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Archive for the ‘Institutional Reform’ Category

With municipal elections coming on 25 October 2010 here in Toronto, I’m starting to get — over coffee, in corridors — questions about my views of the various declared candidates.

No, I won’t bore you with that. Having only moved to Toronto near the end of last year, I can’t honestly say that I know anything useful about any of them, yet! Instead, I’d like today to talk about why municipal issues matter — goodness knows, with an average turnout on election days of around 30% there’s no shortage of evidence that municipal issues don’t matter to the majority! — and what kind of questions we might want to ask the candidates, and ourselves, before making choices.

Municipal Funding

Most of us hear the annual whinge from the Mayors of the country’s various cities about funding issues. Whereas provinces are their own masters when it comes to raising funds, just as is the Federal Government, Canadian municipalities are creations of the provinces. Their ability to raise funds is limited, and rather than being a part of the constitutional structure of the country can be granted and removed by Order in Council alone at the provincial legislature.

Meanwhile there’s no shortage of mandates imposed with minimal or missing funding, and no shortage of investments that may be required for which funds are an issue.

Let’s be clear: our cities, towns and villages all need to take the steps that they need, in their situation, to deal with their challenges. There are also no shortage of studies, proposals and promises out there.

The key question, then, is: how will this be paid for?

As an example, Toronto has put forward a transit plan — Transit City — which will require billions to be achieved. (There are many with specific criticisms of elements of this plan. I cite it instead to use it as an example: the “greening” of cities, the reduction in automobile congestion, etc. often cites extensive rapid transit development as a necessary step.)

How will this be paid for? (We needn’t ask a stupid question such as “who will pay?”, for whether it’s “federal money”, “provincial money”, “regional agency money” or “municipal money” that’s involved it’s all “taxpayer money” — and there is only one taxpayer. Those who answer “how it will be paid” with “the province will…” or “the feds will…” are not answering the question and should be discarded from consideration.)

“How” involves three different factors:

  • Capital costs, plus the operating expenses to handle all the mandates of planning, assessment, etc. — and as those of us who lived through the chaos unleashed in Vancouver through the Public-Private Partnership that built the Canada Line (with the private partner’s changes from original specification in the RFP) know, it’s both the money sources and the means we’ll have to ensure our objectives are met.
  • Operating costs once this is built. The TTC, for instance, has been crippled ever since the Sheppard Subway was opened for business: as underground heavy rail, it is a line to nowhere in terms of the cost to run it annually. An honest assessment here talks about the impact on operating costs, shifts in the percentage to be handled through the fare box, and what might be done if these estimates, or estimates for growth, are wrong.
  • Dependency costs. Every new line that is built — from busway, through light rail (preserved right of way trams/streetcars or like Calgary’s system), through medium rail (RT technology like SkyTrain in Vancouver or the Scarborough RT), to heavy rail technology like the existing subways all change patterns which, in turn, lead to demand changes. Extending lines may, on a fiscal basis, make more sense with a lower level of technology, yet the dependency costs of forcing change of vehicles into the network can affect ridership.

These aren’t sound-bite answers, but neither are they answers from studies, or professionals at the transit system. Anyone seeking political office — and the person who seeks to be Mayor of Toronto is the individual in this country who is directly elected by the greatest number of people — ought to be prepared to say “I stand here” on these three questions.

Now, if one expresses a preference for public-private partnerships, while another says “we only move forward when the province and feds step up”, while a third says “we’ll just finance it and get it started”, the voter can start to sort out who they think has the issue right. The one who goes on and deals with the cost of having the solution offered is adding important reasons to vote for/against them.

This sort of dialogue with voters is what is needed, not the tactics of spinmeisters. Voters are not stupid: the candidate that levels with them may not sound attractive, but they will have a mandate to proceed if elected.

Fixing Emergent Problems

The other main issue in municipal affairs is how existing issues are to be fixed. Prior labour negotiations, for instance, may have too much of the current spending tied up in salaries and benefits to make a portfolio of new actions possible. (This is certainly an outcome in BC municipalities of the “regional negotiation model” favoured by the province, and underlies the immobilization of its school boards, health authorities and cities.) Prior planning approvals may have destroyed the fabric of neighbourhoods by virtue of what is being built there. Business may be moving out due to special charges, or the city may have become unaffordable, or shifts in immigration may have created broken civic services based on a different model, serving a different number or types of communities.

