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The Seven Professional Arts

Parliamentary Reform

This is my first, and I suspect my last, post that will touch upon the subject of politics. In some ways, the topic in this case is interesting as a general example of how institutions need to regularly renovate their structure and operating principles in order to remain relevant. The context of this example is the Parliament of Canada, an institution within which I spent some time around ten years ago looking at how newer information technologies might help in the cause of running Parliamentary business and perhaps even improving its relationship with the electorate.

Canadian Peace Tower

While I am not a political scientist (which is one of the stranger names to emerge from academia and that is saying something), and perhaps because I am not, there seem to be a couple of steps that could be taken to re-center parliamentary democracy in Canada. It would also seem reasonable to expect that a country like Canada should be able to, and indeed possibly bears an obligation to, continuously improve its democratic processes.

Now in looking down this path a couple of things need to be borne firmly in mind. Foremost among these is the fact that a democracy is a lot more than people casting ballots when their politicians deem it beneficial (for them) to do so. As many places around the world prove by exception, rule of law is indeed the most important attribute of a functioning, and evolving, democracy. For this reason, and for purely pragmatic reasons, reform measures should energetically explore how existing traditions, conventions and laws can be leveraged in order to improve democratic procedures. In the case of Canada, the constitution, and specifically the original constitution, and the traditions of Parliament in fact contain a great deal of under-utilized democratic progressivism - which is probably why our current politicians prefer to dismiss these inheritances as worthy of contempt. In order to update Parliament for the 21st century, there will likely need to be a few "structural modifications" made but these could be kept minor if the most was made of what already exists.

So we will break Parliamentary Reform into two topics - Electoral Reform and Senate Reform.

Canadian House of Commons

Electoral Reform

There has been recurrent talk about moving away from the first-past-the-post system used in the Canadian electoral process. Most of this talk gravitates towards something based on proportional representation and the suggestions all seem to degenerate into proposals for an impenetrable electoral calculus that would baffle voters and shield politicians from any sense of accountability to anyone. On the other side, we have a current system that continues to gravitate towards a fixation upon the cabinet and specifically upon the office of the Prime Minister. The members of these higher offices are also, notionally, representatives of specific electoral ridings with this stretching credibility as well as wandering precariously close to questions of conflict of interest.

The modification that could be made would be to introduce a relatively small number of seats to the House of Commons that would be proportionally distributed. If one seat were distributed per 5% of the popular national vote, then there would only be 20 such seats with this being dwarfed by the 300 plus seats that would be associated with specific ridings. You could go further and set a lower percentage for each proportionally assigned seat, with the total number of such seats going up accordingly (e.g., 2.5% per seat would spawn 40 seats). The purpose of this minor allocation would be to ensure that small but nationally active parties (such as the Green Party) would at least get some presence in Parliament. Another would be to require that the Political Parties put forward their leaders and specific named candidates for the higher profile portfolios (e.g., finance, justice, foreign affairs, defence) on a prioritized list from which these proportional seats would be filled according to the distribution of the national popular vote. During elections, this approach might (repeat might) encourage a wider range of debates that involved these key party spokes-people (ideally according to their declared portfolio affiliations) and this would hopefully break the nullifying press focus on the party leaders alone.

And this approach would not change how people actually cast their votes - they would vote for party representatives and their vote would in effect count twice, once in the riding and once nationally. It would be, in other words, simple. Another good thing, by and large. The impact on Elections Canada, and how elections are conducted, would be negligible.

We might call this proposal the just enough mixed proportional representation - meaning it would be the smallest possible adjustment away from a pure first-past-the-post system. The smallness of the change is intentional and it would be an expression of the incrementalism that has generally served Canada well. It would open the door to further adjustments through the increase in the proportionally assigned allocation of seats, although I myself would discourage getting too carried away in the pursuit of some mathematical formula that will mend all bridges. Even at a small allocation, however, the introduction of even 20 proportionally allocated seats would have some interesting effects. A party that had powerful backing from the public could see a majority magnified by the proportional element. By contrast, a party that won a majority of riding seats would see their majority tempered (or even nullified) if the aggregated national vote did not accord them a popular majority. As any step towards proportional representation shifts the focus yet further towards the centrality of parties in politics, any such step should be accompanied with changes that fortify the independence of members of Parliament and underscoring that once elected they have been endorsed by the electorate as the representative for a given party - something that can only be changed by a riding nomination process as part of an electoral cycle.

This small application of proportional voting would be a relatively minor adjustment, although it would remain a "structural modification". This change would also foreground the political parties and again hopefully turn elections to being ones centred on policies and positions and less about the personalities of the leaders. In foregrounding the parties (as a team of higher profile candidates and a cadre of riding candidates) this would also acknowledge a key truth in parliamentary politics - the riding representatives do not represent their constituents so much as they represent their parties to the constituents (pretending the reverse is an active promotion of a patent absurdity). Furthermore, this approach would add a distinctly national element to the election tabulations, with this rather nicely balancing the regionalism that comes with first-past-the-post contests at the riding level.

