Oh, look! It's Iggy again:
“I think something really bad has happened to parliamentary democracies all over the world — not just in my country, Canada. What’s happened is increasing power to the prime minister, increasing power to the bureaucracy, and the legislature — parliament — is a kind of empty, pointless debating chamber because it’s all stitched up in advance by party leaders,” Ignatieff said during a weekend panel discussion, aired by the BBC during its annual Free Thinking Festival.
Hmmm. Say what you will about the man, and I've said quite a lot, he is pretty honest:
“Honesty requires me to say I was a party leader once,” Ignatieff quickly acknowledged, “and my instincts were always to shut those people [dissenting Liberal MPs] down wherever I could. So I’m completely, flagrantly contradicting what my interests were not two years ago.”
Among Iggy's many flaws as a party leader was his horrible inability to lie. This is odd in a professional politician and almost unheard of when talking about a Liberal. It used to be that you had pass a lie detector test while reading out the party platform. If you could fool the machine, it was believed, it wouldn't be too difficult to fool the Ottawa Press Gallery. I guess they chucked the machine before Iggy joined the party.
It has been the working thesis at this blog that Michael Ignatieff is a smart guy. Too smart really to have entered politics. Certainly Stephen Harper is hardly deficient when it comes to intellect, but having spent decades in the game he knows when to give a slightly evasive answer. Poor Iggy. Having spent most of his adult life saying whatever came to mind, and being applauded for it, he was turned into mincemeat by the Harper-Layton Tag Team. In politics there is no substitute for professionalism and Iggy, whatever his virtues, was not a professional.
Despite his failure as a pol we should take his views as an intellectual seriously. The topic here is the "Death of Parliament." This is not a new issue. People have been complaining about the Prime Minister having too much power since the days of Robert Walpole. That was about 1722. Three hundred years later and there is still the same complaint about the powers of the PM and the subservience of parliament. The jokes about backbenchers being trained seals date back almost as long. The Victorian-era hit makers Gilbert and Sullivan even had a song about pliant MPs.
There has always been a natural tension between the legislative and executive branches in a liberal democracies. In an American style congressional system this tension isn't a bug, it's a feature included to prevent either side from becoming too powerful. The British Parliamentary system was not planned out, it was improvised as the centuries went on, a medieval institution being adapted to modern needs. One of the downsides of this approach is that the relationship between the executive and legislative branches was never formally worked out.
From Walpole up until about the First World War the parliamentary system, both in Canada and Britain, worked by having Cabinet (the executive) accountable to Parliament (the legislative). This was a bit tricky since the cabinet was also sitting in Parliament. While tricky it wasn't impossible. MPs were sufficiently independent that they could hold their own party leaders to account. From time to time governments would be thrown out by their own backbenchers. Governments could and did fall between election.
None of this would work today. Political systems exist as much in the minds of the participants as on paper. We may have a parliamentary system, however most of the electorate perceives it as a presidential system, an impression not aided by the constant bombardment of American media on Canadian voters. The Cult of the Presidency has spilled over and helped undermine the principle of responsible government.
While we cannot, even if we wished, block out American media, we can make changes to how parliament works. Calls for more free votes are essentially meaningless. No party leader is seriously going to risk losing an important vote, so any free votes will be on irrelevant or symbolic issues. Party leaders cannot risk losing important votes because it will make them appear weak. Why? Because the electorate perceives a presidential system rather than a parliamentary one.
The one thing politicians fear above all else is losing power. The only way you can control a politician is by placing real and enforceable qualifications on their power. If party leaders are too powerful it is because that power is unaccountable. The spectacle of party leadership campaigns where the candidate who sells the most memberships wins the nomination has undermined our parliamentary system. It is the MPs who should be selecting their leader, not some ephemeral collection of instant liberals or instant conservatives. A party leader who could be dethroned by their backbenchers would think twice about defying their will.
The obvious criticism is that such a system is not democratic. Why should a small clutch of MPs choose their leader? Heck even the Prime Minister should the party be in power. The simplest answer to that question is that MPs are engaged in the political process. A citizen who purchased a party membership will likely not be there to hold their favoured candidate to account. The MP will be there because that's his job. If you don't like the job your MP is doing, then vote for another one. The voter holds the MP to account and it's the MP's job to hold the party leadership to account.
The question is what party leader will be brave enough to abandon the system that made them leader in the first place?