A blog to give a voice to our concern about the continued erosion of our democratic processes not only within the House of Commons and within our electoral system but also throughout our society. Here you will find articles about the current problems within our parliamentary democracy, about actions both good and bad by our elected representatives, about possible solutions, opinions and debate about the state of democracy in Canada, and about our roles/responsibilities as democratic citizens. We invite your thoughtful and polite comments upon our posts and ask those who wish to post longer articles or share ideas on this subject to submit them for inclusion as a guest post.
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Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Power of the PM

This week lets pick up on two things from the list from Colin in the first “Now What” post, which was reinforced by Senators McCoys post regarding the “Anatomy of Power”. As has been said by several observers its not just about the abuse of the ability to prorogue that has our citizens talking, its about the ongoing decline of the ability (perhaps the desire) of our MPs to represent US not the political party to which they happen to currently belong. This suspension of parliament was but the tipping point in the long, but recently rapidly increasing, takeover of the democratic process by the PMO.

The Ottawa Citizen has this to say:
For many years now, constitutional experts and other political observers have lamented the concentration of power in the prime minister's office. They've warned, persuasively, that this concentration of power erodes Canadian democracy -- and it doesn't matter who the prime minister is or to which party he or she belongs.Harper's arbitrary abuse of the power to prorogue has caused many Canadians to wake up and realize that all might not be well with our parliamentary system. Although the Governor General is in theory able to restrain prime ministerial power by denying a PM the right to use prorogation for partisan purposes, Canadians have discovered that in practice prime ministers do what they want.Have the powers of the Governor General atrophied to the point they don't exist? Is this a good thing, in that the GG is unelected and shouldn't have real powers anyway? Then again, aren't the aides and minions in the PMO also unelected, yet wield more power than any legislator except the PM himself? Everyone in Ottawa has heard anecdotes of 20-something staffers from the PMO scolding senior cabinet ministers, and loving it. That can't be great for Canadian democracy, either.What began as a debate revolving around an arcane term is turning into a much bigger and more interesting conversation.

SO Now What …..
MP’s job description. MP’s need to be more independent……

Or as Sen McCoy says : “Why does the Prime Minister have so much power? The answer is quite simple: Because the House of Commons no longer holds the PM to account.”

But why is that and what can be done to change it? Why? Simply this, the political party holds all the cards, they control to a large extent the nomination process, the public awareness process (largely due to the high cost of “advertising” a candidate), the impact (read power) that an MP can have within our parliament (and within the unofficial corridors of power), even the basic services which an MP can call upon to do his or her job (ask an “independent” MP how that works!). It has reached the point where the “party” can dictate to the MP how to vote on a particular issue simply because to resist the “party machine” results in what little influence a typical back bench MP may have can be substantially reduced should they publicly disagree (or god forbid not vote with) their partys official line.

As many others have pointed out one of the best tools to ensure that our MPs represent US and not their party is to change the manner in which we elect them to ensure that we can choose an individual without necessarily endorsing the party with which they are affiliated. As it stands now when we finally get that choice it’s a difficult thing to choose the best local representative when perhaps his party has shown a total disregard for both his opinion and the parliamentary process. All too often we are FORCED to choose the party over the person, this is NOT how it was intended to work! In my mind proportional representation is only PART of the solution which is why I favor some form of MMP voting where we can vote for the person and the party separately. Trouble is we have to get a majority MPs who are elected by the FPTP system to as a minimum call for a referendum for change and then convince a majority of our citizens that change is not so scary that it cannot be. Hard to do when those in power will (and have) used their considerable recourses to convince the public otherwise.

Size, purpose, and power of cabinet. We have a very powerful executive in Canada

If you have read the Hill Times article referenced in last weeks post by Senator McCoy you will realize just how much power the PMO has in this country and how little a non cabinet MP has. Even in a minority parliament there are few practical limits upon the PMs power and whilst in theory this power is shared with cabinet in practice it does not have to be, the PM is all but omnipotent. In a majority situation a PM who does not wish to respect our democratic conventions, listen to the opposition or accept changes to legislation suggested by committees does not have to.

It would seem to me that the only real limit upon the abuse of this power is vested in public pressure and opinion when such abuse comes to light, if this power is also used to control the dissemination of accurate information as to the actions of government then even that pressure is substantially reduced. The “power” available to the PM has changed little in recent decades, it is the manner in which it can, indeed is, being used that should give us all nightmares.

There is little we can do to change this, some rules can be changed (by a majority of MPs) to “encourage” more respect for parliament and parliamentary conventions. We can perhaps move towards minority and coalition governments so that more consensus and cooperation becomes necessary, but if the party in power and the PM of the hour wishes to run our country like a dictatorship during their term in office there is little practical means of stopping them from doing so. It would seem that getting MPs out from under the party control would be the best interim solution. Elect MPs who refuse to be dictated to by the party brass, limit the use of whipped votes, give independent MPs the same resources as those with “official” party status, make the Senate truly independent and its members not beholden to those who appointed them.

How to do this is the big question for as David Mitchell, CEO of the Public Policy Forum said "the modern party system and, in particular, party discipline has been the great corruptor of Parliament. And in Canada we have the most rigid and inflexible party system in any modern parliamentary democracy."

T/H to Accidental Deliberations for the Ottawa Citizen piece. Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

1 comment:

Wayne Smith said...

Since the evolution of the modern political party as a machine for electing people, it has been almost impossible to get elected without the support of a political party organization. As a result, the parties and party elites hold ALL the power.

It was at that time, about one hundred years ago, that proportional voting was invented by emerging democracies in Europe. PR allows voters to express their approval or disapproval of a political party.

We lament the power of political parties, but it is a reality that is not going away.

We need a proportional voting system now, so that voters can have the power to hold politicians and political parties accountable.