The Hill Times: Best Books of 2017
What if it is not our political system that is broken, but our understanding of it?
Everybody thinks that it’s the system that’s broken in politics; but what if it’s not the system that’s broken but rather our understanding of it? What if everyone’s proposals to make the system “more democratic” only wind up making things worse, and weaken our systems of accountability so much as to make them meaningless? What if it’s our own ignorance that is killing democracy in this country?
Dale Smith looks at the critical gaps in civic literacy that have become endemic within Canadian political culture, wading through buzzwords and meaningless proposals to suggest real solutions. Designed for the lay reader, The Unbroken Machine seeks to explore our lack of civic literacy and show how our system of democracy should work — if only we were to engage with it the way it was meant to be.
About the author
Dale Smith is a freelance journalist in the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery, writing about politics full-time since the 2008 federal election. He has written for the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post, Maclean’s, Canadian Business, the Canadian Press, iPolitics.ca, and the Hill Times. Dale lives in Ottawa.
Excerpt: The Unbroken Machine: Canada's Democracy in Action (by (author) Dale Smith)
The machine is not broken. It has a defined purpose and it works — it works well, in fact. At the municipal, provincial, and federal levels, candidate nominations are held. Political parties hold conventions to decide policy and elect leaders. Elections are held in towns and cities across the country to elect councillors and mayors, provinces and territories hold elections for their legislatures, and nationally, federal elections to select MPs, and thereby, a government. Following all of these elections, the various politicians and the government bureaucracies work to keep all of the offices and agencies of state running smoothly.
But many of the people who operate it seem to have forgotten just how it’s supposed to work. They keep coming up with ways to “improve” it, to somehow change its outcomes — creating something that will be fantastic and magical, like unicorns. However, when they don’t use the machine properly, and when they have unrealistic expectations about what it’s supposed to be producing, well, they deem it to be “broken” and in need of an overhaul.
Welcome to the state of Canadian democracy, something that many claim needs reform. While for decades now it has often been said that ours is an age of reform, it would also seem that ours is also an age of civic illiteracy. The demands that we see for electoral reform often spring from unfamiliarity with just how the system operates, and some blatant misrepresentations about the nature of some of our institutions. It doesn’t help that we are bombarded by depictions of the American political system in our popular culture, depictions that have created a distorted image of our own system — a fiction that involves elements of the American system mapped over ours in people’s minds. Things are made worse by the fact that many Canadians are wrapped up in American political concerns, never mind that they can’t actually vote in their elections.
For some Canadians, the level of illiteracy is pretty extreme — you might even say that it is alarming.
“Stephen Harper’s the mayor, right?” asked one constituent of a prospective MP who was knocking on doors in a Calgary riding during the 2011 federal election.
Many can’t tell you the three levels of government, who the head of state is, and you might be lucky if they know who the prime minister is at any given moment. Others can’t distinguish between the public service and the elected officials, between government and Opposition, or between the roles of an MP versus the role of a minister. To them, everything is just “government.” Many people don’t know about the nomination process that political parties use to select candidates, or the policy conventions that parties hold to draft election platforms, or the roles that parties play within our system, and may instead believe a narrative that fits their world view, which often involves belief that a small cadre of powerful elites pulls the strings and makes our democratic institutions dance to their machinations.
This general confusion about Canada’s electoral system and belief that it is “broken” is often encouraged by the very people who do know better. They do this because they have their own ideas about how the system should operate instead, which usually involves changes made for their own partisan advantage. They sow additional confusion into the system and then declare it to be broken because it is in their advantage to do so. Of course, they may not actually have engaged in enough of a consequence-based analysis of just what would happen if they should implement their “reforms,” but that doesn’t stop them from trying to push their own vision or agenda. “Reform,” they feel, will benefit them in the long term.
And more often than not, their visions will go unchallenged by the media or the general public because of a pervasive lack of knowledge of how the systems of our democracy operate, or how they would be affected by changes that may sound novel or interesting.
For many Canadians, this lack of knowledge of our system of government stems from inadequate education in the primary and secondary levels. Most provinces don’t require civics education or its equivalent in their social studies curriculums, and when students are offered civics education, they are often taught only a few basic facts without being given an accurate representation of the mechanics of a system. In some cases, such as in Ontario, it was found that the civics course being taught in high schools was imparting wrong information about the roles and responsibilities of the different institutions of government.
Not only are our students being given an inadequate education in civics but they are often being taught by instructors who have a bias against the system as it exists. Studies have shown that teachers with the greatest interest in politics are also those with the greatest belief in the need for reform of the system. This bias among many teachers and political scientists for reform of one form or another, means that students often graduate with a distorted understanding of the system and how it operates currently.
One of the most damaging misunderstandings about how the system operates stems from a pervasive misuse of the term democracy, or rather, democratic. This leads to the completely false notion that things can be made “more democratic,” as though there were a way to assign a point value to the “democraticness” of systems or proposed reforms, and the first one to get to a hundred, wins.
The most popular notions for making things “more democratic” tend to involve adding more votes to the process — votes by the general public, or by members of the House of Commons — or require positions currently held by appointment be made elected ones, or that certain decisions that would ordinarily be under the purview of the Crown be similarly put to a vote. And while votes are a good thing, they need to be held with a specific purpose in mind and within a specific framework — what is this vote going to accomplish and what does the democratic weight behind it mean?
