By Vaughan Lyon (1930-2015)
The Great Delusion: Parties as Vehicles for Democratic Citizenship
National political parties, at least the Canadian variety, are not much more than election-day organizations, providing the fundraising and poll workers needed to fight an election campaign. They are hardly effective vehicles for generating public-policy debates, for staking out policy positions, or for ensuring their own party’s competence once in office. ~Donald J. Savoie
Citizenship is possibly the most important of the central institutions of the modern democratic state. It is an instrument to socialize individuals into a supportive relationship to that state. It encourages them to develop positive attitudes to membership in the political community and to view the legally constituted political authorities as legitimate, in short, to see the state as their state, in whose development they actively participate.
For the modern mobilizing democratic state, many of whose public policies cannot be successfully implemented without the support of the population, citizenship is an essential tool. ~ Alan Cairns
Less than 2 percent of Canadians ever have held membership in any political party. Prospects for improvement are not compelling. It is not hard to understand why Membership has been devalued, their role in policy has been diminished, and the place of parties as incubators and recruiters of talent has been under merciless attack from various forces. Even the most fundamental role of a political party—to choose the platform and leaders from which voters can then choose policies, direction, and governments—has also been diminished. ~Hugh Segal
Generations of Canadians have been born into a system labelled “democratic” but based on competitive party elections, not citizen participation. Power in these parties is distributed “top down,” and the governments they form are similarly organized with a party prime minister at the “apex of power.” Parties have promoted the idea that joining is an act of good citizenship and is politically empowering. Resigned, at some level, to accepting the belief that parties are inevitable in a democracy and that party membership is the only way, apart from voting, to exercise their democratic citizenship, a very few citizens do join them. Their small numbers are sufficient to maintain these shell organizations because, at the moment, there is no democratic alternative able to perform their functions. Maintaining at least the façade of a popular base with their membership organizations helps the parties legitimate their monopoly on political power. Further, strengthened with many hired professionals and money from party headquarters, the usually moribund party organizations are resuscitated to help party candidates electioneer.
A critical look at the record of parties trying to accommodate the desire of people to be democratic citizens, will, however, make it abundantly clear that we must look beyond parties for that opportunity. Citizens wanting to participate actively in politics should not be forced to do so through parties, unintentionally perpetuating the existence of an outworn institution that is blocking democratic progress.
Vaughan Lyon – 268
Party Promises of Membership Control
Three parties have made noteworthy promises to “square the circle.” While maintaining the fundamental basis of partyocracy— the delegation by citizens of their civic responsibilities to party leaders—they have promised to follow the policy direction of citizens as either party members or constituents. A failure to recognize the hopelessness of trying to reconcile these conflicting objectives could result in further attempts and more delays in proceeding with significant, achievable democratic reforms. The approach of two of the three parties has been to promise its members a significant, or controlling, voice in determining party policy—government policy when their team is in office. A second and even more interesting (startling, even!) proposal of another party was to promise this, but also that its MPs would represent the policy positions of their constituents in the House of Commons, even when they differed from those of the MP or his or her party.
The views of constituents would always take precedence over the views of all others—as most citizens believe they should. The CCF, its successor the NDP, and the Trudeau Liberals promised the first approach. The Western farm parties, particularly the United Farmers of Alberta in the l920s, and, recently, Reform/Alliance, the second. These parties recognized that it would be popular with voters if they at least promised to give citizens and/or party members a controlling voice in determining party/government policy.
The CCF/NDP and membership control. The CCF/NDP attempt to enhance the roles of its members and citizens in political life is now history, although it is formally ongoing. The examination here of the attempt focuses on the CCF experience in Saskatchewan in the years between the early l930s, when the party was organized, and l964 when a 20-year period of CCF government in that province came to an end. In a study of the national political system, this now-dated excursion into provincial politics may seem out of place. The conditions in Saskatchewan were, however, unusually favourable for the successful implementation of the CCF’s offer of a significantly enhanced role in political life to those who joined the party. If democratic participation through party could take place anywhere in Canada, it should have been in Saskatchewan, in that period.
The CCF held its founding convention in l933, during the Great Depression, when support was strong for radical change in many areas of life. Competing with the well-financed “free-enterprise” Liberal and Conservative parties, the CCF’s leaders needed to attract a large, strongly committed membership to provide its resources. Without this, failure was inevitable. Capitalizing on the hostility in the West to the hierarchical structure of the established parties, the CCF proposed to be democratic in all its internal relationships. More generally, the party’s founders emphasized the importance of political participation as an essential part of the development of the whole person.
The commitment to membership control was a foundation stone on which the party was organized, and because of this, at least the rhetorical commitment to it had to be maintained through the years that saw changes in name and organization. It can no more be jettisoned without risking the party’s existence than the PQ in Quebec can drop its commitment to sovereignty. Support for internal party democracy was formally recognized in the new party’s constitution. For example, it provided for the annual election of the party leader, open financial records, and consultative bodies linking legislators and the membership. At the same time as these democratic processes were adopted, however, the party also endorsed parliamentary government.
