vision of the colonial Assembly was expressly not a venue at which to exchange ideas and weigh courses of action. On this we should be clear; the Reformers’ specific intent was to make any attempt at debate in the Canadian Assembly futile.
This counter-intuitive property of Canadian Assemblies can be defended in light of the situation in 19th century colonial Canada. But should this be our practice in 21st century Canada? Partly, it may be simply tradition carried too far. But even today rigid party discipline is often defended in Canadian mainstream culture. One argument goes that without parties with controlled members, the outcome of a vote in an Assembly would not be known ahead of time and that would be too unpredictable. This defense of rigid party discipline highlights the strikingly non-democratic nature of Canadian governance. It seems axiomatic that the very reason for having a vote is to learn what position has majority support. Taken to its logical conclusion, is there even a reason for the elected representatives to assemble? After a general election, the relative voting strength of the parties is known. If one party holds a majority, the outcome of every vote, till the next election, is known. Why do any voting in the Assembly? In a minority situation, where no one party holds the majority in the Assembly, it is only the party leaders who need be involved in discussions on each matter as it arises, and they can declare their positions. Again, there is no need for the other Assembly members to meet and vote since we know they will follow their party leader’s lead.
Though it seems a great cost saving measure, most modern champions of rigid party discipline do not advocate this logical step. They argue that the objective of having the backbenchers in the Assembly is to temper and guide the party leadership, and provide community feedback.
This ties in with the other common justification for rigid party discipline. Elected assembly members, free to vote as they wished, might vote against every motion if they or their riding did not get some tangible reward in return for their vote. This would represent a serious level of anarchy and corruption, from which rigid party discipline saves us. Without the backing of the party, the individual assembly member likely cannot win his or her riding in the next election. The member knows this and therefore will not make demands on the party for his or her voting support in the Assembly, hoping to remain the chosen party representative come the next election. Ironically, from this perspective, the relationship of party leader to the party backbenchers is a lot like the relationship between the colonial Governor and the elected Assembly members before the Reformers. The individual Assembly member’s job is to report to the party about conditions in the riding, and the party, motivated to maximize the number of its seats, will take that report into account when setting policy. But you may notice that electable candidates do not go to their respective ridings and promise the voters there that they will get nothing.
And here is the crux. The assembly member must be both an avid champion for the community that elected them, and a fierce supporter of the party that backed them in that election. The Assembly member is both advocate and partisan. Often, those positions are contradictory and it is impossible to convincingly wear both hats at once. However the Canadian system has evolved an institution that allows elected assembly members to function in both roles to a degree; it is the closed-door meeting.
In a back room, shielded from public scrutiny, all the elected party members get together, the leader and the led, and forge strategies. The leader tells the backbenchers what commitments the party has and how those commitments will be honoured, and what must be sold to the citizens of their ridings. Maybe that is all that happens, or maybe backbenchers also get to talk frankly with their leader about the needs of the people in their ridings. It might be a bit like the Things of old. The backbenchers may get to vote, too, from time to time, especially when there is a contentious issue to which the party leader is not deeply committed. When that happens the losing members are expected to accept the outcome, and in public defend the majority view as though it were their own heart-felt conviction.
There is no one fixed way to carry out a back room meeting and each party has its own approach and the approaches probably evolve with changes in leadership and the relative standing of the party. In the end, a unified party position comes out of that back room. This process, widely defended in Canada as practical and even necessary, falls well short of Athenian democratic principles. First, most obviously, the decisions are carried out behind closed doors. How the unity was forged is kept secret from the rest of the assembly and the rest of the wider community. This was never the case in Athenian assemblies. Everyone who cared to could know how the decision was reached. Even in representative democracy, the ideal put forward is that the public can watch their representatives representing them. From the very beginning there has always been a public seating gallery in every provincial, territorial and federal assembly. We (the unelected) can sit in the bleachers and see the Assembly in action and (apparently) watch community decisions being made. But by the time the questions and calls to motion occur on the Assembly floors, the decisions have already been made. We get to watch a theatrical presentation, with a script already written. A Canadian Assembly’s public seating gallery is not there for the benefit of the spectators.
