The Canadian Political System: Expedience, Efficiency and Democratic Legitimacy

Canada has a democratic parliamentary system which concentrates power in the Prime Minister, and his Cabinet. While the Canadian system of government is deeply imperfect much of the dysfunction does not originate within the system itself, but with a failure to understand what is required to make this system operate in a fair and judicious manner.  Canada has pursued a combination of policies including party discipline and single member plurality voting which exacerbate the lack of limitations that are placed on the Prime Minister and the governing party, and this has led to laws being created that reflect the interest of the ruling party rather than the public good. In order to ensure that proper democratic governance occurs in Canada it is necessary to remove either party discipline or replace single member plurality voting with proportional representation and ensure that our citizenry and politicians are more public spirited and willing to cooperate.

Canada has a Parliamentary system in which the leader of the parties that wins the most seats in the House of Commons at the Federal level becomes Prime Minister. Although there are rare  exceptions to this where the leader of a party that merely wins the plurality, as opposed to the majority, of seats within the House of Commons does not end up being Prime Minister as the Governor General has allowed a collection of other parties to form a coalition government and choose a Prime Minister to lead that government.

Canada does have a Senate, but it is appointed and its role is mostly symbolic and while it can force the House of Commons to review legislation, and provide “sober second thought” this power has rarely been exercised.  The Senate is broadly viewed as a useless institution in its current form, and there is a mix of proposals to either abolish it, or reform it to make it an elected, representative body.

The Prime Minister is the center of executive and legislative authority within the Canadian state. He or she holds a large degree of executive authority like the President in the USA, but the Prime Minister also selects the Cabinet, usually from the pool of elected Members of Parliament (MP), and has traditionally been allowed to control the Cabinet, which holds a large degree of legislative authority. Consequently, there is no strict separation of executive and legislative authority. This means that a Prime Minister in Canada can not only determine which people are predominantly responsible for deciding which laws are proposed, but also can determine the nature of the law being created.  Bills created by the cabinet do of course have to achieve a majority vote within the House of Commons, and be approved by the Senate, but still we can see how much power lies in the hands of the Prime Minister.

Currently in Canada, and for the majority of our past, we have had “majority governments.” This occurs when the party that wins the most seats in the House of Commons wins a majority of the seats. While there are votes where MPs are allowed to vote according to their own conscience, these votes are a rare exception as opposed to the norm; MPs are expected, unless otherwise told, to vote the party line in any area that affects budgets. This is known as “party discipline.” If a MP does not vote the party line they may have to cross the floor and sit as an independent or join another party.  Consequently, in a majority government situation the Prime Minister is essentially able to pass any laws he wants over his term in office. Thus, in the situation of a majority government, the Prime Minister is more of an elected constitutionally limited monarch than anything else, as he can pass any law he wants and the only things that are holding him back are resistance of his own party or the courts overturning legislation on constitutional grounds.  Consequently, gridlock is rarely a problem in Canadian politics. Instead the problem is the development of extremely partisan policy that can develop because of the sheer authority of the governing party and their leader.

A further complication within the Canadian system is the use of the single member plurality system of voting or “first past the post.” In this system MPs are elected to represent geographic constituencies and the candidate with the plurality of votes within the constituency wins the race and receives the seat. This compounds the problem of party discipline because if a MP is forced to vote with their party, they are not fully able to represent their constituencies’ interests. In addition the regional popularity of political parties means that often the distribution of seats in the legislature does not reflect what people voted for. For example, the NDP may get 15% of the vote in one province, but receive no seats in this province because in no one constituency were they strong enough to get a plurality of votes.

So, in the Canadian system we see a situation in which there is substantial centralization of power in the Prime Minister. The problem with this as noted above is that there have not been many checks on his or her authority throughout Canadian history. But the failure to understand the nature of this system is indicated by the use of single member plurality voting and party discipline in conjunction with the centralization of power in the Prime Minister. In itself there is nothing wrong with a strong political leader, party discipline, or single member plurality voting, but taken together they magnify the worst flaws of the Canadian system. When you have a Prime Minister with a large degree of authority who can control what policy is proposed it only makes the problem worse when he or she can control what his party votes for and the distribution of seats within the legislature does not actually reflect what people voted for.

In this sense, Canada has two plausible options within its existing system, neither of which seems to be on the horizon, which could at least help correct the problem of the excessive authority of the Prime Minister. One approach would be to get rid of party discipline, such that policy would have to be created that would only get votes if it was in the interest of constituencies. This would limit the power of the Prime Minister by forcing him to create laws that were more reflective of the public good.  Likewise if party discipline is to be maintained it probably makes sense to go to a form of proportional representation in which the distribution of seats in the legislature actually reflects the popular vote. It is very rare for a party to get the majority of votes in Canada, but they often get the majority of seats, and so if the distribution of seats reflected the popular vote this would ensure that the Prime Minister and his party would have to cooperate with others and make policy that was in the interest of a majority of Canadians, rather than in the interest of the party and their supporters.

Some Canadians are very apprehensive about the notion of limiting the power of the Prime Minister as minority governments (governments in which the governing party holds less than half of the seats in the House of Commons) in Canada have often been ineffective and rife with gridlock.

It is certainly expedient to keep the current Canadian system as is, as the system makes it very easy to pass laws, but unless we see the point of democratic governance as expedience we might want to demand more from our politics.  In a strictly procedural sense the laws passed within the current system are legitimate as the process through which they are typically passed does not violate any rules of the system. But in another sense they seem illegitimate in that if laws do not reflect the overriding public good or at least the interests of a majority of citizens, they do not honour the spirit of democratic governance, as democratic governance is supposed to guarantee that the public good is served by ensuring policy serves the interests of the majority of citizens. This is of course a substantive as opposed a procedural conception of legitimacy, but that does not mean we should pay no heed to it.

This raises the question of what kind of democratic governance would meet the bar of this substantive conception of legitimacy in Canada. I think either of my proposals would, provided that the citizenry and MPs began to exhibit a greater degree of public spiritedness, and willingness to collaborate as this would ensure that law would be developed that took into account more than one’s party’s interests.  However, some might argue that such a system is too imperious, and that we should try to develop systems that create substantively legitimate democratic governance by only relying on people to act on their enlightened self-interest. While it is in principle possible that a system based on enlightened self-interest could generate law that meets this substantive conception of legitimacy, the history of Canada and elsewhere seems to suggest otherwise as systems based on enlightened self-interest typically create factional politics and policy. So we ought not to hang on to the desire to have a political system that can operate by only asking of its participants that they act in their long term self-interest. This means that those of us who accept the substantive conception of democratic legitimacy described above need to recognize that in order to meet this notion of legitimacy in Canada, politics will have to ask more of its participants than enlightened self-interest; instead, it will have to ask them to act as citizens.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s