Parliament Hall of Honour

Senate Reform

Senate reform is something that many people, and many elected politicians, like to champion as a democratic cause with the introduction of elected senators deemed to be the highest possible goal. This would represent a major "structural modification" in that it would spawn a perhaps unending series of successive modifications as the implications of introducing a more potent adversary to the House of Commons were digested. The prospect of two elected houses manifesting, and working around, continuously evolving "checks and balances" might strike some people as a step in the right direction. I suspect the reverse would be much more true. Witness the operation of the US Congress, as one particularly off-putting, yet still comical, example.

In the current parliamentary model, it is established that the Senate is, or should be, fully separate from the House of Commons and that it is very much the lesser of the two houses in terms of power. In current practice, the Senate is variously seen as a slow moving impediment to the sitting Government's agenda and as a dumping ground for the party faithful with the Prime Minister historically claiming the right to fill vacant Senate seats (invariably with the party faithful). I suspect a perusal of the constitution and parliamentary procedures would turn up the fact that Senators are appointed by the Crown upon the recommendation of the House of Commons (which today gets distilled down to the Prime Minister).

If my recollection serves, one of the lesser known potential roles for the Senate is as the highest court of appeal in the land (higher still than the Supreme Court). If my recollection is correct, it would not surprise me that this fact would be among the first that politicians would want to see swept under the carpet. Similarly, and not without good cause given the historical abuses applied to the Senate by the Lower Chamber (the House), the public would recoil from the idea of political hacks being acknowledged as a any part of the judiciary, let alone the pinnacle. However, this heritage might perhaps suggest a path that could convert the Senate into an effective arena for democratic oversight.

What if the process for recommending Senators was adjusted so that the Senate was made up more truly of representatives of Canadians as opposed to hacks for the reigning political party? Although political parties would howl with objections, the voters might warm to restrictions on Senate appointments such as they must never have held a position in a political party. Others would rejoice if it was added that no more than a small percentage (say 20%) could have ever served at the bar (i.e., were lawyers). If this path were taken and explored more fully, it would begin to look more and more like jury selection (which takes us back to the role of the Senate as the highest court of appeal). If this process also took as its goal adding exemplary Canadians, people with practical experience and genuine expertise at their disposal, then some of the challenges facing Parliament (specifically the growing complexity of legislation and society) might find more capable handling.

If the terms of engagement were then set to make the appointments fixed in terms of length (perhaps 10 years perhaps with a couple of sabbatical years) and were set to make the appointments a full-time job (versus a patronage post that is held alongside other endeavours), then the Senate may come to be understood as playing an important, and unashamedly secondary and supporting, role in Parliament.

Returning to what should be a strong distinction and separation between the Senate and the elected House of Commons, we find another opportunity to improve how Parliament works. Today, it has somehow become the prerogative of the Prime Minister in the House of Commons to "dissolve" or "prorogue" (suspend) Parliament. Again, I suspect that this is really a self-serving mis-interpretation (and indeed a gross abuse) of the mechanisms of Parliament. Specifically, it seems odd that the decision of the lead minister in one chamber can decide when Parliamentary business should be closed down. In practice, the Prime Minister requests that the Crown, represented by the Governor General, take this action and in the absence of more clear-sighted attention to procedural protocol this is deemed "democratic". And when this happens, all business currently on the books during that session of Parliament "dies".

One option that suggests itself is that the dissolution of the House of Commons need not automatically result in the standing down of the Senate and indeed it could be posited that Parliamentary business that has moved into the hands of the Senate need not, therefore, die. This model (with serving in the Senate ideally becoming a full-time engagement versus a decorative dalliance) would then allow some aspects of committee work (such as facilitating public consultations), and the hard work associated with finalizing "good laws", to continue while the elected members of the House of Commons are otherwise deployed. The results of any such ongoing effort would, naturally, return to the House of Commons once they reassembled. Currently, one of the chief irritants about the Senate, at least in the eyes of any reigning government (maintaining a working majority in the House of Commons) is the fact that the Senate slows things down and this is really an issue when the prospect looms of legislative initiatives dying when a session ends. If this threat of initiatives expiring were lifted, then one of the current issues, associated with having a secondary chamber that supports the legislative process with a "sober second look", ceases to be a problem.

Interestingly, this particular path towards Senate Reform would not require much in the way of "structural modifications" as I suspect it could be grafted onto the current laws and traditions more as a corrective against past abuses than as a radical change. In fact, it is very likely that this approach would entail almost no structural modifications at all - but rather would simply constitute a recognition of how things were originally established in the British North America (BNA) Act (1867).


As I implied above, there is a sense in which Canada, as a pluralist society that has shown a consistent genius for finding reasonable solutions to political challenges, is obligated to continuously refine its democratic machinery and thereby set an example for emerging democracies. By the same token, it must be acknowledged as disheartening that Canadians have been so content to have their politicians work so tirelessly at undermining the often surprisingly good democratic measures afforded by their constitution and by their parliamentary traditions. If democratic progress can be derailed here, and worse still, if core tenets of democracy can be cavalierly abused in Canada (as seems to be the default preference of recent governments although we can always hope that the current government will change this trend), what hope can there be elsewhere?

Parliamentary Doorway 


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david webber

As I have learned Democracy is in the eye of the beholder. Some have much higher standards than others, while yet more believe they have high standards only to fail basic tenets.

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