“Democracy,” as Winston Churchill famously stated, “is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Less famously, he also remarked that “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” (Please note: this second quote, it turns out, is misattributed. 4 January 2019)
Notwithstanding this somewhat anemic endorsement, those who live under democracy tend to quite like it. We often devote ourselves to attempts at strengthening the people’s rule. A recent effort in this vein comes courtesy of columnist Rick Salutin and his series on democratic renewal for the Toronto Star.
Salutin, in the second instalment of his series, places much of the blame for what ails Canadian democracy on political parties. According to him, parties “don’t exist to represent the views of the public, or even sections of it, or even their own members. Maybe they once did, or maybe not. But now they exist to win elections.” He describes historical bids to loosen their grip on power and notes the almost universal failure of such efforts “as if the system we have generates antibodies to invasive, democratizing forces and rejects them while bulking up the undemocratic elements.” His piece strongly implies that we should do away with parties altogether and allow MPs to represent their constituents without mediation, while lamenting that this is unlikely to ever happen.
My own position is somewhere between Salutin’s and the status quo. I am glad there are parties for two reasons. First, they serve as a kind of shorthand for voters. It is not reasonable to expect all people to conduct detailed research into the policy planks of each of their local candidates (even if perhaps they should be paying at least a little more attention than they currently do). Party affiliation allows voters to make reasonable assumptions about candidates’ values. Second, and more importantly, an MP’s membership in a party is a sign that he or she is capable of working with others and being held accountable. These are important virtues for anyone who seeks to govern.
However, it is hard to deny that in our current system, parties have far more power than they need. But rather than eliminating them, the solution lies simply in allowing more free votes in Parliament. I would not go so far as to say that no Parliamentary votes should ever be whipped, but why not make such a practice the exception rather than the rule? An increased number of free votes, in addition to allowing MPs to more directly represent the views of their constituents, would enable the House of Commons to more effectively fulfill its deliberative function. Debates might become opportunities for persuasion and give-and-take, rather than merely parroting the party line.
More surprising than Salutin’s critique of Canada’s rigid party system is his somewhat cooled attitude towards proportional representation (PR). While he confesses that he sits “on the advisory board of a group that advocates PR” and says that he would “still vote for PR, but in a sour frame of mind,” he appears no longer to be one of the “true believers” primarily for two reasons.
First, mere electoral reform does not go far enough. In his words, “I find it a little embarrassing that our main contribution to the global movement toward democratic renewal is an earnest effort to do so little.” Put another way, “Maybe the problem isn’t how parties are represented; maybe it’s parties . . . .” His second issue with PR is that it may actually exacerbate the problem. Parties, he says, “would wax even stronger under PR than they do now.”
While I can sympathize with Salutin’s first objection, I am not sure that I agree with his second. The tyrannical nature of parties is more a matter of political culture than institutional arrangement. But even disregarding this fact, there is no reason to believe that parties would hold more power over MPs under forms of PR that require voters to select individual candidates, like mixed-member proportional (MMP) and the single transferable vote (STV). In fact, it is possible that parties might become slightly weaker under STV or even open-list PR, as such systems require candidates of the same party to compete against one another for votes.
All this being said, Salutin’s article is a fascinating one and I encourage people to read it. If it begins a conversation that ends with a moderation of Canada’s antiquated system of party discipline, then I will find it hard to fault him for our minor areas of disagreement. I eagerly await all subsequent instalments in his series on democracy.