For many MPs, serving in Parliament is the best job they ever had. There’s a good salary and perks, and the illusion of power and influence. Yet there is fear and conformity too, and a mindless tribalism that frustrates MPs and empowers party apparatchiks.
I left the New Democratic Party in 2012 over lockstep discipline on many issues, including the long-gun registry. Jack Layton was superb at balancing the needs of MPs with functionaries, and caucus meetings had been very inclusive. He was unusual.
I’m idealistic, perhaps naïve, but I came to Ottawa to work for my constituents and my conscience with the advice, counsel and persuasion of my party, not abject control. Today all three main parties are run from the backrooms by leaders and functionaries.
The result: Parliament is reduced to hyper-partisanship, where nobody wants to give an inch. There is a real combat mentality. I’ve had many achievements in my life – police officer, biologist, forester, businessperson, corporate director – but nothing like this; Parliament has been the most frustrating experience of my life.
There’s an old Japanese proverb: the nail that stands up will be driven down. Well, I’ve been the nail. But when I decided to serve as an independent MP, I made an interesting discovery: for many parliamentarians I’ve become a kind of alter-ego. I have had MPs tell me, “I wish I could do that; I don’t feel comfortable taking my marching orders from the party.” But they will quickly add, “I don’t think I could get re-elected as an independent.”
Can I get re-elected? I’m not sure. Does that drive my decision-making? No. I’m happier, a lot of constituents are happier; I sleep better at night, and my wife says I’m easier to live with.
Canadians want a Parliament that works. This need not be revolutionary; often simple technical changes can bring significant improvements. I have introduced several bills and motions to improve Parliament, most recently Bill C-512, An Act To Amend The Parliament of Canada Act, that would limit a prime minister’s power to declare a budget or any bill a question of confidence, thus forcing caucus to support it for fear of bringing down a government. Similar legislation exists in the U.K. It is common sense.
Here are my five simple steps to saving Parliament.
First, randomize seating in the House of Commons. It eases the adversarial tension, and makes it more difficult to heckle a seatmate who has shown you family photos. In many European countries the legislative chambers are round. The impact is profound.
Second, permit more than one MP of more than one party to co-sponsor legislation. That is not permitted now, and it would encourage bipartisanship.
Third, restore the power of riding associations to nominate candidates, not the party leadership. This was the method of John A. Macdonald, who ruled by persuasion. Since Pierre Trudeau changed the Elections Act in 1970 all candidates require their leader’s signature on nomination papers; this is used as a club, mercilessly.
Fourth, a prime minister must be selected by all of Parliament, and all leaders by their caucus. Leaders were chosen this way till 1919. This ensures leaders serve MPs, and not the other way around.
Fifth, we must have proportional representation. Of all “democracies” on earth, only four others share our antiquated electoral system: the U.K., the U.S., India and Zimbabwe. I propose a national referendum that asks, “Do you want an electoral system that is proportional?” If Canadians want it, they should have it – and if a party wins 20 percent of the national vote, they should get 20 percent of the seats.
I’m oddly optimistic we can reform Parliament, and that Canadians will get the democracy they deserve.
It has to get better. It could not possibly get any worse.
(Editor’s note: the author is now Green MP for Thunder Bay-Superior North, Ont. His commentary was originally published June 16, 2013)