Editor’s note – One year ago today in an article published in Convivium, Peter Menzies argued the salvation of Canadian democracy lies in our two youngest political jurisdictions where consensus government, not leadership whip-cracking, prevails. His comments, republished in full below, comprise the first of a two-part series relating to post-pandemic issues Canadians are now facing.
By Peter Menzies
TORONTO. October 26/22 – Seven years and three elections ago, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau was about to become Prime Minister. Deficits were to be modest and temporary, Canada was going to “be back” as a global player, ways were to be sunny, transparency would blossom like flowers in spring and that 2015 election was to be the final one held under the first past the post system.
As it turns out, federal debt is growing at a rate of $3.1 million an hour, the UK, USA and Australia have formed a security pact without us, China slaps us around for giggles, doors slam shut on information requests and the nation’s flags are – permanently it seems – at half-mast in shame. We are still first past the posting in a fashion that allowed Trudeau to win two more elections with a lower percentage of the public vote than his Conservative rivals.
There is probably no more humiliating job in the country than that of a government MP who is not the Prime Minister.
Perhaps most disappointing has been the entrenchment of the crude practice of centralizing power in the hands of unelected personnel in the Prime Minister’s Office. There, if Jody Wilson-Raybould is to be believed, sharp-tongued staff channel Basil Fawlty, ordering cabinet ministers about as if they were so many minion (he’s from Barcelona) Manuels. They can treat people like that because, unlike other countries under the Westminster system such as the United Kingdom and Australia, Canadian prime ministers do not depend upon the support of their caucus to maintain their positions. They need heed none of them, which means MPs are not expected to contribute other than by synchronized sycophancy. The role of the PMO has become to bully them and ensure none have the PM’s ear but his chosen political staff. As a result, there is probably no more humiliating job in the country than that of a government MP who is not the Prime Minister. Even those newly appointed to cabinet yesterday, or finding themselves in comfy new ministerial chairs, will soon discover their moment in the sun is… well… momentary.
This, and an electoral system that allows supreme power to be vested in someone preferred at the polls by no more than one in five Canadians (32% of the 62% who voted) must change if democracy is to flourish. Yes, yes, I know that much of the popular punditry considers this a mere electoral oddity waved away with a quick “the Liberal vote is more efficient” flick of the wrist. It has accepted for Trudeau what it obsessed upon for Trump and moved on quickly to endless thumb suckers pondering “whither Erin O’Toole?” Surely the role of inquisitive, self-described “precious” defenders of democracy should occasionally expand into the realm of, you know, actually defending democracy and not casually excusing its absence?
So, I propose to suck on a different thumb by suggesting that perhaps the real problem with democracy in Canada is political parties themselves. I once made this suggestion to an important person associated with the Conservative Party of Canada. It quite literally took her breath away.
But I mean it. I’m tired of the tribalism, weary of the perpetuation of Grade 10 popular kids’ culture, ideological purity tests, splinter groups and endless brain-numbing speculation on, for instance, why the Tories need to separate from Alberta if they are ever going to win in Toronto. Honestly.
All I want at this stage is for the country to be governed by grownups who don’t care if the jocks or the chess club kids are in charge and we don’t need to change the first past the post voting system to make that happen. We need to follow the leads of the two youngest jurisdictions in Canada – The Northwest Territories and Nunavut. They have banned political parties from their assemblies, preferring a form of adult supervision called Consensus Government. This is how it works.
Perhaps the real problem with democracy in Canada is political parties themselves. I once made this suggestion to an important person (in) the Conservative Party. It took her breath away.
People are free to describe their views in any fashion they wish – progressive, regressive, #climatewarrior or paleo con – but every person who aspires to become a member of those territorial legislatures runs as an Independent and is accountable only to constituents. Every election campaign is entirely local. There is no O’Toole vs Trudeau performance schtick. The only contest is between local individuals attempting to prove they will be the one best equipped to represent their constituents. Their platform is their own and it is only to their constituents that they must answer. There is no party script to which one must adhere at risk of political shunning. There are only people. People with points of view, ideas and responsibilities to work together to get things done. Voters actually pay attention to who the candidates are in their constituencies.
Once elected, the members gather in the assembly and they select a Speaker and a leader. In the case of NWT and NT, where 11 newcomers were elected to the 22-seat legislature Monday, these leaders are their premiers. Were Parliament to adopt the same process, this would be the prime minister. Often, it takes several rounds of voting but in the end there is consensus concerning who is the best person to lead. That leader then serves at the pleasure of the assembly, the members of which serve as noted with the consent of their constituents. The accountability line is direct and untainted by party loyalties and all members meet as equals. And it makes it pretty unlikely the leader goes surfing on the taxpayers’ dime on Truth and Reconciliation Day.
Once the leader – necessarily a serious person capable of mature decision-making – is elected, a similar process follows for a set number of cabinet ministers. The Premier then assigns portfolios to each of the ministers. Those not in cabinet are known as “Regular Members” and can play the role of “unofficial” opposition, holding those in executive positions accountable.
At the same time, all legislation, proposed budgets and major policies developed by cabinet members have to go through Regular Members standing committees, giving them the opportunity to amend and/or critique.
This doesn’t mean there isn’t vigorous debate or even controversy. But it does generally mean that discussions involve what actions are in the best interests of the people as opposed to what serves the party. Consensus government cabinets need to consult with Members and build support as opposed to how things have evolved in Ottawa where a Mephistophelian handful dictates decisions that are then issued to MPs as edicts.
The change I suggest won’t happen of course. It won’t even be discussed. The status quo – a morally flexible world within which the purpose of power is power and only power – is deeply vested and heavily defended. Questions aren’t encouraged.
That’s how democracy dies.♦
Peter Menzies writes on culture, media and communications. While he now works in the cultural industry and advises tech companies, he has in the past served as vice chairman of telecommunications for the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). He was publisher and editor-in-chief of one of Canada’s major daily newspapers, the Calgary Herald.
Bio last updated November 26th, 2021.
Credits: ourcommons.ca; macdonaldlaurier.ca; convivium.ca
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