#160 Keeping parliament current
First published August 28, 2017
REVIEW: Turning Parliament Inside Out: Practical Ideas for Reforming Canada’s Democracy
by Michael Chong, Scott Simms, and Kennedy Stewart (editors)
Madeira Park: Douglas & McIntyre, 2017. $22.95 / 978-1-77162-137-3
Reviewed by Hamish Telford
By comparison, the current political climate in the United States makes Canada look like Nirvana, but that doesn’t mean our system does not require ongoing tinkering and maintenance.
In Turning Parliament Inside Out, eight current members of Canada’s parliament, from four political parties, share their thoughts on the state of Canadian democracy. It opens with brief forewords by three elder statesmen of Canadian politics – one from each of the major parties: Ed Broadbent (NDP), Preston Manning (Conservative), and Bob Rae (Liberal) in an effort to present a bi-partisan reflection on Canadian democracy. The authors represent ridings from Newfoundland to British Columbia, although unfortunately none are from Quebec . — Ed.
Most of the essays focus on the operation of Parliament. The authors all believe that party discipline is far too strong, and that individual members of parliament have too little freedom to represent their constituents and pursue their own legislative agendas. The authors reflect on their personal experiences in Canada’s parliament, and offer suggestions on how it might work better.
Elizabeth May, MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands, provides an overview of Canada’s parliamentary tradition. Michael Cooper offers a few suggestions to improve Question Period, but it is clear that he enjoys the rambunctious character of this daily parliamentary charade. Kennedy Stewart provides a first hand account of passing a private member’s bill, including the juvenile recriminations that parliamentarians endure for working across party lines. Michael Chong examines the committee system in the House of Commons and suggests how it might work better. It is the most insightful chapter in the book.
Anita Vandenbeld provides valuable insight into the gender dynamics in parliament, and Niki Ashton offers an optimistic account of youth engagement in politics. Scott Simms offers a convoluted proposal to enhance inter-governmental relations in Canada. The idea entails the creation of a parallel Senate comprised of members of the provincial legislatures as a house of “sober first thought.” With Justin Trudeau’s reform of the Senate still playing out, Simms’s proposal would seem to be a non-starter. A chapter by Nathan Cullen, MP for Skeena-Bulkley Valley, adds nothing of value.
While the authors offer some interesting proposals to reform the way Canada’s parliament works, they do not offer much analysis on the origins of the problem they are trying to resolve. Without knowing what caused the problem, it is difficult to know if the proposed solutions will be of much help. It is important to recognize that Parliament does not exist in a vacuum. It is embedded in Canadian society, and there have been enormous socio-political changes in the country over the past half century.
The World Values Survey out of the University of Michigan has been charting the cultural shift in western societies from materialist to post-materialist values. Twenty years ago, relatedly, Professor Neil Nevitte wrote about “the decline of deference” in Canadian society (The Decline of Deference, Broadview Press, 1996), and Professor Paul Howe has delved into the complex and troubling low rates of youth participation in Canadian politics (Citizens Adrift: The Democratic Disengagement of Young Canadians, UBC Press, 2010). In view of the broad sociological changes in our society, the proposals contained in this book seem a bit trite.
Some of the authors make oblique references to the media, but again there is very little analysis of the role of the media in modern politics. This is crucial. In the age of round the clock media, party politics has become a highly sophisticated communications exercise. The slightest note of discord in a party is dissected by talking heads on television and radio for hours on end often over the course of days. This excessive political “analysis” derails the agenda of the government, and weakens the government’s public standing. It is little wonder that leaders want to exercise tight control over their members and the party’s message. The public has to accept some blame here. We have lost interest in policy and become voracious consumers of political gossip.
A few of the authors seem to think that the grass is greener across the ocean in the “mother of all parliaments.” It is true that party discipline is much weaker in the British Parliament, but it is not clear that this results in better legislation and more effective government. British politicians are arguably held in even more contempt than their Canadian counterparts. They are the least trusted professionals in the country – even lower than bankers and journalists.
Party discipline is even weaker in the United States Congress, but many Americans believe that Congress is almost completely dysfunctional. And that was before President Trump moved in down the street.
Elizabeth May suggests that the leadership selection process in Canada is at least partly responsible for the excessive party discipline. Party leaders are elected by the members at a party convention. Once the leader has been hired, the hiring committee disbands, leaving the caucus at the mercy of the leader. May argues that it would be more democratic for the caucus to choose the leader.
But would it really make a difference? In Australia, “turf the leader” is national past time. In recent years, both the Liberal and Labour parties have turfed sitting prime ministers. Australian members of parliament certainly have more power than their Canadian counterparts, but does it lead to better government and higher public approval? It does not seem so. Polls show that Australian politicians are the least trusted professionals in the country by a wide margin.
A number of the chapters also exude a nostalgia for a by-gone era that none of us today ever experienced and probably never existed. For example, Elizabeth May suggests that Sir John A. Macdonald “exerted almost no control over members of Parliament within his own caucus.” She provides no evidence to support this assertion, and it difficult to imagine that Macdonald could rule the country for seventeen years without exercising at least some control over his caucus. And indeed a new book by Ryerson University Professor Patrice Dutil locates the origins of prime ministerial power in the country’s first governments (Prime Ministerial Power in Canada: Its Origins under Macdonald, Laurier, and Borden, UBC Press, 2017).
Despite its limitations, Turning Parliament Inside Out provides a valuable glimpse into the inner workings of Canada’s parliament. It is especially helpful to hear the perspectives of individuals who have actually served in parliament, and their proposals would probably make the work of parliamentarians more meaningful — which would be helpful.
If we want highly qualified professionals to put their careers on hold and become parliamentarians, they must be afforded the opportunity to do meaningful work. But the problems of Canadian democracy run much deeper than the workings of parliament, and sadly the proposals contained in this book will likely do little to restore faith in Canada’s democracy.
Hamish Telford is an associate professor of political science at the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford. He is the author of Rules of the Game: An Introduction to Canadian Politics (Pearson Canada, 2014), and he has a forthcoming book entitled Talking Past Each Other: Quebec and the Federal Dialogue in Canada, 1867-2017. He is a frequent commentator on B.C. and Canadian politics in the national and international media.
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