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November 3, 2003

Parliamentary Reform and the Citizens' Assembly

"I think the most poignant example I heard in the debate about introducing PR in the Euro-Elections came from Lord Cranborne. Someone he knew was chatting over lunch to a fellow politician on the continent during an earlier election. He had asked the politician how he could spare so much time in the middle of a campaign and why he wasn't out on the streets working for every vote. The politician just laughed and said "I don't NEED to campaign - I am on the list". I think that says it all about any list based PR system." From a discussion titled "Proportional Representation - Good for Elites, Bad for Citizens".

The 158 members of BC's Citizens' Assembly will be chosen by November 25th. Their job is to consider how we elect Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs). If they can agree on a system they think is better than the current one, their recommendation will be put to a vote at the 2005 provincial election, and it may replace how BC chooses MLAs in the 2009 provincial election.

One of the most often promoted alternatives is some form of proportional representation (PR). With mixed proportional representation there are two types of MLAs - those elected by constituencies as they are now, and those chosen from a party list. For example, if the Green Party got 12% of the total provincial vote but couldn't elect anyone in any of the constituencies, they might get as many as 9 MLAs appointed to the legislature from their party list. The two types of MLAs might not always get along since those elected from constituencies would probably be busy doing constituency work such as meeting with concerned citizens, attending local meetings and being generally visible in the area that elected them. Party list MLAs, on the other hand, might find it more important to maintain a high profile in their party to increase their chances of staying on their party's list.

In 1991 British Columbians voted to implement recall even though the ballot question made it clear that work would have to be done to determine what that meant, since recall didn't exist anywhere in a parliamentary democracy. Even in the US, the majority of states do not have the kind of system that recently saw the recall of Governor Gray Davis and the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger. The overwhelming vote in favor of recall in 1991 was followed by committee hearings in which it was common for those making presentations to urge the government to get on with implementing it even though the details had to be worked out. The NDP government was criticized for making recall too difficult; Gordon Campbell promised to make it easier, but since several Campbell MLAs have been subjected to recall campaigns this notion has received less support. It is possible for the 1991 phenomenon to repeat itself, with strong support for proportional representation; this should sound warning bells for the Citizens' Assembly.

The Green Party is not alone in supporting proportional representation. At the 2001 NDP convention a motion was passed that included "that the BC NDP endorse and campaign vigorously in favour of the principle of a Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP) electoral system which would combine single member constituency representation with a form of proportional representation." In the 1991 election, without the support of a resolution from convention, the party also gave recall its blessing. I think that was a mistake in 1991, and that it is a mistake now to support dilution of our parliamentary form of government, which allows governments to have the power necessary to implement their platforms.

A fundamental part of parliamentary democracy is "responsible government". Unlike a presidential or republican form of government, parliamentary democracy includes the executive, the first minister (Premier or Prime Minister) and cabinet ministers, as part of the legislative assembly. The term "front bench" refers to the first minister and cabinet as they sit in a position called the "front bench" in the legislature. A parliamentary democracy is called responsible government because it can be held to account, it cannot blame its failings on an inability to get the legislature to implement its will. In parliamentary democracy you do not have the kind of maneuverings over budget fights or compromises between the Congress and the President that are a routine part of US politics. In parliamentary democracy the government may be persuaded to change its mind as a result of political pressure, but unless it changes its mind, it has the legislative power to implement its will.

Changing how MLAs are elected can weaken "responsible government" by creating a situation where governments are frequently either minorities or coalitions (of course, that is why minor parties want PR). That would mean that the government could not command a majority in the legislature and would have to engage in power brokering with another party in order to have the power to govern. While that can help a minor party implement part of its platform, it can also provide an excuse for government not acting on its promises and it can encourage pork barreling of the worst kind - government spending in areas to buy votes and support from the minor party. Many of the MLAs who would have leverage to force the government to buy their votes would not be accountable to constituencies but would come from party lists. It is vital that the Citizens' Assembly, and ultimately BC voters, understand how that system works before we repeat the mistake of 1991 by overwhelmingly supporting a system that is different and poorly understood.

One of the criticisms of our current form of government is that all of the power is concentrated in the Office of the Premier or Prime Minister. That is true, but at least that means the government is accountable for delivering on a program and that it can be thrown out every four or five years if it doesn't. If the problem with how government functions is that too much power is in the hands of the first minister, there are ways of changing that without destroying responsible government. In British Columbia, all Deputy Ministers (the civil servants who are the senior managers in government) report to the Premier's Deputy rather than to their Minister. It is not unknown for the Premier's Office to issue directions to a Deputy and only later inform the Minister who is nominally responsible. In the Campbell government, that centralization of power took a further step with the Communications Director for each Ministry reporting to the Communications Director for the Premier. Ministerial Assistants, the political appointees who support each Minister, are also hired and fired through the Premier's Office. One way to increase the power of cabinet ministers is to make them responsible for those key staff, which means they have to be the ones who command the loyalty of, and have the power to hire and fire, those staff.

A lot of lip service is given to "free votes" in the legislature. Those not familiar with the legislature frequently claim that each party's whip controls the vote so that individual MLAs behave like trained seals - voting as commanded. It is not necessary for a party whip to do much to control a vote. When an MLAs chance at future committee appointments or promotions, not to mention expenditures in that member's constituency, depends on the good will of the Premier, there is no such thing as a free vote unless it is a secret vote. All votes in the legislature are public except for the election of the Speaker. Voters want to be able to see how their MLA voted, but even more so, the party leaders want to be able to see those votes. One way of reforming the legislature is to implement secret votes on key issues so as to reduce the power of party leaders, particularly the power of the Premier.

The Citizens' Assembly could create a disaster by recommending a change, and thereby encouraging voters to endorse that change, before it understands how our system works - not just how our elections work, but how our government works. Our system has plenty of faults, but it is superior to the alternatives. It is better to have the privilege of replacing one strong government with another than it is to permanently undermine, and perhaps destroy, responsible government.


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2003 David D. Schreck. All Rights Reserved.