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State of the Nation



Articles / State of the Nation / 2002 and earlier

State of the Nation

Why Can't we Impeach a Prime Minister?
(First published in the Calgary Herald, January 1999, during the uproar over the impeachment and trial of American President Bill Clinton for some alleged criminality no one really believed in, even at the time, and no one can remember anymore)

These are great days for parliaments and tough times for national leaders. Except in Canada.

The United States, the Great Republic, is suddenly acting as if it had a parliamentary government. In a presidential government, powers are supposed to be divided and balanced, with each branch independent of the others. But in a parliamentary government, leaders are constantly dependent upon the support of their legislatures.

Only in extraordinary circumstances can an American legislature challenge a president's hold on office.

But today the Republican opposition controls Congress, and party feeling runs high. Last November, the Republicans dumped Newt Gingrich, their own parliamentary leader, just because he failed to deliver a few seats they expected to win. If we can do that to our own guy, feisty Republicans must have concluded, why can't we dump the other side's leader too?

Suddenly all the Republicans claim they believe Bill Clinton's lies and adulteries are high crimes (while all the Democrats claim to believe they are not). The fate of the head of government hangs on the votes Clinton's party can muster in Congress, far more than on the evidence (or lack of it). It is as if a parliament ran the United States.

A parliament does run Israel, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in trouble as deep as Clinton's. He won the election and put together a majority, and when he signed the Wye River Accord, some of his worst enemies applauded. But his hard-line supporters in the Knesset decided he had gone soft, and they dumped him. His own caucus has forced the Israeli prime minister into a general election, halfway through his "mandate" and just when he is deeply unpopular with much of the public.

That's how parliamentary governments work. When parliaments function, there are no four-year mandates for leaders. As Clinton is discovering and Netanyahu always knew, parliamentary leaders fall the moment they lose the support of the legislative majority, whether the cause is high crimes, policy disagreements, or simply the struggle for office.

All over the world, that leadership-review process has been working with ruthless efficiency.

• In New Zealand and Australia, prime ministers and premiers come and go with startling suddenness. One day last winter Jim Bolger was in his eighth year as New Zealand's prime minister when he walked into a caucus meeting -- and walked out a backbencher. The MPs had invited a cabinet member named Jenny Shipton to take over, and she is now PM.
• In Japan, the Liberal Democrats win every election, but the name on the prime minister's door changes almost every time the Nikkei stock market hiccups. It's much the same in India. Congress Party backbenchers search desperately for a new Gandhi, while factions in the anti-Congress coalition hobble each other's prime ministerial aspirants.
• In Britain, mother of parliaments, no one has forgotten the fate of Margaret Thatcher, deposed in mid-term by her own MPs as soon as the polls went bad.

All over the world, the routine fate of parliamentary leaders is that their caucus abandons them before they want to go. It's cruel in its way, but it's parliamentary. And it serves the public interest well.

Then there is Canada.

Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, considering his future at year's end, said his health and Aline's approval were the only factors that mattered. If they hold up, he might stay in office forever. And why not? He never has to look nervously over his shoulder in the House. His backbenchers vote as he tells them, even when (as in last year's Hep C vote) his policies bring tears to their eyes.

In British Columbia, Glen Clark takes the NDP toward single-digit approval ratings, and his backbenchers know they face annihilation when the election comes. But Premier Clark feels no more challenge than Prime Minister Chrétien. And who can forget Brian Mulroney, loyally propped up against public anger by his MPs, many of them westerners, until furious voters finally destroyed the Tory party, perhaps forever?

Whatever happened to parliamentary government in Canada? What happened to the system that bounces underperforming leaders in the blink of an eye? Like the Americans, we seem intent on making the worst of both systems. The Americans are trying to run a presidential system like a parliamentary one. But we Canadians have a parliamentary system that treats our leaders as if they were presidents, free to do anything they please in the four or five years between elections.

The Canadian problem is a tough one to face up to. For the problem lies squarely in one of the political traditions Canadians are most proud of. Nothing has done more to undermine accountability in Canadian politics than the process we boast of making more "democratic" every time we use it -- the way we select our party leaders.

For generations -- since 1919, in fact -- Canadian parties have booked a hockey arena and gathered the party membership together whenever they have needed to pick a new leader. Recently they have gone farther, giving up the arena and inviting all party members to vote. With one unanimous voice, Canadians have hailed these processes as democratic, as the way to let the people, the "grassroots" people, participate in government. And the more people who cast a vote in a leadership race, the more democratic we consider the process.

This extra-parliamentary process for picking party leaders has become a sacred, unquestionable fact of Canadian politics. It is endorsed as strongly by Reformers as by socialists, by easterners as much as by westerners, by TV pundits and the guys in the donut shop. If more people cast a leadership vote, it must be more democratic.

But democracy is about who is accountable to whom, as well as who votes. In Canada, a leadership convention dissolves the day it picks a new leader. It will not meet again so long as the leader remains in office. For all practical purposes, a Canadian party leader chosen by an extra-parliamentary party vote is accountable to no one most of the time.

Canadians rage impotently against the spineless, cowardly toadying of backbench politicians, particularly those on the government side. But in fairness, the backbenchers are accepting the conditions we celebrate as democratic. Since we do not trust our elected representatives to choose the party leaders, the parliamentarians accept that they have no right to remove them or even to disagree with them. Jean Chrétien, Brian Mulroney, Glen Clark, and Preston Manning -- they all tell their backbenchers that since they hold the democratic mandate of a extra-parliamentary leadership selection, they cannot be overruled by mere Members of Parliament. Between elections, Canadian party leaders are beyond accountability to anyone. We have made them quasi-presidents.

All over the world, parliamentary democracy has a wonderfully supple and flexible means for dealing with unpopular governments, even between elections. When a parliamentary government gets on a collision course with public opinion, the party caucus becomes an independent third force. It can support the government if it wishes. But it can also choose to side with public opinion. And if it does, leaders can be changed and policies reversed in a matter of days -- as Margaret Thatcher famously discovered when her poll tax enraged the British public.

That is the instrument we have removed from parliamentary government in Canada. We thought it was democratic to take party leadership selection away from parliamentarians. Instead, extra-parliamentary selection has made the elected representatives of the Canadian people the only men and women in the country with no political opinions of their own. It has turned our legislatures into ceremonial talking-shops. It has turned our party leaders into quasi-presidents, secure in office for four or five years no matter how inept or unpopular they prove.

And our only remedy -- a leadership review of the kind that eventually toppled John Diefenbaker and Joe Clark -- is even more slow, unwieldy, and destructive than a presidential impeachment.

President Clinton faces removal from office because he is accused of crimes. What would happen if a Canadian premier or prime minister stood accused of having sex with children, or selling secrets to Russia, or transferring the treasury to a Cayman Islands bank account? It is a terrible question. The Canadian tradition -- that backbenchers must support an incumbent first minister -- is very strong. In 1991, when the RCMP in British Columbia was investigating Premier Bill Vander Zalm, his caucus all wished he would go. But they kept him in office until an "ethics commissioner," an unelected civil servant personally appointed by the premier, told him he must resign.

Real parliamentarians don't need ethics commissioners.

The possibility of first-ministerial crime is not the daily problem of Canadian government. The daily reality that destroys Canadians' faith in our political system is arrogant, untouchable, irresponsible leadership -- the kind of mandate that only extra-parliamentary selection can give a leader.

Some day, somewhere in Canada, some group of backbenchers will eventually kick over the traces and throw out an incumbent leader -- just the way parliamentarians routinely do all over the world. Could it happen in B.C., as NDP backbenchers contemplate returning to private life in Prince George or Pouce Coupe? Could it possibly happen in Ottawa, if power-loving Liberal MPs concluded Paul Martin offers better re-election prospects?

