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United They Stand, While Democracy Falls

September 25, 2011

There are two very different stories playing out in two of the most contested democratic chambers in Canada right now.  One chamber is Toronto City Hall and the other is the House of Commons in Ottawa. The difference between these stories is very enlightening about one important condition for a robust democratic discussion to exist: the independence of democratic representatives.

City hall is led by a mayor, Rob Ford, who was elected by a minority (47%) of the population. The House of Commons is led by a Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, who’s party was also elected by a minority (39%) of the population. Both elections were described at the time as decisive victories. Both elections were expected to bring in a wave of conservative lawmaking by the new leader and his group of like minded elected members.

This week, Toronto city council reached a compromise on the contentious issue of how to clean up and develop Toronto’s Portlands. The compromise conforms with existing plans the mayor had expressed extreme disagreement with. This week also saw a progressive plan for managing and approving graffiti that conflicts with previous goals of the mayor.  New city councillors that were expected to remain in lock step with mayor Ford were not so willing to continue when faced with a huge public outcry over this and several other issues.

In contrast,  the Conservative government in Ottawa is planning soon to introduce significant changes to the criminal code which were rejected in previous parliaments and no opposition parties realistically expect to be able to stop them. This is despite the fact that some pollsters are finding that a majority are against these changes. So we have the odd situation one leader having more trouble achieving his goals than another leader with much lower support. It’s a case of a unified and vocal minority getting it’s way over a majority who disagrees but is divided. Unfortunately, this is likely to become a running theme for the next years in Ottawa.

The difference between these two chambers shows how the structure of a democratic system can influence how policy and compromise happen, or fail to happen. In Toronto, 44 councillors run on their own funding, to win the support of people in their own riding. Councillors may owe some loyalty to the mayor or other councillors but nothing institutional and nothing that has any lasting affect. So when public opinion sways against some policy: like cutting funding to daycare, selling the zoo, painting over all graffiti or building a ridiculous ferris wheel; those councillors needs to think about their future independent of the mayor or anyone else. In city politics, each councillor needs to convince everyone that they are the right person for the job.

Meanwhile in parliament, parties dominate and individual MPs do not have nearly as much freedom or desire to deviate from their leader or their party on specific issues. They have no freedom because the party whip requires voting in line with the party on most votes. They have no desire because public pressure is largely useless on them. With up to five plausible candidates in each riding, federal MPs only need to win a small portion of the vote in their riding to win. Furthermore, candidates rely very heavily on the campaign of the national party for funding, to build brand, get voter recognition and acquire volunteers. So, the Federal MP representing you in Ottawa has little incentive to worry about broad public opinions and the kind of rebellion Rob Ford is dealing with in Toronto is much less likely to happen in Ottawa. This is to the detriment of our democracy, regardless of the policies involved.

Now, I’m not saying all the problems in our democracy are caused by political parties or that all representatives should be independents. Parties can have their place, they help to simplify the national conversation and voting process. At their most basic, political parties are tribes we associate with in the national conversation about what our country should be. However, it’s time we realized the importance of empowering individual MPs to speak their voice and do their real job, which is to represent all their constituents, not just their party.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 25, 2011 9:13 am

    Empowering individual MPs follows perfectly from a Mixed Member Proportional model with open regional lists for the “top-up” MPs. (The model used in the German province of Bavaria.)

    First, you can vote for your favourite candidate for local MP without hurting your party, since your party vote determines the make-up of the House. About 35% of New Zealand voters do this, and lots of MPs win their local seats while a different party carried the party vote in their riding. This is precisely why Germans call MMP “personalized proportional representation:” local MPs are personally accountable, and are empowered by their personal mandate.

    Second, with the open-regional-list variation recommended by the Law Commission of Canada, you can vote for your favourite regional candidate of your party. “Allowing voters to choose a candidate from the list provides voters with the ability to select a specific individual and hold them accountable for their actions should they be elected” said our Law Commission.

    • September 25, 2011 1:11 pm

      Exactly Wilf. The multi-member form of STV also allows the voter to have an impact over the candidate from each party which represents them which would encourage each member to think more independently. I think other measures in parliament should also be considered, such as making whipping of votes a rare event or banning it altogether, and providing sufficient public funds for each candidate to campaign.

      • September 25, 2011 1:45 pm

        As to whipping of votes, I think most people applauded when the NDP ordered all MPs to follow party policy on equal marriage, and relieved Bev Desjarlais of her parliamentary critic responsibilities when she voted against Bill C-38, which legalized same-sex marriage in Canada in 2005.

        And on principle, we do not have the American separation of powers; since the government is responsible to the House, MPs have to vote with their party on confidence issues.

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