Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Book Notes: Malloy on Parliament

The political scientist Jonathan Malloy, who has a new book called The Paradox of Parliament, had some opinions in the Globe and Mail last weekend that I'm still pondering. It was, I guess, a sort of defence of Canada's parliament against critics and reformers.   

Parliament has two core functions. One is representation: Canadians elect 338 MPs and governors-general appoint 105 senators to speak for the nation. But the other is decision-making: To move from talking to actually getting things done, legislators need to organize into teams, with hierarchies and leaders to steer the way. There is a natural and long-standing tension between these two functions, and parliamentarians straddle them every day.

Malloy defends Parliament's decision-making ability -- "On a collective basis, Parliament arguably works well, if imperfectly" -- and dismisses the "well-meaning half-measures" of parliamentary critics as misguided. "Most parliamentary reform efforts focus on the representation function, trying to find ways to empower individual MPs to operate more independently."   

Well, someone is misguided here. A core function of Parliament neglected in Malloy's 'representing/deciding' duality is accountability. In a parliamentary system, the executive is necessarily given vast authority. What can prevent the executive from becoming a four-year dictatorship is constant accountability to the legislature. And it is not individual MPs but caucuses of MPs, particularly the majority caucus, that can bear most of the weight of holding the executive accountable on a day to day basis.

The parliamentary reform proposals sneered at by Professor Malloy do not in fact propose empowering individual MPs. There probably are enough egomaniacal self-promoters in Parliament already. Rather, they speak for reestablishing some accountability in Canadian parliaments by empowering caucuses, not individual MPs. They proposes that caucuses -- formal groups of MPs -- are the proper focus of decision-making, and that leaders must be accountable to caucuses, not the other way round. (On this point, see The Reform Act, 2014.)

Now, it is true we are not accustomed to seeing caucus power in Canadian parliaments. Professor Malloy argues the "iron-fisted party discipline" of our legislatures is really just the norm for how parliaments must decide things, "with hierarchies and leaders to steer the way," He hand-waves away evidence from other parliamentary countries where caucuses often wield substantial power over leaders, and decision-making, and representation.  

Many political scientists are skilled in analyzing statistics, constructing surveys, and doing data management. That doesn't always translate into thinking clearly about how parliaments can, and sometimes really do, work. 

Note: haven't read the book yet.

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