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Review: The Unbroken Machine, Turning Parliament Inside Out and Should We Change How We Vote?

Canada’s electoral system has been in the spotlight after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged in the 2015 election to do away with ‘first past the post’ voting – a promise he later abandoned.

CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS

The Unbroken Machine: Canada's Democracy in Action

By Dale Smith

Dundurn, 152 pages, $21.99

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Turning Parliament Inside Out: Practical Ideas for Reforming Canada's Democracy

Edited by Michael Chong, Scott Simms and Kennedy Stewart

Douglas & McIntyre,165 pages, $22.95

Should We Change How We Vote? Evaluating Canada's Electoral System

Edited by Andrew Potter, Daniel Weinstock and Peter Loewen

McGill-Queen's University Press, 230 pages, $19.95

Back in October, 2015, running for the NDP in a no-hope riding, the prospect of strategic voting was making a bad situation worse. Victory a preposterous notion, I could afford to be philosophical. Votes, I argued, carried all sorts of information that altered attitudes in the short, medium and long term, so that even ballots cast for the seemingly losing side are not "wasted." Besides, I'd say, you are not voting for one issue but a platform; a vote for the Liberal Party may be strategic today, but will be taken to advance any of the of the policies it has proposed. Respect your vote. Vote for whichever party you believe in, it doesn't have to be mine. To do otherwise is to deprive yourself of your due.

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I don't expect my arguments had any sway. And the conviction voters had that they were doing the right thing in exerting the power of their vote simply to oust Stephen Harper exposed, as much as Justin Trudeau's ecstatic elevation, that other conundrum of the election – which is that hordes of Canadians now vote presidentially. They vote for a brand, and to elect a party leader rather than their local representative, whose qualities and responsibilities are overshadowed if not forgotten. Our Westminster system, so-called, has been weakened, if not broken.

Needing to fix it (or not) is the subject of several books appearing in the wake of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's broken promise that 2015 would be the last Canadian election to depend upon a "first past the post" single member plurality (SMP) voting system. Votes are much on our minds: what they mean, what they intend, what they can achieve.

In The Unbroken Machine, Dale Smith, a freelance reporter who has been on the Ottawa beat for just three elections, contends that all is in fact well with SMP, the House of Commons, the Senate and the monarchy. In his astonishingly conservative reckoning – positively irate at times – the fault lies not in the system's design but in its practice and, specifically, with MPs "who don't even know their own job descriptions" and voters' "collective lack of understanding" in this age of "civic illiteracy."

This is not an endearing path to tread. Smith disses the idealism of the candidates and volunteers upon which healthy democracies depend with alacrity and underestimates the rationale of voters' choices "grounded in ignorance of how the system operates." It is the consumer, alas, that is at fault. And yet, Smith is an entertaining writer, unquestionably knowledgeable – and concerned. Certainly, he is the most readable of this particular triad. His slim book constitutes, despite its haughtiness, a timely education. The job of the MP, he assiduously reminds the reader – and, to be frank, teaches this former candidate who, "full of [his] own ideas about how to change the world," was of exactly the idealistic hue he holds in contempt – is to "hold the government to account" by scrutinizing and controlling the public purse, and therefore the means for policies to be enacted. He deplores MPs regarding themselves as lawmakers ("one of the biggest misnomers in Canadian politics") rather than as simple conduits between government and the membership that properly determines policies, as he does party leaders using comparatively recently gained powers to "wield a cudgel over the heads of caucus."

Back in the Westminster day, of course, that task of scrutiny extended also to governments formed by one's own party. The MP not appointed to cabinet – the executive – was an overseer whose sense of "responsible government" extended to constituents more than to the party. But, in Canada, all this changed in 1970, with the "well-intentioned" series of amendments to the Canada Elections Act. Bill C-215 dramatically augmented the power of party machines and party leaders, if only through its enforcement of the right and necessity of leaders to sign off their approval of candidates. So, if today's elected members, clapping their leaders' every word like auto-programmed morons; if, as visitors routinely see in Question Period, they are not willfully oblivious to proceedings and perusing their Facebook pages; and if the speeches they read are dull and scripted by higher-ups, are they really to be blamed?

The idea of an MP as an officer whose work it is, on the one hand, to represent constituency concerns to caucus, and, on the other, to see that cabinet behaves responsibly or even, quite legitimately, to hire and fire the prime minister (as can still happen in Britain and did recently in Australia), has been upended by the powers the prime minister, party leaders and unelected denizens of the PMO gained in 1970 at the expense of ordinary members. The selection and retention of candidates has been wrested from riding associations and the grassroots control to which Smith, in some form or other, would like to see it restored. The centre approves candidates, interference in the very process is rife and MPs that behave with a modicum of independence, let alone badly, are likely to be disciplined, ostracized and likely thrown out of their party.

