A group of backbench MPs were milling around the corridors of Parliament this spring grumbling about the lack of respect they got as backbenchers, the overweening power of the leaders and their henchmen, and the need to strengthen MPs’ ability to shape legislation. Just another afternoon of Canadian politicians grumbling?

No, this was Baghdad. It could have been Ottawa, or Canberra or the terraces of Westminster. There is not much that unites those disparate capitals — except for the relentless growth in the power of the executive branch and the decline of legislatures.

The problem with our Parliament is power — or, rather, its powerlessness. We are part of a global phenomenon. The balance of power between the legislature and the Crown that was the fundamental principle of democratic accountability has broken down in most democracies — irretrievably, some experts argue.

Political scientists and pundits are long on description and light on prescription about what to do. Fingers are pointed at the role of parties and partisanship, the cost of politics and the complexity of government as reasons for the increasing irrelevance of legislatures.

Robert Michels’ summary, a century ago, of the tendency of party leaders to concentrate power as tightly as humanly possible — “the iron law of oligarchy” — lies at the core of this imbalance even now. A parliamentary party until well into the 20th century, in most democracies, was a disputatious, fractious and somewhat feeble institution. Leaders as powerful as Churchill, Roosevelt and Mackenzie King spent a great deal of time nurturing, pruning and attempting to discipline their political flocks.

Michels would have been stunned at the sweeping power of modern party leaders. Canadian candidates today owe their political survival to the leader’s signature on their nomination, and his or her staff’s control of money, poll data, ad support and the leader’s scarce campaign time. Helena Guergis is only the most recent example of the fate of an MP when that benediction is withdrawn, whether justified by circumstance or, as in her case, not.

John Reid, a lifelong legislator and officer of Parliament and Canada’s former information commissioner, is hard on his former colleagues about the reasons for this political neutering, however. Reid says that after years of railing at yet one more concession to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), he concluded that most of the salami slicing of parliamentary power has been self-inflicted. He points out that it is, after all, MPs who have voted to approve measures like putting party names, not just a candidate’s, on the ballot; who agreed that party leaders have the right to reject a candidate’s nomination; and who accepted the many changes to House procedure that have whittled away parliamentary prerogatives.

Powerlessness inevitably leads to preening, posturing and pusillanimity. Speakers in a near-empty Commons chamber threaten and declaim while a few oblivious colleagues poke the BlackBerrys in their laps. Their sad pretence of authority is pushed to absurd heights by frustration at the gap between the claim of consequence and the daily collision with the more painful reality of the pointlessness of much of parliamentary life.

As the chasm between promise and performance widens, legislatures risk becoming parodies of rhetorical excess. MPs who “demand immediate action” and promise, weekly, to “punish this government” risk sounding like those delusional Latin American caudillos who bellow from balconies, to bemused and sniggering audiences below, their “demands” of the international community and brag about the imminent destruction of their enemies.

Like many other long-time observers of this sad slide, Jeffrey Simpson wonders whether it is the quality and gravitas of the men and women who occupy the front benches on both sides of the House today, compared to a very different postwar generation, that is at fault. It is impossible to deny that today’s Commons is short of the parliamentary skills of a Tommy Douglas, a John Diefenbaker or an Allan MacEachen. But what is cause and what is symptom is an endlessly circular debate.

Given the power shift, it is not clear that it matters much how strong the parliamentary benches might be. A new Laurier, arriving tomorrow as leader of a strong opposition, would have little ability to affect any prime minister’s freedom to govern as he or she sees fit. Having a more powerful front bench made up of political stars would only underline the fantasy of parliamentary power.

There is a view propounded by political science observers that the decline of Parliament is in part balanced by the growth of new institutions of accountability: massive public consultation efforts by government; task forces, commissions and inquiries; many new independent officers of Parliament; powerful new nongovernmental organizations; and an easily accessed and pervasive new digital media. There is no doubt that governments today respond to a wide variety of new external pressures. But unlike a stinging Commons committee report, or a vote of nonconfidence, a task force recommendation or the advice of consulted citizens is easily and often dismissed. Parliamentarians could ally themselves with some of these new power centres or tap into the energy of citizens’ movements, but they consistently fail to make those connections.

The problem with our Parliament is power — or, rather, its powerlessness. We are part of a global phenomenon. The balance of power between the legislature and the Crown that was the fundamental principle of democratic accountability has broken down in most democracies — irretrievably, some experts argue.

