The most dysfunctional and undemocratic parliament in the Commonwealth?

On, Frances Russell reviews Democratizing the Constitution — Reforming Responsible Government, by Peter Aucoin, Mark D. Jarvis and Lori Turnbull.

Russell begins the review by declaring that “Canada has the most dysfunctional and undemocratic parliament in the British Commonwealth.” She subsequently indicates that the book’s proposal is that:

Canada should follow the lead of its sister Commonwealth countries Britain, Australia and New Zealand and codify the principles of parliamentary democracy to ensure the players — voters and politicians — understand the playbook and stay within the rules.

Because themes of this sort are a frequent topic of discussion around here, I thought I would open up a new thread.

Thanks to Wilf Day for the link.

19 thoughts on “The most dysfunctional and undemocratic parliament in the Commonwealth?

  1. I’m astounded to learn that Australia and New Zealand have codified the rules of parliamentary democracy. Neither constitution mentions parliamentary democracy directly and on first impression both constitutions read as though Queen Victoria exercised roughly the same powers as Elizabeth I or Charles II. Some Australian states and territories have moved in this direction.

    Canada does seem to have a problem with the relationship between first ministers and governors, but ‘most undemocratic parliament in the Commonwealth’ is a hard argument to make.

      • Well there is the New Zealand Constitution Act 1986 although it’s an ordinary act and does not cover the field in any sense. Still there is a difference between an unentrenched and uncodified constitution and no constitution at all. There are also constitutional provisions in the electoral act and the bill of rights act.

      • But you can’t include the Electoral Act as part of the constitution, and then say “Neither constitution mentions parliamentary democracy directly” when the said Act lays out the mechanics of elections to Parliament. The Constitution Act reserves the exclusive right of Parliament to levy taxes and borrow/spend.

      • I’d see those as characteristics of electoral democracy. What is absent is parliamentary democracy, the idea that there is a cabinet that answers to the parliament, is subject to votes of confidence, and that the governor-general acts on the advice of the prime minister or the cabinet, etc etc…

  2. The Canadian senate appears to be a triumph of practice over theory. The Liberal/Conservative duopoly over political power has kept it safe, as both Liberals and Conservatives have been willing to appoint as many senators as it takes to get a majority, but it would be interesting to see what tactic a NDP government would take to obstruction from a Conservative controlled Senate, as they have previously refused to appoint Senators or contest Senate elections.

      • I’m not so sure. 2015’s election is anyone’s to win, something I never expected to be able to say. Party ID is at yet another all-time low, the Liberals and NDP have learned how to fundraise, and the leader dynamics are perfectly aligned for massive swings during an election campaign.

        I think Wells’ Rule (that any outcome in Ottawa will be the least interesting among the possibilities) is inoperative this year. A Conservative majority seems out of reach, and anything else probably means some form of Liberal/NDP cooperation. A Conservative minority likely means lots of popcorn for wonks and pundits.

      • If the Conservatives’ recent polling gains in Quebec are more than a blip, it may not be accurate to say that they can’t win a majority, although I agree it is unlikely. I don’t see how one could say that the NDP could win (i.e. be the plurality party), although I take the point that the polls may not capture potential swings during the campaign ahead. We have seen some pretty spectacular polling failures at the provincial level in recent years.

      • And for whatever it might be worth, in today’s projection at ThreeHundredEight (which is based off polling averages), the Conservatives are the only party within a few seats of a majority in the “high” projection and over it in the “max”. This is despite the fact that the Liberals lead in the current vote projection.

        Interestingly, the projection shows the Greens securely on 2 seats. The Bloc is anywhere from 0 to 20 (but projected a mere 3)!

      • MSS: “If the Conservatives’ recent polling gains in Quebec are more than a blip,…”

        I was writing with the assumption that the election will be held on the legislated date of Oct 19, and therefore that the Tories’ terror polling bump in Quebec will be over by then. The bump however has increased the likelihood of a snap June election being called immediately following the (late) delivery of the budget.

        My gut tells me that a Conservative majority should not be countenanced. There are two reasons:
        1) Post WWII, Tories historically do not poll well between elections, and increasingly have to time their peaks ever more perfectly, particularly as incumbents. They have surged too soon, at least for an Oct 19 election.
        2) A leader obtaining a fourth consecutive mandate (much less a majority) has not been achieved in over a century. Harper is a superlative politician, but it seems hard to think of him in the league of Macdonald or Laurier.

        So the odds are steep. The Tories have beaten the Liberals by being the least-worst campaigners three times in a row. Their one hope is that they finally figure out how to run a good campaign, which might just make them unstoppable. IMO their team is weaker this year than previous campaigns.