Leaders of the CCF proposed to overcome the clash of values and institutions this involved by doing the impossible, i.e., integrating a fully democratic party into a parliamentary system supporting prime ministerial government. Social conditions in Saskatchewan were initially very favourable to its attempt. As Seymour Lipset noted in his study of Saskatchewan politics, the population of the province was small; its political culture was, relative to the rest of the country, “participant;” social equality was the norm; party members expected to be consulted and had experience with how democratic organizations worked; and the commitment to membership control was strongly held.
While party democracy was favoured by these factors, parliamentary government posed a series of barriers to it. The highest was this: if the membership was to decide on the party’s policies and, in effect, direct a CCF government, then that government could not claim convincingly to be meeting its constitutional obligation to govern for all the people. Initially, the new party’s theoreticians sought to skirt this problem by arguing that the CCF would be a democratic mass movement embracing all but a handful of the very rich. They wrote, “In and through such a political movement, every Canadian can find opportunity for his initiative and enterprise.”
Such a movement could claim to speak for virtually all the people and that would give it the authority needed to implement its program. Theory and wishful thinking quickly met reality. Only some of the mass of citizens for whom the party/movement hoped to speak chose to break free of established party ties to join or vote for the CCF. Even after the party became well established, it could only claim that it had a larger membership than its competitors. It was impossible to suggest that the membership wing After the Depression and the war, when the party was first in office (1944–64), postwar prosperity dampened the sense that political change was urgent.
Lipset wrote: “Political participation of the ordinary citizen in Saskatchewan is not restricted to the intermittently recurring election. Politics is organized to be a daily concern and responsibility of the common citizen. The relatively large number of farmers’ organizations, co-operatives, and other civic-interest organizations encourages common citizens to share in the government of their communities as a normal routine of life.” of the party was an all-inclusive mass movement that could legitimately direct the government. When the party succeeded in winning office in 1944 under the leadership of Tommy Douglas, it removed the clause in the party constitution that bound its members of the legislative assembly (MLAs) to follow the direction of the extra-parliamentary wing of the party, “On all questions of policy, tactics, and program ….”
Party MLAs were then able to give voters the usual promise made by politicians, i.e., that a government they formed would consider everyone’s views. “We will,” the new premier promised, “welcome the help of all groups in the province, irrespective of their political, religious, or occupational background.”37 Ministers in Douglas’s governments were encouraged to maintain an open-door policy and the party’s MLAs were charged with holding listeningreporting sessions with constituents before and after legislative sessions. In this respect, the Saskatchewan party anticipated by decades the non-binding consultative approach now generally adopted, with less rigour, by most parties and by governments at all levels. Policy democracy based on constituency parliaments would carry this approach a vitally important step further.
Elected local representatives would be involved in deliberative discussions on issues on an organized basis and their views carried forward to the Commons by their MPs. Constituents would be empowered and not merely consulted on an ad hoc basis. The CCF’s leadership’s offered further reassurance that the party membership was not going to dictate the policies of the government by supporting existing parliamentary institutions. It showed little interest in parliamentary reform. Tommy Douglas’ governments featured an unusual amount of consultation with all those interested in the development of policy; this was feasible in that small province. At the same time, however, he maintained the distribution of powers traditionally associated with prime ministerial government.
He was the boss. The formal change in the constitutional status of the membership vis-à-vis its elected representatives was accepted by the rank and file. The acceptance can be attributed, first, to Douglas, a remarkably skilled leader. By dint of personality, lots of formal and informal consultation, membership-flattering rhetoric, and the persuasive powers vested in a successful leader, he finessed the conflict between party democracy and parliamentary government. The ultimate authority of the membership, he told convention delegates, rested on its ability to elect a new party leader at its annual meeting if it was dissatisfied with the performance of its government. The leadership review did give members more influence than that exercised by members of the traditional parties—such reviews and accountability sessions were still unknown to them—but it was very different from members taking responsibility for determining the policies of the government.
Second, it was recognized by most in the party that to be successful in the ongoing partisan warfare, the leader must have a large measure of autonomy. He or she must be free to bob, weave, and change direction as the competitive interests of the party required. It was unrealistic to imagine that the leader could doggedly implement a “wish list,” probably full of inconsistencies, drawn up at a brief party convention by uninformed political amateurs with no formal responsibility for governing. The opposition would be unmerciful in its attacks on such behaviour; the media and public outraged. Further, members of the legislative wing of the party, their careers at stake, could not be expected to defer to the general membership of the party on matters involving the party’s success at the polls. The MLA’s selfinterest did, however, dictate that they must defer to the leader of their party, especially if he or she were premier. Denial and rhetoric was the third way the loss of formal control was made acceptable to the CCF membership.
