When you see the gridlock in the US Congress, it’s easy to say the Canadian Parliamentary system is better. But is it? There, party discipline is almost non-existent, because the party lacks a big stick to keep members in line. In the US nominations are handled through a primary system, where candidates get to offer themselves directly to the public in a sort of straw poll before the actual election, and where the party is forced to abide by the voters’ decision. In extreme cases, like that of Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, where the Democrats drummed him out of the party and nominated another candidate; he was able to run as an independent and beat opponents from both established parties. In Canada candidates are supposedly nominated at the grass roots level too, but often there is interference by party leadership. Here, the party leader can refuse a candidate even if they have been democratically nominated at the riding level. In Hamilton at the provincial level, we have two examples of Liberal seats being lost to the NDP as a result of head office interference. At the federal level, we have the example of Helena Guergis who was kicked out of the Conservative party, and who was unsuccessful running as an independent candidate, after allegations of improper influence peddling ( as yet unproven) were raised about her. Party discipline is supreme in Canada. Here, a Prime Minister or a premier with a majority effectively has the power of a dictator. Because of non-stop polling, governments feel they can take the pulse of the electorate on an ongoing basis. As a result powerful regional ministers, who used to be a source of political intelligence and influence, have been diminished in importance. Increasingly the minister is more or less reduced to being a messenger for the Premier or Prime Minister’s office rather than a leader of a ministry. Meritocracy has been replaced by a witches’ brew of of psycho graphics, race and gender politics. Ministers are often saddled with chiefs of staff who are appointed by the party leader, so any independence of thought, should an individual minister even be so inclined, is discouraged. In this climate it’s almost quaint to see members of the opposition still invoking the time-honoured tradition of calling for the resignation of, say a Deb Matthews over the Ornge controversy; when in fact, it’s questionable that she would have a decisive role with the file; or for that matter any other meaningful policy initiative in her vast department. There is no ministerial accountability to speak of, except possibly in a super ministry like finance and hasn’t been for years. Pierre Trudeau said ordinary MP’s were ‘nobodies’ once they stepped off Parliament Hill. Regrettably, 30 years later, the same could probably now be said for most members of federal and provincial cabinets.The only way this disturbing trend can be reversed is for the electorate to send strong-minded representatives to government, and to stick with them should the heavy hand of party discipline fall on them. Repeat that a few times and things will change.
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