Could Alberta, the source of so many political innovations, take the lead here? Tory backbenchers might think it over. Would Ralph be a better premier if he had to look over his shoulder now and then? Would Canadian politics be more interesting if our elected representatives had more to do than hand out plaques?

©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd 1999

The Heave - Backbenchers Fight Back
(First published in National Post, Toronto, February 13,2001. The Post was running a week-long series on what was wrong with the Canadian Parliament.)

John Bruton's fate went unnoted in the Canadian media last week. Mr. Bruton is an Irish politician, and, until Jan. 31, was leader of the opposition Fine Gael party in the Irish parliament, the Dáil. He is a former Taoiseach, or Prime Pinister, and has been in the Dáil since the 1960s; a centrist, not very flamboyant, slowly moving toward the top.

Today Mr. Bruton differs from Jean Chrétien in one big way. He was dumped from the leadership of Fine Gael by his own supporters. His ouster and the election of a successor took just 10 days. What happened to Mr. Bruton is so routine in Irish parliamentary life they have an expression for it: The Heave.

Jean Chrétien, meanwhile, remains calm and unhurried about his future as leader of the Liberal party and Prime Minister of Canada. "In the third year, or something like that, I will decide if I still want to do it or not," he said recently.

I will decide.

Like Brian Mulroney, Pierre Trudeau and John Diefenbaker before him, Mr. Chrétien is almost guaranteed to lead his party for as long as he likes. If he leaves 24 Sussex Drive any time in the next five years, it will probably be due more to Aline Chrétien than Paul Martin.

All Canadian party leaders enjoy that kind of security, even in opposition. Lately some Canadian Alliance members have murmured about their leader's performance, but Stockwell Day dismissed them, calling them "ankle-biters." And with reason: To rid themselves of either Mr. Chrétien or Mr. Day, their parties would have to spend the next two years tearing themselves apart. In Canadian politics, The Heave never happens.

Many Canadians believe the invulnerability of party leaders is a natural consequence of the parliamentary system. Parliamentary systems, we hear, are top-down, executive-dominated. "A parliamentary system allows the leader of a majority government a five-year term as 'an elected dictator,' " Allan Fotheringham wrote a couple of days after the Nov. 27 election. He opined that Canadians stick with the parliamentary system, a colonial relic of our British heritage, only because we do not really believe in democracy.

But there is no longer anything particularly British about the parliamentary system. Countries as remote from Britain as Japan, Norway, Italy and Israel govern themselves through systems much like Canada's. Parliamentary systems are blossoming in the former Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe. Ireland and India long ago threw the British out in anti-colonial crusades, but neither country gave up the parliamentary form of government when it achieved statehood.
Around the world, parliamentary systems are anything but colonial -- and they are anything but executive-dominated. The Heave is much more typical of parliamentary leadership around the world than the ironclad security even an inept and unpopular leader can enjoy in Canada.

With the Liberal Democratic Party in power almost without interruption since the Second World War, Japan has a long tradition of one-party rule. But Japanese prime ministers come and go with astonishing rapidity -- eight in the past 10 years alone. The LDP's Yoshiro Mori, who became prime minister less than a year ago, is now on his third desperate attempt to form a Cabinet that will satisfy the party.

"Japan has not had strong prime ministers since the 1950s," says Michael Donnolly, a University of Toronto political scientist who specializes in Japan. Finance Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, an 81-year-old former prime minister, is considered more powerful than Mr. Mori, and Japanese media speculation focuses on how soon his parliamentary faction will replace Mr. Mori with someone else. "The common opinion in Japan now is 'We have got to strengthen executive government, we need to strengthen the prime minister,' " Mr. Donnolly says.

Secure tenure has not been the experience of New Zealand political leaders, either. In 1997, right-wing Prime Minister Jim Bolger found his popularity slipping midway through his third three-year term. But Mr. Bolger got no chance for a Trudeau-style walk in the sheepfolds to consider his future. He went into a caucus meeting one morning and discovered he was being replaced as prime minister by one of his National party Cabinet ministers, Jenny Shipley.

Ms. Shipley's party lost the general election in 1999. But Helen Clark, New Zealand's new prime minister, also knows the dangers incumbent leaders face. As a Cabinet minister in the 1980s, she saw her prime minister, David Lange, dumped in a heated policy fight with his own finance minister, Roger Douglas.

Australians can hardly remember the last time a successful prime minister left office of his own volition. In 1994, Finance Minister Paul Keating dumped Prime Minister Bob Hawke. Mr. Hawke himself came to power by overthrowing a previous party leader. Australia's current Prime Minister, John Howard, will suffer the same fate if his Liberal party should falter in the run-up to the next election.

In India, Norway, Italy, Thailand, Britain and other parliamentary regimes, the story is the same. Prime ministers and party leaders constantly scramble to shore up support, knowing swift dismissal is likely if they or the party's popularity begin to wobble. The Canadian disease -- arrogant, entrenched leaders free from review for years at a time -- is unknown in the other parliamentary democracies. Parliamentary systems are flexible things, and all adapt to local custom. But worldwide, The Heave rules.

In virtually every parliamentary country in the world, party leaders, including prime ministers, are chosen and dismissed by the parliamentary caucus, not by a party convention or a mass vote of the whole membership.
Parliamentarians in other countries express no admiration for the system most Canadians presume to be democratic. "I would be very reluctant to see us go to a mass party vote," says Austin Deasy, an Irish TD (member of Parliament) who helped spearhead The Heave of his longtime colleague John Bruton in favour of another frontbench member, Michael Noonan. "We [in the caucus] are in a very good position to judge the potential of a leader, from seeing them at close hand and knowing their abilities."

Mr. Deasy stresses giving Mr. Bruton The Heave was a question of electability, driven by party and public opinion. "The only question was who would be our best performer." Under Mr. Bruton, he says, "our rating in the polls was getting steadily worse. There was a lot of murmuring from the party, from the constituency organizations, that they were very unhappy with his leadership."

Parliamentarians in countries that use The Heave argue their power to hire and fire party leaders -- even prime ministers -- is the key that makes a parliamentary system democratic. In November, 1990, British Conservative politician William Hague, then a backbencher, took part in the deposing of Margaret Thatcher and her replacement as party leader and prime minister by John Major.

"In many parliaments of the world," Mr. Hague said soon afterward, "you hear people complaining that individual members of Parliament have far too little influence over the party leadership ... or the party leader is too powerful. In the British system, the fact that the electoral college for the leader is the same as the parliamentary party gives the parliamentary party tremendous influence, even when there isn't a leadership election, because the leader knows these are the people who can throw him or her out."

In 1991, Mr. Hague called the power of MPs to dump a leader, even a prime minister, "the nuclear weapon" of parliamentary government. "All of us who are constituency MPs trying to represent our constituents and our interests in different parts of the country ... know we are strengthened by having this colossal power at our disposal in extreme situations.

"Where party conventions do the choosing of the leader, individual members of Parliament have less influence throughout most of the life of the parliament ... Democracy suffers as a result, because in a parliamentary democracy the ability of members of Parliament to stick up for their constituents, to represent particular points of view, to bring influence to bear upon their party leadership, is very important and fundamental to democracy."

Today Mr. Hague is leader of the British Conservative party. Struggling in the polls, unable to present a strong policy alternative to the New Labour government of Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, Mr. Hague himself now lives under the threat his backbenchers may soon feel compelled to use their nuclear weapon -- on him.

Backbenchers who hold the power of The Heave do not have to use it. Last year, British MP Peter Kilfoyle resigned from Mr. Blair's Cabinet because he believed he could do more as a backbencher. "I wanted to be a critical friend of the government, and not be muzzled by Cabinet solidarity," Mr. Kilfoyle says. "I think, over time, the kind of stance I have taken has helped the government to rediscover the social-policy and economic-policy positions we were elected to pursue."

