Last week newly independent MP Bruce Hyer took to the blog rolls of the Huffington Post to talk about what he sees as the ills of our democracy while giving a partial explanation for why he left the NDP – and that mostly amounts to party discipline. Nobody is denying that excessive party discipline is a problem with our system at present, but simply saying all party discipline is bad is reductive and doesn’t give proper consideration to its proper role within the Westminster system.
As a quick refresher, party discipline exists because a government needs to command the confidence of the House of Commons, and when matters of confidence are put before the Chamber, they crack the whip to ensure the survival of the government. It is also used along with brokerage politics to keep individual MPs from demanding that governments give special considerations for their ridings in exchange for their votes. Observe the number of “bridges to nowhere” that happen in systems where there is almost no party discipline. Obviously the legitimate uses for discipline have been increasingly abused on both sides, and We The Media don’t help when we suddenly start salivating at the prospect of internal division within a party. Nevertheless, it does exist for a valid reason that needs to be acknowledged before one can denounce the concept in its entirety.
The decrying of the whip also doesn’t address the kind of internal “unofficial” whipping that takes place in certain parties, where it’s a bit more akin to bullying MPs into voting along with everyone else in order to present a “united front,” even if it goes against the beliefs of an MP or the wishes of their constituents. After all, some see it as “unseemly” if they aren’t all in lockstep, even if they’re not being officially whipped on a vote.
Hyer then goes on to propose four “fixes” to our system, but three of his four solutions betray a fundamental lack of understanding with not only the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy, but of the realities of the very recommendations he’s making.
Hyer’s first proposal is that decorum can be improved by randomising seating in the Commons, so that MPs will have to sit next to “them,” making it harder to insult the person next to them. It’s nice in theory, but it ignores the fact that our system is oppositional for a reason. There is a government and a loyal opposition to hold it to account. Perhaps I’m old school in thinking that oppositional systems work better when you can face one another. That’s not to say that I don’t see merit in getting rid of the desks and pushing the benches a bit closer, à la Westminster itself, but assigning random seating won’t solve the underlying decorum issues, which stem more from the fact that MPs don’t socialise outside of the Chamber as much as they used to. In fact, it has been suggested by people like Don Newman that the worst blow to decorum was eliminating evening sittings, as MPs would all have dinner together up in the Parliamentary Restaurant on sitting days, and that boosted collegiality and decorum inside the Chamber because they had the time and opportunity to get to know one another. However, such sittings were sacrificed in the name of being “family friendly,” for all that has wrought.
Hyer’s second suggestion about riding-level candidate approval I’m not going to argue with because we do need to re-empower grassroots democracy in this way, under the proviso that we retain some kind of safeguard to protect against riding hijackings, which is why leader sign-off was first brought in (and subsequently abused).
Hyer’s third suggestion is that there be more collaboration between parties, but his focus is specifically on private members’ business. Hyer believes MPs should be able to co-sponsor bills, and claims that co-sponsorship across party lines is not allowed. He appears to be mistaken in this regard because there is no standing order against MPs across party lines from seconding bills, and in fact, they frequently do. The only rule around seconding is Section 86.2 of the Standing Orders allows for up to twenty MPs to second a Private Members’ bill, but has no restrictions on party lines. That having been said, Hyer is entirely wrong in his concerns about this because he appears to be ignorant of the actual roles and responsibilities of MPs. That is, governments propose laws, and MPs hold them to account. MPs are not lawmakers, and PMBs are limited in scope for that very reason. It’s a conflation that MPs – especially from certain opposition parties – don’t seem to grasp. There is a role for the government and a role for MPs. Confusing the two lessens accountability and makes the system grind to a halt.
And then we come to Hyer’s final proposal, which seems to be the mindless proposal of all would-be parliamentary reformers, which is of course proportional representation. Hyer uses the usual faulty logic and math to justify it (false majorities!), never mind that such arguments rely on a mischaracterisation of how elections work – as in, a general election is 308 separate elections that happen simultaneous and not one single event, and thus, conflating all of the results into one percentage is in fact a false and misleading number. Hyer’s next argument is that our current single-member plurality (“First past the post”) system is “antiquated,” not that such a pejorative judgement actually provides a useful criticism of the system. It is functional – and works well, in fact – and is just as “truly democratic” as any PR system – and one could easily argue is in fact more democratic because it retains more accountability at the riding level. It’s more democratic because every vote counts the same, and in fact because candidate selection is more dependent upon the riding associations rather than on party lists. If Hyer is concerned that he wants riding-level candidate approval (per suggestion number two), why would he advocate a system where the accountability falls to parties, as would-be-candidates suck up to party officials to get onto lists to be appointed based on the percentage results rather than by running in local nomination races. That seems like a hole in his own logic.
The bigger hole in his logic is that a PR system would somehow improve upon his bigger complaint about party discipline. The reality is that it would in fact do the opposite – the kinds of perpetual minority governments that would result from such a system would require even more party discipline, as governments would be quick to fall if they didn’t enforce it. Not only that, but the party officials would exercise more control over candidates and those who are appointed off of lists. Again, if Hyer’s disagreement with his former party and with our current democracy has to do with party discipline, then he’s offering solutions that would only make the problem worse and not better.
Above all, the three “solutions” that Hyer offers (aside from his reasonable, second one), betray a lack of understanding of civic literacy that is unfortunately all too common with elected officials in this day and age. The fact that one of his proposals undermines his other proposals or his larger grievance demonstrates the need for better training for MPs – and all citizens – in the actual mechanics of our democratic system, so that we can have some more clear-eyed ideas as to how to better our system.