Every now and again – perhaps once in a political blue moon – a really good idea emerges, one that is so sensible that you might think our elected representatives would trip over themselves to claim ownership.
The idea for this blue moon emerges, or re-emerges, in a new book by Dave Meslin, a Toronto-based artist, activist and community organizer, entitled “Teardown: Rebuilding Democracy from the Ground Up.”
The book is full of ideas, about 100 of them, to make the system work better. The one that caught my eye is this: it is high time that Canada threw off the shackles of Westminster-style parliamentary democracy – founded on what Meslin calls “adversarial representation” – and embraced a new model based on consensus and accommodation.
No longer would the two principal parties glare at each other across a demilitarized zone – a centre aisle two swords’ lengths wide (historically, to protect members from doing one another harm in the heat of debate) – with the government party seated to the Speaker’s right and the principal opposition party to the left. It’s like that in the “Mother of Parliaments” in London, in the House of Commons in Ottawa and in nine of the 10 provincial legislatures (the exception being Newfoundland and Labrador where the sides are reversed in the House of Assembly.)
Referring to Ottawa, the author asks, “Why are we paying 338 people a salary of $172,700 each, simply to act as knee-jerk supporters or opponents of legislation? This is precisely what voters are so sick of: the inefficient and childish battlefield that our politics has become.”
That’s a good point. Consider the so-called budget “debate” this spring. The Conservatives, angry about the SNC-Lavalin affair, drowned out Finance Minister Bill Morneau when he tried to deliver the budget speech, and they forced dozens of meaningless procedural votes. The Liberals retaliated by stonewalling in Question Period. Then the Conservatives stalked out of the House in a melodramatic display of something or other.
The budget affects everyone in Canada. Yet the 2019 version eventually passed without proper examination. “Inefficient” and “childish?” Yep.
It’s what we get with “adversarial representation” – a government that admits no wrong and an opposition that concedes no right.
Meslin advocates redesigning the seating plan as one way “to break up the mob … with a party on one side yelling at another party on the other side.”
Three Scandinavian countries have shown the way. Norway and Sweden have seating plans based on geography rather than on party. In Ottawa, a Liberal MP from Ontario might have a Conservative seatmate on their left and a New Democrat or a Green on their right. Same thing on both sides of the chamber, leaving no bloc across the aisle yell (or wave a sword) at.
In Iceland, its parliament, the Albingi, has randomized seating. At the beginning of each session, members draw numbered balls from a box. The number determines where the member will sit. Iceland has learned that randomized seating reduces heckling. Seatmates from different parties become acquaintances, even friends. Political relationships develop, as they come to understand one another’s concerns. It is hard to demonize opponents when you sit next to them every day.
Meslin has other suggestions for a less confrontational Parliament. Allow members from different parties to co-sponsor private members’ bills. That’s not possible under existing rules, but co-sponsorship would enhance the chances of worthwhile private measures winning passage.
Another suggestion: make parliamentary committees smaller and more focussed – and strip party leaders of their power to replace MPs who fail to hew to the party line during their committee work.
Neither changes to seating plans nor cross-party co-sponsorship of bills nor more independence for committee members would eliminate partisanship. We would still have intensely partisan election campaigns.
Elections are occasions when ideas like these should be aired. But as former prime minister Kim Campbell observed back in 1993, “an election is no time to discuss serious issues.”
Sad but still true.