Every candidate ought to be prepared to disclose what they think the problems of the day actually are, and to prioritize them. It is this second point that is key: political capital is not unlimited, and in office it can be expended quickly. Focus, and public reasons for that focus, will be required to wield that power (City Councils are far more like the “what’s in it for me and mine” of the US Congress, where party loyalty must often be purchased, than like Canadian Legislatures or Parliament, where party discipline rules the day).

At the same time, certain issues are so large, so difficult to tackle, that they can only be taken on periodically. A candidate might truly believe that outsourcing is the answer and that the municipal workers’ unions must be broken. If this battle last occurred only a few years earlier, the timing — despite any justifications to be found — may not be right. Again, citizens may not agree, but there is respect for a candidate who levels and treats them as responsible.

Also, again, this is not sound-bite country. I can recall, in 1971 in Québec City, seeing a public debate between Québec politicians not unlike our all-candidates meetings. (This was a simple debate: it was not an election period.) Long chains of logic and example, designed to persuade the thinking listener, may well have stretched my command of French, but I appreciated the intention to treat the listeners as responsible and capable. Political consultants, managers, operatives and advisors have counselled against this in today’s media climate. No wonder politics has become about pretty faces, fast quips and shouting!

Why Municipal Affairs Matter

What lies ahead for us is the Great Unravelling of large scale structures. As it does, life will become more local, and the locus of government that matters will be the municipality first, with declining relevance to upper levels. The “centre will not hold”, despite the many attempts that will be made to hold onto it: peak energy, fiscal collapse and other factors like this are the reason for us to see localization coming, whether by design or as an outcome of the attempt to resist it.

Yet our municipalities are poorly equipped to carry this load. Nor are they prepared for even deeper localization, a real restructuring to be living communities (neighbourhoods) that make a municipality into a regional service set.

Those who would seek office should be expected to have some vision of the future, and of the challenge of transition involved. Again, the candidate may not agree with my view of where we’re going, but I expect him or her to have a well-developed sense of the whole and an ability to relate their promises and plans to it. In other words, their agenda is (a) out in the open, (b) thought through and (c) integrated to a vision of the future.

We are highly unlikely to see this sort of honesty at provincial or federal levels: provinces and countries are too big, with too few electeds, to risk the truth in dealing with citizens. Municipalities, on the other hand, are of a mostly manageable size — and can be known well enough by those who run, and those who vote.

The reform of our politics to make “the system work” will begin close to home. That, at the end of the day, is why municipal matters matter.

Let’s see who — if anyone — steps up to the challenge.

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Rex Murphy, in his Thursday night editorial on CBC’s The National, called it fairly and squarely: the weeks-long uproar over Parliament not being in session this week would be a great deal more persuasive if the people on all sides of the aisle actually had some respect for Parliament.

But, of course, they don’t, neither on the Government benches nor on the Opposition ones. (Evidence of same, in the event that the video of Rex’s piece is unavailable, can be found with any day’s “Question Period” for, say, anywhere in the past forty years.)

The incessant, endless screaming that passes these days for “debate” is ludicrous in the extreme. Almost every moment is staged, planned for the cameras and scripted by back room “thinkers” looking for a tenth-of-a-point shift in public opinion. Those who actually dare to ask a question — a real question, one where a real answer to that question is expected, and where the question is expressed simply and with respect — are so rare as to almost never appear, for they do not serve their party’s ambition to saturate the media with the “line of the day” by being reasonable. Those who are called to answer a question — a real question, preferably expressed respectably but even if done “on the attack” nevertheless are called to provide an informative answer — in turn almost never appear, for those called to answer are chosen for their willingness to be irresponsible (in the sense of the demands of responsible government certainly, and, often, in the sense of being a decent human being).

Political theatre Parliament may be, but I daresay that almost never in your lifetime have you heard a Minister or Parliamentary Secretary respectfully submit an answer to Parliament as is required of them in our system of governance. This is an observed datum which has ascended, by virtue of statistical probabilities, to the realm of a truth that can be chiselled into stone and placed over the entranceway to a great public building, or on the pedestal of a great public monument, without fear of contradiction.

