A better way for the prime minister to connect

william_hogarth_028Pictured: Probably not the best way

Late last week, Justin Trudeau announced that instead of attending Donald Trump’s inauguration or the World Economic Forum at Davos, he’ll be embarking on a cross-Canada town hall tour, meeting with members of the public in order to reconnect with Canadians and ensure that his government stays in touch with their priorities and concerns. The cynical perspective on this story, which casts the tour is transparently nothing more than an effort to counter perceptions that Trudeau is unduly influenced by wealthy donors to his party, has been well covered already. While this may very well explain what the prime minister is up to, I’m more interested in a normative issue: is the prime minister’s national tour actually desirable from a democratic perspective?

To be clear, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the prime minister going out and meeting people, but I do think there’s something wrong with the prime minister going out and meeting people as a means of reducing the democratic deficit. At best, his approach seems to reflect serious confusion about the nature of parliamentary democracy; at worst, a disturbingly populist conception of how democracy ought to be.

I’m both puzzled and troubled by the suggestion that this tour is necessary in order to connect with the public and hear their views and concerns. Representing the public at the national level is one of the functions of parliament; if the prime minister himself feels an urgent need to stage an ad hoc series of public meetings like those planned for this tour, he must have very little confidence in the capacity of MPs and local party offices to execute this crucial function.

Even supposing that this lack of confidence is justified, it’s hard to see how the national tour could improve anything. Having the chief executive hold the occasional series of town halls is no long-term solution to a breakdown in the bonds between MPs and the public on one hand, and between parliament and the executive on the other. A tour of this kind will always be an unusual event; direct communication with the public is not part of and should not be added to prime minister’s already hefty set of official responsibilities. But attention to the views and interests of the public should be a regular feature of political life, not a newsworthy exception to the rule. Only MPs are capable of giving the public this kind of attention — through correspondence, casework, holding formal and informal meetings, being present at a range of community events, etc. The special relationship this establishes between the public and their representatives is what gives MPs the credibility and political legitimacy they need to effectively fulfill their roles as parliamentarians.

The idea of the prime minister going on a national tour like this in the name of democracy, then, strikes me as perverse. It undermines MPs’ special status as public representatives while encouraging us to view the executive as occupying that role instead. As noted above, this shift necessarily leads to downgraded expectations about public participation in national politics simply because there are necessarily fewer opportunities for the public to interact with the executive. By striking at the root of MPs’ legitimacy and credibility, this shift also reduces their ability to speak and act with a healthy degree of independence in caucus, in committees, in the Commons chamber itself, and in various less than formal (but no less important) political venues. Such changes should worry the prime minister as much as anyone; MPs are the executive’s line to the public, so cutting off MPs from the public cuts off the prime minister as well.

The extent to which MPs today are really less in touch with the public and less able to assert their independence in parliamentary life is debatable. For example, false consensus bias may account for some of the perception that politicians are out of touch, and simple nostalgia may encourage the perception that this is increasingly the case. But regardless of whether things are getting much worse or staying about the same, I think there’s clearly a lot of room for qualitative and quantitative improvement on both these scores. So in that respect, Trudeau’s goal of strengthening the connection between Canadians and our government is a laudable one. What my criticism of the national tour implies is not that this goal should be abandoned, but that it ought to be pursued by different means. Rather than vainly trying to substitute the executive for MPs in the role of public representative, the government should be looking for ways to support MPs in this role. To that end, I have two suggestions.

First, enact the original version of Michael Chong’s Reform Act.

In its original form, the Reform Act established a formal process of leadership review by a party’s caucus in the House of Commons, initiated by a petition signed by fifteen percent of caucus members. A simple majority vote would be sufficient to remove the sitting leader and begin the selection process anew. A second component of the act curbed the leader’s disciplinary powers over caucus, removing his or her ability to unilaterally expel members from caucus. Instead, expulsion would follow similar rules as the leadership review process. The third component removed the requirement for candidates nominated by riding associations to have their nomination endorsed by the party leader. Instead, a nomination officer elected by each riding association would sign off on nominations, which would ensure that any candidate purporting to represent the party in an election would have the local party’s endorsement but prevent interference in local nomination contests by party leaders.

Taken together, these reforms would have significantly empowered MPs to hold party leaders accountable, reducing the threat of arbitrary, capricious or purely self-interested exercise of disciplinary authority while preserving a sufficient degree of party cohesion. It could reasonably be hoped that increasing the autonomy of MPs — often perceived, even by themselves, as little more than mouthpieces for their leader’s office — would enhance their credibility as public representatives. Although the Reform Act was eventually passed, in its final form it was weakened so badly that In essence, all it did was affirm the ability of political parties to adopt these internal changes voluntarily — an ability they’ve had all along. Unsurprisingly, no party has done so. The exaggerated form of party discipline that dominates in Canada is a response to the political environment, and unilaterally adopting the measures outlined in the Reform Act entails significant political risks. The obvious solution is to make adoption of these measures mandatory.

Second, establish a special development fund for electoral district associations.

EDAs possess considerable potential for democratic engagement, but little incentive and scarce resources with which to exploit it. In many cases, their only function is to nominate candidates and run the local election campaign (often according to an extremely strict playbook drawn up by the national campaign office). But EDAs’ ubiquity, approachability and small scale may be especially conducive to a kind of human-scale, deliberative democratic practice that often seems missing in political life. Royce Koop has documented how MPs can draw on the executive of their local party association to improve the quality of representation they offer; conceivably, EDAs without MPs may also be able to improve their competitiveness and provide an alternative channel of representation to neglected constituencies within their ridings. Besides being worthwhile in its own right, one could hope that this would encourage a “race to the top” among parties to strengthen their local ties across the country.

To this end, a certain amount of funding could be earmarked for the development of local party associations, on a “use it or lose it” basis. These funds could be used for outreach activities, skills and leadership development, holding public meetings, and so forth. An untargeted subsidy to political parties is likely to be consumed by national party offices, and as Peter Loewen has argued, this tends to make national parties less engaged with the grassroots. Earmarking funds for local party development, on the other hand, would tend to enhance the influence of the local parties from two sides: on the one hand, it would give EDAs the incentive and resources to carry out local party-building activities beyond nominating candidates and campaigning for office, while on the other hand it would continue to require the national office to solicit funds from the membership.

My suggestion might be criticized on the grounds that EDAs are inevitably filled with partisans; empowering EDAs, then, just boils down to empowering partisans, and hence may actually damage the quality of local representation. This objection should be taken seriously, but I take a more optimistic view. The idea that empowering partisans necessarily comes at a cost to the quality of local representation stems from observing traits — e.g. insularity, dogmatism, subservience — that would tend to be systematically undermined by the reform I’m proposing here.

Summing up, I’m perfectly happy to take Trudeau at his word that he’s going on this trip because he thinks it’s important for the government to stay in touch with the people. But I don’t think the way he’s going about it makes much sense in the context of Canada’s form of democracy. Trudeau’s personal touch is not what’s needed to soothe the country’s democratic malaise; our problems are institutional, and they call out for institutional solutions. The right way for Trudeau to ensure that the government stays in touch with Canadians would be to call everyone back to Ottawa and pass these reforms.


2 thoughts on “A better way for the prime minister to connect

  1. I wonder if there aren’t policies for bolstering political journalism that the PM could be pursuing. I was reminded of this short piece by Nadia Urbinati (in response to Ira Katznelson) where she points out the way calls for direct access to leaders are about disenchantment with parties and journalism as intermediaries.
    I have no idea what those policies would be though.


  2. Pingback: Why not proportional representation? | Popcorn Machine

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