        MSS: ” I don’t see how one could say that the NDP could win ”
        The NDP are bang on their usual polling level, yet came close to winning a plurality in the last election. Demography and nearly absent Party ID in Quebec were the culprits. Party ID is stronger outside Quebec, but continues to weaken. The campaign is everything now. In this particular election, millions of voters who want to be rid of the Tories have a much tougher choice than usual. My gut tells me that if Trudeau doesn’t look like he can win 15 days before the election, the Liberals could be obliterated as voters rush to the NDP, and not just in Quebec this time. Mulcair is effectively a Liberal leading a reformed NDP, and if voters realize this they may feel he is the safer option. If Mulcair creates two smoking craters in the debates, this election could be a carnival. The real unknown is: Can Mulcair campaign? If the answer is no, the NDP will lose a whack of seats.

  3. Even though Ireland isn’t a Commonwealth country but influence by English Constitutional developments, but it uses of STV makes it an outlier, but Australia uses STV for it’s upper house and NZ MMP, but it has a codified constitution and could the Irish Constitution be a model for Canada, Australia, and NZ in codifying Westminster procedures? Do Westminster procedures need to be codified, and could codifying conventions make forming governments more difficult, I would think there is a case where one can codify too much.

  4. Considering the Commonwealth of Nations includes nations such as Brunei, Cameroon, Nigeria and Swaziland, one might think it is fair to assume that the linked article is really inviting literary criticism of its use of hyperbole.

  5. Canada is a slam dunk for most dysfunctional Commonwealth parliament. The Senate is appointed and the Commons is treated by the government as a vestigial organ on its best days. Canadians seem to like it that way for some reason that eludes me entirely.

    • A number of Commonwealth countries, including Britain itself, have appointed upper houses and the vestigial organ theory is shared by governments from Canberra to London and back.

      • Good point about the appointed upper chamber. Though the Brits, both elites and the public, at least seem keener on reform.

        The Commons in Britain has a much better track record of holding the gov’t to account than in Canada. And the caucuses their leaders (I believe this is perhaps even more important). I would take Westminster every time over the nobodies on Parliament Hill.

        Notably, the The Reform Act (2014) passed the Commons yesterday. Now let’s watch that unelected Senate screw it up. It’s a watered down baby step, but I’ll take any ray of hope in our desperate hour (4 clichés in a sentence, I’m done).

  6. MSS: “in today’s projection at ThreeHundredEight… ”

    Éric at 308 has a perfectly respectable poll aggregation model, but his seat projection model is fairly naive. He uses previous electoral results, polling data, and some fudge factors, but no census or commercial data. His philosophy is also backwards; he maintains that the riding projection is not as important as the aggregate projection (forest vs trees). I believe that riding projections are the entire game, and my models work at the census tract level. I am fairly sure that the internal models of the parties do too, although they are coy about it. For me it’s only a hobby, but my models are 98.8% accurate on average at the riding level since 1997, and have gone as high as 100%.

    For what it’s worth, I am proud to have won the pool at my alma mater’s PS dept and among my pollster friends every year since 1997 (7 federal elections). My former profs don’t have access to the expensive commercial data, and the pollsters weight polls too heavily, when other data is increasingly determinative.

    Given that my model is so dependent upon the census, I fear it may have been fatally weakened by the Conservative’s torpedoing of the 2011 census anyway. I’ve had to quit this hobby due to family time constraints, so I may never know.

    • I think most seat-projection models tend to be naive, and they may need to be. On the other hand, Eric claims his model has performed well in past elections, once polling error is accounted for. That is, feeding the known vote into his model results in a good approximation of the projection to the actual seats.

      I’m not saying he is right. I’m not in a position to judge. But that’s what I understand to be his claim.

  7. Interview with Michael Ignatieff in the Belgian news weekly KNACK (3 june) (my translation from the Dutch printed version):

    Interviewer: You write politicians should not see their opponents as enemies, although it’s an attractive strategy.
    Ignatieff: The European politics of coalition would not survive if politicians depict their opponents as enemies.
    You should be very glad with the system of proportional representation you have. All parties have a chance to form a coalition with each other after the elections: you have to stay polite then.
    In Canada and the United States, where the party with the most votes gets all the seats (sic – plural), it’s much more advantageous to hit opponents hard.
    We’re not used to coalitions. We do not need each other.
    I have noticed this also during my years in parliament. My party colleagues and I rarely or never spoke with MPs of other parties. We only heard each other during debates. And those (debates) were harsh. Spectators did not get cheerful watching us working.
    A policy of creating enemies is destructive for the community.
    Interviewer: Electorally it does pay off.
    Ignatieff: Yes, sometimes it does.
    But people understand how dangerous it is. They understand we have to live together with people with whom we disagree.
    Belgium is a divided country, there’s a lot of criticism on your politicians. But it’s the compromises they agree on which are keeping your country together.
    The taught we would not have politicians any more with such skills, fightens me.

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