Thursday, February 07, 2013

Dubious history watch: Samara on Canadian democracy

Same as the old boss

The Samara Foundation, with a ton of money, some tony off-Yorkville premises in Toronto, and an admirable commitment to saving democracy in Canada, continues to deliver reports that combine masses of original data with ... well, with bland pap and determined avoidance of serious issues.

The latest, Lost in Translation (downloadable here) ingeniously measures the degree to which the concerns of the House of Commons match the concerns of Canadians, at least as expressed in polling data.  (Judging by the new quantitative data every Samara report has, the foundation must be funding half the political scientists in the country.) The work of the House fails Canadians, Samara declares, and it is
not because the House debate is often confrontational, but rather because it is without real weight. On this point, a former party leader observed in a public speech, “it’s a kind of empty, pointless debating chamber because it’s all stitched up in advance by party leaders.”
This provokes the serious question: 
How can the House of Commons be better designed such that individual MPs are free to
raise and debate issues?  ... How then can the voice of the MP be enhanced?
Abruptly, having identified the question, the report turns to mush. It raises three options for enhancing the role of MPs and caucus. But none of them concerns the accountability of leaders to caucus ... which is the only issue that matters. Samara seems, indeed, to have accepted in advance that leaders cannot be accountable to caucus; that it must always be the other way round.

Exactly the same will to turn away the moment the vital question is raised is evident in this recent Maclean's editorial.  Maclean's sees the problem more clearly than Samara: when caucus does not hire and fire party leaders, party leaders are unaccountable:
The fact is that democracy is not only a limited good, but adding more of it at one point in the political cycle can mean less of it somewhere else. This ought to be clear from Canadian history: when the authority of party leaders was given to conventions in the first place, it put the leader’s power on a footing independent of the consent of his elected caucus, and as a result our party leaders are much less accountable from week to week and month to month than their analogues in the U.K. This has led to the evolution, within our system, of presidential-style prime minister’s and premier’s offices full of very powerful unelected personnel. 
It's too bad that Maclean's thinks the comparison is with the UK, rather than with every other parliamentary democracy in the history of the world. But it does state what the issue is: the lack of accountability of Canadian leaders to elected representatives -- a situation inherent in the mass-party control over leadership selection -- is what prevents parliament from representing its constituents.

But somehow the rest of the editorial is a defence of delegated conventions (like the recent Ontario one that made Kathleen Wynne premier) over the now more common one-member-one-vote process -- even though the two are identical in the resulting independence of leaders from caucus control, and the resulting impotence of the elected members of our parliaments.

The more our politicians, intellectuals, and commentators know what the problem is, it seems, the more desperately we avoid considering the only possible solution.

Follow @CmedMoore