Evelyn Eager writes: “Following the l956 election, The Commonwealth, the organ of the party, proclaimed in a headline that ‘CCF Convention will direct government policy for new term,’” and the party secretary, in making a call for members to attend the convention, stated that, “The people themselves decide the policies and programs which the government is to institute.” It is common for a party to send different messages to its various audiences. When a commitment, like membership control, is a central element of a party’s belief system, lip service must be paid to it, although doing so raises expectations in some members that cannot be met. A final major barrier to membership control was the disparity of resources between the various elements of the organization. The “professionals” had information and responsibilities, and they were subject to pressures not experienced by members.
Party members were busy making a living and not directly responsible to voters. They could not interact with their members of the legislature, and particularly with those in the cabinet, on the basis of anything resembling equality. Then as now, without appropriate means to deliberate on policy, thoughtful citizens will defer to others whom they consider, sometimes mistakenly, better equipped to make public policy. With the policy democracy model in place they will not be required to do so. From a party perspective, the CCF experience in Saskatchewan was a success. The party held office for 20 years and during that time built a reputation as a progressive, people-centred, efficient administration. Its leadership devoted time and energy to encouraging “mere voters” to become “democratic citizens” to the very limited extent allowed by the party/ parliamentary system. A party model was created that had some positive impact on the internal processes of other parties and on the character of Canadian politics in general. At the end of the Douglas period in office, however, it was clear that the model was not dynamic from a democratic perspective. Indeed, observers concluded that the membership’s role in the party had become progressively more formal over time, rather than the reverse.
Vaughan Lyon – 274
Achieving power to implement its social and economic program was the overriding objective of the party, and that required embracing the existing political system.5 Considering the failure of the left, generally, to press for more democratic politics, Professor Meyer Brownstone, a critical “friend” of the left, writes, “Their reforms have been limited to issues within the system itself, such as patronage and election funding. Indeed, social democrats are the greatest defenders of liberal parliamentary democracy and existing modes of administration.”
The Liberal’s (Trudeau’s) flirtation with participatory democracy. The 1960s were politically tumultuous times. The issues of the day activated a significant number of normally politically apathetic people and intensified the feelings and activity of those already politically engaged. People demanded to be heard, and many rejected the right of even elected officials to make policy without consulting them. It was an excellent opportunity for democratic leadership, for a politician or politicians to give creative thought to meeting the awakened participatory aspirations of many.
Pierre Trudeau—fairly recently a critical political outsider, but as of l968 the country’s Liberal prime minister—responded rhetorically. He campaigned in his first election as prime minister on the twin themes of “participatory democracy” and a “just society.” Trudeau’s language on the former was charged with promise of dramatic change in the system of representation and distribution of power: “The Liberal Party speaks of participation and it does so with sincerity. It knows that there is no ‘middle Canada’ qualified to give its mandate to a ‘Liberal Establishment.’ We know that if we are to retain the confidence of the people of Canada as a government,
As the late Prof. Walter Young wrote, “The democratic political movement which rises in opposition to the existing political and social system faces a dilemma. To achieve its ends it must have power, and it must seek that power through the existing system. It must operate within the system and engage in the very practices it came into being to oppose. Although it may work within the system purely as an expeditious approach to reform, it runs the risk of contamination.”
we must as a party seek and find a means of offering representation and distributing the decision-making power among those voiceless thousands who have not shared in these opportunities in the past.” Those looking for political change greeted Trudeau’s message with excitement; expectations were raised. On a wave of public enthusiasm (“Trudeaumania”), he led the Liberals to the majority-government status that had eluded the party under his predecessor. For a brief moment, the political situation cried out for new initiatives. These could involve shoring up partyocracy or responding to the demands for more participation with a new more democratic mode of representation, i.e., constituency representation.
There has always been a huge constituency for the latter, as has been noted, but it has always been unorganized and lacking a concrete proposal around which to rally. Alas, the political leadership of the country chose to see the restiveness as a threat to the system that should be met by modest reforms in it. Trudeau and his colleagues seemed not to have thought through what institutional changes participatory democracy would require. For them, it was primarily a vote-getting slogan. Liberals, however, had to do something to respond to the expectations aroused by their leader’s rhetoric. The something was similar to the approach adopted earlier by the Saskatchewan CCF.
The party message was, “Join our democratic party; help determine party policy that will become government policy when the party is in office.” Richard Stanbury, the party president, enthusiastically and creatively took up the challenge of opening up the party to a much higher level of membership engagement in setting party policy.
Initially, Trudeau appeared to support his efforts. Those active in national politics in the l960s were, however, different, and more difficult to organize and satisfy, than those in the small province of Saskatchewan in the l930s and later. The Liberal Party was old, wedded to traditional politics, and struggling to maintain its dominant position in the national party system in the face of new pressures.
