Democracies Ancient and Modern
Written by
Categories: Modern, Not an expert

Democracies Ancient and Modern

A gathering of people with protest signs in the plaza outside of Innsbruck town hall
The Climate Strike in Innsbruck, September 2019

I had a couple of women, constituents, come to my office and say, ‘We fought so hard to get a seat around the table, and you got there and you gave it away.’ It kind of stunned me. My answer to them was, ‘We didn’t fight hard to get a seat at the table so that we [could] do things the way they’ve always been done and let the boys still run things the way the boys have been running things.’

Jane Philpott, independent MP for Markham-Stouffville and former cabinet minister, interview with Jason McBride, “Can Jane Philpott Change Politics?” (2019)

Remember when (the Prime Minister) was held in contempt of Parliament by majority of the members? And the Governor General let him get away with ignoring this and treating it as merely a partisan stunt? … Our elections seem to have been transformed into something like a plebiscite on who makes the best Prime Minister. … our 19th century institutions are in a shambles because we don’t remember the 19th century principles that made them effective, and we haven’t replaced them with more recent principles and institutions

Steve Muhlberger, “Democracy in Trouble” (2013)

Perhaps we find it normal for voters to be told, in every election, that they cannot vote for the party they actually support, but must vote for a party they dislike to forestall the election of a party they detest. But in the vast majority of the world’s democracies that use some form of proportional representation the idea would seem absurd, not to say presumptuous. It is for voters to tell parties what to do, not the reverse. … there’s the obsession with the horse race: where the parties are in the polls, and what strategies they are likely to pursue in response … this is partly a phenomenon of first past the post, and the winner-take-all mentality that accompanies it. The point of an election is not just to find out who won, but what the public wants. And the point of election coverage is not just to report who’s winning, but what the winners would do with the mandate they seek.

Andrew Coyne, “Shouldn’t every riding be a ‘battleground’? The problems with how we do elections” The National Post 13 September 2019

Formal democ­ra­cy, in such places, rides like a float­ing cork on an ocean of invis­i­ble influ­ences, tan­gled pow­er struc­tures and murky social forces.

Phil Paine, “A New International Body” (2006)

I am Canadian, and we have an election coming. The past four years have seen a managerial government in Ottawa which worked through some of its easier commitments– legalizing marijuana, providing drinkable water to some but not all First Nations communities, negotiating a not terrible revision of NAFTA with the current administration in Washington, taking a share of Syrian refugees- but avoided deep structural changes like electoral reform or accepting that unceeded land belongs to its inhabitants not the Crown. The three biggest parties have chosen to take vast areas of policy off the table this election: the staffers who run them all agree that we should have a mixed economy with a welfare state, that whoever the United States government defines as enemies are Canada’s enemies too, that their candidates should include men and women with all kinds of ancestry who repeat the same talking points. They dutifully talk about affordability, about “hard-working Canadians” or “the middle class” or “entrepreneurs,” and about cutting a public service here or creating a new one there. Where in some countries candidates spend most of their time calling potential donors and begging for money, in Canada they spend it knocking on doors looking for people to talk to. The new anti-immigration, climate-contrarian People’s Party is not expected to get more than 4% of the vote, and the other parties all talk about anthropogenic global warming even if some of their policies are more coherent than others. If you are outside Canada, it probably sounds comforting. But in Canada people who watch the system are worried that while the forms of parliamentary democracy remain, there is less and less substance underneath. Between writing job applications, I have been reading some excellent reports from the Samara Centre for Democracy based on interviews with former MPs.

As one MP described, before committee met, “They have precommittee meetings. And that’s not when you discuss what’s going to happen in committee. You are told what’s going to happen in committee. And the [party] staff is all too happy to provide backbenchers with questions to ask.”

there was a broadly shared sense among MPs that (in the parliament of 2011-2015) the work of committee simply did not matter—that it had little or no impact on Government decision-making. “Why are you doing [a study] if it’s just going to collect dust?” asked one MP. “Committees [are seen] as busy work for backbenchers,” said another. Busy work, make-work projects, waste of time, waste of money—these descriptors arose again and again in interviews.

Generally (and there are important exceptions, like a motion in the 41st Parliament that laid the groundwork for the new electronic petitioning system), for Private Members’ Business to get anywhere, it had to either advance the Government’s position on an issue, or be empty of any real stakes. The result is lots of laws proclaiming new national days, for example—to the private dismay of some MPs: “Things like Tree Day. Sorry trees, but to waste time in Parliament when we have some very important issues, to waste time on Tree Day … those are not the things that my constituents sent me to Parliament for.

