Harmonize THIS: King Gordon, Queen Carole and Why John Adams was Right

B.C. Legislature

Ed.: In this post, new 4080 contributor James Roy critiques a recent Tyee piece praising British Columbia’s system of government.

By James Roy

Alan Durning’s admiration of British Columbia’s political system warrants a typically Canadian response: thank you very much; but you’re wrong and here’s why.

He picks the best parts of the parliamentary (not our parliamentary, but the parliamentary) system and contrasts them to the worst aspects of the American system.  Curiously, he focused on the relatively popular Carbon Tax as opposed to the incredibly unpopular HST to conclude British Columbia’s government works better than its American counterpart.

Perhaps the reason Durning thinks our system works so much faster than his is because in British Columbia, the government need not concern itself with such trivial little frivolities as public opinion and democratic legitimacy.  It can simply force its agenda through and to hell with all opposed.  In the United States, yes, change often comes slow.  But change there is often more enduring.  Because of John Adams and the other Founders insistence on a separation of powers between the various branches of government, the American system demands that support for change has the essential breadth and depth of support from across the electorate.  Opponents of the recent healthcare bill must assemble as much public support to repeal it as proponents did to pass it.

There are several problems with American government.  The fundamental corruption of their campaign finance system is one (though I should blush as a British Columbian, because ours is also abysmally under-regulated).  The partisan gerrymandering of their federal and state legislative electoral districts is also a devastating flaw.

Again, I should temper my criticism.  American electoral districts at least have nearly equal populations, while British Columbia’s electoral map is slanted against the major population centres.  If you live in Vancouver in the 2013 provincial election, you’d be wise to vote two or three times.  The first time to cast your actual ballot, and once or twice more to give your vote as much power as a resident of Prince Rupert or Fort Nelson—ridings with as little as one-third the population of the average Vancouver constituency.

Another serious problem is the Senate filibuster.  Were it not for the filibuster, the healthcare reform bill likely would have passed one year ago and it would have probably more closely resembled a single-payer or public option model.

Still another problem in American politics is that they have two dominant parties.  Our multiparty system better reflects the political opinions and ideological cleavages of our society than theirs.

But the main problem with American politics at this moment does not spring from their system of government.  The main problem is that a fanatical lunatic fringe is systematically infiltrating the Republican Party, and that is having a consequential effect on governing.  Their problem isn’t John Adams; it’s Glenn Beck.

In 2009, British Columbians went to the polls, re-electing Premier Gordon Campbell and the BC Liberals with 49 seats to 35 for the opposition New Democrats and one for independent Vicki Huntington in Delta South.  So goes the official version.

Here’s what really happened.

In an election with the lowest voter turnout (barely 50%) in British Columbia history, British Columbians elected 85 MLAs:  Premier Gordon Campbell, Leader of the Opposition Carole James, independent MLA Vicki Huntington and 82 troglodytic desk-thumping zombies.

Sounds harsh?  Ponder this: over the next month or so of parliamentary “debate” over the HST, how many Liberals do you seriously believe the NDP will be able to flip?  Zero.  Conversely, how many New Democrats will Colin Hansen be able to convince to support the HST?  None.  After all the shouting and screaming and re-finishing of well-pounded desktops, not a single mind will have been changed nor a single vote altered.

In the United States, that is simply unheard of.  Sustained public debate actually does change minds (and votes).  The passing of the recent health care reform bill is a prime example.  There was a great deal of debate, plenty of amendments and much compromise.  The result?  America has a new healthcare system.

It is important to look at what did not happen. What you did not see during the healthcare debate was an arrogant President Obama, confident that he would have the unconditional and unwavering support of every single Democratic Senator and Representative.  Just the opposite.  He flew all over the country aggressively campaigning, encouraging voters to tell their Senator and Representative to vote for reform.