The British Labour party has moved in the Canadian direction by including the party at large, and also the trade unions, in leadership selection, but Mr. Kilfoyle insists, "It would be inconceivable to have a leader who did not have the support of the parliamentary party." Recently, in exchange for that support, left-wing Labour backbenchers have forced changes in pension and minimum-wage policy on a reluctant Cabinet.

In parliamentary systems where leaders answer to backbenchers, fighting policy battles from a place within the government caucus is the norm. In Australia, caucus policy fights usually have a regional dimension. "Factions in the Australian Labour party caucus are highly organized," with their own staffs and membership lists, says political analyst Ian Ward, of the University of Queensland. "Left and right rivalry in the party has been fought out in regional terms, with the Victorians and the people from New South Wales trying to engineer additional support from the other states to give themselves control of the party's federal policy-making processes." In Australia, Preston Manning could have prospered as leader of a regional/ideological faction within a party capable of winning power. No Australian party caucus becomes a reflection of the leader's will alone.

Could Canada become a parliamentary democracy like other parliamentary democracies of the world? Could the Liberal caucus in Ottawa meet next week and do as parliamentary parties routinely do in Ireland, Britain, Japan, India and many other countries: hold a vote on whether to give Mr. Chrétien The Heave?

As a practical matter, putting the party leadership to the test would take only some moral courage and a little organizing for the Liberal caucus or, for that matter, the Canadian Alliance caucus. There is nothing in the Canadian constitution or the rules of Parliament to inhibit them. Indeed, the fundamental principle of parliamentary government -- the executive must have the day-to-day support of a majority of the elected legislators -- presumes the prime minister will answer to the majority caucus, rather than vice-versa. In parliamentary systems, sustaining or dismissing governments between elections is supposed to be the principal job of legislators.

However, parliamentary systems function by custom as well as by law. In Canada, the custom that leaders should not be accountable to caucuses is now almost a century old -- and very deeply entrenched in the national psyche. In 1919, Mackenzie King became the first Canadian party leader selected by a party convention. He soon became the first to tell a parliamentary caucus that, since it did not choose him, he was not answerable to it. Other parties and leaders soon followed.

Today, the idea that elected representatives should actually control their leaders is a taboo with as much power among experts and pundits as in public opinion. Donald Savoie, in his 1999 study of centralized power in Ottawa, Governing From the Centre, declares parliamentary control of leadership to be "unthinkable" in Canada -- and fulfills his own prediction by thinking no more about it.

The Reform Canadian Alliance party has defined democracy almost exclusively in populist and extra-parliamentary terms. Its declaration that last summer's leadership race was the most democratic ever held in Canada, because more party members voted than ever, went entirely unchallenged -- though at the time Mr. Day's leadership was opposed by a clear majority of Reform MPs, each of whom represented a constituency of voters larger than the total number of party members whose votes made Mr. Day their leader last summer. The growing Canadian consensus that democracy means direct democracy and the only truly democratic process is a referendum along party lines leaves little scope for the processes by which parliamentary systems thrive all over the world.

©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd 2001

Firing the Boss an MP's Right
(First Published in the National Post, Toronto, August 14, 2002)

What this country needs is a political party leadership selection process that is not insane. And any process that cannot sustain or replace a party leader by, say, a week from next Tuesday, fails the test of sanity.

"Here is my conclusion. I will not run again." That is how Jean Chrétien announces it is time for change. Change in 2004, he means. Joe Clark says he has made up his mind to step down. Maybe in about 2003. The New Democrats, real demons for speed, promise to have their leadership "race" wrapped up before next winter is over. The Alliance took years.

Isn't this supposed to be a fast-paced society? Rick Hansen went around the world in a wheelchair faster than our political parties cope with fundamental issues of leadership and accountability.

Democracy, someone said, is not just about how many people vote. It's about who's accountable to whom. Who's accountable when also matters.

The extraordinary achievement of parliamentary democracies all over the world is the way they can deliver that accountability in the blink of an eye.

From Ireland to Japan, from India to Norway to New Zealand, politicians don't platitudinize about the glories of sheep-like loyalty, or about four-year "mandates," or about leaders' absolute "right" to their own futures. Throughout the parliamentary world, governments are accountable to legislatures, because leaders are accountable to caucuses.

Memo to Canada: This works. The Diefenbakers, Trudeaus, Mulroneys, Chrétiens, the leaders who stay too long, infuriate the public and severely damage their own parties, are unknown in the rest of the parliamentary world.
All over the world, prime ministers and party leaders do get out of step with the voters and start to slip in the polls. They do get tainted by scandals and failures. They do begin to look a little tired and shopworn. The public begins to want a change. Just as in Canada.

But out there, backbenchers start looking about. They hear the murmur of the voters back home. They see their own seats in jeopardy if the boss hangs on.

So after a few days, the leader walks into a caucus meeting and learns he or she is being replaced. The new leader junks the offensive policy, cleans up the messes, delivers change. The party has not had to destroy itself, because succession issues are a normal part of the political process.

Out of the ruthless self-interest of backbenchers worried about saving their own seats comes accountability. When a leader is answerable to MPs, MPs can listen to constituents. The political life of a country can be turned around in a moment. Change does not take years, destroy parties, consume millions or require signing up tens of thousands of meaningless, temporary $10 "members."

Ask Tony Blair. Almost alone among parliamentary democracies, Britain has been sliding into the Canadian style of leadership. Blair was chosen by a mass party vote and he has become almost Canadian in his autocratic dominance of his government and his party.

But parliamentary concepts survive in Britain. This summer, when Blair was ready to join George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq, half of Blair's caucus read the polls and declared they would not vote for it. Now Blair is temporizing. Labour MPs said nothing about dumping Blair, but they know the rules. MPs who want influence on policy must hold the power, if only in reserve, to dump the boss.

Without that power, a caucus is just another busload of tourists on Parliament Hill. Which brings us to our Canadian caucuses.

Canadian MPs whine about the "unmitigated hell" they suffer during leadership struggles. They sign -- and later repudiate -- grovelling tributes to doomed leaders and beg to be spared the pain. Why are elected MPs the only people in Canada who have no political opinions of their own? Mostly, I think, because we keep telling them to behave that way.

We constantly declare that leadership conventions and mass party contests are "democratic," and become more so according to how many people have bought votes in them -- though a convention dissolves the moment it picks a leader, leaving him or her accountable to no one.

When Warren Kinsella says five and a half million people voted for Jean Chrétien in the last election, Canadians don't laugh out loud. (Those voters actually elected 170 MPs.) Columnist Norman Spector describes opposition to Jean Chrétien's rule as a "coup d'état" and is taken seriously.

Then there is Jean Chrétien, poor guy. He actually said the other day that the integrity of the prime minister's office is tarnished if the prime minister gets involved in "political power struggles." And the caucus seemed to take him seriously.

We take seriously "parliamentary reform" proposals that say the leader should allow more free votes in Parliament. No one asks what's free about a vote if the leader has to "allow" it.

Paul Martin and Stephen Harper promise reform (Stockwell Day did, too), but top-down parliamentary reform is self-defeating.

MPs would achieve parliamentary reform the moment a caucus showed itself truly able to remove or sustain a party leader by majority vote. They might just do it if we told them we expect them to.

No hurry. A week from Tuesday would do fine.

©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd 2002

Why 'Fair Voting' - The "Fair Voting" Crusade Takes Wing
(First published in National Post, Toronto, May 25, 2002)

The "Fair Voting" Crusade Takes Wing

"This is going to be big," said Larry Gordon a year ago. "This one really is going to grow."

A year ago Larry Gordon, executive director of the newborn lobby group Fair Vote Canada, sensed a citizens' movement rising in the country. With it, he believed, would come a cure for the dysfunctions of Canadian politics and the cynicism they provoke in Canadians. Gordon thought an answer was at hand. "Canadians are committed to democracy, it's one of our core social values. The disgruntlement is with the process, and the answer is voting system reform. Everyone knows it."

