Canada’s Political Parties Inhibit Democracy’s Flourishing

Because liberal democracy seems to be under assault in many parts of the world, perhaps most significantly in the U.S., I want to propose ways of keeping it strong in Canada.  The weak link in the chain, so to speak, is the political party system.  I discuss this only in relation to Canada.  I apologize to my U.S. readers.

Having been active in two of the three major political parties in Canada for the past dozen years or so, both at federal and provincial levels, as well as in municipal campaigns, I perceive that the processes by which candidates for office are nominated, and the partisanship which is blind to the other side’s virtues (see my previous blog Removing the appeal of authoritarianism – Upon reconsidering…) , are the weak links in the democratic process.

Candidates are not necessarily local people who have something to give to the community by serving in public office.  They are quite likely to be ambitious people from somewhere else.  They may also be all about their personal ambition rather than any particular ideology or concept of the common good for our citizens. They may not have had any previous experience in the identified party.  Samara Canada, a non-partisan think tank, finds that candidates often say that they were more often chosen by parties, or by friends who know them, or by circumstances, than that they pursued politics as an interest ( Party Favours (samaracanada.com).  Certainly there have been candidates and politicians who have been so committed to an ideology and/or a conviction that there can improve life for Canadians, that they ran in whatever riding might be available to them (Bill Graham The Call of the World:  a Political Memoir, Hugh Segal Bootlaces Need Boots, Patrick Brown Takedown;  the Attempted Political Assasination of Patrick Brown, and Paul Martin and Jean Chretien’s books are examples).

From a party’s point of view, sometimes the electability of a candidate is more important than whether they are intelligent, informed about the issues of the day, are of good character, devoted to representing their constituents, or have accomplished things on their own.  By contrast, beginning in 2016, it became possible for apolitical citizens to apply for consideration for appointment as independent members of the Senate.  In this process, the expectations are explicit:

To be considered for appointment to the Senate, you must demonstrate the knowledge, personal qualities and qualifications related to the role of the Senate listed below. Knowledge Requirement Applicants must demonstrate a solid knowledge of the legislative process and Canada’s Constitution, including the role of the Senate as an independent and complementary body of sober second thought, regional representation and minority representation. Personal Qualities Applicants must demonstrate outstanding personal qualities, including adhering to the principles and standards of public life, ethics, and integrity. Applicants must demonstrate an ability to make an effective and significant contribution to the work of the Senate, not only in their chosen profession or area of expertise, but the wide range of other issues that come before the Senate. Qualifications Related to the Role of the Senate Applicants must demonstrate one of the following criteria: – a high level of experience, developed over many years, in the legislative process and public service at the federal or provincial/territorial level; and/or, – a lengthy and recognized record of service to one’s community, which could include one’s Indigenous, ethnic or linguistic community; and/or, – recognized leadership and an outstanding record of achievement in the nominee’s profession or chosen field of expertise.

Please provide a personal statement to describe how you meet each of the qualifications and criteria listed above, using specific examples to highlight your skills and experience.

Your application must include a curriculum vitae (CV) outlining your academic qualifications, employment history, professional affiliations, major achievements, distinctions and awards. The CV must be a maximum of 1,500 words long, and no attachments or other supplementary documentation are to be submitted. Applicants are encouraged to use the template provided on the Independent Advisory Board for Senate Appointments Website. Forms and Templates – Canada.ca

The expectations for appointed office holders are higher and more explicit than for elected ones.  Certainly the parties have “green light” processes to cull out people whose past activities and reputations would make them unsuitable.  But that’s not a high set of standards, especially compared with the above.  We should expect candidates for elected office to be at least as qualified as those appointed to parliamentary office.

Parties frequently arrange for candidates to be solicited from outside the political realm, keeping the local ridings ignorant of the person until the matter is settled.  There is not much public information about how such decisions are reached, or by whom.  But Greg Sorbara, former Treasurer of Ontario and still very significant figure in Ontario Liberal politics, writes (The Battlefield of Ontario Politics:  an Autobiography) that he cannot understand why 140 or so people in a local riding believe they know more than the party centre about selecting a good candidate.  His distant relative Pat Sorbara (Let ‘Em Howl:  Lessons from a Life in Backroom Politics) writes that some people are confused about the democratic quality of candidate selection.  They are examples of the clear presumption that local judgement does not matter much.