But the galleries are there, and are open to the public for a reason. If you ever get a chance, look at what happens in an Assembly during question period. During this time, the local opposition members can ask questions of the government members, and the government members must respond. Traditionally, all comments between members are formally addressed to the Assembly speaker, but said such that the person who is being obliquely addressed can easily hear the comment. If you listen to these structured exchanges you may notice that rarely are penetrating questions about the issues posed.
The questioner, acknowledged by the speaker, arises and poses a question while giving the impression of indignation. The question is a ‘dressing down’ of the assembly member to whom it is addressed. The question may include catchy key phrases, ‘talking points’ used to frame aspects of the issue under consideration in ways favourable to the interlocutor. The questions may be double binds in which any direct answer to the question will be overtly embarrassing for the person answering.
The questioner sits down and the the Assembly Speaker recognizes the person to whom the question was addressed. Answers to all questions are presented with the appearance of confidence bordering on contempt. The answerer often belittles the questioner. Often the answer includes a ‘talking point’ from the other side, that is also used in other answers to related questions.
But sometimes, with the customary display of indignation, a real and penetrating question is asked. Then the response is not an answer to the question. It is a statement probably including one or more talking points, presented with the usual appearance of confident arrogance, about some issue related to some aspects of the question posed. It is, in fact, an answer to some other, easier question that the answerer acts as though they believe was asked. A real response to a challenging question will not occur in a Canadian Assembly unless the first posing of the challenging question is noted in the mainstream media. That media signal triggers the opposition parties, and the challenging question is asked again. If the pattern is repeated, such that through frequent media reportage, the unanswered and challenging question comes to the attention of many members in the wider community, then (behind closed doors and not on the Assembly floor) some more meaningful answer to the question is crafted. The new answer is presented during the next Assembly session, in the standard confident style, often with the Orwellian observation-in-passing that this was always the answer being given.
It is too easy to see this ritualized behavior by our elected decision makers as comical and wasteful posturing. It is not. It is essential to, and a consequence of, the function of our representative democracy with its rigid party discipline. Because we must elect the members in elections, and because party backing is essential for a candidate to have a chance of electoral success, every opportunity to undermine the rival party must be exploited.
In this system, the mainstream media has important influence. For a given topic they are like a tap that can open wide or close down the information flow between the people in the community and the people in the Assembly. The level of public focus on an issue is not within the direct control of a party, and so there is risk. Posing a challenging question may pay back in a big way for an opposition party, but it may not. It may fail to gain resonance in the wider community. It may be ignored by the mainstream media. It may not “have legs”, and if it turns out to be apodal, then posing that question was a waste of an opportunity to ask a typical belligerent question.
But why are belligerent questions so valuable? Because, the opposition parties must challenge the aura of authority the governing party maintains. Conversely, members of the governing party treat every question as a chance to buttress their aura. Each answer is gauged to highlight the answerer’s position of power, and the questioner’s position of powerlessness, and to make their current ranks seem natural. Question Period behavior is not a joke or mass incompetence. Challenging or maintaining the aura of authority is vital to those rivals. The galleries are there for the parties to display their dominance and their adversaries weakness. The content of the debate is quite immaterial; the medium is the message.
And, it is this vital task towards which the elected party members must bend their best intellectual and creative effort. In those closed-door meetings it is not solutions to the problems of the community that are discussed. It is how the issues are to be framed that must be worked out. Behind closed doors, and on the Assembly floor, the needs of the elected representative are not the same as the needs of the people in the community. The argument is not like the issue.
This refers back to a discussion back in part 3 of this website, about the Athenians and the models they used in their democratic institutions. I suggested that the Assembly was a model of the wider society, the arguments were a model of the issues, and that voting was a model of the battle. I suggested that the more these admittedly imperfect institutions reflected the real aspects they modeled, the more satisfied the community members will be by the results, and, conversely, the more distortions the institutions introduce, the more dissatisfied people are by them.