Everyone knows it? Voting reform may be precisely the wrong answer to the disgruntlement of Canadians.

But from BC to Prince Edward Island, there are signs that the movement for proportional representation or "fair voting" (as its advocates prefer to call it) is indeed on the rise.

In BC, Green Party activists are stumping the province seeking signatures on a petition to launch a "citizen initiative" that might bring PR to the province. In Quebec, an electoral commission has expressed sympathy. An expression of interest from PEI's electoral commission prompted Premier Pat Binns (currently facing a one-member opposition) to muse aloud about a referendum on the subject.

Voting reform draws support from small parties on both left and right (as long as they remain small, at any rate). Women's groups see voting reform putting more women into Parliament. Some Toronto law professors are even asking the Supreme Court to invoke the Charter and simply impose Proportional Representation on a grateful nation.

And there's near consensus among academic and media commentators that Canada has, as one national columnist recently put it, "Earth's most primitive and perverse electoral system," and that the solution is easy and obvious.

Advocates for voting reform all start with the election-night horrors most Canadians know viscerally.

"Look how often a premier or prime minister opposed by three-fifth of the voters forms a majority government. Sometimes they even get to form a majority government after trailing a rival party in the popular vote. Remember the 1993 election? Roughly equal numbers of votes gave the Bloc Québecois 54 seats, Reform 52 seats, and the Conservatives a mere two seats. We are wasting our votes."

Look at the "prime ministerial absolutism," that exists in Canada today, fair-voting advocates urge. It's "elective dictatorship." It's "elective monarchy." "Forty percent of the votes produces sixty percent of the seats, which produces one hundred per cent of the power, which produces four years of unaccountable authority for the leader of the lucky party. It's not fair. It is not fair."

In isolation, reasonable rejoinders arise. ("Fifty-four communities concluded that their best representative was someone affiliated with the Bloc, when only two communities put that trust in someone associated with Brian Mulroney. That should have meant something!") But "It's not fair" amounts to a pretty powerful case.

What would fair-voting's fair alternative be?

Proportional representation promises to deliver simple fairness. According to PEI's commission of experts, it's "any voting system that assures that the overall results are proportional to the votes cast."

But on examination, such assurances of fairness prove neither clear nor simple. Many countries use PR voting systems, but no two count votes the same way. They don't even use the same jargon to describe them. "Fair voting" turns out to be a jungle of acronyms and formulas.

The voting system most favoured by Canadian "fair voters" is one known as "Mixed Member Proportional," or MMP. It's a system that has served Germany for decades. It is hot among PR aficionados as the system that New Zealand adopted in 1996 to replace a Canadian-style 'first past the post' race in each constituency.

Under an MMP system, a Canadian federal election might be fought in about 150 single-member constituencies, each similar to but twice as large as the existing ridings. These would elect 150 MPs much as our present system does. But another 150 Commons seats would be used to match each party's seat allocation to its share of the popular vote, province by province. These "proportional" seats would "correct" the constituency results, to ensure that seat totals matched the popular vote percentage for each party.

In an MMP election, the Liberal Party might still lose most Alberta ridings. But from the 150 "proportional" seats, it could acquire Alberta seats up to its share of the total vote in that province. Meanwhile, the Alliance, vote-rich and riding-poor in Ontario, would acquire additional seats there. The Bloc Québecois would probably lose half its seats as ridings doubled in size. Greens and other special-interest parties might win no individual constituencies, but still appoint several members to seats in the House.

"Fair vote" advocates promise a plan like this would reverse the rapidly declining voter turnouts at elections. They promise it would fill our legislatures with women and minorities, introduce new parties full of fresh ideas, and let cooperation replace partisan bickering in Ottawa. It would cure the extreme centralization of power in the prime minister's office and even take sleazy deal-making out of politics. "PR is the cure for that," I heard at a fair- voting conference. "Compromises will happen, but they will be done in the open."

Myself, I was still back at those hundred and fifty seats to be handed over to the political parties, who would fill up the Commons from lists of their favourites. (MMP, indeed, is often known simply as "list" PR.) The political parties, large and small, would be entitled to reward one hundred and fifty of their loyalists with sinecure appointments to the House of Commons.

Do our legislatures need more loyal party hacks? Surely the Canadian problem is monarchical prime ministers, excessive party discipline, and party leaders who do as they please. Far from providing the answer, PR seems designed to entrench these problems forever.

List-PR gives voters what they want -- but only if they want to give their vote to a political party. It is the fundamental principle of list-PR that voters cannot vote for individuals; they must vote for parties. In a PR system, the parties get to appoint their followers and friends to the. It is parties, not citizens or communities that get proportionally rewarded in the distribution of seats

To control arrogant, out-of-control party leaders, Canada's urgent need is not voting reform, but legislative reform -- of which more later. Yet recent experience elsewhere suggests the list-PR solution -- MPs as clones of the party list -- makes that problem worse.

In the last decade, New Zealand has become the poster-boy nation of "fair-voting." In the stormy 1980s, a New Zealand prime minister under fire in a television debate promised to put voting reform to a referendum. In the referendum, list-PR won a narrow victory. New Zealand had its first general election under PR in 1996.

PR has delivered on some of its promises in New Zealand. Twenty-six parties contested the first PR election in 1996, and six won seats in the house, making a coalition government virtually certain. Voter turnout increased, and the number of women and minorities in the house grew.

But for New Zealanders who expected simple fairness from PR, the election results were a shock. The majority of voters supported a cluster of leftwing parties. But the leader of one minor leftist party, seizing what was probably his only chance ever to sit in a government cabinet, made a back-room deal to support the leading right-wing party. Despite being rejected by most voters, the Conservative Party held on to power.

So much for the transparency and fairness of fair voting.

PR in New Zealand has proved it can be just as perverse as the old system in trying to match voters' wishes to actual results. Support for PR among New Zealanders promptly plummeted - but the beneficiaries of PR, now in power, stonewalled pleas for another referendum that might reform the unpopular new reforms.

The decisive long-term change is New Zealand, however, is the unfettered authority PR has bestowed on parties and party leaders. As in every parliamentary democracy in the world -- except Canada -- New Zealand party caucuses had always hired and fired their leaders. Many New Zealand prime ministers have been dismissed and replaced in mid-term by their own backbenchers. The Canadian problem of unaccountable party leaders hardly existed.

Under PR, however, half of New Zealand's MPs are now party clones, appointed by their parties and expected to toe the party line. The consequences have come fast. This spring, New Zealand passed the "Electoral Integrity Amendment Act." It empowers party leaders not simply to discipline dissident backbenchers but to toss them right out of Parliament. That's any MP in the caucus, not just the party-appointed clone MPs. Instead from controlling their leaders as they always did, New Zealand MPs have become absolutely dependent on their favour.

This is the logical consequence of list PR. When voters must vote for party labels, not representatives, they cannot expect MPs to have minds of their own. Ordinary MPs, who used to throw out sitting prime ministers at the drop of a poll, have been reduced to party mouthpieces. "The move to proportional representation … has consolidated the power of the political parties, and in particular the party leadership," Canadian Grant Huscroft, who has taught law in New Zealand, recently observed in the New Zealand Herald.

Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto has pointed to a nightmare version of the same result in his country. When Peruvians thought Alberto Fujimori was the saviour of the country, they not only elected him President but also filled Congress with Fujimori-list appointees. Then, when the country decided Fujimori was corrupt and tyrannical, there was no one in Congress with authority to stand up to him. The Dutch, by PR voting, have recently filled their legislature with Pim Fortuyn clones - followers without even a leader to direct them.

