Saturday, December 6, 2008

Parliamentary Democracy

Those of us who grew up in the British Commonwealth learned about parliamentary democracy in high school. We are used to the idea that we elect a House of Commons, and that the Government -- the Executive -- is responsible to the Commons. We tend to fall into a certain line of thinking about the nature of voting in this country, and in other former British colonies. When people say: I voted for Stephen Harper, or I didn't vote for Stephane Dion, meaning that they voted Conservative, or didn't vote Liberal, we tend to think that they are just confusing our system with the US system. Here we vote for an MP, right? Unless you live in Calgary Southwest, you couldn't vote for Harper.

Right. But let's ponder for a moment the nature and history of the executive branch of our Government. The Commons itself originally had, in England, no function other than to authorize taxation. An important function, no doubt, but not an executive function. Moreover, ministers didn't sit in the Commons; they were appointed by the sovereign, and held office at the pleasure of the sovereign. In the constitutional fiction under which we live, this is still so.

Some people think that the Commons got its present powers after the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688. And its legislative powers were certainly enhanced then: for all laws had to go through the Commons. Nevertheless, the Prime Minister (who was not even called that) did not answer to the Commons until much later. Wikipedia correctly says: "throughout the 18th century parliamentarians and legal scholars continued to deny that any such position was known to the Constitution. The title was first referred to on Government documents during the administration of Benjamin Disraeli but did not appear in the formal British Order of Precedence until 1905. George II and George III made strenuous efforts to reclaim the personal power of the Monarch, but the increasing complexity and expense of government meant that a minister who could command the loyalty of the Commons was increasingly necessary."

This means that though there is a substantial body of precedents that define the office of Prime Minister, no law defines the office. Every new decision makes that law. In this country, substantial centralization of powers occurred under recent Prime Ministers. It may well be that in India or Australia, there are subtle differences about how much authority a Prime Minister can claim. And these differences would trace not to legislation, but simply to what former Prime Ministers have done or have been allowed to do.

Moreover, it means that though the electorate votes for Parliament, and thus indirectly for the Government, they still vote under a system according to which Parliament was not the home of Government. In the British system, the Executive is separate from the Legislature -- and that's the assumption that defines voting in Westminster style democracies. We don't really vote for the Executive. In theory, the Prime Minister is still an officer appointed by the Crown, though now more than ever s/he must command the loyalty of the Commons, who votes up the money by which the Crown governs.

Contrast this with France or the United States. There, the electorate votes for both the Executive and the Legislature. We vote for those who authorize or reject legislation, but we do not vote for those who propose and execute legislation. Some think of this as "our system" -- different but just as good.

Last week's events have shown us in Canada that however good our system might be, it is less democratic.

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