A leading Canadian governmental analyst, Donald Savoie, has a dim view of these new adjuncts to Parliament. He is skeptical about the extraparliamentary centres. He also sees the growth of officers of Parliament as a diversion. He points out that the recent dispute between the Commons and the Auditor General over expenses demonstrates the blurriness of who reports to whom, as Sheila Fraser is an officer of Parliament. The wide differences among MPs about what the independence of these officers means erupted early in Kevin Page’s term as Commons budget officer as well. He has fallen afoul of a variety of MPs, with some challenging his freedom to act beyond a strict mandate overseen by them.

Whatever governance principle strikes your fancy, it is clear that no current Canadian government quakes at the prospect of a damning report from any officer of Parliament. Those who would point to the Auditor General’s role in the defeat of the ChrĂ©tien/Martin governments as proof of power and consequence forget two important factors in that astonishing fall: the role of the media in promoting the sponsorship scandal and the Martin government’s own suicidal “mad as hell” tour in response to the AG’s report.

Twas not ever thus.

The debates on Canada’s entry into the Second World War, on the TransCanada Pipeline, on the War Measures Act, on hanging, on bilingualism — all bring a tear to the eye, at the recognition of what has been lost, even when reread in a dusty bound Hansard. Those thundering orators, statesmen and cads defeated governments and did indeed help set the country’s political direction. As recently as the Charter debates of 1980-81, the House of Commons (and its leaders on all sides) was a political force, an institution when united, in front of which prime ministers and privy councillors did shuffle nervously. Canadian prime ministers rarely lost a showdown with the House. Until the 1950s they were wary of its impact on public opinion. Now they rarely deign to visit.

Only partly tongue in cheek, Andrew Coyne of Maclean’s made a case for the abolition of Parliament as a response to the bluster of prorogation opponents. His mocking satire gave voice to the view of many talk radio listeners that the political class is a self-interested, often corrupt, elite that only does harm to ordinary Canadians. The icon of their disbelief in the relevance of Parliament is the daily eruption of adolescent insult, pretence and vulgar wit that is Question Period. Nothing has done more to devalue the reputation of MPs than those daily 45 minutes.

Some libertarians see the fact that nearly one out of two Canadians refuse to vote as good news. Parliament as little more than a frequently noisy but fading sideshow is a welcome development. It is proof that a mature developed society does not need and certainly does not benefit from the generation of new legislative and regulatory limits to freedom. Citizens who abdicate from the selection of their leaders are merely signifying how irrelevant politics is to their own autonomous lives.

Like an earlier generation of anarchists, however, these libertarian dreamers imagine that cutting the power of the legislature will mean its executive branch and associated functionaries would also soon wither. As only the dimmest anarchists failed to discover, an executive-led bureaucratic state, unconstrained by the leash of political accountability, is one of the true horrors of the modern era. The modern state, one that commands — depending on where you draw the boundaries — nearly half of all economic activity, must be accountable to its citizens. The enfeeblement of that accountability in the national security state of the past decade has provided a dark vision of the erosion of freedom that results from diminished political scrutiny.

Voter participation is the foundation of the legislature’s political legitimacy. A variety of reforms that would help boost turnout are worth considering for that reason alone: proportional or mixed-member voting, compulsory voting or, as in Costa Rica, a parallel children’s voting system to embed comfort with democratic participation in pre-adolescents. However, even nations that have maintained respectable turnout levels — the Nordic countries, for example — have not been able to resist the decline of legislative power.

In the last century government intrusion into the lives of its citizens was trivial in contrast to the power of today’s bureaucracies, yet the oversight and constraint of Canadian parliaments was direct and often effective. Only after a bitter parliamentary debate did Laurier authorize a small contingent of Canadians to serve in the 1899-1902 Boer War. Parliament then imposed tough limits on spending and arms purchases. Canada was twice ripped by bitter debates over conscription — debates that were driven by political leaders, inside and out of the House.

Fast forward to the beginning of this decade: Jean Chrétien simply announced to the House, with only limited debate days later, in each case, that Canada would contribute to the Afghanistan campaign, but not to the Iraq war. It was the Harper government that set the first serious Commons debate on Afghanistan — years after the Liberal executive decision.

Our government’s ability to commit (to use the American phrase) “blood and treasure” — the sacrifice of Canadian soldiers and the expenditure of billions of dollars on foreign wars — with the flimsiest of political oversight is perhaps the starkest example of how the balance of power between the executive and the people’s chamber has shifted in the past hundred years.

