Friday, June 27, 2014

Asselin on democratic reform

Aaron Wherry put me onto a position paper on democratic reform by political scientist Robert Asselin that he takes semi-seriously. It struck me as extraordinarily blinkered and ill-informed.  Later, I realized the author is an advisor to Justin Trudeau, and probably was only allowed to think thoughts that complement the Liberal leader's views on parliamentary reform (i.e., nothing that might inconvenience the leader).

Anyway, below is my reading of Asselin on parliament from when I though this was worth taking more seriously as a piece of political thought.
If you are a political scientist, can you say just anything about the history of Canadian political institutions?

The question came back to me as I browsed through a paper on democratic reform by Professor Robert Asselin, recently published by Canada2020 of Ottawa. 

Canada2020 is “a leading independent progressive think-tank” and Professor Asselin has excellent academic and political credentials. These are smart, credible, influential people. But Professor Asselin starts his discussion of democratic reform with “two important implicit determinations” that he declares the fathers of confederation made “in 1866-67.” Leave aside the odd dates he ascribes to the confederation discussions. Let's look at what he declares those determinations to have been. First:
A strong executive branch was a necessary feature of our parliamentary system, and as such would bring considerable amount of stability in our political system
I have looked at the confederation discussions and debates. I see no evidence in them that the confederation makers took steps to entrench a strong executive branch because they valued “considerable stability” (over, say, “accountability”) in our political system. Professor Asselin may believe in stability or in a strong executive, and strong executives are certainly part of current reality. (Stability? Well...) But that hardly proves these were “determined,” even “implicitly,” by the confederation makers.

The second of his historical declarations is that the confederation makers determined:
Our constitutional conventions (the non-written part of our Constitution) would be tributaries of key normative pillars of our democracy: the rule of law, constitutional monarchy, judicial independence, federalism, minority rights and parliamentary sovereignty, and as such would provide necessary checks and balances on the executive.
I am not sure what this means. Maybe “tributaries of pillars” means something in political science that ordinary speakers of English don’t know about. The things he lists are all pillars, not tributaries. Each was and is specifically entrenched in the constitution. In any case, the crucial check and balance on the executive does not arise from unwritten constitutional convention, anyway. There is a pillar of our democracy he doesn’t mention, also specifically entrenched in the constitution: responsible government.

Let me quote two actual "determinations" of the confederation makers. These are not implicit; they were Resolutions 48 and 49 of the Quebec Conference of 1864, and today they are s53 and s54 of The Constitution Act, 1982.
  • 53. Bills for appropriating any Part of the Public Revenue, or for imposing any Tax or Impost, shall originate in the House of Commons.
  • 54. It shall not be lawful for the House of Commons to adopt or pass any Vote, Resolution, Address, or Bill for the Appropriation of any Part of the Public Revenue, or of any Tax or Impost, to any Purpose that has not been first recommended to that House by Message of the Governor General in the Session in which such Vote, Resolution, Address, or Bill is proposed.
s54 says the executive alone can put before the legislature a budget or indeed any bill that involves the raising or spending of public money. And s53 establishes that only the legislature can actually provide the money. What we have here is the spending power, and the spending power gives the legislature a strength that is almost absolute. An executive cannot spend without the consent of the legislature. And an executive that cannot get the legislature’s consent really cannot do anything any more (except start all over with a general election). The executive is responsible to the legislature.

Professor Asselin imagines the founders “implicitly determining” a strong executive. What the constitution actually provides is an executive that can do what the legislature will fund it to do, and no more. The essential check and balance is not a convention at all, not even a tributary, it is baked right into the rules. The legislature has constitutional authority to withhold, or threaten to withhold (usually all that’s needed), the sinews of power from the executive at any time and thereby bring the executive to heel.

Can this happen? Used to happen all the time, actually.
  • In 1873 the Macdonald government, recently re-elected with majority support, was forced to resign because the legislature declined to go on supporting it.
  • In 1885 the Macdonald government, despite a Conservative majority, was compelled to postpone bailing out the bankrupt CPR for months because the legislature would not vote the funds.
  • In 1905 the Laurier government, despite a Liberal majority, was unable to implement its chosen policy for minority language rights in the new provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan because the legislature withheld its support.
These events occurred in the political life of many of the makers of confederation. So did the founders implicitly determine a strong executive... or an accountable one?

It is true that in Professor Asselin’s lifetime, and mine, Canadian legislatures have consistently agreed to let the executive do pretty much absolutely anything. But the fact that modern legislators have chosen not to wield their constitutional checking power does not authorize Professor Asselin to assert that the check does not exist and never did. It did; it does.

Professor Asselin believes a strong executive to have been an “implicitly determined” feature of Canadian democracy. It is not surprising that the solutions he proposes for improving oversight and accountability of the executive are pretty feeble. He recommends free votes on unimportant matters. He would like a better Question Period. He wants better-funded committees of parliament. And, dear Lord, he imagines a non-partisan Senate. (A theory: any proposal for democratic reform that depends on tinkering with the Senate is probably worthless.) 

Bigger committee budgets and Question Period improvements? Well, sure. But whatever organizational tinkering is done, the only force that will produce effective questioning or effective committee work is a legislature of MPs willing to use their constitutional authority to sway the executive. And since Professor Asselin seems unaware of the existence of the legislature’s constitutional authority to sway – indeed, to strangle – the executive, he’s unable to discuss that issue meaningfully.

To implement his reforms, he hopes for “a political culture where leadership is cultivated,” and more “statesmanship,” and “elected officials doing politics differently.” And marmalade skies, why not?

There are things to like in Professor Asselin’s proposals. He is sceptical of “empowered citizenry” proposals for more direct democracy. He calls them “populism at its worst.” He’s not much for proportional representation, preferring preferential voting so each MP elected in a constituency would have 50% support. I’m inclined to agree with him on those.

But the fundamental problem of the democratic deficit lies with the House of Commons and with the problem of holding the executive accountable. Professor Asselin doesn't even have the conceptual tool kit with which to take up that challenge.

In a context of party politics, which Professor Asselin accepts and defends (as do I), the only way to make the executive accountable to the legislature is to make the party leadership accountable to the party caucus. Professor Asselin doesn’t even acknowledge the idea exists. The basic mechanism of parliamentary accountability remains … inconceivable.

[Postscript:  As noted at the top, the leader ain't looking for ways to make himself accountable, so presumably Professor Asselin's hands were tied.}

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