Checks and balances are important in any political system that wants to maintain freedom for its citizens. They are the reason we separate the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government.
In Canada, however, what checks and balances are in place to stop a Prime Minister who leads a majority in the House of Commons? Currently, very few. In our current political landscape, the Senate is appointed and therefore de facto impotent. The Governor General is appointed and can be replaced at the whim of the Prime Minister. The PM appoints Cabinet without a confirmation process and can quarterback the passage of virtually any law without having to face the electorate for four years.
There is, however, one check on a majority government Prime Minister’s power that can be strengthened. The PM has to keep the loyalty of his caucus. The MPs of his party make up the majority in the House of Commons that is required to pass laws and, ultimately, stay in power. Theoretically, if enough of them “rebelled”, the Prime Minister’s agenda can reach a standstill.
Being a Member of Parliament isn’t what it used to be. In the age of cell phone cameras and social media, every second of your life, every error in judgment, every poorly-composed statement is fair game for national headlines and abuse by online trolls. This scenario suits party leaders just fine. A party’s apparatus does its own digging and demands that prospective candidates confess their darkest secrets as part of the vetting process of a nomination race. Be sure that these vulnerabilities remain ready to be used against an MP that refuses to go with the flow. It is telling that the caucus member tasked with quelling internal dissent is literally called the “Whip”.
Obedient backbenchers who are willing to set aside their moral convictions and promote the government’s agenda to their constituents (instead of bringing their constituents’ demands to the government) are a dream come true for a Prime Minister who would like to govern unfettered. The carrot they can offer is central resources during election time so they can keep their comfortable position and $170,000 salary. The ultimate stick that can be used against an MP is expelling them from the party, leaving them to run as an independent in the next election or alienate their base by joining a rival party. Few MPs faced with this punishment get re-elected.
However, if democracy is about empowering the people, and MPs are the direct representatives of the people, wouldn’t a bottom-up decision-making approach end up treating citizens better? I think it is useful to dilute the power of the party leader in favour of local MPs, which can be done with two changes to our current system.
The first is the adoption of an optional preferential (aka ranked) ballot, which ensures that the winner in a riding is the person that the majority feels the most comfortable with. (Actually, it does not guarantee a Condorcet winner but does a reasonably good job of it.) Such a setup allows multiple candidates from the same party to run in the same riding without sabotaging the outcome. It broadens the filter of a nomination race to the entire electorate instead of only party members. Although the ranked ballot has been criticized by the Conservatives and NDP as being Justin Trudeau’s preference, the fact that both those parties use it to choose their own party leader is a good indication that they agree it is more fair than First Past the Post.
The second change is to remove the party affiliation of a candidate from the ballot paper. The voter should bear some responsibility for learning about the candidates, including their party affiliation, on their own. After all, nothing prevents the winner from changing parties the day after the election. This is the way ballots appeared in Canada prior to 1970.
These two changes result in an empowered local representative who is more than just a proxy for a party leader but is elected, to a greater degree than is currently the case, on his or her own merits.
Together with a proportionally elected Senate to balance false majorities, these changes can ensure that even Prime Ministers with a majority government will be more accountable and issue better laws for our country.