Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Roadbump for the Accountability Revolution

As Lenin advised all would-be revolutionaries, you can't make an omlette without breaking eggs. In other words, if you are serious about your transformation, you can't feel constrained by too many procedural niceties. Of course, this is why anti-revolutionaries like procedural niceties. It is an old debate but the sides seem clear.

But what if the content of your revolution is precisely process? Once upon a time, we lived in a very bad (albeit prosperous, peaceful and tolerant) "friendly dictatorship" in which all power was centralized in Jean Chrétien's Prime Ministerial office. During this dark time, MPs were not allowed to freely advance their or their constituents' views. Appointments to Parliamentary committees were made by Prime Ministerial fiat. And because there was a majority government, the executive passed whatever legislation it wanted, without any meaningful input either from the opposition or from backbenchers.

Why any journalist would call a politician prepared to do his own strangling "friendly" is beyond me, but let that pass.

We all know that there was unrest at this horrible regime, and up stepped a Kerensky-like figure in Paul Martin. Naturally, he quickly betrayed the cause, appointing Supreme Court justices without consultation and generally acting like a desperately-eager-to-please jackbooted thug.

So the people sent this Menshevik to the dustbin of history. And the revolution was complete. Accountability would soon be the theme of the day.

And so now we have centralization of power in the PMO, MPs who are not allowed to voice their or their constituents' views and appointments made by Prime Ministerial fiat. So far, Harper hasn't throttled any of his own protesters, but if he keeps to his new exercise regimen, I think he might be up for it.

But it is a minority government, and, sadly, the accountability revolution has had its accountability moment. This has led the Prime Minister to demand a majority, so that he can on with the work of making the government of the day accountable to the electorate.

The Pithlord, as a constitutional reactionary, is delighted by the contradiction between the methods and aims of this revolution.

The very centralization of power in the first minister's office that everyone complained about a few years back was the result of the ill-thought-out reform of taking the election of party leaders out of the hands of the relatively representative Parliamentary caucus and turning it over to internal party elections (whether by convention or by direct vote) conducted from an electorate of partisans and recent immigrants using methods that would make LBJ squeamish. Once elected through this process, the party leader cannot then simply be removed by his caucus colleagues, which makes a first minister in a majority Parliament essentially an elected dictator.

The electoral system is difficult to defend in the abstract, but a more proportional one will institutionalize minority Parliaments. Maybe this will lead to a more responsible mode of coalitional politics. Maybe it will lead to Italian or Israeli-style politics. Probably a lot depends on such dull and technical details as the threshold for representation, and open vs. closed lists.

But I think we would all be better off if we concentrated our reformist energies, and our political debates, on substantive, rather than process, questions. The Tories have a debatable, but reasonable, program here: sentencing reform, direct subsidies to parents, refocusing the work of the federal government on its clear areas of responsibility. If these things make sense, and they show progress on them, who really cares what the relationship between the PMO and the backbench is? The Parliamentary Press Gallery cares, and Hill addicts care, and PoliSci profs care, but does it matter in comparison to how daycare is going to be delivered?

Not really.

Update: Thanks to Matthew for the link. Had I known that references to the Russian Revolution could bring me some of that Fruits and Votestraffic, I would have put my illspent Trotskyist youth to use long ago.

Unfortunately, the post isn't really an adequate take on electoral reform and other "process" issues, and I really shouldn't be so dismissive of them. When Harper asks for unaccountable power to bring about accountable government, he is definitely in a contradiction. Whether the kind of power the Westminster system gives the first minister is a good thing because it makes substantive reform, even against the wishes of a majority of the public, easier, is a bigger question, and not one I'm up to right now. Living in Ontario through the wild swings between NDP and Harris Tory governments -- swings that did not reflect the basic moderation of the populace -- I came to think that PR and coalitions would be a big improvement. On the other hand, I always found the "Friendly Dictatorship" stuff overblown inside-baseball, and the last few years federally have hardly been a ringing endorsement of coalitional, minority government. On balance, I'm still for MMP and more coalitions.

But I don't want to retract the point about focusing more on substantive issues. Parties with clear agendas of reform -- like Attlee in 1945 and Thatcher in 1979 -- tend, even in opposition, to be OK with the Westminster system. The only problem is that it is in the hands of their enemies. (OK, Attlee is a bad example because of the war-time coalition -- but the point is that Old Labour liked the British constitutional structure just fine.) An opposition party like New Labour in 1997 without a clear substantive agenda has a greater propensity to focus on procedural and institutional issues.

Back in the old Reform Party, Harper led those who wanted to focus on substantively conservative policies against Preston Manning's woolly Hegelian rhetoric and institutional enthusiasms. The base was kind of into both, but over time, there is no doubt that much of the wacky populist institutional stuff has been dropped. On the other hand, Harper found himself in a position analogous to Blair's: the median voters were tired of the governing party, but didn't really want to reverse its policies. So he gave very focused and relatively appealing conservative policies along with the accountability stuff.

For lots of reasons, established pundits and journalists are more comfortable talking about scandal and process than about the substance of policy. We have had a lot of calls for an informed debate about Afghanistan, for example, but we don't get much in information.

Enough. Like Matthew's my update is going to be longer than the original post, and I'm going to have to take "Pith" out of the blog name altogether if I don't shut up.


Matthew Shugart said...

I respond--sort of--in an extended update to my post (to which The Pithlord kindly linked above).

And I really love the employment of the Kerensky reference!

Matthew Shugart said...

"inside baseball," "MMP and more coalitions"--now you are speaking in terms I really like. Even more than the Kerensky and Trotsky references!

(And I happen to love the name of your blog, by the way!)

Darren said...

I always loved that riposte of the poet Panait-Istrati to the Lenin's famous quote:
'One can't make an omelette without breaking eggs,' people said in defence of the excesses of the Russian revolution. The poet Panait-Istrati is reported by Victor Serge to have replied: 'All right, I can see the broken eggs.Now, where's this omelette of yours?'

Incidentally, I'm sure that Kerensky was a SR rather than a Menshevik. And the dustbin gibe was directed by Trotsky to Martov. Martov, of course, was vindicated by history.