Just a few off-the-cuff thoughts on recent parliamentary events.
I loved – LOVED – the procedural trickery that the NDP & Conservatives pulled on the Liberals on Monday involving bill C-10. The substance of what transpired was this: 1) Alexandre Boulerice (NDP) had an amendment to C-10 on the order paper; 2) on Monday morning, he withdrew his amendment. When this happens the Standing Orders direct the House to vote immediately on the main motion. Well, the Liberals weren’t expecting this, and almost got caught with too few MPs to carry the vote. In the event, the vote was tied and the Speaker (per convention) voted on the government’s side. The Liberals were outraged. Not sure why: it’s not the opposition’s job to pass Liberal legislation, and not their job to whip Liberal MPs.
But there is going to be fall-out from this event. Already, Dominic Leblanc, the Government House Leader has placed on order paper a series of motions to change the Standing Orders to give the cabinet a complete monopoly on the House’s timetable and to place the power of adjournment completely in the government’s hands. [UPDATE: …and apparently The Spaniel is a bit frustrated with the opposition!!] From a political science perspective, there’s a nice pattern here: the opposition exploits some means under the existing rules to obstruct / delay /harry the government, and then the government – frustrated – unilaterally changes the rules to close off the opposition’s delaying tactic. The cycle is then repeated. Indeed, this kind of model mimics the development and evolution of time allocation rules in Ottawa and several provinces.
Less appreciated is that the opposition’s tactics will change the internal dynamics of both the House and the Liberal caucus. (And judging by the day’s events, that’s already happened!) When a party enjoys a largish majority, each government MP has an incentive to free-ride on his/her colleagues: “Why should I come back early all the way from from BC on Monday,” an MP might say, “You don’t need my vote & Pierre (who represents a Montreal riding) can cover things.” So says each MP to the whip… and up to now the whip could indulge many MPs by granting them time away from the House: “Sure , it’s no big deal; you can arrive on Tuesday…” Well, that flexibility is now going to stop. And then things will get tense. This work sfor the opposition because parliamentary time is always scarcer for the government than the opposition. Opposition members don’t have to meet with stakeholders over legislative changes, they don’t have to appear before committees, they don’t have an legislative agenda to pass… and if they don’t show up, well, the opposition was going to lose the vote anyway. So the time constraints are very asymmetric, and they bind much more tightly on the governing Liberals than the opposition NDP or Conservatives. This is one of the oppositions’ key weapons against a Westminster government, and one that’s not always (ever) appreciated by folks unfamiliar with parliaments. Anyway, I think it’s fair to say that the honeymoon is ending; you heard it here, folks.
Now onto Maryam Monsef, our Minister for Democratic Reform. I think it’s fair to say no senior minister is worried about losing their portfolio to Monsef at the next reshuffle. She is shambolic. (I guess that’s what a BA in psych from Trent gets you.) The incoherent excuses / arguments against putting electoral reform to a referendum are something else.
There are two separate points here; one is about the politics of electoral reform; the other is about how we ought to think about the requirement / desirability of referendum.
With regard to the first point, the reality is that the Liberals have the power to impose exactly the electoral system they want out of that process (read my earlier posts on that). The question is what costs the Liberals want to pay to achieve their desired outcome (an AV electoral system). My sense is that the political cost of unilaterally imposing an electoral system change will be pretty high. Thus, it’s important for the Liberals either to 1) get at least one opposition party on board (no, Lizzie May will not cut it; it has to be the Tories or the Dippers), and that cost declines significantly; or 2) hold a referendum. (Tangentially, this is probably the NDP’s best time/chance to secure some proportionality; if I were them, I’d offer an MMP system with say 1/4 list seats. The Liberals might go for that because such a system would keep the Liberals in the pole position on the political left.)
On the second point: the reason for holding a referendum is NOT to discern the “general will” on an electoral system. (There is no general will!!) It is rather to prevent the electoral system itself from becoming seen as a partisan device designed to secure certain types of partisan outcomes. Having the electoral system viewed in that light by even a significant minority of citizens would be corrosive. Having the opposition buy into major aspects of electoral reform would prevent this from happening, but if that’s not forthcoming, a referendum would be a good alternative
Here’s a friendly suggestion to the prime minister,
Gerry Butts Justin Trudeau: let Monsef continue to drive the file a little more into the ground, then have a reshuffle to ditch Monsef and get moving on legislation to legalize marijuana: Nothing to see here folks… Look! Free Pot!!