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This control curtails the ability of MPs to "hold the government to account" and contributes to voters' quasi-presidential assumption, if not belief, that they elect a prime minister directly. It is why – Conservative MP and leadership contender Michael Chong the notable exception – Canada has no tradition of the eloquent, forceful backbencher. On the Westminster backbenches is where Jeremy Corbyn but also Winston Churchill and Nye Bevan, the architect (in more than a Sajjan-esque way) of the NHS, gained respect; it is a tradition of the MP believing his primary loyalties are not to party, but the House of Commons itself. Instead, in Canada, we have minions, occasionally stepping up with a private member's bill almost inevitably quashed, and that's all we'll have for as long as party machines hold inordinate powers.

It used to be the case, as Elizabeth May points out in her fine contribution to Turning Parliament Inside Out, that, were an MP appointed to the executive, "there was an expectation he would step down and run again in a by-election." In this way, the member acknowledged the impending conflict of cabinet duties and the responsibility, to his constituents, of asking "tough questions" of government.

May's brisk, erudite essay is the most eloquent in this anthology of sitting MPs' views, edited by Conservative Michael Chong, Liberal Scott Simms and the NDP's Kennedy Stewart. As with Smith, May points to the stranglehold party leaders have upon MPs – only "incidentally" members of political parties (this, according to the Conservative MP Mark Warawa's plea for free speech in the House that she supported) – but disappoints when, in conclusion, she pushes proportional representation (PR) rather than curtailing the power of leaders and the PMO as the urgent reform needing to be made. It's a good, if uneven volume. The NDP's Nathan Cullen makes an appropriately articulate case for unscripted speeches in Question Period – another casualty of Bill C-215 – and Stewart, whose private member's bill proposing electronic petitions and (given sufficient signatures) their mandatory discussion on the floor won a rare victory against Stephen Harper's Conservatives, speaks compellingly to the rise of such initiatives in "Empowering the Backbench."

But Should We Change How We Vote? remains a fervent issue on many reformers' minds and is the question and title of an anthology that has been compiled, is the impression, to keep its parent (the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada) rather than readers, happy. Endlessly repetitive in the warnings made by several contributors that no form of PR should be introduced unless its merits and pitfalls and likely outcomes are compared with our present SMP arrangement (well, that's a no-brainer) the volume might as easily have been entitled Why We Should Absolutely Not Change the Vote.

But glide over these dour cautions, and the book's own version of Smith's condescension (voters, Peter Loewen writes, are "uninformed," they "make up their public opinions off the top of their heads" and are "poorly motivated and deeply biased") and there are nuggets of wisdom within. Pace Smith, who calls such an advent "tokenism," Erin Tolley notes that a mixed member proportional system (MMP), in which MPs selected from a list not tied to ridings adjust the number of seats allotted to each party in order that their portion of the vote is more accurately reflected, constitutes the quickest way to address systemic biases and the underrepresentation of women, if to a lesser extent Indigenous and other groups. (And yet, argues Emmett MacFarlane, "electoral reform is not a rights issue.") She argues, as Anita Vandenbeld does in Turning Parliament Inside Out, that changes in nominating processes and parliamentary practices will ultimately be the things that increase their number in a system in which "the failure of parties to identify and recruit candidates" is more to blame than how we count ballots. And Melissa Williams argues, in another outstanding contribution, that steps toward greater Indigenous representation in New Zealand's Parliament have increased that institution's legitimacy. Williams would like to see parallel "Canadian Citizens" and "Indigenous" assemblies here.

And yet, the cumulative effect of these essays is to show the endgame absurdity of believing that just democratic practices will be attained in the rigorous reflection, through our representatives, of highly arbitrary aspects of society. What, in the long run, are we imagining? That Parliament – like some Canadians' idea of literature – reflect the country's constituent parts perfectly? The slow but steady move Parliament – and so many corners of Canadian society – has been making away from its white patriarchal origins is to be commended, and the work is unfinished. But do we really imagine, like Leadnow, that elections are about single issues, or that members are incapable of supporting or opposing the policies a narrow interpretation of their identity (skin colour, gender, party inclination) is thought to determine? In the dual function of "holding government to account" and properly representing a riding, MPs have many obligations, not one, and can surely imagine their way past their own skin or party platform – were they allowed.

In truth, our system does not need reform so much as outright repair. And yet, the way forward is not necessarily into new territory – changing the way we count and attribute value to the ballot – but, as Chong tried to make happen, through the reduction of powers accrued to party leaders and their transfer, at least in fairer portion, back to the grassroots. Only then, will MPs be able to perform true to their constituencies – and consciences – and a more "proportionate" representation of community concerns will be the concomitant result. This massive reversion will do more than jiggling the ballot to restore health to Parliament in sore need of just such an elixir. But it is unlikely.

Noah Richler's most recent book, The Candidate: Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, was a finalist for the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the writer of a passage being quoted as Ken Weinstock. In fact, it was written by Peter Loewen. This version has been corrected.
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