Should democracy mean only getting the most votes? 

Would-be candidates seek to choose their electors by soliciting new members to join the party and vote for them.  Often these voters include adolescents who are instructed by the parents on how to vote.  The supporters may know nothing about the candidates, nor their opponents, and perhaps not even anything about the party.  They have been recruited by friends or other relatives to support this person, and so they vote without knowing the candidate, the alternatives, the party, and perhaps the issues.  Does this simple selection by vote get us quality politicians, people who will write laws and make decisions about very important issues in both the short and long term?

You see that the weakness in our democracy exists even before we vote during an election.

The role of the party.

The question arises: if we required candidates for elected office to answer the questions posed for appointed senators, would we need parties at all to vet them?  Does the political party system in Canada contribute to the health of democracy?

According to Alex Marland (Whipped: Party Discipline in Canada) and his many cited sources, shortly after Confederation, Parliament’s members represented religious, ethnic, regional, and national concerns. This meant that

The cabinet advanced its legislative agenda without being able to rely on the support of quasi-Independent MPs.  Patronage commitments for infrastructure spending and jobs were handed out in exchange for the votes of so-called loose fish, shaky fellows, ministerialists, and waiters on providence…Parties fortified in order to maintain stable conditions.   They became vehicles for groups of like-minded politicians to present electors with choices during elections, to mobilize voters, and to form the government.

(In the U.S. the founders did not want parties to enter the arena at all [First Principles:  What America’s Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country, Thomas E. Riggs]).

Today’s candidates often still represent these diverse concerns. There are representatives of our Indigenous citizens, to whom not nearly enough attention is paid.

Too, we are familiar today with politicians and their supporters who hail from China, Sri Lanka, Israel, Palestine, India, Pakistan, the Ukraine, Poland, the Baltic countries, and many African countries, who want Canada to take sides in contentious matters involving those countries.  We have politicians who court votes by developing good relations with foreign leaders (Patrick Brown in his book writes of his close ties to India Prime Minister Modi, and his attractiveness to voters of Indian ancestry).  Our intelligence services have warned of undue foreign influence on domestic politicians, e.g.., Federal parties being warned of efforts by 6 foreign countries to influence election: sources | CBC News.   Our Canadian politicians should represent the domestic interests of their constituents, and not base their appeal in Canada upon their relationships elsewhere in the world.

We need to carefully evaluate citizens’ expressed opinions about overseas matters, however, and allow the force of individuals’ opinions, not their place of origin or their name which seems to be from a particular region, to contribute to our understanding of matters elsewhere (even if, as in my case, we do not believe that Canada should be intervening in other places).

Too, partisanship could well become more extreme.  The federal Conservatives have just hired consultants who advocate a primary technique of getting the base angry https://www.thestar.com/politics/federal/2021/05/22/want-to-win-stoke-voters-anger-excitement-pride-and-fear-say-the-conservatives-social-media-strategists.html.  We don’t know yet whether other parties will do likewise, but having even just one major party doing this can make democracy more about winning than serving or governing.  It is a hugely dangerous emphasis in our politics.  (More on angry partisanship in earlier blog posts:  Removing the appeal of authoritarianism – Upon reconsidering…, and  Restraint and Civic Virtue – Upon reconsidering….)

Once elected, parliamentarians often feel devalued.

Marland and reports from Samara Canada such as Michael Morden et. al. (Real House Lives:  Former Members of Parliament on How to Reclaim Democratic Leadership), often cited by Marland, are both replete with examples of Members’ dissatisfaction with the poor extent to which their abilities are used to further the work of democracy and government.  From Morden (emphases are mine):

For candidates and then the Members of Parliament (MPs) who are selected, the party is central to every stage and facet of their career: training, key messages, assignment of roles.

