We are in the early days of Justin Trudeau’s government but the Speech from the Throne a few days ago laid out a number of measures that, among other things, would reform the Canadian political system. The Governor General said “the trust that Canadians have in public institutions, including Parliament, has at times been compromised”, which is not a wrong. The reforms themselves are the personification of the Liberals as a party: some things are good, and some that don’t go far enough. There is one excellent proposal that has been put forward but the rest, I’m sad to say, need to be called out for what they are, which is pathetic politician-speak.
Let’s start with the positive. In the Speech from the Throne, Governor General David Johnson said that it was the government’s intention to make the 2015 general election the final election under First-Past-The-Post. Fantastic. It is a terrible electoral system that most of the time throws out highly unrepresentative governments. The only slight caveat was that there was going to be a consultation on electoral reform but I’m sure that this is simply a formality, which will respond with the support of the Canadian people.
Unfortunately there is little else to celebrate. One of the more striking reforms proposed was that the Senate would become a non-partisan and meritocratic chamber, with appointments recommended to the Prime Minister by a commission. I believe this is pure political posturing. The Trudeau government has placed emphasis on being a ‘uniting force’, hence the focus on bipartisanship in the Commons, non-partisanship in the Senate and the importance of hearing everybody’s voices. This reform is nothing more than a stunt to obfuscate the fact that the Prime Minister will still be appointing people to a position of political power.
There are only two reforms that would have proved that he was serious about reforming the Senate. He could have suggested a directly elected Senate to act as a revising chamber in a bicameral legislature, or he could have said that there is no place for an unelected body in a democracy and therefore the Senate should be abolished. Because he has not suggested either of these two, Trudeau has shown that he is far too deferent to tradition and authority, although this fact is unsurprising for a centrist.
Another example of this lack of radicalism was that the Trudeau government wants to “encourage more free votes”. This is another meaningless statement because rather than come up with an actual policy, the Liberals have said that they will ask people to do something. If you want MPs to think for themselves and not have them bound by what the party machine says there is a simple solution: abolish the whip system, after which every vote would be a free vote. The frustrating thing is that Trudeau clearly recognises there is a problem with the whip system but his solution to do the most pathetic thing possible.
The final thing that the government said was that it would not conduct any prorogation, the mechanism to end the session without dissolving the parliament. Nor, according to the Throne Speech, will omnibus bills be deployed to avoid legislation being scrutinised by the opposition and backbenchers. Personally I cannot see why prorogation is necessary because any circumstances in which would one would be implemented could be done by means of a parliamentary adjournment or recess.
On the second point, the Prime Minister is leaving the possibility of omnibus bills being used in future by his successors. It is not enough to say that the way to improve Parliament is for the Prime Minister to not do something. No, the solution is to pass legislation or amend the constitution to specifically state that bills must only consider amendments that are somehow relevant to the strictly defined focus of the bill. For example if there is a bill about corporation tax put before the House of Commons, amendments to the bill about the legalisation of prostitution or the renaming of a government building shouldn’t be allowed to be debated. If omnibus bills were severely restricted or banned altogether the future intransigence would be avoided and there would be no need for the legislative process to be dependent on the Prime Minister’s self-control.
To conclude, the suggestions by Trudeau are a mixed bag. The Senate reforms are terrible because nothing will be done about the fact that a group of unelected people can influence legislation without being beholden to the electorate. The failure to suggest an overhaul of parliamentary procedure will enable future legislative sessions to continue to be dysfunctional, and the bipartisanship of the last few years will be repeated as soon as Trudeau leaves because he wouldn’t have restricted the ability of Prime Minister to act in such a way. The announcement to end First-Past-The-Post is to be commended because no government usually votes to abolish the electoral system them put them into power. But when the reforms are taken as a package, it is not nearly as radical as they should be.