Friday, July 16, 2021

It's Time To Blow Up The Party System

I have never been a political partisan.  That isn't to say I don't have political beliefs, or positions.  But I simply don't buy into the broad idea of being a member of a political party.  My own politics are fairly complex, and I don't wish to find myself in the position of having to conform with some "party policy" or another on the basis of creating the appearance of unity.  

However, over the last decade or so, I have observed a disturbing change in the nature of our political parties in Canada. They have become businesses - businesses that sell access to power.  Perhaps most disturbingly, they do so on the backs of what is largely a volunteer workforce.  While a small number of people are employed by these parties, the vast majority of the work of fundraising (cash flow) is really done by the active volunteer base.  Meanwhile, the proposition to the voter is "if our party gets into power, we can give you what you want".  

This is true of all parties - everybody is jockeying for a position of influence somewhere.  However, it has also created a more disturbing industry of groups that are attempting to control the parties themselves.  Don't get me wrong, factions in a party are a normal social consequence of putting a group of people together to accomplish a common goal.  I'm talking about organizations like Campaign Life who have spent decades organizing their base in a bid to assert covert control over the Conservative Party. 

But there's more to this whole picture. 

The Problems

One only has to look at the post-2015 conservative parties to understand how bad it's gotten. The CPC has gone through 2 leaders with minimal changes to their policy since Harper stepped down, and their support continues to plummet. There's a reason for this, and it isn't just selecting ineffectual leaders, it's that the party brass refuses to allow significant change to take place in what the party represents.

Then in Alberta, we have the UCP - a party that was formed specifically to oust NDP Premier Rachel Notley who was elected in 2015.  This is 'Fortress Alberta' we're talking about.  A place that has voted consistently conservative for the vast majority of its existence, and in 2015, it elected an NDP government.  So, the conservatives panicked, and starting in 2015 launched the largest rage campaign I've ever seen mounted. They spent the next 3 years forming the UCP (in a cesspool of corruption that culminated in a leadership campaign that is still under RCMP investigation), in order to seize power again. 

They succeeded ... but really only to foist upon Albertans a government that is so clearly in the hands of CEOs and business interest groups that it simply isn't representative of Albertans. Instead, we are fed a daily stream of gaslighting rubbish. The UCP exists not as a party of ideas, but as a party which exists for the sole purpose of selling access to power to the donors. 

Similarly, we even see the NDP under Singh jockeying for a position of influence, and it doesn't seem to be so much about what the NDP represents as it is about whittling away at the support of the LPC from the left. At this point, NDP policy federally seems to be “whatever the leader says it is on Tik Tok” - and even then its subject to interpretation. 

Why is this?  Largely because the game has become one of donations and translating those $ into enough public support to be able to convince “stakeholder groups” that they will have influence in the next government.  In no way is this a good thing - this is creating cross between an oligarchy and a kleptocracy lurking behind a façade of citizen democracy.  

How To Address This?

The first thing I wish to do is dismantle the party system.  It has inverted the Westminster Parliamentary system.  Instead of voters electing a representative who takes their concerns to Parliament and represents them to both the party, and to parliament itself, we elect someone who represents their party to the voters, and to parliament.  Party discipline trumps all, and the concerns of the citizens are, if you’re really lucky are represented in the policy platform of the party.  

This gives us two evils:  Career politicians who move to climb the ladder within the power structures of caucus (and for whom party loyalty is key), and policy platforms that have become increasingly rigid over time.  

Consider how little CPC policy has changed since 2015.  There’s been some trimming around the edges, but fundamentally, it’s unchanged from what it was in 2006.  More or less, it remains very much the party of Stephen Harper.  Go back to the 70s, or even 80s, and when a party lost an election, it tended to trigger a massive rethinking of policy direction under the new leader.  This is no longer the case.  Instead, we seem to be stuck in a time where the next leader is little more than a puppet for the backroom brass who have already decided that nothing needs to change.  (And yes, the LPC is just as guilty of this failure).  

The rise of parties in Westminster parliaments largely arose out of individual MPs seeking groups of peers with whom they shared common values.  However, the MP had to be elected first, and might eventually be recruited into a party by other MPs who came to know them.  This model isn’t bad, in part because at the end of the day, a given MP knew that if they did not adequately represent their riding to parliament, they were still unlikely to be returned in a subsequent election.  That did a lot to stay the hand of the party powers. 

