Monday, September 14, 2009

We Can Do Better Than Westminster

By the end of the work week, we may well know if Canadians are going to have to reckon with an election once again. The opposition in Parliament, dominated by Michael Ignatieff's Liberal Party, lost its composure recently and announced that it would no longer support Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative minority government. For those unfamiliar with the Westminster parliamentary system, a minority government is one where no party holds more than half of the seats in Parliament, and as such the governing party is dependent on the support of at least some of the opposition in order to govern at all.

Yesterday, facing the potential of Canada's fourth election in six years, the Globe and Mail's John Ibbitson asked, "Is Canada broken?" Election after interminable election, he wrote, may be indicative of a "malfunction" in the political system, and that the parties are spending more time jockeying for power and influence than actually doing their duties. Canada isn't particularly used to minority governments; before 2004, when Paul Martin's lackluster campaign kicked off our current stretch, Canada's last minority government was in 1979, and from what I can tell, there has never been such a long string of minority governments in Canadian history.

What I have to ask, though, is - is this a bad thing? Or, more to the point, are we asking the wrong question? Could it be that it's not Canada that's broken, but Canada's system of government that's broken?

I've never been enchanted with the Westminster parliamentary system. My first substantial introduction to it came in a high school Politics class, where I first learned of and was disgusted by the concepts of party loyalty and party discipline. Maybe part of that derives from my proximity to the United States, and the constant news from there about Democratic and Republican senators and congressfolk trading support and influence like bubblegum. Here, it's not the same. If a Prime Minister stands at the head of a majority government, he or she wields supreme executive power - and considering the four-party nature of Canadian federal politics, it's hardly derived from a mandate from the masses. In the 2000 federal election, the last time a majority government was voted in, the Liberals won their majority with 40.85% of the vote.

Another of Ibbitson's issues is that due to this constant electioneering, a majority of the bills tables in Parliament are never passed into law, and as such Parliament is not doing its job. To be honest, I prefer these slate-blanking opportunities when I look back at what the Conservatives have tried to do. Our prospective new copyright law, Bill C-61 - written with the assumption, it seems, that the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act did not go far enough - died on the table in 2008, and Canada is better off for it. Minority governments, and the electioneering associated with them, can filter out terrible bills that would be pushed through without a blink if one party had control.

The way I see it, it's the Westminster system that's broken. I'm thankful that we've not had a majority government for the last five years, because it means that one party has not been able to run roughshod over the loyal opposition and remake Canada in its image. I would like nothing more than for there never to be a majority government again. Effective, responsive governments are based on consensus, and parliamentary majorities discourage exactly that. No party should be handed the keys to the country by merely a plurality of the voters. That's not what real democracy is.

Maybe the Conservatives are right - maybe it is time for a change. Maybe they were just wrong about exactly what it is that needs to be changed.

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