Friday, July 23, 2010

Helena Guergis and parliament

Helena Guergis's theory -- that she ought to get her cabinet seat back because an RCMP inquiry found no grounds for prosecution in her dealings with her husband's various enterprises, his dodgy developer friends, and various other imbroglios -- is not persuasive. Cabinet seat requirements should run quite a bit higher than "not actually convicted of anything."

But it's worth reviewing how our parliamentary democracy functioned in this situation. Helena Guergis got involved in a series of actions which embarrassed or annoyed the government. Let's run a parliamentary audit on what happened next:

  • The prime minister dismissed her from cabinet.  This is probably acceptable from a parliamentary democracy point-of-view. Many parliamentary democracies use a collective responsibility theory of cabinet; that is, the whole cabinet wields final authority over who is in and who is out. In some countries, accountability is to caucus -- it is the parliamentary caucus that chooses cabinet ministers, and the prime minister only gets to assign them their specific posts.  But in a strong-leader culture, one can see grounds for allowing a party leader to have substantial influence over who forms his executive team.  Threat to accountability: low.
  • The prime minister dismissed her from caucus. The implication is that all caucus members are accountable to the party leader, and not vice versa. Now, democracy requires accountability, and parliamentary democracy requires that the executive be accountable, minute by minute, to the majority of the people's elected representatives. In a situation of political party structures, that has to mean that the executive drawn from the governing party must be responsible to the party caucus. The prime minister and cabinet ministers must be members of the caucus -- and accountable to it.(This is routine in practically every parliamentary democracy in the world, but largely an extinct concept in Canada.) For parliamentary government to maintain accountability, parliamentary caucuses must maintain control over their membership. If the caucus finds Ms. Geurgis unacceptable as a member, that's one thing. For the prime minister unilaterally to declare her expulsion, that's quite another. Threat to accountability: high.
  • The prime minister declared she will not be allowed to run again as a party candidate. In 1974 Leonard Jones, the Mayor of Moncton, NB, and a staunch opponent of the Official Languages Act and all things French and Acadian, won the Progressive Conservative nomination for the federal election of that year.  Pressed to take a stand, PC party leader Robert Stanfield employed a proviso in the party rules and refused to sign Jones's nomination papers. Denied the PC nomination, Jones ran and was elected as an independent, but Stanfield's demonstration that all party candidates require their leader's approval quickly became enshrined not only in practice but in law. In a break with the understanding that political parties should be unofficial organizations with no constitutional standing, the authority of party leaders to bestow or deny candidate status on anyone was soon written into the Elections Act. Once again, without debate and without reflection, Canada inverted accountability rules to affirm that MPs are the servants of the party leader, rather than vice versa. The party, the party membership, the constituency organization in Simcoe -- all became simply extensions of the party leader's inclinations.  Threat to accountability: substantial. 
It's an amazing double-think we maintain in our politics. On one hand, everyone decries "the friendly dictatorship," the excess power of the prime minister, and "who do you know in the PMO?" as the sole criteria for political success or for advancing policy objectives. On the other, no one ever pays attention to the practical workings of the machinery by which the prime minister (and other party leaders) are sustained in their unaccountable, anti-democratic authoritarianism.

Out of cabinet, sure. Out of caucus, should be subject to caucus vote. Out of the nomination, should be up to the constituency association.

(Photo: Globe&Mail)
Follow @CmedMoore