Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Book Review: Democratizing the Constitution by Peter Aucoin, Mark D. Jarvis, and Lori Turnbull

Democratizing the Constitution: Reforming Responsible Government by Peter Aucoin, Mark D. Jarvis, and Lori Turnbull sets out a rather simple case. It’s a case often presented by the intelligentsia in this country in newspapers and debates, and here it is again in this book – that our democracy is unwell, and requires reform to continue to function. The origins of the monograph can be traced to the 2008 prorogation/coalition crisis.

The 2008 prorogation/coalition crisis revealed a number of deep concerns to constitutional scholars in this country. In 2011 experts in the field were brought together by Peter Russell to discuss the issues and come to some consensus over how the various “unwritten conventions” of our parliament should be applied. The authors write that political scientists were unable to reach a common ground, and point out that if experts were unable to come to a clear answer then how are everyday citizens supposed to draw a conclusion? 

A book critical in understanding true democratic reform in Canada.
Should the Governor General have prorogued parliament despite expressions of non-confidence from the House and parties willing to form a new government? Should the Prime Minister have ultimately control over these powers when the source of his power, confidence in the House, falls into question?

Ultimately the authors do not weigh in on the issue but point out that this kind of confusion and abuse by the Prime Minister fundamentally undermines our status as a responsible government and democracy. The Prime Minister, using the full executive power of our system, can abuse and run roughshod over the House of Commons, which is supposed to be supreme.

Critically, the authors highlight how Canada is the outlier when compared to the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. Documents in those countries expressly define the rules and conditions for the conventions. In Canada a vague set of precedents that are easily violable are in place where the realm of partisan interest increasingly holds sway.

The book is composed of five chapters, the first lays out the overview of the problem in Canada’s parliament, the second is a discussion of responsible government; how it is supposed to function and how it actually functions, third discusses how conventions have broken down in Canada, fourth explores the various issues in our democracy such as control over the political parties and the caucus, along with elections. The fifth fleshes out the issues in our actual elections and government formation, and finally, sixth the authors propose a package of reforms.

I should be clear that the authors are not particularly concerned with Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Though his actions have stretched, broken and violated parliament to the greatest extent the authors see a clear pattern in the accumulation of power to our head of government. The trouble is with institutional decline.

This book caused me to fundamentally change my opinion on one matter. The authors state that whatever flaws the first-past-the-post system Canada may have reforming how we elect MPs is irrelevant if the fundamental issue of prime ministerial power is not checked. Democratizing even has me reconsidering my position on fixed election dates. 

The authors propose a number of reforms to check the power of the prime minister. They include:

·         Establish a deadline requiring the House of Commons to be summoned within 30 days of the election, forcing the incumbent or winner to test their confidence
·         Establish a fixed election dates every four years on a specific date, binding both the prime minister and the governor general, unless a majority of two-thirds of MPs approve a motion to dissolve Parliament for an early election
·         Adopt the “constructive non-confidence” procedure, put briefly, it would mean only specific motions calling on non-confidence and proposing a new prime minister would be confidence motions
·         Require the consent of a two-thirds majority of the House of Commons in order to prorogue Parliament
·         Adopt legislation limiting the size of ministries to a maximum of 25 individuals and the number of parliamentary secretaries to 8 at any given time
·         Use secret preferential ballots by committee members to select House of Commons’ committee chairs for the duration of the parliamentary session
·         Adopt a set schedule for opposition days in the House of Commons that cannot be altered by the government unilaterally
·         Reduce by 50 percent, the partisan political staff complement on Parliament Hill
·         Restore the power of party caucuses to dismiss the party leader, including a sitting prime minister, and to appoint a new interim leader
·         Remove the party leader’s power to approve or reject party candidates for election in each riding
Taken from Chapter 6 of Democratizing the Constitution

It is a lengthy and detailed list of reforms. They compliment, support and help constrain the power of the prime minister while empowering individual MPs, the House of Commons, and by extension, citizens.

Reading chapter six I could not help but wonder what Ontario would look like today if these reforms were in place over the last few years. Premier McGuinty’s crass prorogation for his party’s leadership contest would have failed. The brinksmanship that tormented the legislature would have been useless because no legislation would have doomed Ontario to a fresh election. Perhaps under the circumstances the Tories would have been inclined to govern with the Liberals, or the ONDP would have been offered a power-sharing deal.

This is a frank, straightforward, though academic, discussion of the crisis at the heart of Canadian democracy. It is a necessary read for citizens concerned about our country and wondering what is going so terribly wrong. The authors offer peace of mind in a positive set of reforms and forceful rebuke of naysayers and defeatists. It is important to note that the abuses the Harper’s opponents have decried will continue under a Prime Minister Trudeau or Mulcair without these reforms. The problems are institutional and will require great leadership to end them. As a country Canada cannot remain on its current path and expect to be anything other than a semi-democratic state. 

No comments: