Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Handyman's Guide to Parliament

I look at the little sidebar of blog links, ranked by recentness of posts. I'm not doing poorly, on Pinky's list I'm second from the top – higher by the time you read this. I notice, however, with some dismay that my last, most incredibly meager post was “1 week” ago.

Hold that thought!

The elation of an Obama victory seems like so much more than a week ago...probably because blogger doesn't count very well, and in 24 hours it will have been two weeks. Maybe I'm right to be dismayed at how long it has been since I felt I had anything to say, or anything I could say with any degree of eloquence. Regardless, I was going to say that it was likely the trepidation with which pundits have treated the prospect of an Obama administration, and the reasons for which they have done so (it's the economy, stupid!...but also the potential disparity between what people think Obama can be and what he is or will become) which have made it seem so long, but really it *has* been about twice as long as blogger had me thinking it was, and maybe it does feel like two weeks since then. Damn, I was sure I was onto something.

Losing track of how much time has passed between the two North American federal elections and now is certainly on track with another point I want to make, though: post-election apathy, and what I think we ought to do about it. I'm not certain if apathy is the right word, though. I find myself embroiled in political debates aplenty within our Halifax household, but what we tend to discuss are the major failings of political parties and systems within Canada, and not the state of politics such as they will be practiced under yet another minority Conservative government (admittedly, “not very differently than before” probably sums up that debate in a nutshell). We don't really care about the particulars of Parliament (or at least we don't talk about them) because now that the votes are counted, there isn't much else for us to say. It speaks to the failure of the system that there was a better party in the Kings Wardroom pub for the US election than for its Canadian counterpart. Granted, the kind of power wielded by the US President is far greater than that of our PM, thereby making the election of the former an inherently more interesting event, but as citizens of Canada we should still celebrate and watch our elections. Toasting Obama is very well and good, but as those of us without dual US-Canadian citizenship took essentially no part in his election, we need to remember to rejoice in our enfranchisement here, where we could conceivably vote for change if anyone running for office in this country represented it...ever.

Just exactly what form a solution to this problem of uninteresting elections would take has been the subject of much discussion within our household. The two American citizens – Patrick and Etarran* - have speculated about the value of an elected head of state, even one without administrative power, one who is deeply connected to Canada in particular. Personally, I would love to see an elected head of state as a counterbalance to the ludicrously powerful Prime Minister. If the PMO is to retain its incredible authority, I think the Prime Minister should become an elected position, regardless of whether or not we retain the Queen/Governor General as official head of state. In fact, I think this is my preferred solution. While an elected head of state can champion causes in the way the Queen most certainly cannot, I think the neutrality of the state is something which the Canadian political system gets right, and I wouldn't like to see it change. The mechanics of integrating an elected PM into the present system would be difficult to say the least: would he or she sit with the ruling party? His or her party? No party at all? Off the top of my head, I can imagine a party-less Prime minister concocting a cabinet from members of all parties, in numbers and power roughly equivalent to their share of the seats in the House of Commons, or even according to their share of the popular vote. For this to work, the relative power of each cabinet position would have to be calculated and arbitrary values assigned, or each portfolio could be rebalanced to carry equal weight, or co-ministers could be assigned to the most important positions (perhaps all parties would have one member assigned to finance). This goes, of course, above and beyond what's necessary. The PM-elect could simply form a cabinet by selecting members of the ruling party. Perhaps that would be the rule in majority parliament, but in a country which has shown itself on three consecutive occasions to be wary of a single party having a chokehold on the legislative process, I think that some concessions to quad-partisanship(?) are overdue. Some readers may be giving the thought of Bloc Quebecois MPs sitting in cabinet the good old *facepalm*, but I feel that granting them seats in Cabinet would be a symbiotic relationship. Besides separatism, the Bloc's stated agenda is to safeguard the interests of Quebec in Parliament, and by including them in a multi-partisan Cabinet structure, we would integrate the kind of special treatment that Quebec would demand anyway right into the system from the beginning.

Of course, this is only scratching the surface. I think if we are to retain the Queen/Governor General as our head-of-state combo, we need to look at the value we are getting for our money. I think that with the PM all but providing a face for the country internally, we should think about canning the GG such as it exists and replacing it with a possibly elected master ambassador-type position, someone who we expect to do more than just look nice and get called gorgeous names by the French Press (I am a fan of “Almost-Queen”, what can I say?). Perhaps the GG's duties could be split into two separate offices, one to fulfill the ceremonial duties of the Queen on the home front, and the other to spend as much time as possible promoting Canadian interests and culture abroad?

When the talk in our house turns to Canadian politics, there is inevitably a mention of electoral reform (ok, so I'm always the one to make it, so what?). My views on the subject have been made clear in the past, and challenged on the grounds that getting rid of first-past-the-post in favour of any other system isn't really a very good position. Admittedly, I think that having an elected PM by national popular vote would ameliorate at least some of the problems we have with our system now, but it's no solution. The Green Party with 8% support still has no seats, the NDP still have too few seats, and the Bloc Quebecois still have too many, as do generally the Liberals and Conservatives.