Indeed, for any rational man or woman seeking to serve their fellow citizens through elected office (or, given that there are Senatorial chairs to be filled from time to time, appointed office), the lintel above the double doors leading to the Green and Red Chambers, respectively, should steal from Dante’s Inferno and quote:

Lasciate ogni sperena voi Ch’entrate
Abandon all hope, ye who enter here

Such an entrance would at least have the virtue of something missing from Canadian public life: common-sensical moral honesty.

So let me be absolutely clear, since I already know that I will receive tweets, or Facebook comments, or blog comments, or emails, telling me I’m “for” someone in this:

The BQ, Conservative, Independent, Liberal and NDP MPs are all horrid.

Not one of them deserves anything other than firing at the next election. This isn’t a matter of “my leader better than yours” or “my party better than yours”, because they’re all reprehensible moral reprobates, publicly displaying behaviour that parents discipline two-year-olds over so that they grow up to become at least tolerable people to have around you.

“Ah”, you might say, “but Stephen Harper caused this latest kerfluffle, and Michael Ignatieff (or Jack Layton, or Gilles Duceppe) have no choice but to act as they do.” It is (as a friend of mine notes to take the intersubjective into account when dealing with data) a true fact that Stephen Harper did prorogue Parliament, and not necessarily in an appropriate way. Still, if one child in the sandbox grabs the ball, must the others scream and have a tantrum? I think not when they’re two — and I certainly don’t when they purport not only to be adult, but statesmen!

When Rex Murphy’s piece showed up in my podcast library this morning and I viewed it, I wasn’t astonished at all to find that it merely crystallized something I have felt for a very long time now: the nonsense in the House, in the Senate, and in the political coverage in the media, is utterly irrelevant to my daily life. I don’t miss Question Period — there are no questions asked and answered worthy of my time — and I don’t find any of the pronouncements made by Harper (“let’s all save the world’s women and children”), Ignatieff (“let’s just arbitrarily screw up the Parliamentary system to score cheap points”), etc. worthy of any effort of thought.

  • Harper’s spending money we don’t have? Another bloody politician.
  • Ignatieff’s dealing in the trivial? Another bloody politician.
  • The Opposition parties want more spending? More bloody politicians!
  • The political programs are full of shouting talking heads? Turn it off!.
  • The polls are up/down/sideways? Who cares?.

As a country, we have serious issues that require serious political attention. The serious items are (a not-exhaustive list):

  • Deficits and how public finances are to be restored.
  • What should government do? What should it not do?
  • How will we fix equalization and transfers to the provinces to restore equity?
  • What would the acquis communautaire require in the way of change (an inevitable consequence of our current negotiations with the EU?
  • What, if anything, should be done on the environmental (pollution, ecosystem destruction) — climate change (México 2010 Conference pending) — mobility fronts?
  • What is our immigration policy and why, and how do we make sure immigrants “get on” in Canada?
  • What is the right balance in dealing with terrorism — other nations’ security worries — policing — sentencing — etc.?
  • What should the Federal Government do when provinces snipe at each other, if anything?
  • How do we get to free trade and labour mobility between Canadian provinces and territories?

as opposed to:

  • When did he prorogue and why did he prorogue it?
  • Why hasn’t Canada taken over the Afghan Government’s responsibilities to ensure no prisoner suffers anything, ever?
  • Why aren’t we bringing “our boys” home from Guantanamo or US prisons?
  • Can we have Karlheinz Schreiber back and exile John Gomery instead?
  • Was Chrétien — Martin — Mulroney — etc., a crook/loud-mouthed schook/fool of a Took?

or whatever the “gotcha” of the day is going to be (since dialogue is written and scripted, and Indignation Practice occurs just before Question Period, it can (and often is) invented — again, on all sides of the aisle.