Our first-past-the-post ridings have some important benefits, but they do throw the whole vote-is-like-the-battle model into disarray, and are a constant source of discontent. Beyond that, if majority party members vote in their closed door meetings, then only the majority of the majority needs to be in favour for a policy to be set in the assembly. A majority of a majority could be any fraction greater than 25% of the assembly. And, behind closed doors, voting is a big if. A party may be very top-down structured, may impose an informal but strict party unity even in the closed door meetings. The influential fraction could well be less than 25%. Similarly, if a governing party holds a minority in the assembly, and wishes to put forward some idea that many in the opposition would support but for the constraints put upon them by their own party loyalties, then any small fraction of the assembly membership could defeat proposed and popular legislation. We just won’t know it’s happening, and because we don’t know, we suspect the worst.
That just leaves the Assembly-is-like-the-community model. The people making decisions are the elected members of the ruling party when they meet behind closed doors. An argument can be made that the whole Assembly is a miniature model of the community its member represent, although even that argument is weak. But the elected members of the governing party are, by definition, a subset of a group of like-minded individuals. They selected themselves from the general populace, made themselves into a group with a common purpose, outlook, and dedication that distinguishes each of them from the average community member. The elected party members meeting behind closed doors are, by definition, not a cross section of society.
The Canadian system fails on all three accounts. The ancient Athenians would not have described our system as democratic. They would call it an Oligarchy, because a small group of wealthy people are in charge. We could point with pride to our elections and to our (near) universal suffrage, and they might concede that ours was a special kind of oligarchy. In return, they might offer us a fable. A stable houses a single magnificent and temperamental horse, and every morning several riders come into the stable and admire the horse. Some riders are more skilled, some less so. Some, when they ride, can make this horse do certain tricks, and some can make it gallop fast. They all want to ride the horse, and they have come up with a ritual to decide who will be rider for the day. All the riders praise the horse, and whichever person the horse nods towards in the morning is the one who gets to ride the horse till evening. The Athenians would appreciate that the relationship between equestrian and mount is complex and subtle. They would readily agree that a good horse and a good rider working together, riding fast or doing tricks, is truly fine to behold. But they would point out, with a little smile, that there is no way the horse is in charge. And that might be hard for a proud horse to admit.
twilight of the reformers
Mainstream Canadian culture quaintly maintains that we now have Responsible Government. This is judged a good thing based on the confusion between Responsible Government – the paradigm that those who govern are beholden to those they govern, which we may not really have achieved, and Responsible Government – the tactic solving the problems of colonial Canada in the 18th century, which we surely did get. While it is conceded that there was a real struggle between the Assembly and the Council prior to Confederation, even perhaps a genuine Marxist class struggle, that struggle is now over; we, the good guys, won. And what became of the Canadian business community, those Tories who had fought long and hard against the Assembly, who, in their fury and despair in Montréal in 1849, called upon America to annex us, because they could not adapt to the new conditions? It is as if those people, who had ruled the Canadian colonies for generations, abandoned their quest for political influence and vanished from the political stage. Well, they did not. They adapted to the new circumstances reasonably well. No longer able to set the agenda for Canada openly in the Council, they funded the Assembly’s cash-hungry parties. Sir John A MacDonald, a Tory, was Canada’s first prime minister in 1867 and served in that capacity, with the backing of Canadian business interests, for 19 years.
Political parties need financial resources to make a good showing each election; to manage the fourth estate, to pay for advertising, to pay for crowds and buses to move them, to appear successful, to sabotage rivals, to maintain party loyalty, to sponsor polls, to silence scandals. Political parties are always hungry for cash. Not surprisingly, all major Canadian parties agree political contributions should be tax deductible. A political party that cannot get the needed financial support cannot effectively fight an election, however useful its platform. The hyper-partisan nature of Canadian political parties just makes the need for financial support all the more frantic. It beggars the imagination to believe the intelligent people who make up the Canadian business community do not observe this. Business directly and indirectly finances the parties and its support is essential for a political party to have a good showing in the election.