The politically alienated, urban, middle-class political actives to whom it needed to appeal had to be convinced that the “natural governing party” could change its spots. Lorna Marsden, a sociology professor and key party activist during the period of Trudeau’s leadership, analyzed the party’s experience as a vehicle of political participation.9 She noted that while Trudeau was preoccupied with channelling the widespread political unrest into the system through the Liberal Party he, like Douglas, was determined to preserve the cabinet’s control of policy. He saw participation more as a learning experience for citizens than as a means of empowering them, although his early rhetoric, as shown above, suggested otherwise. Richard Stanbury, on the other hand, shared much the same dream as the early CCF theoreticians of what the membership wing of the party could become.
The party’s challenge, as he set out in a lengthy memo, was to convince Liberal Party members and prospective members that the party had really changed. Membership opinion would be taken seriously in developing party policy.10 With Trudeau’s acquiescence, an elaborate consultative and accountability structure—somewhat less extensive than that of the Saskatchewan CCF but still impressive for a national party—was set up to show that the leadership was intent on fulfilling its commitment. However, Stanbury’s vision, too, was bounded by his acceptance of the ultimate authority of the PM and his cabinet on policy questions.
The Liberal loss of majority status in the Commons in the l972 election shocked the party and raised questions about the vote-getting appeal of the “new politics” to the broad swath of “non-political” voters. Marsden states that with the loss, the party was too preoccupied for the next two years with winning back its majority to worry about other matters. The enthusiasm for party participation in setting the course of the government was never fully recovered.
Trudeau was to qualify what he meant by participatory democracy. It did not mean participating in making current policy and taking responsibility for it.12 Rather, he urged the party to focus on the long term in its policy discussions. Party members should become “futurists!” With that major refinement, Trudeau could reconcile his commitment to increased participation with maintaining traditional top-down government.
For party members, however, it meant being shut out of participation in making the policies immediately affecting their lives. Referring to reforms adopted prior to the 1984 convention that replaced Mr. Trudeau as party leader, Marsden concludes, “They restricted the role of the Party and marked the end of participation by Party members at least in the ways that had been dreamt of by Richard Stanbury and others in l968.”
The Trudeau who came into office championing participatory democracy had become noted for strengthening prime ministerial government.No transfer of power and responsibility to citizens had even been considered, beyond the party-serving invitation to join the Liberal Party, engage in its difficult-to-find constituency policy discussions and, particularly, in its election-related activities. The national Liberal Party was even less successful in becoming an instrument for democratic citizenship than the Saskatchewan CCF had been. For substantive policy advice, party leaders turned to the bureaucracy, outside experts, powerful lobbies, and polls. The “voiceless thousands” (millions?) would remain inarticulate.
Vaughan Lyon – 278
The reform energies of many, mobilized by a unique set of historical circumstances in the 1960s and early ’70s, were desperately needed to bring the political system into line with popular ideals and the government’s need for support. Instead, they were diverted into a futile attempt to make the Liberal Party a vehicle for democratic citizenship. That was by no means the end of the story of our being diverted by party promises in our search for meaningful citizenship.
Party-Advocated Constituency Representation: Reform/Alliance
Western reformers in the 1920s. Party-advocated constituency representation is the most important illustration of the futility of attempting to reconcile party representation with significant democratic participation. Historically, certain parties have promised voters that they would act as political publicservice agencies: their MPs would give priority to representing the views of their constituents in the House of Commons and/or provincial legislatures over those of their party or their own. By inference it was recognized that the mandate the party and its MPs claimed to have received in the election could be an inaccurate reflection of the views of constituents on some, perhaps many, issues. Further consultation, and a response to it, would be needed to ensure true representation.
Millions—as voters and including the few voters who were also party members—were beguiled by this attractive notion of real constituency representation within the framework of existing party institutions. A major step toward a higher level of democracy could be taken relatively effortlessly! The history of parties attracting—and disappointing—citizens with promises of constituency representation dates back to the end of World War I.
The agrarian reformers of the l920s, particularly those in the United Farmers of Alberta (UFA), included delegate democracy/constituency representation in their program when challenging the reigning Liberals. The UFA, with an assist from organized labour, won control of the government of Alberta in its first bid for office in 1921 and remained in power until 1935. Unprepared for their victory, its elected members were under immediate pressure to fill the traditional roles found in the party parliamentary system. They did so with only a little dissent, which died over time.
It might have been otherwise if the UFA had gone into the election committed to a clear, workable model of constituency representation. Its supporters would then have had something tangible to rally around and to hold their elected representatives to establishing. Delegate democracy was, however, just one of a mélange of democratic reform ideas that UFA members found appealing. No serious thought had been given to how it could be organized. Most UFA members, basking in the satisfaction of having their team in office, and with a living to make, were content to have their members of the legislative assembly govern conventionally.
