“Although we like to think of ourselves as living in a mature democracy, we live, instead, in something little better than a benign dictatorship, not under a strict one-party rule, but under a one-party-plus system beset by the factionalism, regionalism and cronyism that accompany any such system. Our parliamentary government creates a concentrated power structure out of step with other aspects of society. For Canadian democracy to mature, Canadian citizens must face these facts, as citizens in other countries have, and update our political structures to reflect the diverse political aspirations of our diverse communities.”
Stephen Harper and Tom Flanagan,
Our Benign Dictatorship, 1997
Long before he became Prime Minister, Stephen Harper believed that Canada’s democracy was in a state of crisis. Our Benign Dictatorship, Harper’s passionate call for reform was written in the same year Jean Chretien won his second of three majorities. Harper believed that our system delivered illegitimate governments that did not reflect the electorate.
Five years of minority governments have only made the case for reform stronger. The government in Ottawa and its opposition are impotent. Regionalism has made majority government almost impossible. Whether we have a Conservative or Liberal minority is irrelevant. The machinery of our democracy is in disrepair and it is time to fix it.
Instead of serving us, our democratic institutions have become a disservice. Any attempt at reform will be difficult and met by much opposition, but our country can no longer afford to put off reform any longer.
Below are five ways to fix our democracy:
1) Fixed Election Dates
The easiest way to rid ourselves of the constant spectre of elections threats would be to decide the dates of elections before hand. This shouldn’t be too hard to get implemented as it is already the law – we just haven’t had an opportunity to use the fixed election law because we haven’t had a government last more than two years since Chrétien’s time.
The current law requires the government to set a date after they’ve been elected, but we should go a step further and make a specific election date that always applies, the second Monday in October for example.
Furthermore, the fixed date should apply even in a minority government. The entire notion of confidence motions is absurd. If a government can’t get legislation passed, they should have to change it. It is the responsibility of a minority government to build consensus and maintain the confidence of the house. Having an election every time they’re unable to do that doesn’t fix anything.
2) House Rules
There are two problems with the way business is conducted in our House of Commons.
The first is problem is decorum. The way our MPs behave during question period is deplorable. Their inability to behave themselves is a smear on our institutions. It is the kind of behaviour that would be unacceptable in almost any other setting. In society, we don’t heckle people when they try to speak to us, we listen to them and answer when they’ve finished talking. There is a quick and easy solution to this problem: if someone speaks out of turn, they should be ejected for the rest of the day. Their constituents back home would be none too pleased if they were not being represented because their MP was talking when he should have been listening
The second problem, which will be almost impossible to fix, is party discipline. When MPs have to vote with their party on any issue no matter what, the result is our current parliamentary dilemma. We have four massive chunks in parliament who act like four variously sized individuals. If MPs could vote however they pleased, the government would be forced to craft legislation that appealed to a broad base, rather than just throw tokens into larger bills to get the support one of the other parties. To put it simply, MPs should be beholden to their constituents and their own personal convictions, not their political party.
3) Leaders’ Debates
Party leaders are polarizing figures who seek to contort the issues by focusing on irrelevancies instead of serious topics for the purpose of political gain. Nowhere is this effect more potent than during the televised leaders’ debates.
The fix here is quick and simple, we need to stop having leaders’ debates. Since we don’t vote for leaders or parties in Canada, we vote for the individual MPs running in our ridings, watching a leader’s debate in the middle of a campaign is a futile exercise that makes people ignorant of the way our system works.
Instead of one big leaders’ debate there should be 308 debates, one for each riding, that are broadcast locally. One of the biggest problems facing Canadian politics is that people are out of touch with the people who represent them. By bringing the debates closer to home we could fix this problem.
3) Party Finance Reform
The Conservatives got started on party finance reform in their Accountability Act, but they could have gone further. Party politics are a massive financial and ideological strain on our system. The money parties receive through public subsidies and individual donations is used to fund a branding war that does not contribute anything productive to society. We gain nothing substantive from seeing our leaders trade insults with each other in 30-second TV spots. It is in our best interest to redirect the flow of money away from the parties and towards individual MPs.
The solution is a new framework for political donations under which people would be allowed to donate a fixed amount to candidates running in their riding. This would create a finite funding pool in each riding which the candidates would have to compete for. Under this system, candidates would be rewarded for their fundraising efforts, and the money would stay in the riding rather than being sucked out to the national apparatus.
If politicians feel the need to associate and form ideological groups, they can do it on their own time and on their own dime. There is no need for the Canadian public to be paying for the NDP to decide not to decide whether or not to change their name to the DP, or foot the bill when Michael Ignatieff wants to take a camera crew into the forest to film himself talking about Canada. It’s a waste of resources plain and simple.
5) Full scale Senate Reform
Senate reform is by far the most contentious proposal listed here. Reforming the senate will be incredibly difficult, but it is necessary. In fact, reforming the senate could have more positive impact than the rest of these reforms combined.
Our current unelected, ineffective Senate is completely useless and serves no purpose whatsoever. It was a problem when the chamber was dominated by hyper-partisan Liberal appointees and recent hyper-partisan Conservative appointees have only made the situation worse.
The notion of a triple-e senate – one that is equal, effective and elected – has long been popular with Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, but Senate reform is sliding down the party’s list of priorities.
What is being proposed here is a truly bicameral parliament, similar to the one in the United States. In Canada, a triple-e senate would completely rearrange the balance of power in Ottawa. Ideally, each province would have the same number of Senators, we’ll say four, who would serve staggered eight year terms (meaning one of the four is elected every two years).
Because this senate would have elected authority and it could act as a balance to the House of Commons. Moreover, because each province would be represented equally, it would combat the more regionally aligned lower house. The House of Commons would continue to operate on a representation by population system, but the senate would use proportional representation. Since bills would have to be passed in both houses, this new senate would be able to fulfil its role as a true chamber of sober second thought.
Put together, these reforms would reshape the way politics are conducted in this country. Our politicians would become more accountable to their constituents, and our parliament more accountable to the country at large. Rather than our current system, which sees partisanship rewarded and breeds civic uncertainty, we would have a clean and predictable system that would deliver governments that reflects the will of the people.