Does this sound familiar? It sounds weirdly like … Canada. Under PR, New Zealand's party leaders now act much as Canadian party leaders always have. Canada has long been unique in the parliamentary world for its toleration of party leaders who treat their backbenchers as just so many puppets and tally-sticks. Canadian backbenchers have been silenced, punished, tossed out of the party, and denied chances to run again by their party leaders -- as if they were simply the clone MPs that list-PR mass-produces.

What Canada has needed for decades is legislative reform, a way to refashion party discipline and to make party leaders once more answerable to the people's elected representatives. Instead, PR advocates tell us to reform our voting processes - to entrench the authority of parties and party leaders even more securely.

In our present context, legislative reform would require only a new consensus that the party caucuses must be able to discipline their leaders as much as any other caucus member - even to the point of hiring and firing them when necessary.

In a functioning parliamentary democracy, Stockwell Day would never have arisen, and Jean Chrétien would have left the prime ministers office whenever the Liberal caucus favoured some other leader. We need reform. But list PR would send legislatures in the wrong direction - actually reinforcing a Parliament of party clones.

Rick Salutin once observed that people want democracy and often they get voting instead. PR's advocates are convinced the two things are the same - that reforming the voting system is reforming democracy.

Is it possible to reform the genuine excesses of our voting system without sabotaging urgently needed reforms to our impotent legislatures?

No. And yes.

As Nobel Prize laureate Kenneth Arrow's Impossibility Theorem showed years ago, it is mathematically impossible to run a majority-rule system with three or more contending groups without distortions in the results. The simple promise of "fair" voting is an illusion.

Still, there are alternatives to list-PR that preserve a role for the individual MP, who represents a constituency rather than a party.

Nick Loenen, a former Social Credit MLA in British Columbia who endured Bill Vander Zalm's erratic one-man rule, and Tom Flanagan, the Alberta political scientist and Alliance eminence grise, advocate different versions of the "transferable vote." Instead of handing their votes over to party lists, voters would rank order, 1,2,3, the individual candidates on a constituency ballot.

But transferable vote systems sacrifice the seeming simplicity of list PR for complex and hardly-transparent formulas that would tally first and second preferences. (Louis Massicotte, a Université de Montréal political scientist who has been teaching electoral systems with great sophistication for twenty years, told me he never speaks about the transferable vote without his notes at hand, for fear of confusing the details.

And transferable voting does few favours for small parties, and it provides no benefit for women or minorities. Scholars and policy wonks may see its value, but the organizational support and funding that underpins the fair-voting movement is likely to remain committed to list-PR. Politically, transferable voting looks like a non-starter.

In the end, making Canadian prime ministers and party leaders accountable will demand changes that have little to do with the voting system.

Canadians must reassess the extra-parliamentary processes by which all Canadian parties select leaders who promptly become accountable to no one. They need to remind party caucuses that in a parliamentary system, assessing, controlling, and even firing their leaders is a caucus's duty, not a betrayal.

Faced with that kind of reform, party leaders might begin to jump on the "fair-voting" bandwagon. Whatever else "fair voting" is, it always seems to be "fair" to party leaders and the party faithful.

©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd 2002

Vote-Buying - The Great Canadian Tradition
(First published in National Post, February 14, 2002, in the midst of a leadership controversy in the governing Liberal party and leadership races in the Canadian Alliance and Ontario Conservative parties.)

Some leadership candidates are vote-buying too fast. That seemed to be the complaint Stockwell Day and Allan Rock faced this week.

Day's campaign team was discovered to be wholesaling memberships in the Canadian Alliance party through the Campaign Life organization. Stephen Harper's campaign condemned the maneuvre, and the Alliance tut-tutted its disapproval. Meanwhile, Paul Martin supporters announced that, just to prevent any unseemly rush of would-be Liberals into the fold, the Liberal Party in Ontario would hand out party membership forms one form at a time -- conjuring up images of back-alley scalpers waving bootleg forms, calling, "Who needs Liberals?"

Look closer, and it is all smoke. Anyone wanting to buy or sell a leadership vote - Canadian Alliance, Liberal, Ontario Tory -- will still find party memberships readily available. As the headline on the Liberal Party official website declares, "It's easy to join - just fill in this form."

Leadership rival Stephen Harper condemned Day's marketing tactics, but at the Harper campaign website, a headline counts down the days left "to become a member and vote for Stephen." Team Harper will sign up anyone who can click on a Visa payment approval. It's the same with his rival candidates, and with the Ontario Tory race too. Click on the website of your chosen candidate, and you are in.

In other words, leadership selection is being done pretty much the way it always has been. Canadian political parties offer their memberships at ten dollars a vote - and membership means nothing but a leadership vote. (When was Jean Chrétien ever accountable to the hockey-arena crowd whose votes made him leader in 1990?) Anyone inclined to type in a hundred different names on a website can have still a hundred different memberships. It's marketed as openness, and hailed as democratic, but as disgruntled Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett noted this week, selling votes simply delivers political leadership to those with the most money to buy it.

The Liberal Party does require members to sign on ninety days before a vote. In Ontario, the Tory lists have closed more a month before the balloting begins. But the leadership exchange at the Canadian Alliance remains open and busy. "You have to have your membership before March 1," a vote-seller at Canadian Alliance headquarters in Calgary told me. "Voting starts March 8."

"That's what it is all about," says organizer Rod Love, longtime advisor to Ralph Klein, now supporting Grant Hill in the Alliance race. "Whether it's by website, telemarketing, or person-to-person, however you do it, you have to get those membership forms signed and turned in." Love should know. His old boss Ralph Klein lost on the first ballot when he sought to become premier of Alberta. But a second ballot was scheduled for a week later, and a week of furious vote-selling put Ralph into the premier's office for the next decade.

What about the righteous disapproval showered this week on those who want to buy and sell memberships fast and furious? "That's the fucking hypocrisy of it," says Love. "There is nothing new under the sun. Even back in 1967, even under the old delegate system, Bob Stanfield still had to get out and sell memberships if he wanted to win."

What is extraordinary about the Canadian system of selling political leadership at ten dollars a vote is how completely and unabashedly our parties have reduced political leadership to nothing but vote-buying. A few years ago, old leftie David Orchard scrounged up enough memberships to fall just short of bringing off a hostile takeover of the federal Conservative party. Had the Hells' Angels exerted themselves a week or two ago to purchase several thousand votes in the lacklustre Ontario Tory race, they could have taken control of naming the new premier of Ontario as smoothly as they demolished Mel Lastman.

In Ottawa, practically every Alliance MP who has worked with Stockwell Day has concluded he is impossible as leader. But such judgment will count for nothing if Team Day can move more membership forms than its rivals do. In Canadian politics, ten-dollar votes trump accountability and the judgment of one's peers every time.

"If he [Day] should win by undermining the leadership selection process, he will have turned it into a contemptible struggle," David Bercuson and Barry Cooper harrumphed in the National Post on Wednesday. But it is not the speed or scale of vote-buying that undermines the legitimacy of Canadian leadership races. It is the vote-buying itself. A process that sells our highest political offices at ten dollars a vote is contemptible in itself.

"This is the very worst kind of politics," said Paul Martin last week. "For my part I am fed up with it." Like Bercuson and Cooper, Martin has the right sentiments and the wrong targets. It is not Martin's leadership rivals who are the source of the dirty, corrupt, anti-democratic sleaze that envelops all our political leadership contests. The Canadian leadership selection process itself is corrupt. It tarnishes every politician and every citizen who participates.

©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd 2002

A Way of Thinking: Ideas and Practices of Political Leadership in Canada 1900-50
(Organization for the History of Canada Conference Montreal,
October 3-4, 2002 "Canada from 1900 to 1950: A Country comes of Age")

In 1995 the political scientist Alan Cairns wrote an essay entitled "The Constitutional World We Have Lost." Cairns cited an observation of another political scientist, J.R. Mallory, who referred to "the once evocative phrase 'responsible government.'" According to Mallory, responsible government "was once "the pivot around which English-Canadian historians developed the theme of evolving Canadian autonomy and the building of a Canadian nation." Mallory also provided a definition: "Responsible government means majority government, but majority government of a particular sort -- majority rule, not by the electorate, but by a majority of the electorate's representatives." According to Cairns, the world evoked by "responsible government" was the constitutional world that is now lost.

