Joe Clark and Chuck Strahl


A Review of the PC/DRC
"Working Group on Democratic Reform" Proposals

Edmonton - Friday, February 8, 2002 - by: Ron Thornton


As a former Tory who threw up his hands and left the party back in 1988, I thought it was good politics for the Progressive Conservatives to embrace some Reform-minded policies. In fact, the proposals on democratic reform put forward by the PCPC and it ex-Canadian Alliance allies does address more than a few concerns held by Reformers and CA supporters. The move toward more free votes and more defined confidence motions bodes well for a more democratic government. A review of the Australian system, I believe, would greatly enhance the process of producing a hybrid of the best offered by both that and our present Canadian system.




Taking a page from the American congressional committee system, this report also recommends taking some of the power from the PMO and putting it back in the hands of Parliamentarians and the committees. There is much to recommend the proposed changes to the committee structure. The Ethics Commissioner, as agree to by this report and just about everyone else not in the Liberal hierarchy, needs to report to Parliament and not just be seen as the Prime Minister's lackey. To that end, I would need to be convinced that the Commissioner has real teeth and the consequences faced by those receiving sanction need to be meaningful and real. Too many times we've seen parliamentarians escape from being held truly accountable for their actions and paying any real price for those actions.




By in large, I agree with the proposals in regards to domestic intergovernmental conferences, though I'm not sure how many interparliamentary associations we need to add to the bureaucracy. While I understand the intent of the measures proposed to ensure the maintenance of the proper balance between parliament and the courts, they appear a little convoluted to my taste. Any procedure must be streamlined, focused, and must move quickly in order to avoid bogging the system down. I am also in favour of a review system or ratification process for Prime Ministerial appointments, especially those to the Supreme Court. While such a review could be done via the more regional Senate (rather than the population-based House) to give a more proper "national" review, I could support the proposal.




While I was intrigued by the proposed Senate reformation, the proposal does not specify how Senators might be elected, be they through constituencies, as they are presently appointed from Quebec, or elected from the province or region "at large." The geography and the population (over four million) should justify British Columbia being recognized as a distinct Senate division, though some may also claim that with a population larger than all of Atlantic Canada, Alberta might also deserve some consideration. Yet, there is something fundamentally flawed regarding Senate reform that would see the three provinces with 75% of the population, already boasting 70.4% of the seats in the House of Commons, holding 58.5% of the seats in the Senate. This is an insult to the minority rights of the 25% of the population that resides in the other 7 provinces sharing 40% of those Senate seats (along with one for each Territory). To be honest, recognizing Alberta (the 4th most populated province) as yet another Senate division would make the situation even worse.



not just

I am interested in discovering if the proposed redistribution of the twenty-four Western division Senate seats are to be done with each province considered as equals or according to the population, as is the current situation in the Maritimes. I totally disagree that the emphases of the Senate committees and policies should primarily concentrate on areas of federal involvement that fall under concurrent or exclusive provincial jurisdiction. We have provincial governments who are already mandated to do so. The role of the Senate, in my view, is to provide a crucial balanced "national" view of federal business to counter the domination of central Canada (59% of total seats) in the House of Commons. I am also unsure how the "normalizing the number of seats per Senate division" might affect the distribution of the number of seats in Newfoundland (which is presently a "one-quarter" division of its own) and if this signals a move for every province to share equally in their division's Senate seats, or proportionally as determined by population.




The proposals regarding referenda initially struck me as positive, though we have seen how such referenda can be abused. The Reform Party leadership sought such approval in its first vote on the United Alternative, and having received it they treated it as a mandate for approval of the initiative. They blocked proper debate and opposition, using the vote to gain legitimacy in a process that was a text-book definition of manipulated consent. The Charlottetown Accord referendum was similar in nature, asking for acceptance of something that lacked specifics and could have been defined in many opposing ways. It was akin to being asked to approve a blueprint for a house, leaving the great possibility that you would discover too late that the envisioned washroom was a two-hole abode placed in the backyard. At the same time, I am supportive of the provisions regarding citizen-initiated referenda proposal.