I, for one, am sick to death of a politics and a political régime that can’t govern. This cancer starts in the civil service, with its caution, legendary bucking of intention, refusal to yield to Ministerial control and sloppiness in management and execution. It is aided and abetted by a media consumed with process and horse race outcomes and that expends not one minute of air time on actual investigation, analysis and exposition of issues. It is further aided by the media’s desire for “explosive” programming, and thus the daily holding of “Question Period II” on air, where the participants are chosen for their willingness to play their role as opposed to inform the public. Then there are the MPs and Senators, all bowing their necks and kissing the hem of the robes of their party grandees and the unelected officials in Leaders’ Offices and Party HQ.

As it is, Canada is not worth saving. Yet our problems will compound mightily if it dies or fades out. So we have little choice: we must work to save it.

So again, I say, fire the lot of them!

And keep the firings up — by voting incumbents out — until we get MPs that will be responsible, adult, human custodians of Parliament and tackle this country’s problems the way Parliament was intended: as a venture where, whatever competition there is, co-operation in the interest of the nation and its traditions of governance comes first and overrides sectarian, factional, party interest.

There will only be hope again in the Chambers of Parliament when we, the citizens of Canada, take it back.

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It is not generally my desire in this blog to spend much time commenting on current affairs. Nevertheless, following up on my classical—mixed—radical categories of political analysis, I’d like to use the current angst in the media, in partisan blogs, and amongst (chiefly) the Liberal Party and its spokespeople over the current prorogation of Parliament, to point out that the hypocrisy of supporting the radicalization of any institution one day will — and sooner than ever expected — come back to bite the radicals involved.

Let me be clear up front: this post is not a defence of prorogation as it has occurred. It is not a defence of Stephen Harper, his decision in this matter, nor of things favourable to his party. But neither is it a defence of the claims being made about it, e.g. “destructive of democracy”, “being used to thwart investigations”, “disrespectful to the institution”, and so on.

My own view (for the record) is:

  • Prorogation was required if recognition of the change of control of the business of the Senate with new Senatorial appointments to fill vacancies, and the composition of Senate Committees thereunto, was to be achieved, as there was no sign a voluntary reorganization would be carried out,
  • It is, in our Parliamentary System, appropriate for such changes of control to be recognized (regardless of whether they favour the Government or the Opposition, they should be allowed to occur at the earliest feasible date), and
  • Parliament should have been resumed on its regularly scheduled date in late January, as the extended period without sitting is not in the interests of our tradition of governance (Queen-in-Parliament, with the Ministry responsible to the House and Senate).

and that

  • Most of the “lost” legislation was poorly formed radical attempts to socially engineer outcomes, and should not have been passed in the House in the first place,
  • The “Afghanistan investigation” is a cynical attempt to claim the Government is responsible for the actions of another sovereign government, a set of conditions established by the previous Liberal Government of Paul Martin and honoured as a commitment of Canada by the current Conservative Government, and that despite the outcome keeping party differences in Canada is part of our traditions, (or that we renegotiate these terms openly, not simply make administrative decisions).
  • The decision to adjourn the House for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics (previously scheduled) is a piece of public pandering and idiocy. The rest of us will be at work and — thanks to the wonder of time zone differences from Ottawa’s Eastern Time Zone — will have no trouble taking an interest in the Games in the evening, should we care to. Our MPs and Senators can, too.

but none of these in and of themselves justify waiting until March to resume with a new session of this Parliament.

I trust my readers can keep in mind that my views are not what is at stake here, but rather the impact of radical change years earlier.

How Parliament Lost Responsible Government

Just as the Canadian Income Tax was instituted in 1917 “for the duration of the War” by Act of Parliament (amazing, isn’t it, that we still have it, given the Remembrance Day Holiday established to mark the end of the War in question?) so too the shifting of Ministers from being responsible to Parliament to being responsible first to each other and quickly to the Prime Minister is a legacy of World War II. It served the interests of the governments of Mackenzie King and St-Laurent to carry on with this, of course. As they held majorities, the Members Opposite — Progressive Conservative, CCF, Social Credit/Créditiste and, at one time, a Communist — could complain but not effect change. It was the sheepish “taking of the Whip” in the interests of their own Liberal Party by Government Members who failed to demand that their own Government’s Ministers be responsible to the House and Senate that caused the Canadian invention of Responsible Government to be lost in Ottawa.