Interviews with former MPs suggest that the party is a source of deeply conflicting experiences. It provides welcome, friendship, community, security, information, and mission. But it is also the source of enormous frustration. Former MPs describe their party as an obstacle to meaningful work and as contributing to a sense of diminishment, embarrassment, loss of purpose, and even betrayal.

In theory, an office-seeker first encounters their party locally, at the riding association, the community branch of the national party. Members and supporters of a riding association—again, in theory—decide which private citizens become candidates who bear the party standard. In practice, the stories of former MPs suggest real variance in the extent to which parties have any kind of grounding in community. Riding associations ranged from totally non-existent to energetic recruiters who were the reason people ended up in politics. But in general, and with few exceptions, MPs rarely experienced strong, functioning local party organizations. Much of the recruitment was done by the national parties, most of the interviewed MPs did not have contested nominations, and several of those who did raised questions about the integrity of the nomination process.

In fact, the Samara Centre’s analysis of more than 6,600 federal candidates who ran from 2004-2015 found that just 17% had actually come through a competitive nomination race.

The administration of nomination elections could be amateurish and volatile. And several MPs raised concerns about who, exactly, was participating in the nomination process. Nominations were not seen as contests for the support of a true mini-public of members committed to the local party. Rather, according to one MP, it was about “the bulk sale of instant memberships, [which makes it] very easy to take over nominations.” Another MP was blunt about the implications of this: “Members never remain members for long, anyway. So it’s a kind of fake democracy.”

But for the greater number of MPs interviewed, the riding association—and by extension, the party as a mass national organization—factored little in their entry to politics and their experiences in elected office thereafter. 

Proposed solutions

What to do to defend democracy in Canada?  It has been pointed out that most people do not have time to look beyond the simple act of voting.  No time to get to know the candidates, nor what a party really stands for, nor whether a party, once elected, kept its promises.  Let alone time to understand how the candidates became the candidates, how and by whom the platforms were created, and so forth.  And yet we know that these matters which lead up to the vote, are as important as the vote itself.  It’s true that most people haven’t the time, perhaps not the interest either, to learn about these things, let alone participate in their creation.

We need to build a structure that does not require more time of the voter, but nonetheless bolsters the health of democracy.  It should not give inordinate power to insiders, particularly at the top, nor to those otherwise outside the process.  It should make it difficult for parties and politicians to act for their own benefit rather than the benefit of the voters.  This proposal does not offer complete conclusions regarding all the issues, but it does provide a concept for a democratic structure which could enable greater democratic participation and higher quality government over the long term.   It would encourage both civic and political engagement appropriate to the voter’s availability and interest. It is a structure which makes it easier for citizens to both do their duty in the midst of crowded lives, and also to deepen, if they so wish and have the time, their involvement in more certain and explicit ways.  All the while, it keeps political processes in more carefully constructed bounds than currently.

I’m sure this is only the beginning of a constructive discussion and collective thought.

I propose three aspects of structure, which should be considered as a whole:

I.  Mandatory voting.

II.  Specific qualifications for being a candidate, and continuing to be an elected official.

III.  Term limits.

I. Mandatory voting: This is done in other countries.  While there is not necessarily a benefit to this in itself, it is a base upon which the subsequent proposals rest.  It makes winning an actual majority in a riding a truly meaningful accomplishment, and bolsters the credibility of the candidate and the resulting government.

It could come about in this way:

1.  Keep current minimum ages for voting, but require everyone over 25 (the age when prefrontal cortex completes construction, supplying best level of abstract thought and delayed gratification) to vote in provincial and federal elections.

2.  Provide that a candidate is elected as representative from that riding only if a majority of votes are cast for that person, using this ballot template:

A.  Do you wish to vote for a party leader for Premier/Prime Minister*? {success assumes that they are elected in their riding in the normal way; if not, the caucus meets to select an elected official to be the leader**}:

  • If Yes:  these are the candidates_____________  Choose one.

