Monday, May 6, 2013

Election Thoughts

I dragged my hubby out to a movie last weekend: Whipped (the secret world of party discipline).

I'm sure he appreciated this romantic date.

Seriously though, the documentary is very interesting. It's an exploration of how party politics works here in BC. It goes like this:
  • Government decisions are made by the Premier and cabinet, in closed meetings with no minutes available.
  • The decisions are then given to the party caucus at caucus meetings, again behind closed doors with no publicly available minutes. 
  • The MLAs are told when to show up and how to vote. They essentially have zero input into the decision-making process. In some cases, they are not even given enough time to read the policy documents in question.
  • MLAs find it very, very difficult to oppose caucus decisions. Free votes are very rare, and only in rare circumstances are MLAs excused from voting (ie. allowed to abstain). In fact, in BC, the "most rebellious MLA" voted against his party a whopping 8% of the time (that was Blair Lekstrom). Pretty low. In the UK - which shares our system - it's about 25%, and MLAs (or rather, MPs - they don't have "provincial" politics in the UK) openly speak against their party's policies. Somehow, here in BC, a culture of extreme party discipline has evolved.
  • in a majority government, it doesn't matter at all what the opposition says or does. House debates are purely for show and the opposition has no influence on the direction of government. 
  • The only thing that can sway a majority government is public opinion. Get the public incensed enough and you can see some change. But this is rather difficult to achieve, requires a lot of organization, and requires the attention of the media.

A further point of control is that the Premier is chosen by the party (and not the voters - it is very, very rare that the Premier does not win his or her riding - and if this should happen, another MLA in a safe riding is expected to stand aside), and the Premier picks the cabinet from the pool of elected MLAs. None of this is up to the voters. Once a party has won the election, there is no further input from non-cabinet MLAs required.

In the movie, you see interviews with several MLAs (now ex-MLAs for the most part - they got kicked out of their party for rebellion) who express frustration with this system. We've also seen it recently on the Federal level, with members of the Conservative caucus expressing frustration with not being able to air the views of their constituents.  But these people get shut down pretty quickly.

The situation is a bit different for MLAs who are from very small parties or who are independents. They are responsible to themselves and their constituents to a much larger degree. In the movie, you see interviews with independents as well.

My conclusion from all of this is that if you vote for the NDP or the Liberals, you are voting for the party. It doesn't matter who your MLA is. You might as well elect a rake with a wig. Now, this is not a comment about the ability or motives of the individuals actually running - many of them are upright, hard-working and very sincere - but the truth is that unless they have a cabinet post, they will have no say in government policy and will not be able to vote against the party line.

Now, while this sounds rather dire, there is an upside to all of this. Our electoral system (first-past-the-post) is designed to produce majority governments, which, together with the system of extreme discipline just described, makes for very predictable results.

Voters see the party platform during the election and essentially pick a dictator. You know what you are going to get (that is, if the cabinet doesn't change their minds!). Most people appear fine with this. In fact many people think that coalitions and minority governments are undesireable, because this is perceived to mean back-room dealing, compromise, and gridlock in the Legislature.

Efforts to bring in proportional representation and moves to lessen party control have so far been futile; for the most part strenuously resisted by those with a vested interest in the current system (politicians as well as party workers and political pundits) and abetted by the desire for predictability by many voters.

On that cheery note, go forth and vote!


  1. Just imagine if all 25+ Independent candidates were elected out of 86 seats in the legislature. Proportional representation would be fact not discussed. The change would be profound for British Columbia and set an example for the rest of Canada. I am an Independent and proud to run as such in New Westminster. I hope the voters in the Royal City will feel the same way when they vote on May 14th.

  2. Canada has two territories and Nunavut, in which politics function quite differently. There are no parties. Presumably, if we all elected independents, we could end up like this:

  3. Man, this just brings me down even more for this election.