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Media Bites: The Original Sin of Canadian Politics

04/04/2013 08:06 EDT | Updated 06/04/2013 05:12 EDT

If there's an original sin present in the Canadian political system -- a single spot of darkness from which everything that makes our politics distasteful, disillusioning, and disgusting originates -- it's probably the confidence vote.

A thousand years ago, in medieval England or whatever, there was once a sharp separation of power between the crown and the legislature. The king would appoint parliament's most compliant members to be his ministers, but the rest of the chamber had to play along, too. If the sycophanty of the king's cabinet got too pronounced -- that is, if their government placed the interests of the monarchy above those of the citizenry -- the legislature could vote that they had "no confidence" in the king's advisors, and force them to resign in shame.

None of this bears even the slightest resemblance to 21st century Canadian governance. King-rule was phased out centuries ago, and with it any visible space between the legislature and executive. That critical prerogative once exercised solely by the monarch, namely the power to form a government, is now held by the prime minister, who, of course, is not some dude separate from parliament, but rather the boss of its largest faction.

And yet the archaic artifact of confidence voting remains. The House can still vote to declare it's lost confidence in the king's (er, Queen's) government, and order fresh elections to pick a new one. Without a meddling monarch to punish, however, modern confidence voting has become little more than a shallow exercise in partisan opportunism. During a minority government administration -- the only time when it's mathematically possible for "parliament,"(which is to say, the opposition), to out-vote "the government" (which is to say, the plurality party) -- non-confidence votes occur for one reason only: the PM's critics have calculated they could win an emergency election.

A stirring exercise in democratic accountability this ain't. No one seriously believes, for instance, that the first five years of the Harper government had "the confidence" of Gilles Duceppe, Jack Layton, et al, though a rigidly literal interpretation of their parliamentary behaviour (on most days) would hold that. What they lacked was confidence in their poll numbers.

The survival of confidence voting has exerted negative effect on majority governments, too. Since (big breath here) it's theoretically possible a party with a majority of seats in the House of Commons could vote non-confidence in itself, majority prime ministers can cite this least likely of scenarios as a paranoid pretext to impose tyrannical control over their caucuses in the name of "stability."

The recent media hubbub over Prime Minister Harper's efforts to stonewall MP Mark Warawa's efforts to introduce a vaguely pro-life motion in the House of Commons is a fine example. As historian Allan Levine notes in yesterday's National Post, Harper's dictatorial actions are really more representative of the "the nature of the parliamentary beast" than anything the PM thinks or feels about fetal rights per se. Harps declared the abortion debate "closed," therefore any attempt by any Conservative MP to pry it open it represents a threat to his parliamentary confidence -- even if it doesn't take the form of a literal no-confidence motion (which, Warawa's thing doesn't). As Allan chronicles, pretty much every Canadian prime minister has made a big show of demanding caucus unanimity on some issue or another, more often for reasons of power than principle.

And it's worked. Today even parliament's most rebellious MP, Conservative James Bezan, still "votes with his party nearly 99 per cent of the time" according to a recent Globe and Mail survey.

The media's willingness to play along and make such a fuss about exceedingly mild "backbench revolts" like Warawa's has caused a lot of bad unto itself, adds William Watson in the Ottawa Citizen. It's created a political culture where few Canadians "can process the notion that parties can, indeed should, include people who publicly disagree with some of what the party stands for." Instead, we're taught to expect ideological hegemony and punish leaders who fail to deliver. At election time, every party fearmongers about the opposition's craziest kooks and raise stone-faced concerns that, barring prompt exile, obscure candidate such-and-such may soon be "setting the agenda" for the nation.

But in a proper parliamentary democracy the agenda is not "set" by individual MPs, or even the ruling party caucus. It's set by majority votes in parliament, which, by definition ignore unpopular minority opinions. Kooks don't matter if they're too marginal to impact legislation, yet the press and pundits constantly berate party leaders who can't "control" their caucus, in a manner not dissimilar to the sexist tut-tutting you once heard about a husband who couldn't "control" his outspoken wife.

There was some outrage in the U.S. a while ago following a survey that revealed "the most conservative Democrat is now more liberal than the least conservative Republican." It was a uniquely American description of a uniquely American problem, taking for granted, as it did, the idea that Congressmen have a right (if not obligation) to vote in a manner that's unpredictable and non-conformist.

In other words, in America, legislators who occasionally buck party orthodoxy -- a practice which doesn't trigger pointless elections or caucus expulsions, by the way -- are highly valued by voters. Through their more honest style of legislating, in fact, they even help maintain something the public all-too-frequency lacks when viewing their government: confidence.

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