          If No:  go to next question.

B.  Do you wish to vote for a local candidate in your election district?

            If Yes:  in this electoral district, the candidates are:___________. Vote for one.

            If No:  thank you.  Please return your ballot to the Returning Officer.

C.  If the party leader elected in their own district does not have enough elected local candidates of their party to form a government, are you willing to authorize changing your vote*** for the local candidate affiliated with the party of the elected premier/prime minister?

            Please circle Yes or No, and place your ballot in the designated receptacle.

*This would be direct election of a prime minister or premier (almost – read further).  It is a radical departure, but because voters can express their preference for a particular party and its leader only by voting for the local candidate, they may find they want one but not the other:  a good party leader but an unsuited local politician, or vice-versa.

**This would have had to be provided for in changes to legislation and party constitutions.

*** Preferential voting would apply, which also would require changes in legislation.  This would mean that an elected prime minister or premier could acquire enough Members from their own party to form a government, even though voters’ first choices might not have provided that.  Although each elected Member must have received a majority of local votes, that doesn’t guarantee a government supported by a majority of elected Members.  The government might receive the largest number of elected Members, but still be minority government.

II.  Qualifications for candidacy and continued service in elected office:

We need elected politicians who bring to office at least as much personal, community service, and professional accomplishment as do the appointed independent senators.  This means we must eliminate the tendency to arrange last-minute drop-in candidates by the party’s leader and/or by other mechanisms put their behest.  It means setting party-wide standards while respecting the candidate- seeking process at the riding level. Candidates and elected politicians should understand the world around them, and the environment of their constituency, and not be dependent upon the party leadership for that information.  They should be able to form their own judgement on issues of the day, not be bound by loyalty to the party leadership.  They should have already demonstrated good character.  Thus, when faced with urgent issues which must be tackled in short order while perceiving broad implications of any potential decision, their good judgement and character can be counted on (Character in politicians – Upon reconsidering….) The next few years are sure to test these qualities.  (The proposal below regarding term limits will help with this.)

These expectations may seem elitist, but it is possible to look beyond the customary groups within which candidates typically may be found, to search among different populations and socio-economic circumstances, to find achievers within those contexts. 

There is currently too much emphasis on the candidates as professional or career politicians, rather than on their responsibilities.  Some wish to perpetuate themselves from campaign to campaign, developing riding association executives dedicated primarily to them rather than to the party and the constituency. To correct this, we should develop riding association executive responsibilities to stand over and aside from the candidates and elected officials (the Westminster system). These should have responsibility to continuously evaluate the quality of service to the constituency, and suitability to hold public office. As in other employment situations, objective standards should be established in writing by the party and the riding association, and an annual evaluative process developed.  It should be based on demonstrated accomplishment showing service and accountability to the constituents, an appropriate level of support to the party, but also cooperation with other Members even outside their party.  It should also prescribe having good relations with officials in other levels of government.  Unsatisfactory evaluations could result in refusing to allow the candidacy in the next election.  Complaints about candidate and elected representative behaviour, either professional or personal, should be evaluated by joint effort of the riding association and party officials, following permanent, on-going (i.e., not adjusted for particular campaign periods) guidelines established by the party at a general meeting.  An unsatisfactory evaluation should stop a candidacy, and remove a sitting official.

The current responsibility for the candidate to largely fund the candidacy by signing up new members to support that candidacy makes the candidate more important than the party or constituency.  Instead, all fund-raising for a campaign should be the responsibility of the riding association and the party and all memberships which allowed participating in the nomination meeting must be at least of six month’s duration prior to the meeting.

III.  Term limits.

Public office should be a temporary time of service, not a career.  We ought not admire nor approve mere personal political ambition.  Candidates should demonstrate that they can best meet the needs of the public and the times – for a while. 

So:  term limits.  Perhaps no more than 12 years total elected public service in any combination of government levels (exceptions for premier/prime minister, see below). Here’s how.