Once parties became central to the electoral process, voters found themselves having to vote for a party rather than a candidate.  That has given us career politicians like Jason Kenney and others who know that they can ignore criticism in their riding because their career depends on the party apparatus, not the riding - especially in areas where a party has come to be the dominant force.  (There’s a reason for the jokes about “getting a bale of hay elected in Alberta”).  

Right now, everything revolves around getting a party nomination, which decides who gets to run under a particular banner. So, for the most part voters get a choice of half a dozen candidates who ultimately are beholden not to the riding, but to the party they managed to convince to nominate them.  

As we have seen in many ridings, that becomes almost a matter of the politician becoming a form of royalty who decides “the heir apparent” to replace them.  This has given significant longevity to some pretty awful politicians holding their seats far longer than they should have.  (E.g.  Rob Anders, among many many others)  The career politician, and the party system means we no longer have a democracy which represents the citizenry to the government.

A Proposal

The Westminster system is ideally suited to being restored to being a representative democracy.  It makes clear distinctions between the various arms of government, as well as making the actual implementation of government the role of a professional bureaucracy. The judiciary is both professional and kept at an appropriate distance from the legislative arm.  The only area that is a bit murky is the executive as it is embodied in the form of the Privy Council and is composed of the political cabinet and a handful of bureaucrats.  However, I believe all this can be addressed.  

1)  The Role Of Parliament

Parliament's role is, of course, to guide the nation through legislation and policy.  It remains ultimately the domain of the people.  Not the ruling class that has emerged in the party system, but of the people. It has become the domain of the parties who claim to, but never seem to, actually represent the people.  

The job of MPs is first and foremost to present their riding's concerns and issues to the government of the day. In other words, party allegiance needs to be on the back seat. The MP has to become a communicator with the riding - they must live in the riding, and just as much as they need to be able to represent their riding to the government, they also need to be able to explain the government to the riding.  

2) Electing Members of Parliament

Therefore, I propose that this be corrected by drawing representatives from the population in general.  Instead of a party nomination system, I suggest moving to a candidate pool model where the candidates eligible in a given riding are drawn at random from the voters list for that riding.  Recognize that just as with a jury pool, there will be a significant fraction of those people who for one reason or another are not willing to stand as candidates.  Within the candidate pool, it is voluntary to stand as a candidate.  Once there is a list of half a dozen or so candidates who have agreed to stand, the list of candidates on the ballot is concluded.  

From that point, the actual election process kicks off.  Each candidate is given a fixed sum of money to operate their campaign with. No external funds or gifts-in-kind are permitted. You have a budget of (for example) $20,000 to run your campaign in the riding.  That's it. Period. 

An incumbent MP may opt to run a second time, although other aspects of this proposal might render that undesirable. 

3) What About Qualifications?

Our current model does not require any qualifications for someone to run beyond being able to obtain a nomination.  There is precious little to compel the appointment of people with financial backgrounds to posts such as Finance, and quite frankly, we don't expect any MP to be particularly adept at politics.  

Newly elected MPs are given an orientation to parliament course, but that does little to inform an MP about the more complex tasks they may face, including drafting legislation, engaging in meaningful debate on the matters facing the state, and so on.  

I propose that the first year of a new MP's career in parliament is a combination of training courses in everything from debating skills to interpreting legislation.  During this time, they work alongside the incumbent whose role becomes that of mentor and example to the new MP.  During this time, there is a managed hand-off of duties from the incumbent to the newly elected Member.  

Additionally, I propose making the parliamentary supports for all MPs much more comprehensive.  There is a group of lawyers already who will review an MP's legislation and help them make it more legally correct.  This needs to be expanded.  

Similarly, there needs to be groups devoted to creating briefing notes for the business of the day in the house, and groups of staff who act as debate coaches to help MPs work out how they are going to address the issues of the day.  In other words, we have a series of supporting offices within parliament that are resourced sufficiently to ensure that all MPs have access to the general tools of their job.  