While I agree with having a "Yes" and "No" committee established, there remains a problem. The "Yes" side usually consists of the sponsors of the initiative, while the "No" side is not as easily identifiable, unified, or organized. This opens the process to the possibility of abuse and chicanery. I am also interested in knowing under what conditions a petition for a referendum can be refused by the House of Commons, as there is the danger that such refusal could exemplify the very reasons the petition was presented in the first place. I am not convinced that the proposals regarding petitions represent a step forward. There is no way to ensure that they are properly considered even within one's own political party, never mind through some parliamentary committee. Outside of this being a measure to give merely the perception of democracy-in-action, I see no real address to single citizen initiatives through this process. As it is, one's own party and MP can still receive petitions, with about the same hope of receiving proper consideration as what has been proposed.




I disagree with the proposal for hybrid committees, viewing it as a unwarranted addition to the bureaucracy. Significant groups will never be properly represented, such as children, the institutionalized, the poor, the homeless, or even my own personal selfish interests, for example. Instead, the best they can expect under our system is to represented by those who can only claim to advocate for them, as is presently the case.




I agree in reviewing the electoral system in Canada, though I caution that it is people, not the political parties they are part of, that truly represent people. People are real, while political parties are just organizations made up of those same people. People can be made accountable and responsible, for it is they who take the actions, and not a party or corporation or union or any other artificial entity. Again, I believe the Australian model, which in itself in a hybrid of the American and British systems, can assist us in determining proposed changes in our own.




Party organization that includes a "President's Council" to raise the local constituency president to a national status level also has its own problems that would need to be addressed. What can be done to prevent this position, with its rise in prominence, from being controlled or taken over by some faction on the local level? What will the level of influence the local executive, board, or membership have on the President and his/her contribution on the national level? Failure to address this risks having thirty "junior Chretiens" across the nation. When such a council gets together, who sets the agenda? Who will determine what policy resolutions will be discussed? How can we be assured that the process of reviewing the submitted resolutions from the membership is fair and prevent just one or two people, with a garbage can at hand, arbitrarily making all the decisions? As for a quasi- autonomous policy foundation or institute to independently review party policy, how can we be ensured that this might be an open process, and not consisting of elitist candidates put forward by the powers to ensure the status quo? As for the process to trigger a leadership review, why must it take over half of the caucus or 100 constituency president's to raise the alarm for merely a review? If there is that much opposition, then we are past the point of review and to the point that the leadership has lost the confidence of his caucus and membership. I suggest much smaller numbers required for a review, which the leader most wins anyway. In fact, I suggest a regular review at every convention. The alternative could be chaos, as the Canadian Alliance knows full well.




In summation, this proposal by the Progressive Conservatives and their ex-Alliance allies marks an initial step. While it provides proposals that would improve the quality of responsible government, it also falls well short of the mark in ensuring that the people of all regions and provinces in this nation can feel their interests are fairly represented in Parliament. While the original concept may have been to view Canada as a confederation of regions, our system of government has made us a nation of provinces, each following its own course for the past century and more. Any review of the electoral system must ensure that individuals must accept responsibility and be held accountable for their actions, and not to be able to hide behind the skirts of their party apparatus. The leader must be accountable to the membership and mechanisms must be in place to ensure that the leader and the caucus are responsible to the membership. In the end, there must be demonstrated commitment at all levels. What is the commitment of a member who joins the party one week and votes on party business, including nominees and party officials, the next week? What is the commitment of caucus members to their leader, their colleagues, and the membership and constituents they serve? What is the commitment of the leader to his caucus and to the membership, how is he to be held responsible and accountable, and how is this to be demonstrated? Finally, where is the commitment by the PCPC and its allies to these proposals, to their further development, to answering the questions I and others have put forward, so together we can seek solutions? This is either the first step to reconciling our differences, if they can be reconciled, or merely an empty exercise in an attempt to score some cheap political points. My question is, how serious and committed are the advocates of these proposals? I don't think I'll have long to wait to find out.




Ron Thornton
  Changes to Make Canada a Democracy Again Working Group on Democratic Reform releases Discussion Paper - Progressive Conservative Democratic Representative Coalition web site