One weird and ignorant trick to restore democracy








There are times when political punditry these days starts to look a lot like those awful Internet ads that litter the sites we visit.  Reading some of it makes me feel like it’s of a similar ilk – “One weird trick that will restore democracy!  Doctors of political science will be furious!”  I had the misfortune of reading yet another of these columns late last week, courtesy of Rafe Mair writing for

Like many an amateur pundit, Mair makes a number of key mistakes in his grand plans to give our democracy “a reno.”  In particular, he makes the mistakes of taking the wrong lessons from history, taking the wrong lessons from comparative legislatures, and commits the more recently known transgression of taking the wrong lessons from Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan’s book Tragedy in the Commons.  Adding those together, Mair comes up with a rather spectacularly bizarre “one weird trick” kind of fix that falls apart upon even the most cursory of examinations.

For starters, contrary to Mair’s assertions, Canada’s parliamentary system is not “antiquated” and has in fact been updated since its inception in 1867.  In fact, it is those changes since 1867 that have given rise to most of the problems that Mair laments – in particular, changes first made in 1919 to the ways in which political parties select their leaders has given rise to leaders who are no longer held to account by their caucus, and the 1970 changes to the Elections Act that give leaders the power to sign off on candidate nominations – done for entirely well-meaning purposes – have caused the problems of “dictatorial” leaders.

Mair tries to compare changes made to the Parliament of Westminster in 1920 around whipped votes, completely oblivious to how the difference in the size of the chamber there relative to the size of cabinet changes the dynamic of backbench behaviour.  When you have some 650 MPs vying for a couple of dozen cabinet spots, your MPs with safe seats have difference calculations as to how to behave as opposed to less than half as many MPs in Canada vying for around the same number of cabinet spots, not to mention in the UK, the leader is beholden to the MPs and not the party membership.  It’s kind of a big deal.

As for the lessons of Tragedy in the Commons, Mair remains hung up on the MPs whining that they have no power or influence, rather than the actual point that the authors called them on several times – that they were more interested in self-mythologizing and casting themselves as “outsiders,” while they took no personal responsibility for their situation – all of which they have the power to correct.  It’s always easier to blame the party or the leader, and these former MPs proved to be no exception to that rule.

And what is Mair’s solution to this predicament that we find ourselves in?  Aside from the usual canard of proportional representation – falling again into the traps of not learning the lessons of comparative legislatures and diagnosing the wrong problems – Mair’s “one weird trick” is to make all confidence votes a secret ballot.

No, seriously.

According to Mair’s calculus, secret confidence votes would somehow open debates up, ensure that it was no longer “dangerous” to support minority parties, and somehow, it would end a majority prime minister “bullying” his or her backbenchers into line.  I’m not sure where this magical thinking comes from, however, this is what he believes.

The problem, of course, is that it is fundamentally at odds with the entire basis of our system of Responsible Government.  The very foundation of our system of democracy is confidence.  It’s what allows a government to function, Prime Ministers to exercise their powers, and give advice to the Governor General.  Confidence is the raison d’etre for political parties in our system – they are what allows a group of MPs to coalesce in order to have enough votes to form a government that will have the confidence of the chamber.  By making those votes secret, Mair would likely only cause intra-caucus inquisitions, as votes where the totals don’t follow along party lines would start the witch-hunts for traitors, especially if those votes are close to causing the government to fall.

The other alternative is to see us enter into a Bizarro-world of continually collapsing governments because of fits of pique by MPs, perpetual elections, or at worst, a system of incentives for votes that is far worse than the threat of the whip, but rather MPs soliciting votes for rewards.  Everyone imagines that the whip system is this horrible cruelty imposed on MPs, but most don’t understand its actual function or necessity.

Mair’s justification, that this would give MPs actual power, misreads the fact that they already have this very power he wishes to give them.  What they don’t do is exercise it, for any number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that most aren’t actually assuming the personal responsibility of educating themselves about the issues they’re voting on, or of their rights and responsibilities within the system.

The other, more important point that Mair ignores, is that giving MPs secret votes obliterates any system of holding them to account for their voting record.  This is a very big deal, because accountability is the other key feature of Responsible Government.  MPs use confidence votes to hold governments to account, while voters hold MPs to account for their voting record.  By obliterating those records from the public eye, you eliminate the key source of accountability.  How then do we judge our MPs’ actions?  Or do we just vote on them based on party lines?  How this is any kind of improvement to our democratic system is beyond me.

Let this be a lesson – unless your punditry can demonstrate that it actually understands Responsible Government, it should be taken as seriously as those “one weird tricks” in Internet ads.


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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