All historical worlds become lost in the end, and historians would have little to do if they did not. Certainly, Cairns was not indulging in regretful nostalgia. He welcomed the transformation in Canadian political culture and declared "constitutional imagination" a greater need than "the historian's expertise." But Cairns was right to draw attention to the fact that at some point in the twentieth century, a whole way of thinking about Canadian politics and governance was washed away and replaced by another way of thinking. The lost world drew on a distinctly Canadian heritage of parliamentary government, in which the achievement of "responsible government" was both a key moment in Canadian political evolution and a long-lived model for appropriate political behaviour.

It is widely accepted today that in the Canadian political system executive power is practically limitless between elections, that prime ministers and premiers with a majority government have a free hand during their "mandate." On a day-to-day basis, we agree, party leaders are accountable to no one. Backbench representatives are understood to be mostly powerless and mostly worthless, and any inability of a leader to control his followers is a sign of scandalous weakness. We more or less concede that to bring down one of these incumbent leaders, no matter how inept or unpopular, the only option available is for a rival virtually to destroy the party along with the party leader, in a process that takes years, cost millions, and mostly involves the massive competitive buying of party memberships. The accountability of executive to legislature and of leader to caucus is generally accepted to have ceased to be relevant to Canadian political life.

We don't even have the language with which to analyze its loss, because it's a question of being responsible to a legislature, and the whole language of legislative sovereignty and parliamentary accountability is the dead language of a lost world, as Cairns noted. Canadians entertain proposals for Senate reform, for electoral reform, for transfers of power to the provinces, and lots of proposals for direct democracy to end-run the whole problem of representation. But on the accountability of executive to legislature, the most radical suggestion we ever hear is the pious plea that party leaders should "allow" their followers more free votes on matters that are not important.

For Canadians interested in legislative responsibility and in parliament as a place for political issues to be brokered and political leadership to be tested, the early years of the twentieth century offer a number of examples worthy of attention. In the early 1900s, several episodes occurred that speak directly to our frustrations with unaccountable governments today. They offer a sharp contrast to our early twenty-first-century ideas about the responsibility of leaders to caucuses and governments to legislatures. That they have never commanded the attention they deserve is more evidence of that shift in worldview Cairns alerts us to.

One stark example of a different relationship between leaders and legislatures from early in the twentieth century was the resignation of Interior Minister Clifford Sifton from the cabinet of Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier in 1905. In 1905, Laurier was at the height of his influence, and Sifton was among his most influential ministers. Then Sifton disagreed with the language policy that Laurier proposed for the two new provinces being established that year. Laurier wanted to entrench minority language educational rights in Alberta and Saskatchewan; Sifton wanted to give the new provinces a free hand to remove those rights. Laurier used his prime ministerial authority to impose his views on the government's's legislative proposals while Sifton was away from Ottawa. When Sifton learned what his leader had done, he resigned from cabinet. Sifton never returned to the cabinet table; his career in the executive level of politics was over.

At first glance, this looks like a very familiar kind of prime ministerial autocracy: the prime minister imposing a personal policy choice upon cabinet and caucus and country. But it is worth looking closely at what happened here. After Sifton resigned, Laurier in effect surrendered to the new backbencher. It was Sifton who redrafted new language clauses of the Alberta Act to his own satisfaction, and it was Laurier who abandoned his own preferred text and accepted Sifton's draft.

I have drawn most of the details of this event from D.J. Hall's very useful 1980s biography of Sifton. But Hall's book is also useful as an illustration of how hard it is to recapture the way of thinking of that parliamentary world we have lost. Hall, having documented Sifton's success in defying and changing the policy of a prime minister at the height of his power, goes on to say that Sifton, in leaving cabinet, had been reduced to "the impotence of the backbenches."

It seems clear that it was precisely the opposite. If Sifton had remained a cabinet minister, cabinet solidarity would have obliged him to acquiesce impotently in Laurier's language policy. By going to the backbenches, on the other hand, Sifton was able to organize resistance among the western and Ontario Liberal MPs who did not want to vote for French language rights in the new provinces. With Sifton's inspiration, they made it clear to the prime minister that much of the Liberal caucus would not support Laurier's bill, and they forced changes in it.

Sifton apparently wielded more influence on this piece of Interior Ministry policy as a backbencher than he could have done as Minister of the Interior. That is a perfectly normal occurrence in parliamentary systems, where cabinet ministers are bound by cabinet solidarity, but where party leaders must always be alert to caucus dissidence. It is not, however, a process most of our political historians can any longer recognize in Canadian politics. Like Professor Hall, we cannot think "backbench" without thinking "impotent."

The early twentieth century offers many other examples of the Canadian parliamentary tradition in which Members of Parliament asserted this kind of control over party leaders. Robert Borden's leadership crisis of 1910, just one year before he became prime minister, is another example that speaks directly to our contemporary politics. In 1910, Borden had been opposition leader for ten years, and to many Conservatives he seemed outdated, dull, and a constant loser. The Conservatives foresaw endless defeats under his leadership. A Dump-Borden movement surged up in the Conservative caucus.

In 1910, such challenges did not fester unresolved for years at a time, awaiting the emergence of well-financed rivals to orchestrate a mass party convention and a leadership review vote. Borden agreed that he had to face his critics in caucus immediately. He offered the caucus his resignation and challenged his critics to put someone up against him. Then each side surveyed the party membership across the country. When they did, MPs found messages of support for Borden coming from their ridings and organizers back home. The challengers got the message and backed down. Borden remained leader.

We can see in operation here two principles largely unknown in Canadian parliamentary processes today. One is the clear authority of the caucus to review and replace a party leader. The other is the accountability of MPs to their constituencies back home. Not being entirely beholden to whoever held the party leadership, the MPs of the early twentieth century had latitude to consult their supporters' views in the process of making up their own minds. In this case, such consultation dissuaded most of them from a course of action that had seemed attractive from within the caucus room itself.

Borden became prime minister a year after this test, but he continued to face a feisty, assertive caucus. In 1912 Quebec members of his caucus dissented from his naval policy. In 1918 and 1919, the Nickle resolutions on honours and titles (recently made famous by Conrad Black) were pushed through the House of Commons by the Conservative caucus (with opposition support) against the inclination of Prime Minister Borden and his cabinet. And in 1914, there was a backbench challenge to a key piece of Borden's economic legislation, a $300 million dollar subsidy to the Canadian Northern Railway. The challenge did not go far, and almost the whole Conservative caucus supported Borden's policy. Still, the challenge is of interest, not just because it came from a future prime minister, R. B. Bennett, who was then a backbencher, but also because of the language that Bennett and his allies used.

In the Commons debate on the railroad subsidy bill, Bennett justified his opposition to it by saying, "In this new democracy… there must be room in the party to which I belong for independent spirit and independent thought. I must be permitted to exercise the intelligence that Providence gave me." One of his caucus allies argued in the same vein:

"I am not willing to admit that it is necessary to the solidarity of party government that the crack of the party whip should be so loud and its sting so sharp that individual responsibility should be absolutely abrogated."

We should not take these speeches too seriously; they have a large rhetorical content, and they came from caucus dissidents who were about to lose overwhelmingly. Still, given the history of caucus rebellions against Laurier and Borden, there was indeed precedent for the assertion of backbench authority of the kind Bennett hoped to relaunch here. When Bennett invoked the MP's right of independent thought and speech, even against the policy of his party leadership, he was linking his dissidence to a parliamentary tradition his hearers knew and respected. He explicitly linked the caucus's freedom to overrule its leader to "democracy."