Having far more members in the Commons might well have forestalled that, as I have many times in the past decade published. The fact is that it happened, and that the hypocrisy of making a radical change to Parliament without consideration of the consequences in future years has warped the institution. Today, demands that responsibility return are so much whinge: the original change and its persistence through to 1957 was more than enough to give any future government the ability to ignore the requirement of a responsible Ministry — and make it stick.

How Parliament Lost Ministerial Responsibility

The next major erosion in Parliament came with the arrival of the Trudeau Government. This is the period in which the PMO became the key force on Parliament Hill, and in which the independence of Ministers began to erode. A response little noted at the time to challenges to Ministers was the beginning of Prime Ministerial rebuffs to Ministers resigning — as was the practice of responsible government — when an event occurred “on their watch”. At first only accountability for minor events was rebuffed, with Ministers stonewalling Parliamentary Committees (House and Senate) and remaining in office for former “resignation” situations. (By the time of the Chrétien Governments of the 1990s-2000s even major events were rebuffed, and whether in defence of a Minister or, as in the case of Paul Martin, to remove one seen as being insubordinate, Chrétien made it clear to all and sundry that his Ministers served at his will, with no other considerations. One reason we remember the first Mulroney Government as “scandal-ridden” was that Mulroney reverted, in his first term, to the notion of Ministerial Responsibility, something which, in the defence of his own Government, he ultimately had to abandon.)

The Erosion of Parliamentary Committees

During the Chrétien and Martin years, the effectiveness of Parliamentary Committees was eroded as well. During a majority government this served to stifle disturbing agendas. In the Martin minority the arrival of committee majorities held jointly by the opposition parties, and indeed committees chaired by opposing MPs, intensified the whipping of government members to “stand together” and to use procedural methods to frustrate committee chairs with “unfriendly” agendas. Once the party in power changed in 2006, committees became the focal point of “resistance” to the government — and, unfortunately, their frustration and marginalization through procedure has intensified as the resistance has intensified. Today the committees of the House are effectively moribund. Senate committees had continued to operate more as was intended in our Parliamentary tradition, but only due to their being held in opposition hands. Starting in the next session, it will be interesting to see if the Senate can maintain its traditional committee effectiveness, or if the Senators who are neither Conservatives nor Liberals become engaged in the frustration of the effective operation of Parliament.

The Effective Operation of Parliament

That last phrase — “the effective operation of Parliament” — is the key to understanding how changes can undo the institution by bending it to immediate needs. Committees in both House and Senate were never intended to be arms of the Government of the day. Instead, they were intended to treat Parliamentarians as true contributors — true legislators loyal to their individual moral cores and as representing their ridings/regions. The responsibility of the Government (the Ministry) to the House and Senate was intended to be carried out under the watchful eye of committees of Members exercising judgement, not taking the whip of their party.

Thanks to whipped members giving up their prerogatives as MPs and Senators and turning their institution into something organized to benefit their party and leader, it is no longer possible for Parliament to mean much if anything. It has become a rubber stamp, whose actions are controlled solely by members slavishly following orders, regardless of their own promises, convictions or judgement. Couple this to the effect of television coverage of the chambers, where “victory” (truly, notoriety) goes to the loudest, most strident, most quotable and media-savvy and the Chambers are otherwise almost empty during the hours of “debate” (for even if a mind is changed, a vote is not), and the Parliamentary tradition has fallen to the “friendly dictator” approach first named for Chrétien, but applicable to Martin and Harper as well, while most Canadians believe that we pay too much for what we get from our MPs and Senators.

In a world dominated by parties, Prime Ministers and whips, we do. But that does not imply we should cut — it implies we should remove the roadblock of abrogated power and make it difficult to return.

Every change willingly entered into by the party in power at the time aided and abetted its immediate interest. That that party now finds the shoe on the other foot, and chafes at it, full of sound and fury but accomplishing nothing (including being able to capitalize on their own noise) makes the point that failing to consider the harm done by a change matters, since complex adaptive entities such as our political system cannot simply be “reset” or “rolled back” if we don’t like the longer-term outcome. If Mulroney — with this country’s most massive Parliamentary majority and a true majority of Canadian votes cast (not merely the traditional plurality) — was unable to put it to Canadians that reversing the Trudeau-era reduction in Parliamentary power in the face of a few members of the “Rat Pack”, an expression of similar “will to change” today is equally likely to be undone by the power of the system as it now is. This is why I have called for a Re-Confederation process, to reinvent our institutions — for piece-meal patches will only emphasize the concentration of power that exists.

