Some modest proposals
by Don Davies
• Like few others, the last decade in Canadian politics has exposed serious deficiencies in Canadian democracy.
Parliament was prorogued by a Prime Minister afraid of losing a confidence vote in the House of Commons.
An unelected Senate has generated scores of scandals, ranging from allegations of bribery, to fraud, to reports doctored on orders from the PMO. MPs have lost their seats because of electoral cheating and parties have been found guilty of serious violations of theElections Act.
Government backbenchers have been muzzled, communications have been centralized and Canadian policy has been driven by a Prime Minister wholly uninterested in compromise, or even hearing a diversity of views.
That Canadian democracy is under challenge is a point acknowledged on all sides of Parliament.
MPs from several caucuses have left their parties to sit as independents. Conservative backbenchers have publicly defied their Prime Minister to raise issues he has expressly forbidden and one, Michael Chong, has proposed legislation that, at least, tries to loosen the strict rule imposed upon them.
Having served as MP for Vancouver Kingsway for the last seven years, I have identified three initiatives I think would go some distance in making Parliament more democratic for its members and more accountable to the citizens we are elected to represent.
First, I believe we must loosen the anachronistic grip of confidence when it comes to government legislation and the consequences of a lost vote. By doing so, we can hold more free votes, which I fervently believe most Canadians want. At the same time, we can increase the influence of individual MPs and spur more consultation about legislation.
At present, our system runs by a centuries-old convention that says a government must fall, and an election called, if a government loses a vote on a money bill or an explicit matter of confidence. This results in “whipped” votes where every member of the government must vote for a government bill, no matter how odious they find it or how opposed their constituents may be to it. This, in turn, engenders a similar reaction in opposition parties, who, for their part, are whipped into opposing the government legislation. Through continuous, unexamined repetition, whipped votes are now the norm and are applied to many other issues that involve neither money nor confidence.
To fix this, I propose we amend our system to permit free votes on all bills, government or not, except for on an explicit vote of confidence itself. If a regular bill is defeated, it is just that; it is defeated and does not lead to the unnecessary and expensive step of an election to resolve the impasse. This would simply send a message to the government that its bill does not enjoy the support of the majority of the House and it must consult those who disagree and amend it sufficiently to garner the support it needs to pass.
I believe most Canadians want their elected representatives to feel freer to vote according to their commitments, consciences and electorates’ wishes – and not by the dictates of their Party’s whips. At the same time, we can preserve the option of defeating a government on an explicit motion to do so.
Second, I suggest the power to prorogue Parliament be taken away from the Prime Minister and instead require the agreement of a majority of MPs in the House of Commons.
In a modern democracy, it is frankly preposterous that the power to determine if a nation’s Parliament sits – or not – is held at the whim of one person. Indeed, it is not an overstatement to say such a power wielded by one person is more typical of a dictatorship than a representative system of government.
If there is a good reason to prorogue Parliament, than let the Prime Minister make that case to the House of Commons and obtain the consent of a majority of the members. Certainly, if such a system had been in place in 2008, Prime Minister Harper would not have been able to avoid facing the House of Commons with members who were prepared to vote a lack of confidence in his government and replace it with a coalition that enjoyed the support of a majority of MPs.
Finally, I believe that we must make fixed election dates an ironclad reality in Canada. Even though we technically have fixed election dates (namely, the October in the fourth year following the year of an election), the legislation contains a loophole that effectively allows a Prime Minister to call an election whenever he or she feels like it.
That is exactly what Prime Minister Harper did in 2008 when he called a snap election for October of that year even though it was not scheduled until 2010. Speculation was also rampant this year that Mr. Harper might call a spring election in another attempt to catch other parties off guard.
It is patently unfair for one party – the governing one, at that, who has so many institutional advantages – to be able to manipulate the timing of an election and become prepared for it in advance of the other parties. It is like one runner in the race being able to fire off the starter’s pistol and it skews the level playing field a democracy is supposed to ensure.
Many other initiatives are necessary to improve the health of Canadian democracy.
We should abolish unelected Senate, implement proportional representation and make floor-crossing MPs accountable to their electorates. We need to implement creative solutions to get more women, youth and minorities elected so our legislative bodies reflect the actual realities of our society. We must find ways to share power more effectively and better ensure that varying perspectives can make their way into the legislative process.
In the meantime, however, the above-mentioned three initiatives can be implemented swiftly and without excessive disagreement.
Democracy is supposed to be a living, breathing concept. It should be constantly examined and unceasingly improved.
Let’s get started.