I want to cite two more cases from the politics of this era. One is the selection of Arthur Meighen as Robert Borden's successor as leader of the Conservative party and prime minister in 1920. When Prime Minister Borden retired, he canvassed both his cabinet and the caucus about the succession. The cabinet and the party establishment strongly supported Thomas White as the next leader and the new prime minister. The caucus, however, insisted on Meighen, and the caucus got its way.

The other case comes from provincial politics. It concerns the departure from office of Premier Parent of Quebec in 1905. Simon-Napoleon Parent, a Liberal, had been premier of Quebec since 1900, and in the provincial election of late 1904 his party had won 68 of the 74 seats. This was a situation of one-party dominance similar to what we have seen in recent years with Premiers Frank McKenna and Bernard Lord in New Brunswick and Premier Glen Campbell in British Columbia, situations in which those premiers have enjoyed virtually unlimited authority during their four-year mandates.

But historian Bernard Vigod describes the 1904 Quebec provincial election as "the bitterest and most closely fought one-party election in parliamentary history." Many of the Liberal candidates, in fact, were progressives openly opposed to the conservative and uncharismatic Parent. There were fierce battles for Liberal nominations, and in several constituencies, "independent Liberal" candidates ran against the party standard-bearers. Just a few months after the election, the new caucus, by majority vote, removed Parent from office and replaced him with cabinet minister Lomer Gouin. Parent went off to a patronage job in Ottawa, and Gouin remained premier of Quebec for the next fifteen years.

In 1905, in other words, the legislative caucus had, and was understood to have, the authority to hire and fire leaders. An overwhelming election victory was seen as empowering the party caucus, not the party leader. Ideological faction-fighting within the party caucus was understood to be a sometimes-inescapable aspect of parliamentary democracy.

There are other examples I might cite: the fight within the federal Liberal party over reciprocity in 1911, the Liberal party's split over conscription in 1917, the campaigns of Henri Bourassa and Armand Lavergne against Laurier's policies within the Liberal caucus in the early years of the century. Some of these cases, involving the "national question" of French Canadian survival, make bad test cases, for they generated the kinds of fundamental tensions that might split parties in any circumstances and go far beyond the kinds of factional conflicts and leadership accountability issues that I am suggesting were relatively "normal" Canadian parliamentary processes up to about 1920.

The point is clear enough. Members of Parliament, commentators, and the political public in the era 1900-1920 frequently identified the legitimacy of governments with the accountability of governments to the elected legislators. In practice, that meant Members of Parliament claimed the right to contradict, and even to replace, their own leaders. In exercising that right, the backbenchers spoke the language of responsible government. Often tThey invoked Baldwin and LaFontaine and specifically linked the accountability of leaders to caucuses with the triumph of responsible government in Canada, but they could also invoke the concept of "democracy" in the way Bennett did.

This tradition then came to an end, suddenly and decisively enough to justify Alan Cairns' reference to a lost world. The decisive date in the transformation is easy to spot. It came when Leader of the Opposition and Liberal Party leader Sir Wilfrid Laurier died in the spring of February 1919. The Liberal Party turned a scheduled policy conference into a leadership convention, the first extra-parliamentary mass-membership leadership selection process in Canadian political history. To confer leadership selection upon a mass party convention meant an explicit break with the view that the hiring and firing of party leaders was a defining principle of governmental responsibility and must be the prerogative of elected representatives. As we have seen, when Meighen succeeded Borden in 1920, a year after the Liberal Party convention, the Conservative Party stuck with the established parliamentary process. Thereafter, all parties, federal and provincial, shifted to the mass party extra-parliamentary leadership selection process that has been the Canadian standard ever since. (It remains a uniquely Canadian innovation, largely unknown in the rest of the parliamentary world.)

The consequences of this change can be seen to have taken effect almost immediately. It is true that for about three decades after 1919, MPs and party establishments continued to wield great influence upon leadership conventions. No one became a party leader by running against the caucus and the party establishment until John Diefenbaker did it in 1956. (John Diefenbaker, particularly when in opposition, made much of his reverence for Parliament. But he could not have become Conservative leader if the choice had been up to the caucus. Even when he skillfully marshalled his supporters in caucus against the cabinet revolt of 1962-3, he acknowledged the caucus's right only to support him, not to remove him.)

It was to get rid of Diefenbaker that Dalton Camp and the Conservative party established the other aspect of the leadership-convention process in the early 1960s: namely, that if the mass party membership hired the leader, the mass party membership could also remove and replace the leader. But the impact of extra-parliamentary leadership selection upon Canadian politics can be seen long before Diefenbaker's rise and fall.

The first person to identify the implications of transferring control of the leadership from caucus to convention was, not surprisingly, the first winner of a mass party leadership convention, William Lyon Mackenzie King. Wilfrid Laurier and Robert Borden had lived with restive caucuses that frequently debated whether or not to support the leader's chosen policy. King never really had to concern himself with a dissident caucus. Throughout his long tenure, he had extraordinary freedom to make and change policy, with an eye on the electorate certainly, but without the concern that earlier leaders had had to show for the sensitivities of the parliamentary caucus. King understood he was not answerable to the parliamentary caucus.

More important, perhaps, the caucus itself understood the same thing. As an observer of the process, John Lederle, described it in 1947, Mackenzie King:

placed great stock in the fact that he was selected by a democratic convention and not by the parliamentary caucus. On those rare occasions when the parliamentary caucus [had] begun to growl... he... more than once silenced the parliamentary leaders by emphasizing that he [was] the representative and leader of the party as a whole, not merely of the parliamentary group. What the parliamentary group did not create, it may not destroy.

King had the best of both worlds. To the public, he liked to say, "Parliament will decide." But in parliament, it was clear that, as long as he commanded a majority government, King alone would decide, since parliamentarians no longer had any standing to challenge a leader who was not accountable to them. In theory, King accepted his accountability to the party at large, but the Liberal Party held no further conventions between 1919 and his retirement in 1948. Accountability to party, unlike the older accountability to caucus, was a purely theoretical restraint.

Despite his 1914 protestations of backbencher freedom, R.B. Bennett, the first Conservative party leader chosen by the party at large, also came to approve of the freedom from accountability the new system provided. His abrupt reversal of Conservative Party policy in the "Bennett New Deal" of 1935 was undertaken largely without consultation with his caucus. He, as much as King, now made policy without much concern for the once-mighty backbench, and critics and rivals had to depart and form new parties rather than orchestrate opposition within the caucus. "Democracy" had become firmly associated with the impotence of the caucus. (Indeed, as early as 1920, Liberal backbencher Samuel Jacobs had mocked Arthur Meighen in the House for not being "elected in an open convention, as we consider to be the custom in a democratic country." )

I suggest that 1919 was the key moment in the death of that old, parliamentary "world we have lost." It remains a maxim of Canadian parliamentary theory that the government is responsible to parliament. From the establishment of responsible government in 1847-8 until 1919-20, however, the leader of the government was genuinely responsible to the majority caucus, both for the policies he wished to initiate and for his own continuance in office. Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hypolite LaFontaine, the first two government leaders under responsible government in the Province of Canada, had each proven the rule by leaving office, not when they lost an election, but when as they lost the confidence of their caucuses. In the decades that followed, party leaders in Ottawa and the provinces - Alexander Mackenzie, Mackenzie Bowell, Robert Borden, Simon-Napoleon Parent, to name a few - had to work with, and sometimes surrender to, caucuses confident in their authority to hold their leaders accountable - they would have said "responsible" - to them.