The rhetorical commitment to democratic change lived on for a few years after the UFA government took office in Alberta through the UFA component of the national Progressive Party. As members of that party, which was based on provincial farm organizations across the country, the UFA MPs rejected the discipline of their party caucus in Ottawa, arguing that they must be free to represent the views of their constituents. Their stand, militantly advocated, did much to disrupt the internal unity and effectiveness of the Progressives. The party was a short-lived force in national politics.
Those committed to advancing democratic practice might see as admirable the continued resistance of some party MPs to conforming to the norms of party government. It was, however, a pseudo form of constituency representation that the MPs actually practiced. Students of the politics of the time argue convincingly that it was the leaders of the UFA organization to whom the UFA MPs responded. There was no organization of constituents that could present MPs with informed views shared by the majority of their constituents. That essential piece of the delegate/policy democracy model was missing, and the vacuum was filled by provincial UFA leaders claiming to speak for the interests of voters.
With only a few zealous reformers surviving the winding up of the Progressive Party after the l926 election, and defections to the established parties, for a time there was no party left articulating the desire of Canadians for constituency representation, let alone considering how it might be achieved. In the Depression years of the l930s, the new entrants to the party system from the West—the CCF and Social Credit—showed no interest in constituency representation.
Indeed, Social Credit, despairing of partyocracy, urged a transfer of policy control to unelected experts. If the voters had been familiar with a feasible, ready-to-go alternative model of democratic representation, they would have had that to turn to when there was a loss of confidence in traditional party government. Although the interest of the agrarians in replacing party with constituency representation did not lead to change, their critique of party politics was a valuable contribution to the democratic cause. It reverberates today, reinforced by dramatically changed circumstances that make their message even more important and feasible.
In the l980s, a group of Albertans, led by Preston Manning, organized a new federal party by building, in part, on the same democratic aspirations that had inspired the UFA and some Progressives. Their party, Reform, was reorganized as the Alliance in 2000 and then merged in 2003 with the Progressive Conservatives to become, simply, the Conservative Party. In the ensuing discussion, reference will be only to Reform/Alliance, since the reform views of the party changed little with the 2000 reorganization. The Conservative Party, with Stephen Harper its chief ideologue, does not, however, share the democratic values of its Reform/ Alliance predecessor.
As Reform/Alliance moved rapidly to become the official opposition in Ottawa, the party muted its reform proposals and democratic rhetoric. Initially, however, Reform/Alliance prominently featured its commitment to the package of reforms familiar as “internal party democracy,” “direct democracy,” and “delegate democracy”—or constituency representation. The promise of constituency representation is considered here. The party’s leaders could no more accept membership control of party policy than the other parties espousing it, and for similar reasons. The political warfare that parties wage demands that they have a commanding general wielding considerable freedom to act.
Reform/Alliance might well have hesitated before promising constituency representation. The UFA, a source of its inspiration, had been in power in Alberta for 15 years without acting on its promise to implement this form of representation. To avoid the new promise being greeted with cynicism, the party might have been expected to accompany the second-time-around promise with a practical implementation plan. Partyocracy, however, does not encourage us to pay close attention to politics. Promises unfulfilled the first time they were used to attract support can be recycled successfully, in almost the same form, without serious questions being asked.
Democratic reform was, of course, only one plank in the platform of Reform/Alliance. The party also proposed a right-wing economic and social program and supported a decentralist vision of Canada.18 These were not sufficiently attractive to launch the new national party into orbit on their own, however. For that, the party relied on democratic reform, with its wide appeal, and on the West’s long-standing sense of grievance with Ottawa. In his autobiography, Preston Manning proudly cites his slogan in the l993 election campaign: “So you don’t trust politicians? Neither do we.” A politician leading a party, Manning appealed to voters by distancing himself from both. We don’t find the leaders of other organizations denouncing them— “soiling their own nest”—to gain popularity.
The party’s commitment to constituency representation was emphasized in its literature. And, in at least one important expression of it, the party also recognized its responsibility to go beyond the collection of constituency opinion and to help constituents think through their position on issues, i.e., to “deliberate”: “Reformers asserted that it is the responsibility of political representatives to encourage, inform, and focus public participation in the democratic process, and then faithfully to reflect the views of the people they represented. Reform members of Parliament play a critical role in this process. They are to represent the principles and policies of the Reform Party of Canada, to put forward the views of the constituents and bring their own knowledge, judgement, and conscience to their task. Reformers see political representation as a dynamic process where these three roles constantly interact.
