Tuesday, May 3, 2011

"Rookie MPs" and Parliamentary Democracy

The postmortem of the 41st Canadian General Election includes much commentary on the inexperience of many of the MPs elected in Quebec. As most observers agree, their election is almost entirely due to Jack Layton's efforts; these were unknowns, 'placeholders', many of whom did not put much effort, if any, into campaigning. Unless some of these new representatives of the Canadian people are Pitt the Younger-like, I think it's fair to assume that these new MPs will have largely undistinguished parliamentary careers. The NDP leader's comments suggest at least two things:

1) "Mirror representation" is a good thing. This is the idea that the Parliament of Canada should, as closely as possible, reflect the people of Canada, in all its diversity. So, the fact that university students, bartenders, etc. are elected is only moving us closer to that ideal.

2) "New blood" will bring "new ideas". This is the notion that having people of little experience, expertise or political knowledge will somehow come up with new solutions to complex public policy problems.

3) Political amateurism is good; distrust elites. This is, of course, the standard populist message, as popular with the American Tea Party as with the NDP (Elizabeth May also subscribes to this, as evidenced by her nonsensical line in her victory speech about arks and the Titanic). The former uses "Washington" as a metonym for the old, corrupt, cabalistic, 'boys' club' of entrenched elites; the latter uses the House of Commons with much the same tone.

There has been, for a long time, a dissatisfaction with the state of parliamentary democracy in Canada. Parliament no longer plays the role of holding the government to account, it is said, nor does it do an effective job of representing and speaking for the Canadian people. As a result, in part, the 'standing' of Parliament in public opinion is low, if not quite at the levels of the American Congress. So, what is the connection here?

It seems to me that this problem of "Rookie MPs" only exacerbates problems with parliamentary democracy. I make no secret of the fact that this blog is dedicated to the notion of Quality in Governance. This puts paid to the first notion of "mirror representation". It is, of course, a worthwhile endeavour to strive for as close a reflection of Canadian society as possible where that reflection includes genuinely entitled constituent parts. For many years, too long, women did not have any voice in the "People's House". We still have not achieved equality, though we are, slowly, getting there. The story with minority groups is similar. With these two components, and others, there is every reason to believe that merit and quality are abundant. By contrast, I would include in those constituent parts not genuinely entitled to be reflected such groups as students and prisoners (of course, I'm not equating the two; they simply came to mind first). I tire, in any case, of what I can only describe as a 'fetish' for young people's opinions, which seemed to have started in marketing and advertising and has, unfortunately, made its way to the governance of the polity. If you want parliamentary democracy to work, the House of Commons should be the repository of the nation's best and brightest; it should be overflowing with wisdom, experience, virtue, competence, and expertise. These are all things we value in most other arenas of society. Why we do not in our sole national legislative body, for all intents and purposes, is beyond me.

The "new blood brings new ideas" assumption is obviously connected to the above. Of course, new blood can entail many different things. New blood can have new ideas. But new blood does not necessarily do so, and, certainly, many of the newly-elected MPs have not had the experience to have thought about complex and sometimes arcane public policy problems in anything close to a fashion so sustained as to bring to Ottawa new, well thought out, and feasible policy solutions. Indeed, in many cases, such 'accidental candidates' are transparently riding the 'coattails' of a popular leader and have not thought more about political philosophy and public administration beyond "I'm with Jack" or some other such slogan. The political amateurism motif follows the same lines. It is odd that a party such as the NDP, with so much faith in science and reason, downplays the need for expert knowledge (i.e., elites) in our parliamentary democracy. In enabling amateurism and stoking distrust of elites, it, in fact, puts more power into the hands of elites, which is a good thing for governance but detrimental to parliamentary democracy.

I do not wish to be thought of as insulting or degrading the newly elected Members of Parliament. Under our current system, they have been duly chosen as representatives, even if much of it is entirely unearned by their own merits, to which I'm sure they'd agree if being intellectually honest. But the whole debate about "Rookie MPs" arising from the results of the 41st General Election points, in my opinion, to fundamental problems with parliamentary democracy. Let's not forget that amateurism actually enables elitism. When the bulk of MPs are "nobodies", as Pierre Trudeau famously called them, temporary seat-fillers without the political or intellectual capacities to do much more than yell loudly and on cue in Question Period, we allow the small rank of capable elites to run the show; at the limit, we allow the PMO to do so. Do we, as Canadians, want a House of Commons of "nobodies" or do we want a House of our best and brightest, of individuals of quality and standing? I urge all Canadians to think about what they want, and expect more out of their representatives.


No comments:

Post a Comment