Stagger elections of local MPPs and MPs into cohorts, one third to be elected every other year to a term of six years.  Revoke the four-year election cycle, and expect the premier or prime minister to call an election when suitable, within the historic five-year cycle.  Vote for the premier/prime minister directly, from among only the serving Members, or cohort of candidates in the upcoming election. If the premier/prime minister is elected near the normal six-year term expiration, extend their term proportionately****, without extending the total allowed time in office. The parties can continue to recruit and support local candidates, in each cohort.  But individuals can run as independents as well.

The premier/prime minister would still appoint a cabinet, and could do so regardless of members’ party affiliation.  Should the government lose the confidence of the House (requiring an election), the premier/prime minister loses that post but continues as Member until the required election.  Likewise cabinet ministers.  In preparation for the required election the parties continue to nominate their leaders from among elected or candidate Members.  

Candidates need to be able to plan for their financial security, and taking time out for public office is a risk.  Some forms of pensions should be arranged in provinces that don’t have them, to help politicians return to their previous careers, or begin new ones. 

There would be several benefits in term limits. Members would be largely independent of the leader.  The leader would have to seek cooperation across the political spectrum:  govern through the cooperation of all Members, not just a single party.  A new premier/prime minister would have to get along with other currently serving Members, and with new ones as cohorts change.  Members would probably better represent their constituencies to the government rather than the other way ‘round as now.  All this diminishes the power of the leader, and the structure thwarts every politician’s ability to stay long.  None will think that the country depends upon their continued service.  This results in diminished power of the parties.

Yes, there have been some high-quality long-serving elected officials; I don’t want to devalue their service.  But we do not know that fresh blood coming in more often would not have provided a similar quality of service.  The seasoned politicians’ departures (but see below) leave room for new ideas, new ways of doing things, and protect the newcomer from having to “fit in” with the deeply established politicians (which also diminishes the parties’ power). Newcomers can provide their contributions more quickly without being bound by the way things had always been done.

Members who reach their limits of elected public service time could continue to be active in their parties, and provide their experience to advise their successors.  This would add vitality to the parties, encourage public interest in politics, and bring in new blood.

****New six-year term, less time remaining in the current term.

Summary and discussion.

The value which parties may bring, e.g., a political philosophy, camaraderie, and whatever benefits derive from group effort, continue.  The extraordinary discipline and control over individual thought, diminishes.  Members are more accountable to their constituencies than to their party leader.  The value of party-employed political and policy advisors becomes questionable:  expertise in serving the common good becomes the primary value, and the partisan slant diminishes.

The party poling processes might become less prevalent, but the need to ensure paying attention to the public will continue.  This could be arranged through government-funded research and through continuous public consultation such as MASS LBP conducts in Europe DAFmasterFINAL (squarespace.com).

The potential reduction in party and ideological control over politicians could solve the current problem — the tendency for each new government to overturn efforts of the past governments purely for ideological reasons.  Good government needs some policies to continue regardless of short-term political preferences, e.g., pubic transit, financial supports of individuals, and maintaining  public housing stock, medical facilities, and public health.

Candidates and politicians who do not place themselves within a party, will not have been vetted (see above) and may have to prove their value and character otherwise.  Once elected, independents, absent party membership, will not have an equivalent of riding associations to whom they are accountable, although they may establish something of their own.

Because of the staggered cohorts and term limits, parties have little ability to control the political careers or to demand loyalty.

Election of only those winning a majority in the ridings, together with mandatory voting,  ensures that a “majority government” is placed by an actual  majority of eligible voters, something rare.

Government is complex, and one wonders whether ever-fresh blood in elected office leaves too much power in the civil service.  This may be ameliorated by the Democratic Action Fund (see above link) or something like it.

We are in dangerous times.  In addition to the current pandemic and other likely future ones, the climate crisis  already upon us, and will be much worse by 2030, not 2050.  How to form governments and parliaments with well-informed, intelligent Members, and rule when consistent long-term structures and methods are required, is perhaps more difficult in liberal democracies than in other forms.  But recognizing the problem should enable solving it.  I hope these proposals appeal.

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