Friday, June 05, 2009

Back to Reviewing the Leader

Denis Smith sticks to his point:
Yes, British Conservative MPs showed they could do it when they removed Margaret Thatcher in 1989, and Labour MPs may do it in the next few days. But the Canadian House of Commons is a different place, where backbenchers show their deference to leaders whatever follies the leaders commit. For us, I think the question still stands: how do we get there from here?
Seems to me this is one of those "click" situations, get it/don't get it. Canadians don't get it.

Canadian MPs see themselves as accountable to the leader, rather than the other way round, not because they are uniquely cowardly or unambitious or masochistic or even stupid. Getting to be an MP is no easy business, and most of the ones I have met are assertive, ambitious men and women, and at least cunning if not brilliant. But they listen, they imbibe what the culture tells them. And the Canadian political culture is devoted to insisting that MPs have to be -- it's their duty to be, it's the nature of the parliamentary system that they just are -- simply so many tally sticks for the leaders to toss in whenever a vote comes up.

It's nonsense. Not only in Britain, but in Japan, and Ireland, and India, and Australia, and fifty other countries where the parliamentary system thrives, the foundational rule is that the government is accountable to the legislature because the leaders are accountable to the caucuses. Around the world, sitting prime ministers and opposition leaders alike are removed from office by their own caucuses as a matter of routine. (Years ago, I provided a long list of examples here, and there have been many more since.) Practically every parliamentary country in the world understands you cannot have a successful parliamentary system on any other basis.

Why is parliamentary culture here so out of step with generally understood principles and practices of parliamentary government? Mostly because we keep telling ourselves that what we currently do is the norm and there are no alternatives. Every political scientist in the country will tell you it is the nature of Westminster systems that prime ministers hold semi-dictatorial powers and MPs must do what the party leaders dictate. Every political analyst agrees there is no greater failing than a leader who cannot wield absolute discipline on even the most trivial matters. Every commentator declares that our national problem is a lack of "leadership."

Our MPs (and MPPs and MLA -- if anything, the situation is worse in the provincial legislatures than in Ottawa) fail to fulfil their constitutional obligation to hold leaders and governments accountable quite simply because we all tell them, endlessly and in all media, that it would be wrong and evil and probably illegal for them to do otherwise.

So how do we get from here to there? I would guess Canadian legislators will change their behaviour the moment someone they will listen to tells them not just that they are allowed to, but that they have a duty to. It will seem crazy and heretical for a moment. Then it will become a landslide.

A technical note: yesterday I cited the "rules" the British Labour Party proposes for reviewing a leader. Canadian parties have these kinds of rules too. In a nutshell, Canadian party rules claim to transfer authority over leadership from elected MPs to anyone who has purchased a vote in a party contest.

It is important to be clear about this: MPs, as the elected representatives of the Canadian people, have constitutional standing and constitutional responsibilities. The 308 men and women who compose the House of Commons have an absolute constitutional right and duty to hold governments accountable, and they betray that duty when they delegate that authority to any self-selected extra-parliamentary organization (e.g., the Liberal Party, the Conservative Party, etc). The thousands of men and women who have purchased memberships in these organizations can meet however they like and elect anyone they choose to positions within their own organizations. But constitutionally the power of leadership in the House of Commons rests exclusively with the men and women the Canadian people elect to the House of Commons. Canadian MPs have all the powers they require right now to hold governments and leaders accountable. All we have to do is stop telling they do not.

Update: Come to think of it, I have a modest suggestion. If you agree with some or all of this, why not forward a link to this post to Paul Wells, or Andrew Coyne, or whoever your favourite journalist or commentator is? Maybe your MP too. 99 chances out of a hundred they will find the whole argument crazy and heretical... but what's the harm?
Follow @CmedMoore