The Reform Party’s commit to broadening democracy, however, makes it clear than when one or more of these roles come into conflict, it is the will of the electors which must predominate. Without such a commitment, true democracy cannot take root and grow in the political institutions of Canada. The likelihood of conflict between functioning as a loyal party MP in the Commons and simultaneously as a constituency representative would depend first on how often, on what issues, and how constituents were consulted. Second, it would depend on how the consultation was conducted and, finally, on the opportunities for deliberation available to constituents. How far did Reform/Alliance progress in developing constituency representation?
Unlike the adoption of direct democracy, constituency representation did not need to wait for a Reform/Alliance government to win office and pass supporting legislation. The party’s MPs could have sponsored the organization of constituency parliaments or some similar organization that would have gone considerably beyond occasional consultation in town-hall meetings, mailed questionnaires, etc., in organizing local opinion. Admittedly, the task would have been difficult without state financial support, but perhaps the party could have financed at least a model of constituency representation in one or more constituencies.
Taking this initiative would have shown that the party was committed to constituency representation and would have been a popular move with the vast majority of Canadians who already support constituency representation. Successful, it would have forced the other parties to emulate its initiative and in doing so perhaps making parties irrelevant. If constituents were speaking with one voice through an organization like a constituency parliament, the election of an MP would be a contest to determine which candidate could most effectively represent that opinion in the Commons. The local strength of candidates would determine their success.
Reform/Alliance MPs, like reform-minded MPs of other parties, were subject to pressure to conform to the norms of party/parliamentary government as soon as they set foot in the Centre Bloc on Parliament Hill. Rather than resisting behaviour that would interfere with representing constituents, as the Alberta Progressive MPs of an earlier time had done, they went into training to learn how to behave conventionally. The rapid acceptance of traditional party/parliamentary norms was illustrated by the party’s almost-immediate shift away from its promise to organize its caucus in a new way.
The party’s Blue Book committed it to making public the votes of its MPs in caucus, so that constituents could then monitor how they were being represented by their MP. The party altered this commitment to one promising to release an annual record of votes in caucus. The explanation for this action was the reasonable fear that the other parties would seek to exploit evidence of division within the Reform caucus. It meant, however, that the MPs’ constituents were not able to know the current positions their representatives were taking in caucus at a time when they might influence them.
Understandably, the party experienced other problems in implementing even its limited vision of constituency representation. The party task force studying the implementation of its democratic reforms found difficulties “with the objectivity of questions asked of constituents, with the timing and analysis of results ….” in their MPs’ consultations with constituents. Without restrictions, Reform/Alliance MPs could use the results of consultations as justification for breaking ranks with their caucus colleagues. Such action would reveal divisions in the party and raise questions about whether the MP or the party was following the public will.
The party decided that these problems should be dealt with by subjecting their MPs’ consultations to the supervision of party and polling experts. Caucus officers and the party’s “direct democracy critic” were to be involved in deciding what issues were suitable for a constituency consultation. A procedure was established whereby potential issues were identified, listed, and discussed by caucus; appropriate consultative methods were then determined. Individual MPs were left to exercise their own judgment in deciding which of the approved methods they actually used.
It was only inferred in the party document that MPs should limit their consultations to the approved list of issues. If, however, that was the understanding among MPs, it represented a significant curtailment of their freedom to respond to constituents who might want to be heard on an “unapproved” issue. If a Reform/Alliance government had been elected, the cabinet could have managed the constituency consultations through a caucus bound to support it in the ongoing parliamentary battle. The government would not want its policy preferences submitted to constituents by MPs if it thought, or knew, they would be opposed.
The last line of the task force report (an afterthought?) deserves emphasis: “The Blue Book stipulates that constituents may also initiate the process [i.e., set the constituency consultative process in motion] … so the same level of flexibility will apply to a process initiated by constituents.” The process constituents should use to do this was not set out. This strongly suggests that only the party MP, not his or her constituents, was intended to decide what issues would be submitted to the formal party consultative process.
Competitive pressures limited Reform/Alliance’s ability to act on its promise to adopt constituency representation once it approached governing power. The greater limitation was, however, the threat to the party’s policy agenda that constituency representation would present. What party, having won a victory at the polls, would be willing to relinquish control over the implementation of the policies it was organized to promote?Reform/Alliance had to approach the consultative process with caution, lest it get unwelcome messages from voters on issues that were key to it, like gun control or samesex marriage.
In short, the vote-getting promise to give citizens the right to instruct their MP on his or her policy stance in the Commons had to be finessed, but without losing a support base drawn, significantly, from citizens who rejected conventional politics. Fortunately for the party’s leaders, most party members also had a stake in the success of the finesse.
The most significant dimension of the finesse of Reform’s constituency representation commitment has been referred to, but it deserves emphasis. There is one best way for Reform/Alliance, or any other party, to remain in firm control of the function of representing citizens while at the same time capitalizing electorally on a commitment to constituency representation. It is to do nothing to facilitate institutional development that would give citizens a substantive and authoritative voice on a continuing basis on issues of concern to them. Such a voice could not be ignored when it conflicted with the views of the party—without exposing as fraudulent the party’s commitment to constituency over party representation.
