Democratic Reform

The election of a majority Liberal government brings some much-needed clarity to discussion of public policy, which has been clouded by people’s reaction to Harper’s style as Prime Minister.

Those who dislike Stephen Harper dislike him a lot. The result has been a constant stream of fulminations ranging from the merely angry to the apoplectic. None of this was particularly helpful to thoughtful policy debate. Harper’s exit stage right clears the air, to the joy of his detractors and the quiet relief of many Progressive Conservatives, particularly in Atlantic Canada.

A Liberal majority is a much better outcome than a minority, which would have left the Liberals beholden to the NDP for support and created constant uncertainty about the timing of the next election.

The 88 page Liberal platform, therefore, creates a strong indication of what we can expect during the next four years. Some of its proposals for democratic reform are substantial.

(1) Pre-writ financing: The advent of fixed election dates meant a much longer campaign, regardless of when the start was actually announced. Limits on campaign spending by the parties or other advocacy groups did not apply before the writ was issued, which could lead to American-style advertising spending orgies by special interest groups. The Liberals plan to close this loophole.

(2) Electoral Reform: Parties out of power always wish the rules had been different until they get back in. Then they usually find more urgent priorities. The Liberals have made that choice difficult. They commit that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system.

An all-party Parliamentary committee will review a wide variety of reforms, such as ranked ballots, proportional representation, mandatory voting, and online voting. Within 18 months of forming government, legislation will be introduced to enact electoral reform.

It seems remarkably unwise to commit to changing something before you are sure that there is a better idea available. Our current system has served the United Kingdom well for several centuries.

Proposals for pure proportional representation would radically change the way government works—leading every time to a minority government with a short term highly politicized focus. In this election, it would have given the Liberals 50 fewer seats—perhaps that will make them think harder.

(3) Senate Reform: Both the Conservatives and the NDP talked about abolishing the Senate, knowing that in practice they were very unlikely to have any success.
The Liberals made a more meaningful promise to create a new, non-partisan, merit-based process to advise the Prime Minister on Senate appointments. Good.

The marvellous thing about this is that voters will know very soon if they mean it. At present, there are 47 Conservative senators out of a total of 83, and 22 vacancies. How those vacancies are filled will tell us a lot.

Partisan Senate appointments have been first prize in a hierarchy of patronage rewards. The same kind of disciplined reform should apply to the rest—boards of crown corporations, port and airport authorities, and various commissions.

(4) Cabinet: Justin Trudeau has reiterated his promise that half of the cabinet ministers will be women, although they make up only 27% of the caucus. Harper’s cabinet had 40 ministers, Trudeau says he will have fewer. If his has 30 ministers, a proportionate share would be 8 women—but his rule will make it 15.

Women will have almost three times the chance of men of being in cabinet, which is reverse discrimination, and at odds with the notion of filling positions with the most capable candidates. The more junior women cabinet ministers will probably not be there purely on merit.

(5) Parliament: Trudeau promises to give more latitude and power to parliamentary committees and chairs. Good.

He also talks about giving the Liberal caucus more free votes, but the exceptions are robust; confidence motions, anything that impacts Trudeau’s interpretation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, or any motions to implement the party platform. It is hard to imagine that there is much left.

The platform promises greater freedom to parliamentary officers but, for that to work, some of them need tighter mandates and more closely scrutinized appointments. The first Public Sector Integrity Commissioner turned out to be incompetent. Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page was openly hostile to the government.

The initiatives promised are an understandable response to Harper’s heavy-handed style. The ones cited here are only a partial list. The measures add credibility to the Liberal commitment to bring real change.

Serious renewal of our democratic institutions is a worthy goal. But not all of the proposals are well thought out. It is to be hoped that the Liberals will carefully consider some of the big changes they have in mind.


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