4) An MP's Term In Office

"But wait!, an MP's term is only 4 years!", you might say.  While elections must happen every 5 years, the active term for an elected MP can be longer.  I'm proposing the following model to maintain continuity and to ensure that MPs are appropriately trained in the skills needed to be effective members of parliament:  

Year 1:    Internship and Training

The new MP is an intern, and receives intensive training in the important skills of governing ranging from crafting legislation to the rules of the house and debate techniques. 

Years 2 - 4: Active MP

The previous MP has stepped down as the active representative, and our new MP has control over the actions of their offices.  

Year 5:  Mentor

During this time, the now outgoing MP has the job of teaching the newly elected MP their knowledge of the job and the issues at hand. 

Beyond Year 5:  

Beyond the fifth year in the office, an MP may optionally choose to serve an additional 2-4 years either in the Senate (yes, I'm proposing revising the Senate as well), or as an instructor in the "Parliamentary University" teaching the courses for new MPs.  

5) Selecting Cabinet and the Prime Minister

Right now, we only indirectly select the Prime Minister based on the party alignment of whichever candidate MP we cast our vote for.  The actual selection ends up being a matter decided by the parties ultimately. 

I propose turning to a model similar to (but not the same as) that which we use for electing the Speaker.  Namely it becomes a vote on the part of the House of Commons that decides who the Prime Minister shall be.  A list of MPs-elect shall be presented to the Privy Council office for review, and once a reasonable subset of candidates is approved (e.g.  deemed to have the appropriate skills and leadership ability to manage a cabinet), the names are put to the house of incoming MPs who then get to vote on their choice for the PM's role.  This would likely happen approximately mid-way through the first year. 

As with the Prime Minister, ministries have a political interface office which is headed up by the Deputy Minister - a civil servant, actually - who is responsible for communicating decisions made by the political world to the civil service that has to execute those.  Again, MPs wishing to serve in Cabinet roles are permitted to put their names forward to the Deputy Minister who then has the duty of winnowing it down to a reasonable subset, whom the PM-designate and the Deputy Ministers can then interview to decide who gets to sit in cabinet.  

You will note that this dramatically reduces the power of the PMO because it specifically removes the power that a PM holds over their MPs through the current party system.  It returns the PMO to the role of helping the elected PM and Cabinet coordinate and prioritize the issues that the nation is facing.  Further, it removes from consideration partisan concerns such as "will this legislation anger the base of support for my party?".  

6)  Processes in the House of Commons

You would be correct in observing that this will radically change the processes in the House of Commons. The concept of "Party Whip" and "Whipped Votes" goes out the window.  There simply is no room for any such thing.  Similarly, the rigid constraints of party discipline become irrelevant because most MPs are only there for one term, perhaps two, anyhow.  

The job of the Privy Council (the PM and Cabinet Ministers) becomes one of gathering sufficient support for their legislation - whatever it may be - within the house to get it passed.  Since MPs are all functionally independent, the job of gathering support in the house becomes intrinsically more collaborative.  There will be more active discussion, and hopefully more meaningful amendments made to legislation in the process of garnering the needed support. 

It is possible that this could result in the practice of "unrelated riders" being tagged onto legislation to garner support.  For many of the same reasons I generally oppose omnibus bills, I think this practice has to be held to the standard of "is the rider relevant to the legislation itself?"  If it is not, then it needs to be dealt with separate.  

Likewise, Omnibus bills in general need to be frowned upon.  Only in situations where it is necessary to write the legislation that affects multiple laws should these be permitted.  The extent of the impact should be kept as coherent as possible.  In other words, if you write a bill that requires 4 laws to be amended, that's fine as long as the amendments to all 4 laws are actually connected to the intent of the bill, and that must be clearly articulated.  

Summary

There's more to this yet to be discussed.  This is intended primarily as a starting point - a place from which discussion around parliamentary reform can be discussed.  The goal here is quite explicitly to break down the party apparatus, and make a system that is more directly representative of the people of the nation. 

It will, without a doubt, cause major objections from those invested in the current system simply because it takes the energy and resources currently consumed by creating and maintaining control over power, and strips them entirely from the hands of those who seek to govern for the sake of power. 

 

 

 


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