Nov 12, 2012

Hope and Change

Commentary

Joshua Freedman

Hope and Change

Since leaving Canadian politics, Michael Ignatieff has been forceful, intelligent, charismatic, and well-spoken. In other words, he has become the diametric opposite of the Michael Ignatieff who led the Liberal party to its worst parliamentary showing in recent memory. Speaking at the BBC’s annual Free Thinking Festival, Ignatieff decried the rapid centralization of power in the Prime Minister’s Office and called for party leaders to allow individual Members of Parliament (MPs) more freedom in voting and legislative tasks.

Without this decentralizing step, Ignatieff believes that the Parliament will fall further into dysfunction, as the needs of individual ridings are increasingly delegated to the margins. The tightening of party control has also led to increased antipathy between the parties, with squabbling and catcalls replacing civil relationships on the floor of the House of Commons.

It’s not hard to see where Ignatieff is coming from. The Harper government—like its predecessors—has been characterized by the fostering of animosity among parties, and MPs under his banner are hardly, if ever, permitted a free vote. To be fair, all parties have fallen prey to the temptation of mindless opposition instead of providing constructive solutions. Ignatieff himself famously whipped the Liberal Party during the vote to eliminate the gun registry, against the wishes of some of his rural MPs.

The continued rise of hyper-partisanship are not unique to Canada. The Obama administration faced four years of obstinate opposition from the Senate and House Republicans, which made it incredibly difficult to pass legislation. And while effective opposition is one thing, setting a record for the most filibusters in one session of Congress—as the Republicans have, from 2009 to 2011—is nothing to be proud of.

So what does this mindless, party-line voting and hyper-partisanship get us? Does the 40 per cent of Canadians represented by the Conservative party have the monopoly on all good ideas? Has the impenetrable Democratic state assembly in California produced good policy without Republican input? The answer to all three of the above questions is a resounding ‘No.’ In the absence of bipartisan policy-making, effective policy becomes much more difficult, and at times impossible.

The Affordable Care Act’s passage is instructive. The votes required to get the bill through Congress were 99 per cent Democratic, with no Republican participation in its passage. The bill, while improving the health care status quo, is riddled with compromises made to industrial lobbyists because of this narrow support. Imagine if half of the Republican caucus had been on board with providing a solution to America’s health care problem. Not only would they have been able to have a say in the bill’s final shape, but the integrity of the bill could have been much stronger. Their mindless opposition failed completely.

What can be done to solve this problem? How do we allow individual members of a legislature more freedom? Political scientists have identified that longer-tenured parliamentarians and an increase in the number of parliamentarians overall usually lead to more independent thinking. To that end, some theorists have advocated paying individual MPs more money, to make the job seem more desirable, and thus a potentially long-term career.  Increasing parliamentarians’ salaries would also make the job more appealing to well-qualified candidates, who may otherwise have ignored a career in politics. In Canada, we are also seeing a new influx of MPs thanks to Canada’s growing population. Hopefully larger caucuses will be harder for party leaders to control.

Ultimately, the power to end irresponsible partisanship lies in the hands of the individual voter. As evidenced this past week, voters can penalize obstructionist parties, and usher in a group of representatives determined to reach across party lines, compromise, and get things done.  At the polls, Canadians should prioritize qualities like responsibility and bipartisanship in candidates.  By doing so, Parliament can change for the better.

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