10 October 2007

Proportional representation ... it's a start

Fair Vote Canada's slogan is "make every vote count." Considering that democracy means political equality, ensuring that every citizen's vote counts the same as every other's is indeed essential to democracy. That is obviously not the case under our current first-past-the-post voting system. And that of course is why we must adopt proportionality. But is that enough?

If our goal is to have fair representation in our legislatures, it is, but if our goal is to have fair representation in our governance, it isn't. Governing would remain the prerogative of the ruling party or parties. Legislators in the opposition benches would still be shut out of the process. Our votes under proportional representation would be equal, but our participation in our governance would not. And it seems to me that is the real objective. If it is, then
proportional representation is the first step, an essential step to be sure, but we have to go further. We must ensure every elected member of the legislature is involved in governing.

We might start by freeing our legislators to represent their consciences and their constituents. This would mean breaking the back of the caucus system. Caucus solidarity demands that once an issue is thrashed out in party caucus, all members of the party must vote as a bloc. Elected members owe a loyalty to their parties, simply because most people vote for the party not for the candidate, but this doesn’t justify turning them into legislative ciphers.

We might also abandon the tradition, and it is just tradition, of a government falling if defeated by a vote on a bill involving money or a matter of policy. If such a bill is defeated, the tradition insists that cabinet, chosen from the legislature, has lost the confidence of the legislature, and therefore of the people, and must resign, in accordance with the principle of responsible government. If the rule didn’t apply, members could vote freely and legislatures could provide a place of meaningful debate. Indeed, if the government were forced to come back with a revised bill, it might very well be better legislation and more in agreement with the public’s wishes.

If we are really serious about turning our legislative nobodies into somebodies we could make them, not cabinet, the source of policy and law. We could do this by instituting strong committees.

Our legislatures use committees now. The House of Commons has standing committees on everything from human resources to finance to national defence; legislative committees appointed to review bills; and special committees set up to investigate particular issues. They do a great deal of important work, however, they are ultimately subject to the whims of the executive, which is inclined to ignore any committee recommendations it frowns upon. They review bills, but they can only propose amendments, not make them, and even then only amendments that do not alter the substance of the bill. They review appointments, but they cannot veto them.

The best way to give teeth to committees would be to transfer law-making power to them. Standing committees could be responsible for initiating legislation in their areas, special committees for issues that arose outside of the regular jurisdictions. Committees could bring other appropriate government business under the rule of the legislature as well. For example, rather than having appointments made by the party in power and only reviewed by committee as is now the case, appointment committees could ensure that a host of public positions, from parole boards to governors of universities to Supreme Court judges, are filled on the basis of ability rather than patronage.

We could go even further. Committees could choose their own chairpersons, the choices to be approved by the entire legislature, and the chairpersons could then form the cabinet. Currently, the prime minister, or premier, who is chosen not by all the people but by his party, selects the cabinet, which in effect becomes the government. If cabinet ministers are to be responsible to the legislature, to the representatives of the people, they must be chosen by the legislators. The legislators could even, as they do in Germany, choose the prime minister. This prime minister would generally turn out to be the head of the main governing party, but the point is he or she would be approved by the representatives of all the people.

Legislative committees as law-making bodies would allow all parties in the legislature to participate in government and therefore allow all citizens to be represented in governing. And this, I believe, is our ultimate and proper goal.

Bringing more views into the process would result in better legislation, reduce friction, facilitate the acceptance of legislation, and create a climate more amenable to new ideas. By bringing all the political parties together, the process of creating our laws, and therefore governing ourselves, would become a much more co-operative, less adversarial, process.

These are only suggestions. The point is if we want to ensure every citizen participates equally in his or her governance, we must go beyond proportional representation. It is an essential start, but only a start.

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