Has our political system broken down to the point where it threatens democracy itself?
That grim scenario is raised in a new book that suggests the political system, at the federal level at least, has deteriorated into a cynical, out-of-touch process where a tiny group of individuals exert control at every turn and leave everyone else feeling disillusioned and almost irrelevant.
Titled Tragedy in the Commons: Former Members of Parliament Speak Out About Canada’s Failing Democracy, the book paints a sobering picture of a federal political arena that has increasingly, largely because of the actions of those in it, strained its credibility with the very people it is supposed to serve.
While some of the authors’ conclusions (and solutions for fixing the problem) can certainly be challenged, the book does raise some relevant issues for our country’s other political systems, notably at the provincial level.
The book’s authors, Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan, conducted more than 80 interviews with former members of Parliament to gauge what they had learned from their years spent serving in the House of Commons.
It is somewhat dispiriting to discover that many of them left federal politics feeling disillusioned and even embarrassed by their experiences. Many of them cite various reasons for these feelings: the power wielded over them by political leaders, “back office forces” and the political parties themselves, a lack of resources to do their job and the insistence they follow the party “line,” no matter what.
Now, I’ve often found that some rookie politicians who excitedly enter government (or Opposition) can quickly feel an overwhelming sense of disappointment when they discover their political careers don’t turn out to be quite as they had imagined going in.
A big part of the problem is the harsh traditions and realities of our parliamentary system itself. There is little equality in it, for example, as the government side holds so much more power than the Opposition parties. As well, there are huge power gaps between backbenchers and cabinet ministers.
There is also a childish and phony nature to the system. OurMPs (and MLAs) are subject to silly forms of discipline (go sit in the back!) for daring to question the party line, and question period is often simply political theatre where politicians are more actors (some worse than others) playing to the cameras than anything else.
Finally, real naked political power resides in the leader’s office. Always has, and (unless the system undergoes profound change) it always will (at least, in a majority government). How much power often depends on the leader in the office.
There is widespread evidence of the strict controlling nature of Prime Minister Stephen Harper when it comes to not only wielding power in government, but over the political system itself (witness the ongoing controversy over big changes to federal voting laws). But while Harper may have taken the leader’s office penchant for control to new heights (or lows, depending on your point of view), he’s hardly the first prime minister to consolidate power in his office. Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney and Jean Chretien were hardly known for their magnanimous views towards the Opposition or even their own caucus (Trudeau once famously labelled MPs as “nobodies”).
However, the book’s authors make the compelling case that what we are witnessing is the steady slide of public confidence in political institutions and the people who run them precisely because things like consolidating power in the hands of so few rarely ends well.
In B.C ., our premiers have exerted control over government to varying degrees. The legendary W.A.C. Bennett, for example, ran his caucus with an iron fist and micromanaged to the point of personally approving all long-distance phone calls (even in the civil service).
More recently, Gordon Campbell had his hands in all parts of government and consolidated power in his office to a great degree. His successor, Christy Clark, has been much more willing to delegate authority to her ministers and shows little evidence these days of being interested in all the small details (or even actually visiting the so-called Corner Office in the capital).
While many of the assertions of the ex-MPs interviewed for his book may be dismissed as sour grapes, there’s no question that collectively they all point to an alarming erosion in the health of the country’s most important democratic institution. The steady decline in voter turnout is further evidence of that.
While at times ambitiously idealistic and even naive in its analysis, Loat and MacMillan’s book shows much change is needed, and not just in Ottawa. It’s clear they’re onto something.
Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global B.C.