Why BC should not hold another election right away: a response to David Moscrop

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I think we’re all starting to feel like this

At Maclean’s, political scientist David Moscrop argues that the impasse over selecting a Speaker for the incoming Legislative Assembly should be broken by calling a new election in the hope of achieving a more decisive result. The problem, if I understand Moscrop’s view correctly, is that the likely alternative to a new election is to select a partisan Speaker who consistently breaks tie votes in the government’s favour. This would be a profound breach of the Speaker’s traditional impartiality. But the legislature depends on the Speaker’s impartiality to ensure procedural fairness in the business and administration of the legislature, and the legislature’s legitimacy as a democratic institution depends in part on reliably meeting such expectations of fairness. Damaging the Speaker’s impartiality, then, threatens to damage the legislature’s legitimacy as a democratic institution. This is not to be done lightly, and there is a far simpler and more innocuous alternative available: the issue can be resolved easily just by having another election right away.

Moscrop argues that this course of action looks even more attractive when we consider the tenuousness of any prospective governing arrangement in this legislature, even if the deadlock over the Speakership is resolved or the cost of politicizing the office is deemed acceptable. The result of the May 9 election has no special status as an expression of “the people’s will” (nor could it, as the evidence suggests that “the people’s will” lacks determinate content). Whatever the result of the new election turns out to be, it will be just as democratically valid as the result of the last one, but with the probable advantage of yielding more stable options for government — a single party majority, perhaps, or another hung parliament where an alliance of parties would collectively form a decisive majority.

I share Moscrop’s concern about breaking the convention of the Speaker’s impartiality, and his skepticism about the special status of the May 9 election result. In the end, however, I think the concern for fairness and the integrity of our democratic institutions that motivates Moscrop’s case against breaking convention actually better serves the case against having another election.

To begin with, I think it’s important to note that this “impasse” is largely speculative. The members of the Liberal caucus have reportedly all declined nomination, but until nominations are actually open — that is, until the legislature convenes — we don’t really have any idea what they’ll do. If the issue of who should become Speaker is as politically momentous as we’ve been led to believe, then pronouncements from all parties about what they intend to do when the house meets should be regarded with a good deal of skepticism. If, on the other hand, the issue is not as politically momentous as we’ve been led to believe, then there’s little reason to think all 43 Liberals will actually pass up the nomination.

Suppose, however, that the Liberals stand firm, a Speaker is selected from among the other two parties, and he or she proceeds to consistently break ties in partisan fashion. Two kinds of damage may result. The first, which is a dead certainty, is the immediate damage to this particular Speaker’s credibility as an impartial administrator and presiding officer of the legislature — and, by extension, to this legislature’s credibility as a procedurally fair democratic institution. The second, which is quite uncertain, is the possible long-term damage (lasting beyond this parliament) to the office of Speaker. This could include damage to the credibility and effectiveness of the Speaker as an impartial actor, or to the normative expectation that the Speaker ought to be an impartial actor.

Moscrop’s case for a new election clearly depends on at least one of these kinds of harm resulting from breaking the convention of impartiality under the current circumstances. If the harm he envisions is the long-term damage of the office of Speaker, I think he owes the reader an account of why this kind of damage should be expected. To make a successful slippery slope argument, it is not enough to stand at the top of the slope and point to the bottom; you have to actually show that the slope is in fact slippery. Every purported justification for breaking convention in this case depends on the extremely unusual particulars of our situation, which are unprecedented in the province’s history and unlikely to be repeated any time soon. Moreover, everyone offering justifications for breaking convention in this case agrees that a strong justification is needed. An impartial Speakership is very important; departures from convention should not be made lightly, and if there are any departures from convention, they must to be tightly circumscribed so as to be minimally disruptive to the Speaker’s traditional role. Given that these facts are widely accepted among those advocating a departure from convention in this case, it is not at all clear why we ought to expect any long-term damage to the office. As long as this piece of the puzzle is missing from Moscrop’s argument, his case can only depend on the urgency of avoiding immediate damage to the credibility and legitimacy of the Speakership in the incoming parliament.

