Friday, December 6, 2013

Back To Earth

I had planned this to be my first piece post-holiday, but Nelson Mandela's passing yesterday prompted my post about that giant who walked among us. I purposely kept it brief, since thousands upon thousands of words will be written about him in the days to come, a testament not only to his stature throughout the world but also, I suspect, to the rarity of such dignity, integrity, and moral greatness.

On to other matters.

One of the advantages to a week-long sojourn in Cuba, from which we returned late Wednesday night, is the fact that the Internet there is both slow and expensive; although I compulsively check my email at home several times a day, I feel no such urge when on the island nation. Consequently, I tend to catch up on the reading that I never seem to have enough time for while in Canada - retirement seems to impose its own disciplines, demands, and routines.

I always make sure to bring with me The Walrus magazine, a publication that does not shy away from longer forms of journalism. An article from a few months back made for some interesting reading. Entitled Repairing the House, now available online, its author, Andrew Coyne, offers an overview of the dysfunctional and essentially impotent Parliament we are all familiar with, a Parliament where backbenchers are little more than the proverbial trained seals doing the bidding of the party leader. Never has this been more evident than in the Harper administration, where all utterances are tightly scripted, predictable ('The Prime Minister has been very clear...') and limited. One has only to watch the incessant parroting that poses as answers both in Question Period or on shows such as Power and Politics to see this sad truth.

Yet Coyne suggests it needn't be this way.

Here are his observations and ideas for reform:

Prior to the 1919 Liberal national convention that elected Mackenzie King as its leader, party leaders in Canada had been chosen as they are in the classic Westminster model, still in force in Australia, for instance: by a vote of the caucus. It is this model, Coyne observes, that keeps the power of leaders from being overwhelming. It is what enabled, for example, the removal of Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Kevin Rudd and his successor, Julia Gillard, in Australia. If practised in Canada it would, in Coyne's view, make party leaders more attentive to the concerns of ordinary MPs.

A related reform, lest a potentially rebellious member be subdued, is to the nomination of party candidates. In Canada, as a matter of law, no candidate may run for Parliament under a party banner without the signature of the leader on his or her nomination papers. It is therefore very easy for the leader to veto a nomination by withholding his/her signature. Coyne suggests leaving this process to the riding association.

A concomitant and necessary reform for this to work is in the riding association's nomination process:

It is beyond strange that in Canada, in the twenty-first century, nominations can still be decided by stacking meetings with instant members, hastily recruited for the occasion. A cleaned-up process for selecting candidates—if not formal voter registration, as in the United States, then at least a requirement that voters must have been party members for some decent interval—would seem therefore to be a third part of the solution.

Because of the reality of craven desire for power and advancement among our politicos, a fourth reform is necessary, argues Coyne - reducing the size of cabinet and changing the appointment process for key parliamentary positions.
Because cabinet is bloated at 39 positions (Coyne contrasts that with the U.S. at 16, about the same as Japan and Germany) it means MPs on the government side, if they keep their noses clean, have about a one in four chance of making it to cabinet (compare that to Britain, where the odds are more like one in twenty).

There is much more to the article, which I hope you will take the opportunity to read when time allows, but Coyne's ideas surely offer hope that things can be much better than they currently are, and would perhaps have the effect of renewing some faith in the democratic process and convincing more people to turn out at the polls, although I doubt that is something Harper and his cabal would like to see happen.

And yet some of these ideas may have the potential to be achieved, given that Michael Chong, conspicuous among Conservatives for his integrity, has introduced a private member's bill called the Reform Act. While limited in scope, it is nonetheless an encouraging sign.

So I am back on the political beat, where, regardless of whether I take a short or a long holiday, little ever seems to change for the better.


  1. Welcome back, Lorne. The are many conclusions one can draw from the arc of Mandela's life .One is that, even though it may take a long time -- including twenty-seven years in prison -- there is always reason to hope.

  2. As your post today on Mandela makes clear, Owen, his example shows all of us humanity's potential. In the darkest of times, it is vital that we never lose sight of that fact.