If the anti-prorogation crowd had been concerned about the erosion in the system, the part their idols have played in it, the part their quest for “a better leader” plays in it, and so forth, I might have been more interested in listening. As it is, they offer only (at best) more of the same but with them in power, and (at worst) promises to further strip away the residue of responsibility and the last shreds of our Queen-in-Parliament system if handed the keys to the kingdom.

When one has cancer, cosmetic surgery should be the least of one’s concerns.

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I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve told me how “positively evil” our Prime Minister is for daring to prorogue Parliament. (I’ve also lost count of the number of them who’ve told me that I’m also “evil for defending him”. Thanks for that: don’t we all need to be told we’re evil regularly?)

While there’s no question in my mind but that proroguing Parliament so that the Senate could be reorganized — committee chairs and the like — once the open appointments are made (for there is no other way other than a voluntary stepping-down on the part of the prior Chairs to achieve that when the balance of parties changes), and that there is no justification for an extended delay simply because the Olympic Games are being staged, the challenge that lies ahead of us is far deeper.

It is, to put it bluntly, the wholesale reconstruction of our Parliamentary institutions, to reflect the needs of the twenty-first century.

Recognizing What Matters

While a true conservative is always cautious about making change, and avoids gratuitous change, the true conservative also is willing to step up and recognize when change is required. Such a moment is long overdue in Canada.

The regional structure of the Canadian Senate is far out of line with the country as it exists in 2010, reflecting, as it does, the Canada of 1867. At the time of Confederation, the balance of the Canadian economy and population lived in the East. Today the West has risen in population and economic power. What’s more important is that the “regions” of 1867 no longer make sense: this is not a numbers game alone. Anyone who knows the West knows that it is not a monolith. Anyone who knows Ontario and Québec know that they likewise are not monolithic. Anyone who knows the Maritimes knows that, no matter how much cooperation the Maritime provinces have, they remain distinct places with divergent interests and approaches. (Newfoundland and Labrador, of course, was able to negotiate a separate set of terms as a part of setting nationhood aside in favour of Confederation.)

Then, too, the model of the Senate in the old, pre-reform British House of Lords — which lost its ability to block the House of Commons as long ago as 1911, and lost most of its hereditary Peers under Tony Blair — is clearly passé. Many Canadians have recognized these deficiencies with the call for an “equal, effective and elected” Senate. But this answer — this change — too, is wrong for Canada, at least in isolation.

Does the Government also fall if it fails to hold the confidence of the Senate? Has it fallen if an elected Senate obstructs the House? Triple-E proponents have no answers. Should the Cabinet be drawn from both elected Senators and elected Members of the House? There is no clear answer. The issues compound the more one thinks of them, assuming, of course, that equality of provinces is the essential fix in the first place.

The House, too, is suffering. Like it or not, it’s far too easy to whip a Party into voting with the Government. Responsible Government — very much a Canadian invention! — dies in the face of this. It is inevitable that Cabinet Ministers, losing the need to respond to the back benchers in their own Party, in turn lose power to the Prime Minister’s Office.

Are you tired of Question Period solely as a shouting match? Television in the House merely exacerbated the trend; the decline of the essentiality of debate to sway the House was already in place. Without healthy debate — and the changing of minds that it ought to bring — there are no checks on power. Politics is reduced to a simple “this leader or that”, which quickly becomes polarized into “they’re evil and shouldn’t exist”. (Is that not precisely where we are? — where part of the population permanently assumes “the other side” has no right to legitimately be in Government?)

Let us not forget the third part of our system, which is formally known as Queen-in-Parliament. While there is still residual respect for Queen Elizabeth herself, a majority of Canadians have far less respect for the institution of the Crown — and many beyond that that believe in the monarchical principle sincerely question why the next King of Canada should be one shared with Great Britain, or drawn from the House of Mountbatten-Windsor. Yet, without a legitimate Monarch, how does our Constitutional Monarchy continue? Turning the Governor-General into what Michaëlle Jean wrongly claimed it to be — as much as Queen — is not the answer. Who would accept the appointment of a Prime Minister’s pet lapdog? Who, in turn, as Prime Minister in what is de facto an Executive Government model (ah, the legacy of the Trudeau PMO) meekly subordinate themselves to an elected Head of State, especially if that Head of State was the candidate of his or her Opposition?