That tradition stopped dead with Mackenzie King, and it has never come back. When this was written in the fall of 2002, it was generally accepted that at least a hundred of the 170 members of the governing Liberal caucus in Ottawa did not support the current leader and prime minister, Jean Chrétien. This was seen as humiliating to the prime minister, but only the prospect of defeat in a mass party leadership race could force him to yield office. Pending the formal mass party vote, his right to remain in office for months or years and to retire at a time exclusively of his own choosing went unchallenged. It remained universally accepted in Canada that only a mass party leadership review could remove a party leader from office. Prime Minister Chrétien took the same position in the face of caucus dissidence as Mackenzie King and John Diefenbaker and Stockwell Day. Since 1919-20, all leaders in all parties have denied that the caucus holds any power over their tenure in office, forcing their rivals either to form new parties or to appeal to the party at large, usually from outside Parliament. A party leader's freedom to remain in office until a date of his own choosing - unless the mass membership of the party has been slowly and cumbersomely mustered against him or her - is fundamental to the modern concept of Canadian "parliamentary" democracy.

1919 marked a very important transition in our politics. It was the end of the seventy-five-year tradition of responsible-government ideology as a practical reality in political leadership. Mackenzie King's version of responsibility, in which leaders are immune to caucus control, has displaced the older version, in which leaders were constantly responsible to the people's elected representatives. Since then, our political culture has been unable even to entertain the question as to whether something may have been lost.

Is it too simple to link the whole change, the extinction of a way of thinking about legislatures and accountability in Canadian politics, to a simple technical change in Liberal Party internal politics in 1919? I have not done primary research into how politicians and political thinkers in 1919 interpreted the new leadership-process the Liberal Party inaugurated; indeed, it might be a useful research project for anyone who finds these issues interesting. So far as I can judge from the secondary literature, the thing seems to have been largely a non-issue. It is at least possible, odd though it seems, that by 1919 nobody cared enough about the accountability of leaders to parliamentarians to comment on the end of that tradition.

There is some evidence to that effect in the writings of Eugene Forsey. Forsey is generally considered a parliamentary traditionalist, indeed the keeper of parliamentary traditions in Canada, always ready to unearth an obscure parliamentary precedent from the Rules of Order or from English political history. And Forsey despised and loathed Mackenzie King precisely for King's abuse of Parliament. In his article, "Mr. King and Parliamentary Government," first published in 1951, Forsey went hammer and tongs after King for a whole series of failings in constitutional theory and practice. The article posed one great question about King: "Was his basic constitutional creed really parliamentary democracy or plebiscitary democracy with a thin parliamentary veneer?"

Answering his question, Forsey observed that King consistently acted as if the prime minister was above Parliament, as if he were not confined by cabinet or caucus or by House resolution, and as if he had unlimited authority to dissolve a House of Commons that failed to supported him, even to the point of holding several successive general elections until the voters elected the kind of government the prime minister approved of. Parliament, in Forsey's paraphrase of King's views, "was a mere creature of the cabinet."

The Houses may still meet; laws may still, in name, be enacted by the Crown, the Senate, and the Commons; the ancient pageantry, the time-honoured forms, may still be preserved. But the breath will have departed. Nothing will be left but a lifeless image, a puppet dancing at the end of strings held by the prime minister.

What is striking, however, is that Forsey blamed the new situation of parliament-as-puppet mostly on the sheer evil malignity of Mackenzie King's character. He made no attempt that I can find in his published writings to link King's vast - and in Forsey's view, illegitimate - authority over cabinet, caucus, and legislature to the fact that his selection as leader had been an extra-parliamentary process.

King did, in fact, have a new relationship with his parliamentary caucus, and that status had given him new and unprecedented grounds for claiming that he did not bear the accountability that his predecessors had accepted. If the parliamentary majority could not hold Kinghim to account, then he was not responsible to Parliament in the way all his predecessors had been. Forsey makes no mention of the fact. As early as 1951, the greatest thinker and commentator on parliament and parliamentary processes of his time had lost the ability to speak the dead language from the lost world of responsible government almost as completely almost as anyone else in Canada.

In his essay, Professor Cairns dates the time when the whole Westminster-derived language for discussing, analyzing, and defending parliamentary democracy through the concept of responsible government lost its currency in Canada, to "around the time of Diefenbaker." But an intellectual change preceded the political one. In English Canada at least, mainstream historical interpretations had already shifted decisively away from the old tradition of worshipful attention to the grand traditional themes of constitutional reform, increased liberty, and national independence for Canada.

The most effective historical critic of that older tradition was Donald Creighton. Creighton called the Canadian political history written up to his day "merely lives of Robert Responsible-Government and Francis Responsible-Government and Wilfrid Responsible-Government," and dismissed it all as merely Grit propaganda. Creighton argued it was economics and geography and power that drove Canadian history. The significant political leaders were the ones who understood those forces, not those who engaged in what Creighton called "a highly unreal voyage of discovery for first principles," certainly not those who had campaigned for parliamentary reform.

Dismissive commentary on the nineteenth-century Canadian political tradition has remained practically universal among Canadian historians since Creighton's day. Ask for a statement about confederation from any Canadian historian of the last fifty years, and the first thing they say is, "The Fathers of Confederation were not democrats." I've been making a collection of uses of this phrase, at least in English. Creighton said it, and Arthur Lower said it, and J.M.S. Careless said it. In more recent times, Philip Buckner, from the constitutional history mainstream, has said it. So have Allen Greer and Ian Mackay from the social-history and Marxist perspective. So has even Jack Granatstein, the most articulate advocate of restoring politics to Canadian history. [Add: Essentially, all are making the same point: they disdain all association with the "responsible government" view of parliamentary democracy and, in fact, dismiss its claim to be as a form of democracy.]

It was Creighton's argument was that Canadian history was not about political or constitutional ideas at all. And ever since, there has been consensus among our historians and political scientists that if we are interested in issues of democracy and good government, there is really no Canadian historical tradition to guide us, that we can and must start from scratch to create viable Canadian political traditions. Cairns largely takes that view in "The Constitutional World We Have Lost," but the argument comes most strongly, perhaps, comes from a book by another political scientist, Peter Russell's Constitutional Odyssey, whose significant subtitle "Can Canadians Become a Sovereign People?" expresses the widely-held assumption of Canadian political experts that with regard to the most fundamental aspects of government, Canada has no political traditions to preserve or to build upon.

The history Creighton mocked, that old textbook celebration of responsible government and Canadian progress, was mostly superficial, complacent, bad; I don't want to suggest we should all start reading George Wrong again. But the older tradition was a history that took Canadian political history seriously. It began from the conviction that the moment when the Crown's executive in Canada was made accountable to the elected representatives of the people was a genuinely transforming event in Canadian history. It did have that core belief summarized by J.R. Mallory's definition of responsible government, that democracy was secured through "majority rule not by the electorate, but by a majority of the electorate's representatives," and that sovereignty was rooted in legislatures rather than in the executive branch.

That's the intellectual world Canada has lost.

Something important and lasting occurred in our politics near the end of the first quarter of the twentieth century. There was a rapid, decisive, lasting, and almost-undiscussed transformation, from a strong and vigorously applied tradition that political leaders should be held constantly accountable by the elected representatives in their own party caucuses, to a new tradition in which there was virtually no leadership accountability at all.

This was not just a technical change but also a change of mind and a change of thinking about parliamentary government. So far, it has been almost completely unstudied, almost entirely unexplained, and almost entirely unnoted by political and intellectual historians who share the new worldview and can barely take cognizance of the old one. We have heard complaints from our political historians that political history, the 'national history" of Canada as it has been called, is undervalued and unappreciated. But there might be a larger audience for political history if political historians gave us a version of Canadian political history that addresses the enduring classical issues of government, parliament, and accountability. As long as we remain sure that, whatever our faults, we are surely superior in all respects to Canadians of earlier times, then we won't even have the language we need with which to describe and analyze our ongoing parliamentary paralysis.

©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd 2002

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