Some point to the astonishing overnight ouster of an Australian prime minister, in a vote by his own caucus this spring, as proof that parliamentary power is not dead. Peter Russell, one of Canada’s pre-eminent constitutional and political sages, argues that a fateful step in the decline was taken when parliamentary caucuses here and in most democracies gave up their exclusive right to choose their own party leader. The regular revolt of the Australian MPs against their own leaders would seem to offer some proof of his thesis. Except that a better description than “caucus revolt” would simply be regicide. The new leader is as all-powerful instantly as her predecessor. There is little evidence that backbench dissidence, or parliamentary independence, is any more tolerated in their system than in ours.

Jean Chrétien simply announced to the House, with only limited debate days later, in each case, that Canada would contribute to the Afghanistan campaign, but not to the Iraq war. It was the Harper government that set the first serious Commons debate on Afghanistan — years after the Liberal executive decision.

In any event, all of Canada’s political parties have persuaded themselves that a one-person, one-vote selection process is by definition the only democratic way to choose a modern leader. That those systems are demonstrably as open to leadership abuse as a delegated convention or a caucus-only electorate is a different debate for another time.

As a young backroom political oligarch, and as national director of the NDP under Ed Broadbent, I had absolutely no incentive to reward dissidence, and there was always immediate benefit in my being seen to have stomped on it. Voters indicate there are few things that irritate them more than intraparty feuding, election after election. One person’s brave iconoclastic MP, fighting for principle against power, is merely most voters’ proof of weak party leadership. More than any other factor, this determination to present one bright, united, smiling political face to the nation is every leader’s stinging whip.

Political parties are not soon going to change, let alone wither. The ability of money and technology to further insulate party leaders from attack will increase, and it seems unlikely that, without serious changes in attitude and behaviour on the part of MPs, the decline in Canadian interest in political participation will be arrested any time soon.

There are a variety of tweaks and reforms that together could make a significant difference in the balance of power. They might even increase Canadian voter investment in political choice. None will return our Parliament to its 19th century status. But much in the long list of measures suggested by a series of Canadian academics, party professionals and retired politicians is worth trying.

Tom Axworthy, at Queen’s in 2008, produced a masterful history and reform agenda, Everything Old Is New Again. In 2001, NDP MP Bill Blaikie led a parliamentary reform inquiry that delivered a thoughtful set of proposed changes. The Parliamentary Centre issued an impressive report on parties and Parliament in 2007. Former Tory minister Michael Chong has offered creative suggestions on how to make Question Period more meaningful. MP Carolyn Bennett has done pioneering work on the use of technology to empower citizens and Parliament. The UK Parliament has fostered at least one parliamentary reform exercise in every recent decade, and has actually implemented some dramatic changes to the House of Lords and local democracy.

The theme that runs through all of these studies is the importance of improving the visibility, relevance and professional competence of parliaments: stronger, more professional parliamentary committees; parliaments and committees that travel outside the capital; more independent votes in the House and freedom for MPs to champion their own agendas outside the House; restrictions on government use of confidence votes; more expert staff and more independence in the choice of officers for the House and its committees; and more ministerial accountability to the House are among the dozens of worthy changes proposed.

None will by themselves block the erosion of parliamentary power. That requires alternative centres of authority, money and influence; institutions and public figures willing to make common cause with parliamentary allies; and a change in priorities by MPs themselves. It requires developing Parliament’s ability to reach out to voters without the intermediary of the media or message editing by the leaders’ offices. Most crucially it means parliamentarians leading a dialogue with voters on issues they are genuinely concerned about.

To even a well-informed Canadian today, their elected representatives are mostly invisible, lack relevance to their lives and therefore have little authority or authenticity as leaders.

If they can’t hear you or see you, you don’t have influence in voters’ lives. Coup leaders seize television stations before parliaments for a reason. Technology has finally broken the barriers to public access imposed by our geography. Parliamentarians could make powerful use of this upheaval.

A Commons committee today could take live testimony from Nanaimo and New Waterford simultaneously. A committee hearing could be easily available in schools, offices and living rooms for little more than the cost of Internet access. A digest of video clips on websites, in social media and in email messages from members to their constituents could be distributed equally cheaply. The Obama administration has issued a series of “policy challenge” contests, with great success in popular online feedback. To those who would snicker at the audience for such a diet of hard-core politics and policy, one need only point to the success of C-SPAN and CPAC on TV and POTUS radio. American Senate committees currently stream their hearings in live video, albeit often in a static, one-camera monotony.