In our house debates, Etarran has brought up the the idea of a unified Left/Liberal party, presumably as an alternative to the sort of wildly divided legislature that, say, MMP would result in. To this I respond as Ralph Nader is wont to do when accused of splitting the left in the US: “What's so noble about voting for the lesser of two evils?”. I'm paraphrasing and dramatizing somewhat, but I think it's a valid point. We vote for who we want to see in government, and if the people of Canada end up divided into a plurality of political camps (as we do), then we should have a government that reflects such a plurality of ideals. The Liberals try every election to tell the NDP that because they can't win, they should vote for Liberal candidates instead to stave off a Conservative government. Problem is, the Liberals won't offer to represent anything closer to an NDP agenda if they get that support. If the NDP supporters vote Liberal, there is no reason to believe that the Liberals would not act as though the entire country had just opted back into their vision of governing Canada for the sake of governing Canada, with nary a token word even paid to the cause of social justice. I would not support the Green Party if I did not think they had the right answer. I might change my stance on electoral reform if a centre-left party with ecologically sensitive leanings could be formed, but such a thing could not arise from the NDP and Greens merging into the self-serving ranks of the Liberal party. I think that it would have to be built on common ground, and attract members from each party without surrendering to the overarching goals of any one of the preexisting contributor parties. But as long as we continue to live with many parties under an electoral system meant for two, I will not waver in my support of electoral reform in Canada.

At the end of all this, however, I am faced with the possibility that for all these potential changes, Canadian politics might not get any sexier were they implemented. I mean, I guess we could finally elect Jack Layton's 'stache to the Prime Ministerial position it deserves without the kind of ideological shift toward the NDP such an achievement would presently entail, and electoral/party reform might even begin to solve some of the problems we're having with poor voter turnout. That said, a fair system isn't any guarantee that people will pay attention. It may be that adopting a more continental-European, or even American-style presidential position/system, and creating a non-neutral head of state, free to challenge and inspire our people into caring again might be the only real way to turn heads and crack down on voter apathy. Perhaps we shall have to sacrifice a part of the neutrality of the state in order to save it? I'm not entirely convinced, but it's something to think about...

...and if that fails, we go Australia on the idiots'** asses, and make voting mandatory.

    *Etarran is also a Canadian citizen, FYI

    **In the original sense of the Greek, where it referred pejoratively to those who did not participate in city politics, “private people”.

Next Up: Run Lola Run, and how I think it applies to life, existentialism, and videogames.



Dr. Ivan Hood said...

I'm too busy being a doctor to understand politics. Though I wish I did.

Anonymous said...

I almost go the other way. We shouldn't be encouraging people to vote at all since most people have no real idea about what issues they are voting about. Everyone is just too involved in their own little corner of the world to see, or even to have time to look at the bigger picture...

I think that democracy was a good stop-gap, but now it's time to do it right: Make politics like the draft or jury duty. Your number comes up and you head off the Ottawa for your 4 years. Do the best you can and do things the way you think they should be done. I suppose you'd have to come up with a way to keep the entrenched bureaucracy from colouring your rather green MP's too much though.

In my opinion the biggest problem with modern politics is that it tends to attract the power hungry which are not the people you really want running the show. "Truly great leaders do not seek power, they have power thrust upon them."

Loud said...

I've certainly considered such a pseudo-direct-democratic approach, Anonymous, but what gets me every time is that in order to be fair, it would have to be somewhat self-defeating. Here's what I mean: suppose you leave the selection of your representatives up to random chance. Maybe you get a sort of socialist majority one term, and hardline conservatives the next? You want your legislature to reflect not necessarily the political opinions of the imperfectly informed masses, but the spirit of their moral opinions. You can hardly sort people by self-described political affiliation, and then fill the legislature by relative percentage of people who adhere to whichever political philosophy, because 1) two people may have different definitions of "liberal" (small-l intentional) or "conservative" or "green" or "libertarian" and so on, so in a great sense organizing people by what they call themselves has only vague meaning, and 2) because then the outcome of government is pretty much set, as I'm not sure we don't have much of a swing vote here in Canada.

Implementing true direct democracy (via, say, the internet) brings back the problem of voter informedness. Also, direct democratic principles allow people to do things like lower and freeze rates of taxation (which sounds great, right?), as has happened in California. That in itself isn't bad, but it takes just a little populism and bam, Canada's hospitals become critically underfunded.

One of the most critical problems with how most contemporary political systems work is that no one is playing the long game, so to speak. Elected officials have to worry about getting their seats back in 3-5 years, and direct democracy or the jury-duty democracy you propose are staffed by people who will by and large be focused on day-to-day challenges. Someone has to be there to look at the consequences of our actions not within 5 years, but maybe as far out as 500 (ok, hyperbole). Seven generations, and all that. This isn't just about the environment and climate change, but economics, societal forces, and even space exploration and colonization. Enterprises which don't provide immediate benefits need someone to champion them.

As for whether or not great leaders desire power, I think it's a double-edged sword. I think you'd be right to say "truly great leaders do not desire power for its own sake ". I think a leader needs to have a compelling vision for the future, that is to say he or she should desire power, but know above all why he or she wants it, and how he or she would use it.

speaking of "he or she", the one great benefit to your jury-duty democracy is that gender balance while not necessarily mandated would on the balance come out even, all things being properly random.

Simon said...

"We shouldn't be encouraging people to vote at all since most people have no real idea about what issues they are voting about"

Couldn't we say the same thing about the politicians themselves? *zing!*

Also: we shouldn't encourage ordinary people to vote since they don't know enough about the issues, but we should give them the power to run the country?

"truly great leaders do not desire power for its own sake"

On a only marginally related note. I think there is an over-emphasis on greatness. I think that, at least in a working system, it is more important for the leader to safeguard the rights and prospects of Canada's citizens then institute drastic changes which we consider necessary for greatness.

Congratulations on the presumably unknown commenter Ph... loud (have to protect your identity now). Your journey to internet supremacy is off to a good start.

- Simon (who is perfectly comfortable giving his real name)

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