Parliament as fire drill: Everyone takes their designated places and carries out a performance of their roles. But there is an emptiness in the display, a pervasive sense that it is all just getting in the way of the real work.

Flip the Script (2017)

an MP recalled being given instructions from their staff about where to sit in the parliamentary dining room, and what not to talk about in the presence of MPs from other parties.

Riding associations ranged from totally non-existent to energetic recruiters who were the reason people ended up in politics. But in general, and with few exceptions, MPs rarely experienced strong, functioning local party organizations. Much of the recruit-ment was done by the national parties, most of the interviewed MPs did not have contested nominations, and several of those who did raised questions about the integrity of the nomination process.

One MP recalled: “I couldn’t find the electoral district association president. It was difficult to find them just to tell them that I would like to run.” Another described the nomination ‘process’ this way: “We didn’t have a nomination, there was no local association—you go and have your paper, sign people, and—whatever.” … The administration of nomination elections could be amateurish and volatile. And several MPs raised concerns about who, exactly, was participating in the nomination process. Nominations were not seen as contests for the support of a true mini-public of members committed to the local party. Rather, according to one MP, it was about “the bulk sale of instant memberships, [which makes it] very easy to take over nominations.” Another MP was blunt about the implications of this: “Members never remain members for long, anyway. So it’s a kind of fake democracy.”

Former MPs rarely discussed the local riding association after the nomination phase, though the interviews tended to focus on other facets of the MPs’ career and therefore only provide a very partial image of the health of the local party.

In fact, despite complaining in other contexts about their lack of independence, MPs were overwhelmingly deferential to—almost in awe of—their leaders. At the same time, those leaders were described as fairly remote from everyday existence for MPs. Rarely did interviewed MPs describe themselves as being responsibility for overseeing, containing, or correcting their leader—even though this is a democratic role that is expected of them in our system. Citizens have no leverage over leaders, and party members have little— but MPs, who are directly elected by the people, theoretically do.

While beloved, leaders were generally seen at a distance. One MP recalled of their leader: “I didn’t talk to him much in four and a half years. If I were [him], I would have talked to my MPs more often. But hey, you’re busy.” The fond memories that MPs do have of personally meeting their leaders reflect this remoteness. Several MPs recalled how touched they were to receive birthday greetings from their leader (while another suggested that the absence of a birthday card was the source of some dissatisfaction). MPs told odd stories about passing encounters—getting the chance to walk up Parliament Hill with the leader, or sitting near him in the dining room—which imply that such interactions were out of the ordinary.

MPs themselves offered an explanation for why they tell very different stories about how close they felt to their leader. It was suggested on several occasions that individual influence and access depended on whether an MP was within the leader’s inner circle. Your ability to reach the leader depended on “if you were part of the in-group,” suggested one New Democrat.

The Real House Lives (2017)

During the extremely controlled parliament of 2011-2015, Conservative MP Michael Chong wrote a reform bill to give members of parliament more independence from parties. The Samara Centre was not able to verify that either the Liberals or the NDP had complied with its requirements. And they estimate that no more than 2% of Canadians are member of a political party on a given day. Whether you agree or disagree with any of the planks of the three-party platform, that platform is supported by a tiny number of appointed staffers and analysts responding to a small number of critics, advocates, investigators, and organizers, and by a vague half-educated sense of what is expected. And as they tell us, what is physically possible is fixed, but what is politically possible can change in an instant.

In the next four years, I hope that more of us get off our keyboards and do the letter-writing, reception-attending, advocacy-group-organizing, and the other work which turns election into the rule of the people. Because I have read my Herodotus and my Cassius Dio, and I know what happens when a leader secludes himself behind walls of brick and lines of flunkies and spear-bearers, and how the forms of a mixed constitution can remain while everyone knows one man at the centre is in charge.

Politicians, I think, need to figure out how to have those conversations which will allow us to introduce evidence-based policy in a politically palatable way … Polling can’t substitute for good public policy.

– Jody Wilson-Raybould, independent MP for Vancouver Granville and former cabinet minister, interview with Canadaland podcast (Oppo #31 Jody Wilson-Raybould And Jane Philpott, 4 June 2019)

Edit 2022-10-05: converted to block editor, fixed formatting broken when WordPress introduced the block editor

paypal logo
patreon logo

Write a comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.