How serious would this damage be? One way of assessing the damage would be to ask whether all affected parties would find the negative consequences acceptable, given the beneficial consequences. The burden of working with a partisan Speaker would fall primarily on the Liberals, and to a lesser extent the Greens (who remain in opposition despite their agreement with the NDP). The cost of avoiding the scenario where a partisan Speaker is selected is mild for the Liberals (given the size of their caucus) and very large for the Greens (who would have to sacrifice a third of their caucus and their arrangement with the NDP). The Liberals following through on their pledge not to stand for the Speakership translates into tacit consent from the party that stands to lose the most from having a partisan Speaker and have ample opportunity to avoid this scenario at the lowest cost to themselves. Under the circumstances, it seems that even the Liberals view a partisan Speaker as the best option under the circumstances.

This does not yet show that selecting a minimally partisan Speaker is preferable to an election, however. All parties in this legislature may agree that a partisan Speaker is the best of the available options, but the idea behind having a new election is to bring in a new legislature with a better set of options. Even if everyone in the new legislature could agree to a partisan Speakership, considerations of fairness and democracy favour a new election that returns a result that can command something more enthusiastic than the grudging acquiescence of the parties involved.

This strikes me as an unrealistic view of electoral democracy, however, because in an adversarial system like ours, grudging acquiescence to the distribution of power in the legislature is actually the norm. In order to avoid the same impasse after a new election and achieve a result that is preferable in the view of at least one party, at least one party would have to lose seats. The only way to make one party happier is to make another party sadder. To bring about a result that can command something more enthusiastic than that grudging acquiescence of all the parties involved, we don’t need another election, we would need an altogether different system of government (although what that would actually look like, I can’t begin to imagine).

If the case for a new election appeals to considerations of fairness and democracy, it is also reasonable to ask how fair and democratic a new election is likely to be. BC’s political finance laws are notoriously lax. Thanks to the support of rich individuals and businesses, the Liberals’ campaign fund dwarfs those of the NDP and the Greens. This puts the NDP and Greens at a serious disadvantage at the best of times; if one election follows another in close succession, the result could be devastating, while imposing greater burdens on the relatively low income constituencies on which the other parties must rely to finance their campaigns. As a theorist of deliberative democracy, Moscrop must be keenly aware that such a a result would not necessarily reflect the public’s considered judgment of the other parties’ worthiness. As the godfather of deliberative democracy, John Rawls, noted:

The liberties protected by the principle of participation lose much of their value whenever those who have greater private means are permitted to use their advantages to control the course of public debate. For eventually these inequalities will enable those better situated to exercise a larger influence over the development of legislation. In due time they are likely to acquire a preponderant weight in settling social questions, at least in regard to those matters upon which they normally agree, which is to say in regard to those things that support their favored circumstances…. What is necessary is that political parties be autonomous with respect to private demands, that is, demands not expressed in the public forum and argued for openly by reference to a conception of the public good. If society does not bear the costs of organization, and party funds need to be solicited from the more advantaged social and economic interests, the pleadings of these groups are bound to receive excessive attention. And this is all the more likely when the less favored members of society, having been effectively prevented by their lack of means from exercising their fair degree of influence, withdraw into apathy and resentment. (A Theory of Justice, Original Edition, pages 225-226)

Considering how seriously the fair and democratic character of the electoral process itself is compromised under the current political finance regime, I do not think that considerations of democracy and fairness obviously favour a new election over a temporary departure from convention.

In summary, then, to avoid committing a slippery slope fallacy, Moscrop’s argument for a new election must depend on the immediate negative consequences of a partisan speaker. However, these immediate negative consequences could only materialize if the Liberals — the party that stands to lose the most from those consequences —find them acceptable on balance and continue to refuse the Speakership. The public has certainly has good reason to be concerned about the ability of a minimally partisan Speaker to fairly administer and preside over the legislature. But given the state of political finance rules in BC, the values of fairness and good democratic practice that ground this concern should actually militate against calling a new election.

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