Term limits and the outsider fetish


In a speech outlining some of his leadership ideas, Alberta Progressive Conservative hopeful, and former federal cabinet minister, Jim Prentice, dropped a new proposal that ranked nowhere on anyone’s priority list – to introduce term limits for MLAs and premiers.  Two terms for leaders, three for MLAs, and there seems to be some acknowledgement that there can be a break in there, but the underlying intention is clear – that he doesn’t want politics to be a career for anyone.

There are a couple of ways in which Prentice’s proposal is troubling.  The first is of course that it betrays a lack of understanding of how our system of Responsible Government works.  With a system like ours, we can be rid of leaders at any time we like thanks to the wonder of confidence votes, and similarly, in a system where there are open nominations, the grassroots membership of a party can opt not to return their incumbent MP as a candidate in the next election – and if there aren’t open nominations, then the grassroots of the party should be up in arms to demand it.  More to the point, a Westminster system like ours doesn’t have fixed-term parliaments, no matter how many symbolic fixed election date laws are passed around the country.  Minority parliaments happen, and those “terms” – to employ an Americanism – are less than the five years that are established in the constitution as the maximum length of any given parliament outside of a wartime or emergency situation.  Most fixed election date legislation sets the date at four years – another vestige of creeping presidentialization and Americanization.  Given that two “terms” could be as long as long as ten years constitutionally, it could also be as short as three, given that the average life of a minority parliament is somewhere around 18 months.

How those leadership terms would be set up in relation to the election cycle is also a particularly fraught question – does it trigger just after an election, so that the population and the pundit class can moan that the new leader doesn’t have a popular mandate?  Does it trigger just before an election – an even more ludicrous question in a minority situation where a government could lose a confidence vote at nearly any time – so that the new leader doesn’t have time to put his or her stamp on the party?  Even if you ignore all of the questions about whether or not such a plan would even be constitutional, it all smacks of a policy that was not very well thought through, and indeed, an answer to a problem that doesn’t exist given that the previous two dubious premiers in that province, Ed Stelmach and Alison Redford, both saw a lot of problems well before their second “term” as leader was even at the mid-point.

What is more to the point with Prentice’s plan is the way in which it plays directly into the fetishization of the “outsider” status that is currently infecting Canadian politics.  One doesn’t have to look any further than Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan’s book Tragedy in the Commons, where the 85 former MPs that they interviewed all described themselves as “outsiders” to politics and the parties, and insisted that they were not really politicians.  Prentice is falling into this exact narrative – that politicians, and most especially “career politicians,” are to be despised.  He talks about “Dome Disease” – the Alberta equivalent of the dreaded “Ottawa Bubble” – and dresses up his proposal in the language of doing a public service, but there is absolutely no understanding of the broader implications of what he’s saying.

Beyond fetishizing the “outsider” narrative, Prentice is also tacitly singing the praises of inexperience, which can be dangerous in politics – most especially in the provincial setting.  It entrenches a system with very little institutional memory – already a problem in legislatures where there is high turnover, and this is exactly Prentice’s motivation – to ensure high turnover.  All this ends up ensuring, however, is that the same mistakes are made over and over again, the same poor and impractical ideas are recycled because almost nobody was around the table the last time that it was discussed and dismissed as unworkable, and that a lot of time and resources are wasted pursuing these bad ends.  After all, senior public servants aren’t sitting at the cabinet table, and there are no senators in provincial caucuses to provide that institutional memory.

This kind of proposal also has a dramatic impact on the ability to hold governments to account because it’s likely that many of the cabinet will be MLAs in their third term, and if they are immediately barred from re-election, there is no impetus for them to worry about being held to account at the ballot box.  Experienced backbenchers will largely become a thing of the past, and that is extremely detrimental to the ability to hold a government to account because part of what gives most backbenchers the courage to speak out is both experience and a degree of safety in their seat, that they know they are unlikely to get a cabinet post so they can be critical.  When I last visited the Alberta legislature, there was a senior backbencher asking the government actual tough questions during Question Period because he had the kind of insulated ability to do so without fear of much repercussion.  Asking newbies to take on that role would be a virtual impossibility.

Both voters and politicians alike in Canada need to get over this toxic attitude where each tries to outdo one another in denigrating the profession.  While it’s easy to caricature politicians as self-serving and trying to protect their own interests, we have to remember that experience counts – especially in a system of Responsible Government, where there needs to be an ability to hold the government to account, and for there to be an opposition capable of forming government if the current one is unable to maintain confidence.  Prentice’s plan puts this in jeopardy.


Other articles by Dale Smith

Co-opting backbenchers
Why parties matter
Declined ballots are nonsense
Democracy, not technocracy

Follow Dale Smith on twitter: @journo_dale

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