And that brings us again to the events of December 4, 2008. The Conservative Party of Canada had a minority government, and they were expected to loose a vote of confidence in the House of Commons because the Liberal Party of Canada, the Bloc québécois, and the New Democratic Party of Canada had put together a coalition. Retiring Liberal Party leader Stéphane Dion approached Governor General Michaëlle Jean with the offer to form the next government. Prime Minister Stephen Harper requested and was granted a preemptive closed-door meeting with the Governor General, and after two hours she emerged to announce that the Canadian Parliament would be prorogued (its operations would be suspended) until January of 2009.
All mainstream media reported that the Governor General’s decision had saved Canada from a coup against the rightful Prime Minister and his Conservative Party. By December 10th, the Liberal Party had replaced Dion with Michael Ignatieff as the new leader. Ignatieff and the Liberal Party immediately denounced the coalition his predecessor had negotiated, and, for no apparent benefit, supported the Conservative Party minority government with their votes in parliament till the summer of 2009, after which the NDP supported them. In the 2011 election the Conservatives won a sweeping majority. The NDP did very well in Québec and became the official opposition, and the once proud Liberals were reduced to third place in the the Commons. The Block québécois were smashed, from 43 seats to only four and has not yet recovered any influence in Parliament.
It is hard not to see parallels between these events and the pre-Reform times of colonial Canada. The Conservatives, still called Tories, approached the Governor General and requested that this unreliable Assembly be closed, for the Council could no longer count on majority support, and the Assembly was overrun with traitors and democrats. The Governor General granted the Council’s request, and the loyal media cheered wildly. It is hard not to see this as the symbolic end of the Reformers’ vision of Responsible Government in Canada.
One could argue that it was only for six days that we were without Responsible Government. The Liberal Party changed leaders and reversed policy, choosing instead to support the ruling Conservative Party. But doesn’t that sound familiar? The colonial Governor and the Family Compact would often persuade Assembly members to change their positions and align with the Tory Council. That too is a replay of pre-Reform Canada. The Canadian business community is still very influential in Canadian politics. In 2008 they actually rolled back the Reformer’s gains of 160 years before. Well, not completely; we still have rigid party discipline.
In summary, in Canada, and in other modern democracies, the good name ‘democracy’ is used incorrectly to describe what its ancient inventors would call an oligarchy (or a hippo-cracy?), specifically distinct from democracy. In Canada (and other countries with parliamentary governments), the idea that a parliament with a figurehead sovereign is a victory for the people is uncritically accepted. In Canada, in particular, the myth holds that our ancestors’ long and eventually successful struggle for responsible government gave us the acme of democracy, that the one-time peoples’ rival, the Canadian business community, gave up the quest for direct political influence. In Canada, in particular, rigid party discipline, which we accept as normal and embrace as pragmatic, enhances our political parties’ susceptibility to external influence, while weakening the community’s influence on the party.
It makes sense that Canadians should be frustrated with their system of governance. It makes sense that Canadians should be unsure how to solve their problems, because the problems are not well understood and are obscured by patriotic mystique. We have no practice arguing constructively and we are too careless with the meanings of words and phrases. It makes sense that our elected representatives would try directing our anger against one another rather than towards solving our problems, because our political leaders are focused on getting re-elected, not solving problems, because that’s what our institutions reward them for doing. And, inevitably, it makes sense that silly solutions like the 3E senate get proposed and have legs.
The 3E Senate is a silly idea, but I stand with all the 3E Senate’s advocates who said our system of governance needs to be redesigned. Our elected representatives are not the problem. These are the people who have best adapted to the system we call democracy, a system we continue to use and praise while it frustrates us. If we won’t fix our problems, we are the problem.
Now for some fun!