There is no reason why parliamentary television and new media production teams could not create far higher impact selections of major debates and committee hearings. Some would complain about the political theatre this would foster; they are the same tradition-over-relevance crowd who objected first to radio and then to television broadcasts of Parliament.

Much of political life is theatre. The passion and power of that performance is sucked out of politics by the eight-second sound bite — usually surrounded by snide media commentary — that is most Canadians’ window on politics. The Lincoln/Douglas debates, the 1832 Reform Act battles and even our own flag debate were hugely entertaining, riveting collisions between highly professional performers. Why do we see entertaining, compelling parliamentary debate as merely a relic of another time?

If these new media vehicles and new distribution channels produce more effective appeals to political passion as well as policy reason — hallelujah! John Baird, recently named government House leader, is a powerful parliamentary performer, usually constrained to the one-line smart-aleck rituals of Question Period. Imagine a serious debate between Baird and Jack Layton on Afghanistan; or Bob Rae and Harper on crime and new prisons; or a professional interrogation of a committee witness, supported by expert research, led by a legal pro like Irwin Cotler. Increased visibility would mean MPs improving their game or being laughed at.

In our world of five-second scrum insults, the locker room bullies whom each caucus presents as its face on national television thrive. A lazy media elevates their status as sources of easy, good quotes. In a political world where powerful argument and compelling oratory got the space to excite, those shallow stuntmen would be returned to their well-earned perches on the margins of politics.

Today, gaining attention as a politician depends on winning a slice of scarce television news time or increasingly limited print coverage. MPs win by highlighting conflict, dumbing down nuance and pushing caricature over content. Building opportunities for MPs to speak for five minutes directly to constituents would produce a higher level of debate, a more reasoned discourse. Politicians capable of this more demanding, more persuasive rhetoric could begin to challenge the monotony of our current politics. In the life of one Parliament, we would see new performers with new perspectives gaining an audience — at the expense of the vulgar smart alecks.

Few politicians have the ability to research and develop, let alone powerfully defend, new ideas. Fewer still are comfortable challenging established orthodoxy, without assistance from some centre capable of providing political support. Until the post-war era those external political bases included partisan media, the church, unions and rich patrons. Few have much political influence or interest today.

First the European centre left and more recently the American right have pointed one way to alternative bastions of political support and policy innovations. German and Scandinavian political foundations are internationally famous for their work on democratic development in the Third World. Domestically, however, they are the centres of serious policy debate. The German Stiftungs churn out thousands of pages of serious political debates, hundreds of hours of conference and seminars, and public intellectuals who help drive and define political debate. They backstop the party leadership’s intellectual claims, but they also provide support to backbench politicians championing new ideas.

The American version of this process is the array of partisan think tanks now part of political life in Washington and many state capitals. The Heritage Foundation famously provided support for the policy innovation of the Reagan administration. The Center for American Progress is attempting to play the same role with Obama’s leading policy-makers. They too provide support to individual members of Congress and their causes.

Canada has neither policy foundations aligned with our parties nor a very robust spectrum of think tanks. The C.D. Howe Institute, the Fraser Institute, the Institute for Research on Public Policy and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives attempt to play similar roles but are seriously underfunded and of limited influence at the centre of the political parties. Among the reforms to political party funding that would indirectly raise the profile of parliamentarians would be a requirement that parties devote a small portion of their taxpayer largesse to policy development.

One parliamentary reform of the recent past that has far greater potential than so far demonstrated is the growth in days of parliamentary debate under the control of the opposition parties. They are used for the typical silly brinksmanship of a minority Parliament, or the scandal du jour, but they rarely get attention. Consider the impact of such a debate scheduled well in advance with a topic chosen for its relevance to a target audience, with the galleries packed with invited guests — some with expertise on the day’s subject — and streamed on the Net, with social media coverage by supporters using clips of live video from the proceedings. Imagine how different the impact of the unemployment insurance debates might have been with laid-off workers in the galleries, policy experts available for media scrums and a careful alignment of messages, speakers and local examples, all being promoted to thousands of voters directly online and through social networks.

A debilitating and hidden drain on individual MPs’ and therefore Parliament’s collective effectiveness is the never-ending growth in constituency casework. Some members have an assembly-line approach to the endless wave of visa, pension and EI problems that flood in daily, and sequester staff and their own time for other political tasks. For many others it occupies far too much of assistants’ and their own time.

