Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics

Golden Hacks

Posted by JJ in Golden Tacks (Wednesday February 28, 2007 at 8:09 pm)

A recent complaint about a statement by a Conservative candidate highlights a serious problem with the way we think about democracy today.

Peter Kent, who will run for the Conservatives in the next federal election, proposed a model for resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict which has not been endorsed by his party (and may run contrary to its own policy). Jason Cherniak rightly points out that his “three-state” solution is inherently unworkable, but proceeds to complain about the fact that it isn’t official Tory policy:

They [the Conservatives] cannot be allowed to give conflicting messages to two different communities in Canada without explaining their central guiding policy.

But of course, it’s not the Conservatives — it’s a Conservative candidate. One could ask whether the Liberals are guilty of the same sin when their MP for Scarborough-Southwest opposes same-sex marriage while the party supports it.

One could; but one would be suffering from the same fatal misapprehension as Mr. Cherniak — one would show little respect for representation.

MPs are required, first and foremost, to represent their constituents. As important as party lines may be for some purposes, why shouldn’t an individual MP put the demands of those he represents before his party loyalty?

Some might suggest that most voters choose the party, not the representative. As such, they expect the representative to support the party’s principles — that is the representation they demanded. But there are four problems with that analysis.

First, if a member is elected by a plurality rather than a majority of voters, is he necessarily representing what the voters want by doing what the party says? If an MP is responsible for the riding’s needs, isn’t it possible that there is a greater number of voters in favour of a particular thing than the number who elected her? What if that greater number includes among it at least some of the voters who elected her? Is the member responsible for representing only those voters who supported her, or is she responsible for representing the riding as a whole?

Second, even if the voters choose parties and not representatives, there is no reason to think that they do so knowing every part of the party’s policy. How many voters actually read the full electoral platforms? If they don’t, it’s hard to argue that every party issue is an issue on which the elected member has been directed. All that we can say for certain is that much of a plurality of voters wanted the MP’s party to hold power. Even if that is enough to show that the member must not do anything which could emasculate her party, it isn’t enough to show that she must never disagree with the party.

Third, the party line offers the MP no direction where there is a conflict. What if voters want to support both the party’s principles and specific projects which, at first blush, may not have been expected to conflict with the party line? What about matters not covered by the party’s electoral platform? And what if new issues crop up changing the needs of the constituency or the approach the party takes? Is the member to be bound by whatever his party’s leadership decides, or should he represent his riding’s interests? These situations aren’t rarities — government is a balance of planned actions and dealing with contigencies; and the idea that the latter are canvassed by party platforms is hard to swallow.

Finally, the interests of the voters who voted for the party may be advanced even if the member chooses to vote against the party line. If the majority of the party, heeding its leaders’ call, votes the way it pledged to, the interests of those who supported the member are advanced. By voting for her constituents’ interests against the party line, the member manages to advance others’ interests at the same time. So long as the member’s dissent doesn’t spell the downfall of the party, more representation, not less, is its result.

But none of this matters because the premise against which it argues is utterly false. So long as the party does not object to individual candidates promoting their distinct positions, and so long as those members do not represent their positions as the party’s position, there is no misrepresentation to be feared. The suggestion that voters would naturally assume that the candidate’s expressed position is that of the party must rest on the assumption that they don’t research the party’s platform independently, which therefore ruins the argument that they vote based on the platform in the first place. If what they really vote on is the platform as presented by the candidate, without reference to any other materials, there is nothing misleading, so long as that candidate continues to uphold the platform on which she was elected. The candidate’s positions are the platform for purposes of this debate, and not the party’s documents.

This kind of diversity within parties is more than healthy — it’s crucial to the influx of new ideas and to the effective development of the party’s platform into meaningful, fully-fleshed-out programmes. It should be embraced, not thoughtlessly shunned. Big-tent parties like the Liberals and Conservatives bring holders of diverse opinions together on the premise that they can be united by reference to other principles. There needn’t be unity on every plank of their policy platforms.

In truth, if the individual MP’s distinct efforts at representing constituents shouldn’t matter, shouldn’t we forgo having them elected at all? Why not spare the expense and go with nationwide votes for the leaders, assigning them the ability to allocate their “weighted” share around a conference table? Isn’t the House of Commons a bit on the large side for the strict exchange of party lines this kind of thinking demands?

Is that proportionate representation? No. It’s preparing a roundtable at which Stephen Harper (Conservative) gets to cast 362 votes, Paul Martin (Liberal) 302 votes, Jack Layton (NDP) 174 votes, Gilles Duceppe (Bloc Quebecois) 105 votes, Jim Harris (Green) 45 votes, Ron Gray (Christian Heritage) 2 votes, and one vote for each of Tracey Parsons (Progressive), Sandra Smith (Marxist-Leninist), and Blair Longley (Marijuana), based on the 2006 election results. Is setting things up that way more or less unwieldy than having 308 individual members, some of whom will miss votes anyways?

It really depends on understanding what the system is meant to accomplish. Strict party lines are fine and good if it’s supposed to be about choosing sides in a debate; but however much parties rely on that structure to simplify campaigning, that’s not how government actually works. It’s not a simple matter of your side or mine, but a complex set of questions about where, when, for how long, which way, and with what goal in mind.

That’s why representation is the cornerstone of the democratic system we enjoy. And thinking about the meaning of representation reveals the golden cavaliers who defend party unity and integrity in the name of the people for what they really are: dolled-up hacks on high horses.

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