The time and effort of those citizens who were attracted to membership in the UFA and Reform/Alliance in the hope of advancing the democratic cause was not completely wasted. While joining a party amounted to an endorsement of an institution that was a barrier to democracy, that damage was offset by supporting leaders who, for a time, criticized party politics and raised the profile of constituency representation. Those leaders recognized, rhetorically at least, that constituency representation is the next logical step in our democratic evolution. They were not prepared to take that step on their watch, however. An organized push from citizens was needed to insist that they act. It was absent.
Conclusion and Summary Comment on Reforms of Partyocracy
We have completed our examination of the major reforms proposed for and implemented in partyocracy. At this point, it may be helpful to summarize our final evaluation of some of these reforms starting with our just-completed survey of attempts to convert parties into effective agencies for political participation.
• “Three strikes and you’re out!” It would be helpful if a variant of that rule could be applied to attempts to reconcile party with internal party democracy and/ or constituency representation. Proposals for constituency representation or delegate democracy have been talked about several times, under different circumstances, and each time it has been shown that these different modes of representation cannot be integrated into parliamentary government when it is based on competing parties. Recycling that proposal yet again is a waste of the limited energies of reformers.
Even if the impossible were to happen and people flocked to parties as a means of expressing their democratic citizenship, those who joined the “democratic” party would be inducted into the realm of competitive party politics. Seeking fuller democratic citizenship, they would end up party warriors engaged in power struggles with neighbours enlisted in other parties. Democratic values and interest in good government would be subsumed by the appetite for power of leaders and member citizens.
Political leaders, reformers, and citizens should all think anew about how representation and government should be organized to meet the demands of the 21st century.
Access to information:
• Access legislation was put in place years ago, yet we now have what is universally considered one of the most secretive administrations in our history. What does that tell us about the possibilities of depending on words on paper (legislation) as a means of strengthening democracy.
Competitive pressures on the governing party supporting secrecy are much stronger than the current public and media pressures demanding respect for the letter and spirit of the access legislation. Typically, even “law and order” governments will subvert reforms that they might have adopted if they feel that the reforms will weaken their competitive position.
• Proposals for change to a system of proportional representation (PR) will, if they get past the talking stage that has extended over the last 100 years, leave citizens “mere” voters and party elites still rulers. While PR would be an improvement on the existing egregiously flawed plurality electoral system, its pursuit is a time-consuming detour from the citizen-empowering reform that is desired and needed—now.
• Since formal representation based on citizens choosing between competing parties is a grossly inadequate mode of citizen political expression, citizens and organized interests turn to the informal system: representation primarily based on lobbying, street demonstrations, etc. Party governments are free to accept, reject, or manage these pressures as they see fit.
Political equality is impossible to obtain in the informal representative system where unequally distributed resources play a dominant role in deciding public policy. Governments try to inject an element of equality into the competition for its support by distributing lobbying funds to resource-poor, favoured, or feared groups, so that they can be heard. But how can equality be achieved between, say, groups representing the homeless and business in giving small grants to the former? Funds granted can be withdrawn. In trying to bring at least a measure of equality to the competition of groups for government resources, the governing party is drawn into manipulating actors in civil society in a way that favours its interests.
Democratic citizenship and effective governance are held back when even more groups are encouraged to battle for benefits from government. Government should lead in encouraging citizens to recognize and pursue their common interests and should “grow” its ability to respond to them.
Ad hoc non-binding consultations:
• Political leaders offer these consultations as a substitute for organized citizen participation in setting the government’s agenda. Citizens are, however, poorly prepared by how they are socialized by the system to participate in these consultations. They tend, as a result, to become tell-and-sell and public-venting exercises that annoy citizens more than they satisfy their desire for increased control over our necessarily large, intrusive government. On the other hand, powerful interests are pleased to have yet another means of influencing the content and administration of public policy. And governments can “fob off” demands for more participation by referring to the availability of these consultations.
Cleaning up party finance:
• The hopes of many for better politics have rested for years—more than a century—on cleaning up party finance. However, when reforms were finally adopted restricting the funding of parties to the state and individuals, the public funds were distributed in a way that discriminated in favour of the established parties and, particularly, the governing party. The cartel of the dominant parties was strengthened at the expense of new party entrants who could not easily qualify for public funds. Parties, secure in their largely state financing, are thought to be even less responsive to their members and to the people they claim to represent than they are when dependent on outside sources.
This “reform” forces citizens to contribute to the cost of supporting parties, an institution they do not respect, which stands in the way of adopting the more democratic mode of representation they desire. They are also forced to contribute to parties that, once the regulations are in place, find legal and illegal ways to subvert them.