As anyone with experience at the intake end of any social agency can testify, the flood of new cases is relentless, expanding to occupy any available space. The combination of weekend travel to the riding, dozens of must-do events there and in Ottawa, and thousands of constituency cases leaves many MPs with snatched hours with family and time for little else.

As useful as it may be to have one’s MP call a government department and shout at them over a transgression, there are few occasions when there are not several other intermediaries who could perform the same function admirably. In the 1960s, when no caucus or opposition leader had staff and MPs shared a part-time secretary, today’s mania for casework was unthinkable. As valuable as it has been to give backbenchers and opposition members greater resources, devoting most of them to the constituent who can complain the loudest does little to connect members or the caucus to the real world of their ridings.

Technology today permits an MP to hold a live videoconference with constituents, or to grant his or her voters an opportunity to hold a personal question and answer session with the member, the leader or groups of caucus colleagues.

The PMO conducts millions of dollars of ongoing research into public attitudes, reaction to policy initiatives and looming problems. The software to support running online research panels for MPs, made up of self-selected or invited voters, is now cheap and powerful. Such a permanent audit of the political concerns of Canadians would be a powerful tool for MPs committed to reading voters’ concerns and demanding governments pay attention.

Among the reforms to political party funding that would indirectly raise the profile of parliamentarians would be a requirement that parties devote a small portion of their taxpayer largesse to policy development.

The speed at which technology creates new personalized message delivery and feedback mechanisms is staggering, yielding a richness of data about local voter interests and concerns that would have been inconceivable even five years ago. That MPs are still squabbling about who can send what insulting printed brochures to each other’s constituencies — the infamous 10 percenters — would be almost laughable, if it were not so sad.

Don Tapscott, Canada’s contribution to the small world of global tech gurus, has written and spoken about the need to bring the practice of politics and government out of its “I speak, you listen” structure. He points out in his latest book, Global Wikinomics, that the collapse in political participation by the young should not be confused with social disengagement. The digital generation he helped make famous is deeply committed to societal change — its members simply reject traditional politics as an effective means of delivering it. He argues that powerful collaborative decision-making software — some of the world’s best is developed in Canada — needs to be added to the toolkit of parliamentary democracy.

The core challenge of parliamentary and political reform is to ensure that this digitally empowered generation does not become completely alienated by the anachronistic rituals of traditional representative democracy. A truly modern horror is the prospect of 21st-century technocracies, states girded by powerful and invasive technology control systems, made more efficient by the elimination of “pointless democratic debate.” It seems bizarre to contemplate today how important claims of technological efficiency and alienation from “bourgeois parliamentarianism” were to the appeal of both fascism and Leninism. Weimar parliamentarians would have some strong words for those who believe there is little risk in having the House of Commons held up to daily media derision.

Political elites lose their legitimacy first and fastest when they don’t listen. A parliament tone deaf to the irrelevance it holds in the lives of most of its constituents is on a path to oblivion. Parliamentarians cannot complain about their power and profile while remaining unconcerned about the contempt in which their work is held by many voters.

American presidents have for some time reached over the heads of the Washington media to speak directly to voters. The Harper government has developed the same outreach with even greater discipline. There are no obstacles to MPs achieving the same direct connection with voters using similar techniques.

Canada has never had a parliament as powerful as Westminster in its prime. From Sir John A. on, prime ministers forced a fusion of legislative and executive power in our governance system. Reformers, editorialists and MPs fudge that reality in making a case for greater accountability. Many often claim that without vastly greater parliamentary budgets, little is possible anyway.

Yet Parliament spends nearly $1 billion annually on its operations. It is currently spending another half a billion on renovation and expansion. One percent of those budgets directed to strengthening committee staffs and hearing budgets and were adding basic videoconferencing and broadcast facilities could be transformative.

The most successful MPs have strong relationships with, and are active listeners to, their own constituents. Sadly, that does little for the reputation of Parliament as an institution. Those voters whose MP has fixed a passport problem will be grateful to that member, briefly.

Parliament needs to be seen as accessible to Canadians, to be a better listener on issues that Canadians care about. To regain some of its relevance, Parliament needs a face in Canadian communities.

Until Canadians believe again that Parliament is their champion, that citizens’ voices resonate on the Hill, it is hard to see what will stop its long, slow slide into irrelevance.


Photo: Shutterstock

Robin V. Sears
Robin V. Sears is a principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group and was an NDP strategist for 20 years.

Vous pouvez reproduire cet article d’Options politiques en ligne ou dans un périodique imprimé, sous licence Creative Commons Attribution.

Creative Commons License