Part of the problem with many of these proposals to hold more votes is that the resulting votes are simply votes held for the sake of holding a vote to put a coat of “more democratic” paint over decisions that are, in fact, foregone conclusions based on how the seats break down in a majority government in the Commons. Others are votes structured in a way to artificially create a “50-percent-plus-one” result, even though that was not the intent of the votes being cast. Still others ignore one of the most fundamentally important mechanisms inherent within the Westminster democratic model: accountability.
As things are currently structured in the Canadian parliamentary system, there is a healthy tension between democracy and accountability. When voters elect MPs, they hold them accountable for their conduct at the next election. When MPs form governments, those governments are held accountable to the Commons by votes of confidence. And when decisions are made by governments, they are made accountable to both the Commons and to the electorate.
But this is where the demand for more votes can turn into a problem. When individual MPs start voting on decisions that the government should make on its own, it dilutes accountability because it means that when things go wrong, those MPs share in the decision. When an appointed position is instead made an elected one, it starts to lose its ability to speak truth to power because it must satisfy the demands of voters rather than holding the government that appointed it to account. The delicate balance between democracy and accountability tilts toward “more democracy,” and inevitably what results is less accountability. But unless one understands that the balance exists within the system, then it gets easy to be swept up in the romanticism of “more democracy,” and the accumulation of imaginary points toward the supposed perfect one hundred.
Our collective lack of understanding of how the Westminster system — the parliamentary system that Canada inherited from Britain — operates has also allowed for a more presidential political discourse to develop here, and as a result, the role of individual MPs has been reduced in favour of an expansion of the power of party leaders. It’s rare to hear anyone discuss the election of local MPs; instead, we focus all of the attention on the leader. Despite the fact that policy is supposed to come from the grassroots membership of a political party, we have become used to the expectation that leadership candidates will develop their own policy platforms during party leadership contests, and so we are now seeing the rise of candidates with no history of political involvement who suddenly decide that they should run for leadership because they have policy ideas they want to present. Never mind that there are already mechanisms in place for parties to decide policy, the fact that the focus has shifted entirely to leadership means that the avenues for ordinary citizens to contribute to the process are being steadily sidelined and starved for oxygen.
This same kind of lack of oxygen for the role of the grassroots also affects MPs. The lack of civic literacy is not only a demonstrated problem for voters but for the MPs they elect as well, and there are studies that show that the vast majority of MPs don’t even know their own job descriptions. Canadian politics and elected office has become an exercise in winging it, while all eyes are on the leadership. Backbenchers are increasingly treated as puppets or ciphers for those party leaders. They have become little more than a chorus, background actors who only do as they are told in Parliament. With their reduced status in Ottawa, they are encouraged to take on a vastly inflated role at the constituency level that focuses on “customer service,” work that the permanent civil service should be doing, while the work that MPs should be doing — holding the government to account — is left by the wayside.
And a perhaps more damning indictment is that the media itself largely doesn’t seem to have a firm enough grasp on civic literacy and the importance to accurately reflect the system. The prorogation crisis of 2008, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper used a procedural tactic to avoid a confidence vote, was a prime example of how the media was largely unable to offer informed commentary on just what prorogation meant. Even fewer offered challenges to the Conservatives who delivered talking points about going over the head of the governor general to take the question of a coalition to the people — in fact, Don Newman seemed to be the only journalist who challenged a minister on that very point. The fact that prorogation became synonymous for an illegitimate attempt at shutting down a legislature from that point on indicates that the media as a whole still hasn’t come to terms with a routine operation of Parliament or legitimate power of the Crown.
During elections, media comment immediately moves to a “winner takes all” mode rather than relying on the actual parliamentary process — the election of MPs, the summoning of Parliament, the giving of the incumbent the first opportunity to meet the House of Commons, and the selection of a new first minister only once they inform the governor general or lieutenant governor that they intend to resign in order to let someone else try to form a government that can command the confidence of the chamber.
Media attention is leadership-focused, and as a result, recognition of the importance of individual MPs is reduced. Most MPs gain no attention from the press unless they do or say something outrageous. There is an inherent dichotomy in the competing demands that MPs have a bigger role, while at the same time any glimmer of independent thought or action is immediately accompanied by headlines that the party leader is losing control of the caucus. Policy is written about as being decided by leadership candidates rather than grassroots membership, especially as leadership contests take place. In day-to-day parliamentary coverage, much of the coverage revolves around personalities, in part because of the dramatic narratives that can be drawn from it. Many other aspects are dismissed as “process stories” which, it is assumed, people will not read — despite the fact that the heart of democracy is process and that understanding how that process works and how the issues of the day fit into that process is a critical component of civic literacy and a gateway for citizen engagement. Debate or argument is written off as “squabbling,” despite the fact that the Opposition is an inherent and important feature of our system because it is a built-in mechanism for accountability. Entire segments of the parliamentary process are treated with outright derision, in particular the Senate, while there is little awareness of the role of the Crown-in-Parliament.
Smith is an entertaining writer, unquestionably knowledgeable — and concerned.
Globe and Mail
A lively primer on the Canadian parliamentary system
Literary Review of Canada
As an introduction to how Canadian government works (and doesn’t), there is no better book than Smith’s.