What has Gordon Campbell done to “sell” the HST to BC Liberals?  His office has issued a couple of press releases and posted a lovely PowerPoint presentation on the Ministry of Finance’s website.  He could stay in bed for the next month and BC Liberals will vote according to his command on every single amendment, sub-amendment and procedural motion surrounding the HST bill.

What happened to those 34 Democrats who opposed President Obama, Speaker Pelosi and Senator Reid?  Were they kicked out of the party?  Stripped of any committee responsibilities?  Told they cannot run as Democrats in the next election?  Nope.  They were not punished for voting against their Party’s leadership.

In British Columbia, that literally would have been the last vote those representatives would have cast as party members.  They would have been expelled from their party and stripped of any committee responsibilities.

America elects representatives.  Men and women who need little reminder that they may be members of a party, their constituents elected them.

British Columbia elects trained seals.  We keep learning the sad truth that while we may elect our local MLAs, each MLA represents the Party in their district, and not their district in Victoria.

What explains this difference?  Party discipline.  Strict, unwavering, deluded, insane party discipline.  British Columbia has it.  America does not.  In the United States, the public actually has a realistic chance to change the votes of many elected officials, even in the face of a sustained campaign by political leaders.  In British Columbia, the public has exactly zero chance of doing so due to the insane degree of blindly-follow-the-leader mentality in our political system.

Our political system has perverted the original British ideal of party discipline (“most of the Party, most of the time”) to an insane degree.  And it is the primary reason our political system is in such a mess.

Glen Clark, Bill Vander Zalm and Brian Mulroney had, in the last months or years of their terms, a sustained public approval rating that was somewhere between herpes and personal injury lawyers.  Yet, with every single bill they introduced, they could count on the unanimous support of every representative of their respective parties.  Today, Gordon Campbell has a personal approval rating similar to that of George W. Bush at his lowest.  In 2008, many Republicans ran from the Bush record and congressional candidates refused to be photographed with him.  In 2010, Gordon Campbell reigns supreme as the Sun King of British Columbia politics.  And we are the ones with the more responsible and accountable political system?

Why is party discipline so strong in British Columbia and so weak in the United States?  It all springs from how the parties nominate their candidates for elected office. State and federal laws regulate the American system of primary elections—where all party members in a region vote to decide who will get the party’s nomination for each elected office.  Barack Obama has absolutely no role to play in deciding who gets the Democratic Party nomination for Representative in Washington State’s 2nd Congressional District — Seattle’s Democrats do.

In British Columbia, aside from some insignificant (and largely ineffective) financial disclosure requirements, political parties are essentially treated as private social clubs who can make and break their own rules as they see fit.  Moreover, by provincial law, a party’s candidate cannot get the party’s nomination unless two “principal officers” (basically, the Party Leader and one of his deputies) agree.  Our system does not require parties to hold nomination elections to determine the official candidate, and where parties choose to do so, the party leadership is free to ignore the results and choose someone else.

In British Columbia, all BC Liberal candidates owe their nomination to Gordon Campbell and all NDP candidates owe their nomination to Carole James.  The plain fact is: local party members (and the local electorate) are far less important.  And that, more than anything else, explains why our party discipline is ridiculously strict.

I could really go for some old-fashioned checks and balances right now.

With nearly eight in ten British Columbians steadfast in their fierce opposition to the HST, our system can hardly be described as accountable.  I think I can safely speak for a majority of this province when I say unequivocally, that I would be thrilled if we had a British Columbia Senate right now.

Specifically, a Senate comprised of Senators apportioned differently than our MLAs (either at large, on a regional basis or some hybrid) elected under a different (more proportional) electoral system, serving longer (staggered and limited) terms and most importantly—with members ultimately not responsible to Gordon Campbell and Carole James, but to their constituents.

A Senate that can restrain wild policy swings, veto stunningly unpopular bills, and demand a referendum before it agrees to pass a government bill that was ruled out during an election campaign but suddenly was very much in vogue mere weeks after.

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