Parliamentary Government — the whole Queen-in-Parliament of our system — is what is broken. This prorogation has merely highlighted just how broken it is. The whole thing must be repaired, not just tinkered with.

Fixing the System

We need to head — while we still have a nation (for the price tag of failure is that we will lose the country) — toward a Re-Confederation, which may well cost us one or more provinces but which will update our national institutions (and that, in turn, includes the division of powers with the provinces, municipalities and associated First Nations).

To get to that point, we need to discuss the experiences of others, and learn from them. Should we be unicameral (as all the provinces are) or bicameral (as we are today)? New Zealand offers some insight into a national government without a second Parliamentary chamber. So does Nebraska in the United States, in a republican model with separation of powers. If we are to be bicameral, should the second House be elected — we might look to Australia for ideas on how to balance the issues of Government in a Parliamentary system with an elected “Senate” — or appointed (in which case we might examine the updated British House of Lords, or the German Bundesrat (which reflects their provinces’ changing political landscapes) for ideas. Should our Cabinet ministers be drawn from and responsible to one House? To both? (Australia) Or be chosen from outside (the American model of selection) but be required to take far more regular questions than committee hearings?

One lesson that’s deeply needed is to consider the size of these bodies. The reason British Governments fear their back benches and a Prime Minister’s skill in commanding the House of Commons still matters — even though Downing Street is as much an executive system as is our own Langevin Block PMO — is because the British House of Commons is large enough that at least half the MPs will, despite a twenty-plus year run as an MP, never see a sniff of power: they will never chair an important body, be a Parliamentary Secretary, or make Cabinet. As a result, the penalties for telling the Party Whip to self-fornicate: “I stand with my convictions” (or with “the convictions of my riding”) are relatively meaningless. (Local riding associations also control candidate selection, without a Prime Ministerial sign-off on candidature, making de-selection for rebellion — another Canadian form for forcing obedience and obsequious behaviour — an option denied a party leader. Keep your local supporters with you, and you stand for election.)

Our House of Commons should be at least twice its current size. So, too, a second chamber: probably close to the size of our current House. To those who think this is all far too expensive, what is the price of bad governance? If you fear a certain party in power, why not make it as difficult for them as possible to exercise power, rather than be cheap in setting up our institutions?

Then, too, there is a need to seriously go through all the breaches of the intent of our existing Constitution (the abrogation of provincial powers by the federal government, for instance, or the use of spending “traps” to enforce actions, or the creation of “special bodies” such as quasi-governmental organizations, tribunals and commissions, etc., that work against our core legal principles) and to ensure that the underlying civil régime is cleared up in the process of re-confederating the country. Do we still value the common law inheritance? If so, strip away the overburden of executive orders in council, administrative regulation and excess legislation that acts against it, streamlining and sunsetting as appropriate. Or would we prefer a fully-legislated model? In which case, legislate to avoid bureaucratic interpretation and “law making”. Or do we believe we ought to simply let civil servants decide for us? Then, in that case, let’s recognize that we don’t believe in a government of free men and women who deal in law.

Do we, with the Trudeau Charter, uphold group rights over individual rights? Or do we reassert the Canadian tradition of individual human rights and dealing with individuals on a case-by-case basis rather than as classes of people? Are our rights over, or under, enumerated? What limits on the exercise of rights is appropriate — do we keep the “notwithstanding” rule, or the “limits of a free society” one, or do we actually declare one or more rights as inherent and inviolate? These are debates we need to have as a people, no matter how much the prospect is disturbing.

