Now that British Columbia voters have given proportional representation another referendum defeat, what’s next for democratic reform in Canada?

The promise of proportional representation is elections that work better – once every four years. But tinkering with the voting process will not solve the Canadian accountability problem. What Canada urgently needs is democratic accountability every day, between elections, in our legislatures.

How would that work? Most Canadians see a self-inflicted catastrophe in Britain’s Brexit debate. But the Brexit battle in Westminster’s House of Commons is lively and consequential every single day. Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative party backbenchers consistently hold her to account. They debate her leadership with impunity. They demand she listen and conciliate them. And they vote against her Brexit bills, frequently and in large numbers. Across the aisle, opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, a Leave believer, many of whose backbenchers support Remain, faces similar challenges in his Labour caucus.

These lively, independent backbenchers are clearly not Canadian MPs (or MPPs, MLAs and MNAs in the provincial legislatures). When they hold their leaders to account, they don’t get kicked out of the party. They speak and vote – inside the party caucus and, if not satisfied there, in Parliament, too – for what they believe their country and their constituents need. Some days they get what they demand. If not, they stay on to fight another day.

Photo by The Canadian Press/ PA Photos Limited

If Britain’s Parliament were to work like Canada’s, UK Prime Minister May and a claque of unelected advisors would have decided on Leave or Remain long ago. The MPs on the backbenches would have nothing to do but cheer mindlessly for the boss. Brexit has been a mess, but nobody calls British MPs nobodies. Every day they can end a leader’s tenure or change their party’s policy on questions large or small.

Canada’s parliaments and legislatures can work this way.

In parliamentary democracies all over the world, blocs of MPs routinely debate with the boss, vote independently, and, when necessary, wield the final say on making policy and determining party leadership. They constantly hold leaders and governments accountable.

In Japan, one party has ruled almost continuously since 1955, but Japanese prime ministers come and go rapidly, removed by their caucus the moment they show weakness or misjudge a policy choice. In Australia, prime ministers rarely survive caucus scrutiny long enough to fight a second election. The British example has been before our eyes daily.

It is much the same in other parliaments all over the world. In Germany, Japan, Italy and Ireland, failed leaders don’t choose their departure date or linger until some distant leadership review. When they or their policies fail to survive parliamentary accountability, MPs can review and replace a leader in a few days, while Canadian party leadership struggles can take years and sometimes millions of dollars.

Most of the world’s parliamentary nations – whether they use the First-Past-the-Post electoral system or some variant of proportional representation – have that culture of constant accountability.

Most of the world’s parliamentary nations – whether they use the First-Past-the-Post electoral system or some variant of proportional representation – have that culture of constant accountability. Citizens elect representatives to assess and determine policies and leaders. MPs choose leaders likely to carry out those policies, and they either force change or remove those who fail. Party discipline remains fundamental, but in most parliamentary countries, discipline is exercised by the caucus as a whole, and applies to the leader as to any other caucus member.

A century ago, Canada turned its back on that kind of parliamentary accountability. It seemed democratic then to shift the power of leadership selection from a handful of MPs to large numbers of ordinary party members. But democracy is about accountability as well as how many people vote. In Canadian political parties, accountability died as mass voting rose. When our MPs surrendered the power to control their leaders, they also allowed the boss to govern single-handedly.

Canadians often join political parties by buying a membership in order to vote in a party leadership contest. When the race is over, neither they nor their MPs have much control over what the new leader will do. Party members get to donate money and pound election signs into lawns. MPs get to say “aye” and give the boss standing ovations. But policy is mostly made by consultants in the leaders’ offices.

Today, Canadian leadership-selection traditions mean that a parliamentary system intended to keep governments under constant scrutiny has become one where prime ministers and premiers have no accountability for years at a time. We have built a political culture that sees party leaders as weak if they cannot wield absolute power over “their” caucus, one that demands MPs who speak their minds be fired from their parties. That culture is almost unique in the parliamentary world, but not something to boast about.

Proportional representation, offered in one referendum after another as the key to our democratic deficit, does not address the Canadian accountability crisis. Proportional representation is proportional for parties, not for citizens, and mostly it gives parties more power, not less, over MPs. Switching to proportional representation might produce more minority governments, but as long the Canadian culture of leadership autocracy endures, accountability ends the moment two minority party leaders strike a backroom support deal.

It is a change in parliamentary culture, not tinkering with voting systems, that Canada needs most. No constitutional or legislative change was required when MPs began yielding their right to determine party leadership 100 years ago, and none would be needed for them to reassert their authority. There are details in the Elections Act and elsewhere that give specific powers to party leaders, but these would not handcuff an alert caucus ready to confront – and, if necessary, threaten to replace – a leader who attempted to abuse those powers to silence or intimidate members of the caucus.

Canadians need to agree that vote-buying and vote-selling is always corrupt, even in party leadership races that depend on selling party memberships by the thousands. We need to reject pundits who tell us unaccountable leadership is the nature of parliamentary democracy and who see rebellion, disloyalty, and weak leadership when backbenchers dissent. Above all, we can teach the representatives we elect, federal and provincial, that their job as parliamentarians is to represent all Canadians, not their leaders. First, we have to start saying so.

Photo: Shutterstock by Roy Harris

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Christopher Moore
Christopher Moore is a historian in Toronto and the author of 1867: How The Fathers Made a Deal and other works on the constitutional history of Canada.

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