It’s nice to know the government works for you. Ha ha. But seriously folks.
This sorry gag was prompted by a recent question about how we can have political accountability with elected officials so tied to their parties. Theoretically, they’re accountable every election. But don’t party signs and websites focused on the leader speak the truth that every four years we really only hold one person accountable, the leader?
Certainly in the recent Ontario rout, many decent Liberal MPPs were swept out in order to remove the premier. And again, you may say, ‘yes but those legislators were complicit because they stood behind their leader, cheering or looking at their shoes.’ And you’d have a point. But suppose a Liberal had denounced the party, left caucus and sat as an independent. How likely is it he would have been reelected? How many independents currently sit in the federal or provincial legislature? And if he’d crossed the floor, it would just have transferred the problem from one leader to another.
The particular voter whose question I’m addressing was particularly annoyed because in researching accountability between elections, one MPP’s assistant blithely told him their boss was accountable only to their party. And of course that’s backward. Holding a collective accountable once every four years for everything they did, balanced against what we guess another group might do in the next four, is a very blunt instrument. And it’s not how the system is meant to work or used to work.
What we want is for the “party,” especially the leader, to be constantly looking over their shoulder at caucus members, who in turn are constantly looking over their shoulders at us. And it used to be that way because the key mechanism for keeping government small and civil was that fundamental control of the state machinery was vested, via the power of the purse, in the one branch that was directly answerable to citizens, namely the legislature.
So what went wrong? The problem, discussed at some length in my documentaries Magna Carta: Our Shared Legacy of Liberty and True, Strong and Free: Fixing Canada’s Constitution, is that over time the executive branch, foiled in efforts to ride roughshod over legislators, instead seduced and essentially absorbed them. We now have red, blue and orange teams scrumming over legislative seats with the sole purpose of grabbing hold of the prime minister’s or premier’s office and rule unchecked. And given the successful leader’s power to reward members of those teams with perks and fancy titles, or punish them by consigning them to the back bench or even refusing to sign nomination papers, of course they rarely bite the hand that feeds them which is no longer our own.
One partial response is recall. For many years, I opposed the direct democracy tools of initiative, referendum and recall as incompatible with the parliamentary system in which the executive depends on support of the legislature in “confidence” votes, unlike the American arrangement where the chief executive can be totally at odds with the legislature and yet retain his office and capacity to “execute” the laws. And I still do oppose initiative and, except on large constitutional questions, referendums. But if legislators knew that they might be yanked out of their seats for going along with some particularly appalling act or policy by the boss, we’d have much better control.
Obviously it needs to be designed properly. Especially in a three-party system where few winning candidates get more than half the votes cast, let alone all eligible votes, you need rules requiring, say, the signature of 10 % of the number who actually voted in that riding in the last election to trigger recall. And also you can’t “recall” the same legislator more than roughly once every 18 months. Recall must be a tool of last resort, a threat that, as in chess, is more powerful than its execution, or the legislature will succumb to comic chaos and the executive grow even stronger.
I’d also like to give legislators more resources. The executive is always in session with massive bureaucratic support, while legislators frequently go home and have pitifully small research and administrative staffs. But all these are secondary.
The main problem is that we ask too much of politics. If we expect parties to offer dramatic, new, dazzling transformations of our mundane existence through the magic of government every four years, we must empower the state to act essentially at will, and reduce accountability to a shadow. So long as our slogan is “What have you done for me lately?” meaning “What have you given me lately that I did not earn?” the state will be a juggernaut we cannot steer or slow down.
So let’s start by recalling legislators, and end by recalling our own trust in government.
John Robson is a National Post columnist, commentator-at-large with News Talk Radio CFRA 580 and documentary filmmaker. Find and support his work at www.johnrobson.ca.