The last debate is whether we ought to have a continued Monarchical form — and there are solid arguments to be advanced for that, even in 2010 — a modified Monarchical form (a non-executive Presidency, such as is found in Germany, Ireland, etc.) — or a true Republican form with an executive President, such as in France or the United States. Whatever we may think of one option or another, we do need to think through two key factors: how do we make it possible for someone to govern effectively and responsively (overloading one role impedes that), and what escape valves do we build into the system for emergencies (such as the Royal Prerogative, or the long-unused Section 47 of the Constitution)? Our own Constitution — one of the very few in the world to have survived for nearly 150 years — has survived in part because our Fathers of Confederation thought about these issues. Countries where this was overlooked have had far less happy experiences!

It is long past time we recognized that the problems we have in our Confederation run far deeper than whether Parliament “sits” in February 2010. Let’s get past the wave of snarky remarks, Photoshopped images, clichés, media attempts to brew tempests in teacups, and get serious about our future.

Otherwise, in 2030, when you look around and wonder where your country went, you’ll have no one to blame but yourself — for it will evapourate into mist and memory at best, and into rebellion and breakup at worst, if we don’t be as serious about it as Baldwin and LaFontaine were in the 1840s, and Macdonald, Cartier, Howe and Brown were in the 1860s.

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“Man”, said Aristotle in the 330s BCE, “is by nature a political animal”. If this is so — and I have no reason to believe it false — then almost by definition our human nature is at odds with the desires of the political class, their chattering hangers-on, and the like.

Let’s think for a moment why this would be so. If I am a political animal, then I take an interest in the governance of my community (be that my neighbourhood up to my nation-state and beyond). That interest will tend to be expressed in terms of issues and strategies surrounding them. Those who are “political professionals”, or commentators around the political realm will, on the other hand, be more seized with power, its acquisition and retention, and with the tactics that surround that. They will see the situation, at any point in time, in terms of tactical advantage and disadvantage, giving rise to the “horse race” style of reporting and evaluation. That, in turn, depends upon gross simplification, falling to questions of “party brand” and “party leader” to symbolize what is going on.

Or, to put the whole thing another way, a citizen is concerned with what Langan, in Tradition and Authenticity in the Search for Ecumenic Wisdom, called a “tradition of association” — and those who are “in and around” the system are concerned instead with the institutions that have been given life within that tradition, such as parties, political offices, media outlets, blogs, etc.

As Langan noted, institutions tend to diverge in their purposes from the purposes of the tradition that gave rise to them. We can see this any day in our Parliament or Legislatures. Members of Parliament are sworn to the institution of Parliament, and to acting as representatives of their constituency in that setting. MPs, instead, actually serve the party whose banner they are nominated under, and are whipped to support the party and its leader regardless either of the views of the citizens in their constituency, or their own moral compass. Their actions are reported in terms of their “points scored” in the tactical games of media coverage, good sound-bites, etc., and not in terms of the service they are performing for their communities.

Today, it is no wonder that the largest faction — which, if we recall the worries of the framers of the American Constitution and the first American President, saw the term “party” and the term “faction” as both interchangeable and equally worthy of disdain — is that group of citizens who find politics to be a complete waste of their time and attention. They do not participate, not even to vote. The news is of little to no interest to them, no matter how persistently, stridently and directly pushed at them. These are the ones who have seen the hypocrisy involved in putting tactics ahead of issues; short-term thinking ahead of long-term directions. Whether these “register” as Independents, or simply ignore the whole process, the point is taken: Party Games alienate citizens.

Mind, since the power of parties, their hangers-on, influencers, reporters, etc. stems precisely from reducing the number of citizens of independent mind and action in the “game”, this alienation is seen by those who put their position in the institution above the Institution itself, or (even more deeply) the Tradition upon which it draws, as a good thing. Better a few who will take orders — even better, a few who will follow them without actually having to issue the orders! — than the many who are constantly tugging power away from their “betters”.

Recognizing this point does make political blogging suspect, even the writing of small papers such as this one which you are now reading!

We are in urgent need of reform. (All institutions are in constant need of it, of course, for human beings will put self-interest ahead of their responsibility to steward an organization or institution through history at least some of the time.) It is a long time since this has been undertaken in most of our societies. But that something hasn’t been done recently, or would be difficult, is no reason not to get to work on it.

Indeed, knowing it will upset all the cognoscenti, political operatives, elected politicians, senior civil servants, chattering class members and the like to have the citizens take back their political institutions sounds, to me, like one of the greatest incentives to do it!

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