Under a premier’s iron fist, our representatives quiver. Here’s the fix.
By Rafe Mair, Today, TheTyee.ca
I’m going to vouchsafe unto you the secret of radically improving government.
On Dec. 11, 1975, I was elected MLA for the then-single riding of Kamloops, on the Socred ticket under Bill Bennett.
During my time as a minister, I had the extraordinary good luck to do a lot of fascinating jobs, including be unofficial spokesman for constitutional affairs, and this latter “post” gave me an extraordinary opportunity to examine how other countries govern themselves. The late Melvin Smith, QC, Deputy Minister for Constitutional Affairs — who reported directly to the premier — and I travelled all over Canada, and went to West Germany and Switzerland to study their systems.
Later, I was given a bursary by the U.S. State Department to examine whatever part of the U.S. I wanted, and I chose to learn how the budget was worked out by the President and Congress, and the way states governed themselves. This two-week seminar took me to Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Columbus, Ohio.
I also spent a lot of time studying proportional representation, either on its own or mixed as it is in New Zealand.
I came away from all of this with two main conclusions — people didn’t trust their representatives, and under the first-past-the-post system, party discipline is so strong that the premier runs the show, with virtually all advice coming from unelected advisers.
I saw how “responsible government,” where the premier and his cabinet are “responsible” to the legislature, in practice is quite the other way around. Government MLAs do exactly what they are told to do. In this situation the cabinet becomes arrogant, I no less than others, I’m ashamed to admit.
Private members can table bills, but they won’t be called for debate unless the premier so wishes — which is not very often.
Life under the premier
How is this discipline maintained?
By the judicious use of the carrot and the stick.
For the former, the premier controls who goes in and out of cabinet, who gets neat extra pay jobs like parliamentary secretary to a minister, party whip, deputy party whip, deputy Speaker, Chairman of the House in committee and other pleasant perks. (I pause here to digress — in the first Campbell government where he had a 74-2 majority, there was still a party whip!)
On the stick side, the premier controls caucus and decides if any member can run under the party banner. There are outspoken and critical backbenchers, but they are few and far between and have sentenced themselves to oblivion.
What this means is that every iota of policy comes with the premier’s consent. As an example, if a backbencher tables a bill it must first pass the “planning and priorities” committee. Chaired by Guess Who? If the premier was away, I always postponed planning and priorities until he returned.
In short, your MLA has little to do with government legislation, so that his vote is not by conscience or duty to his constituency, but duress.
The ‘secret’ way forward
Many say they want to see how their MLA votes. But we know in advance how he’ll vote! As he’s bloody well told to.
There is a way around this and it’s simple — use the secret ballot on all money bills including the budget if, say, 25 per cent of the legislature calls for it.
I can assure you that you will see a conversion in the premier’s office right up there with Saul’s on the road to Damascus.
What would this accomplish?
Because government could not ram things through, your MLA’s vote would mean something. And:
1. All legislation would be thoroughly examined by caucus before it was tabled in the house.
2. The budget (which is really what government is all about) would be examined by caucus.
3. The opposition would receive notice of what policy or legislation is coming.
4. Your MLA would have the power you think he has, but doesn’t.