People receive no quid pro quo for the funds they are forced to invest in parties. Parties ignore the urging of virtually all students of politics to function in a way that would increase the political participation and sophistication of the citizenry. It is not in their interest to do so. Politically savvy and engaged citizens would be even more difficult to reconcile to the archaic party system. Instead, parties continue to appeal to voters with demagoguery and personality politics, as indeed they must to attract votes from those they have dumbed down. The media caters to the same audience with “horserace” journalism and politics as personal melodrama. Voters who could be encouraged to become democratic citizens, if funds going to parties were spent differently, are left with an ever-more-entrenched system of competitive party politics. Public funding of parties supports parties—not citizens.
The present prime minister, Stephen Harper, if he wins a majority government, is committed to eliminating the grants to parties, the “reform” achieved after over a hundred years of effort. The government subsidy to the actual election expenses of parties and candidates would be continued. This move would deprive the Bloc Québécois of the bulk of its funds and increase the financial advantage of Mr. Harper’s party over the rest.
Measures of direct democracy:
• The loss of confidence in the formal institutional arrangements for representing citizens, i.e., voting and sending party representation to the Commons, has led, or forced, elites to supplement them with measures of direct democracy. Experience has shown, however, that referenda, etc., in the hands of the governing party turn out to be a means of managing, not empowering, citizens. Resort to referenda, for example, is often a good release for some of the public’s frustration with a political system that excludes its significant participation in making public policy. Sometimes it enables a party to avoid making a vote-endangering decision on an issue. Pressure for significant system reform is weakened by these occasional concessions to popular sovereignty.
When there is the occasional resort to direct democracy, the policy-making process is made even more irrational, as ill-informed citizens are called on to answer a question related to a specific issue that may have wide ramifications on others that it is difficult to factor into the decision.
Reform of Commons and Senate:
• This need is recognized even by MPs and senators. In the case of the Commons, however, the reforms adopted, and those proposed, largely involve an exceedingly modest shifting of powers within the institution; not enough to offset the growing powers of the chief executive. They do little or nothing to enrich the political life of citizens. The one citizen-significant reform proposed, i.e., allowing MPs to vote the views of their constituents, conflicts with the system-imposed need for party discipline. It is also impossible to implement in the absence of any organized way to determine the majority view of constituents. Although promised often, it cannot be implemented without system change.
Several approaches to Senate reform are proposed. The most significant, electing the Senate, would give Canadians more of the party politics they find alienating and would cause gridlock in our national government, as can be seen in the US model.
Reflecting their interests, elites direct their and our attention to finding a purpose for an archaic institution beyond rewarding a few (usually friends of the governing party). While the search for a purpose goes on, no, or too little, thought is given to establishing a new institution that would allow citizens the form of representation they desire, an institution that would allow them to interact constructively with their MP, government, and bureaucracy. Party politicians have little or no interest in any reforms, however significant they might be, that would threaten their dominant position in the system. Our politicians, mostly committed public servants are caught up in the throes of their system and their political imaginations limited.
When and if they do think anew, outside the “box” of party inevitably, it seems highly probable that they would come to the policy democracy/ constituency parliament model or something very similar. Many of the current proposals for reform, like those considered in this and the previous chapters, are edging toward this model. However, they stop short when the movement threatens the lock the parties have on our polity.
Parties have served well as transitional institutions, allowing us to move in a fairly orderly fashion from autocratic rule to one where we elect our leaders. They still represent progress for third-world countries in that stage of development but, for us, after more than 150 years of party rule, they represent stagnation, a block to essential democratic development. In an era when government is large, intrusive, and essential, we need, and are ready for, more control over government policies than a competitive party system can provide.
In virtually every respect, our parties are in steep decline as citizen-based organizations. Can we afford to wait until the party-based system becomes completely dysfunctional? At that point will a rational consideration and implementation of a strengthened model of democracy be possible?
To read more, please purchase Vaughan Lyon’s book POWER SHIFT: From Party Elites to Informed Citizens
Power Shift is the start of what Lyon calls a “quiet Canadian democratic revolution” — citizen-inspired change. Canadians are tired of party representation, and Lyon has outlined a strategy to change it in a way that would shift power from parties to informed citizens.
Power Shift: from Party Elites to Informed Citizens
By Vaughan Lyon
ISBN: 978-1-4620-3763-6 (sc); 978-1-46203-765-0 (hc); 978-1-46203-764-3 (e)
Approximately 321 pages
Available at amazon.com,barnesandnoble.com and chapters.ca
About the author
Vaughan Lyon was educated in Winnipeg and Vancouver. After working for a decade in labor relations, he earned his Ph.D. in political science from the University of British Columbia. He then began teaching, researching and writing about Canadian politics at Trent University, where he was named Professor Emeritus of political science. For more information about Vaughan Lyon and his work, visitwww.democracynow.ca